What's in the Internet videos posted by Tamerlan Tsarnaev?
The videos do not show ties to any specific group, but do hint at a deeper yearning in the alleged Boston Marathon bomber for a heroic jihadi persona.
Among the videos¬†Tamerlan Tsarnaev¬†apparently posted on YouTube is a one-minute and 39-second clip of a chameleon on a tabletop, described by a tagline in Russian as ‚Äúone of the signs of Allah.‚ÄĚ
As an Islamic supplication to God is sung in Arabic, hands place different pairs of sunglasses beside the chameleon to make it change color. ‚ÄúThere is no God but you, and we have not worshiped you as we should!‚ÄĚ The chameleon turns pink. ‚ÄúPraise to God, alone in your sovereignty!‚ÄĚ It turns aquamarine.
It‚Äôs unclear what drove Mr. Tsarnaev allegedly to bomb the Boston marathon with his younger brother, Dzhokhar, and it‚Äôs too late to ask him; he was killed in a shootout with police. But investigators hope his Internet habits might shed light on who he was ‚Äď and who he became.
The YouTube channel under his name is a puzzle. Popular songs in Russian and dance-trance music are interspersed with videos about Chechnya ‚Äď where his family origins lie ‚Äď Islam, and the concept of¬†jihad¬†as Islamic holy war. But rather than indicate direct links to a specific group, the videos seem to hint at a deeper yearning for a heroic¬†jihadi¬†persona.
That would fit with reports that the Tsarnaevs followed the teachings of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American Al Qaeda propagandist who was killed in Yemen by a US drone strike in 2011, say analysts. Mr. Awlaki specialized in simple rhetoric and avoided ideological hair-splitting to focus on armed struggle.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev grew up in Kyrgyzstan and the Russian¬†republic¬†of Dagestan. But the family feared the repercussions of fighting in neighboring Chechnya and moved to the US, seeking asylum. Tamerlan arrived in 2004.¬†He was reportedly unhappy in the US and recently became more religious.
Nothing indicates the marathon bombing was linked to Chechnya‚Äôs¬†jihad-tinged campaign for independence. But interest in Chechnya may have¬†exposed¬†Tsarnaev to jihadist thinking, says Dr. Gary Bunt, a specialist in online Islam at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.
‚ÄúChechen Islamic radical groups have always had a strong presence online,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm not suggesting that‚Äôs part of the cause. But radical language and ideas could have been engendered by looking at some of that content.‚ÄĚ
The YouTube channel suggests that kind of cross-pollination. One video is a song about jihad by Timur Mucuraev, a popular Chechen singer. Two videos posted under the heading ‚ÄúTerrorism‚ÄĚ have been removed ‚Äď it‚Äôs not clear by whom ‚Äď but according to The Washington Post they concerned a Dagestani¬†jihadi¬†named Gadzhimurad Dolgatov who was killed in December.
English and Russian videos¬†
Tamerlan‚Äôs Internet surfing apparently went beyond Chechnya. The YouTube channel has Russian and English-language videos, plus a few in Arabic with Russian subtitles, that address questions of Islamic piety from a conservative perspective.
One video condemns Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. Another trumpets female modesty. As a slideshow plays of women in gowns and face-veils, a man‚Äôs voice speaking English with an American accent gives context:
‚ÄúWoman in the street look in the mirror, she looking to be sure she has the best style, she looks good, she can attract a man,‚ÄĚ the voice says. But a Muslim woman uses the mirror to ‚Äúmake sure she‚Äôs dressed appropriately ‚Ä¶ that she‚Äôs covered to please Allah [the glorious and exalted].‚ÄĚ
Then there‚Äôs Sheikh Feiz¬†Muhammad, an Australian preacher. In a video elsewhere on the net he attacks Harry Potter. In this one he lectures an audience on the importance of following not only the Quran, but the¬†sunnah, or personal example of the prophet Mohamed.
Those who disregard the¬†sunnah¬†‚Äúare not Muslims, even though they claim to be Muslims,‚ÄĚ he warns. His argument is the kind of argument often used by extremists to justify attacks in Muslim countries. For most Muslims, by contrast, questioning another‚Äôs faith is strictly forbidden.
Sheikh Feiz‚Äôs video appears under the heading ‚ÄúLikes.‚ÄĚ So does ‚ÄúThe Ultimate Muhamed Al-Luhaidan Video,‚ÄĚ which shows men praying in a mosque while English text cites the Battle of Uhud in 625 AD to illustrate the value of martyrdom.¬†The prophet Mohammed led his followers from Mecca, his home city, to Medina. But a Meccan army¬†pursued them there¬†and nearly wiped them out ‚Äď a test of their faith, says the video.
‚ÄúThink not of those killed in the way of Allah as dead. Nay, they are alive, with their Lord, and they have provision,"¬†say¬†the video captions.
Similarly, the English language-video ‚ÄúThe Emergence of Prophecy: the Black flags from Khorasan‚ÄĚ depicts a prophetic tradition of an unstoppable Muslim army surging out of central Asia.
‚ÄúThe prophet said, ‚ÄėWhen you see the black flags coming from the direction of Khorasan, you will join their army‚Äô,‚ÄĚ begins the narration, to scenes of horsemen pounding over desert. Next the men are holding AK-47‚Äôs over their heads as they ford a stream. ‚ÄúThat army has already started its march.‚ÄĚ
Those scenes of struggle and solidarity align with Awlaki‚Äôs discourse, say analysts. As a recruiter for Al Qaeda, his goal was broad appeal. And as a native English-speaker, he was well-suited to reaching a global audience.
Awlaki ‚Äúdidn‚Äôt focus on the sectarian dimension of belief,‚ÄĚ says Rashad Ali, a researcher with CENTRI, a counter-terrorism consultancy in London, and former member of the international Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. ‚ÄúRather, he sought a middle ground to frame his ideology without drawing attention to the heresy presented by terrorism, which goes against tradition.‚ÄĚ
Awlaki¬†influenced¬†Maj. Nidal Hasan, a US Army officer who shot dead 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, in Texas, in 2009. Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in New York‚Äôs Times Square in 2010, also cited Awlaki as an inspiration. ¬†
Awlaki‚Äôs message apparently reached the Tsarnaevs, too. Dzhokhar told FBI investigators they were influenced by¬†his teachings¬†and learned to make pressure-cooker bombs from¬†Inspire, an Al Qaeda magazine Awlaki was involved with, according to ABC News.
‚ÄúHis material, his sermons, are still obtainable online,‚ÄĚ says Dr. Bunt. ‚ÄúThe same is true of¬†Inspire¬†magazine.‚ÄĚ
Trance and dance
The YouTube channel could offer a glimpse into Tsarnaev‚Äôs state of¬†mind. But it also presents oddities, incongruencies, and unanswered questions.
Alongside Timur Mucuraev‚Äôs song about¬†jihad¬†are ‚ÄúVocal Trance Pure Essence V. 13‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúTrance and Dance Mix 2012.‚ÄĚ There are also two goofy songs by Russian singer Vasya Oblomov; one video shows him drinking vodka, the other shows Russian police in awkward situations.
So far everything suggests the Tsarnaevs acted alone. But while ideas and information can be found online, most¬†jihadis¬†‚Äúhave some sort of guidance, be it tactical, organizational, or simply moral support,‚ÄĚ says Mr. Ali, citing his own observations and the 2011 book ‚ÄúThe Al Qaeda Factor.‚ÄĚ
The YouTube channel was created last August, and only 15¬†different¬†videos appear to have been uploaded and seven ‚Äúliked.‚ÄĚ But why an aspiring bomber might have left even a few digital footprints is a mystery.
Moreover, ‚Äúif he only started this account last year, he must have been active online before then,‚ÄĚ says Bunt. ‚ÄúIf there‚Äôs a digital footprint out there it‚Äôs going to be on laptops and servers.‚ÄĚ