Fueled by a fringe brand of Islam, the Boston bombers may have been motivated by the same desire that drove bombers in Indonesia a decade ago to go down in history as vigilantes.
About a month ago I was sitting at my home in Inman Square, Cambridge, sipping coffee, grumbling about the late arrival of spring, completely unaware that two young men just a few blocks from me were probably planning Boston's worst bomb attack since 1976, when 22 people were injured in a bombing of the Suffolk County Courthouse by an obscure Marxist group.
On April 16, I awoke in the Hotel Ibis in Surakarta, Central Java (also called Solo) to news reports that two brothers had carried out a planned attack, killing three people and injuring more than 200 at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
At the time, I was sitting a few miles from the Ngruki Islamic boarding school, where some of the most devastating terrorist attacks in Indonesian history were inspired. Among them was the 2002 terrorist attack on Bali's Kuta tourist resort that left more than 202 people dead and the country's tourism industry devastated.
The terror and violence that spread from the militant Islamists associated with the school – founded by the since-jailed cleric Abu Bakar Bashir – puts recent events in Boston in the shade, involved as they were in the deaths of hundreds and the displacement of tens of thousands from Indonesian religious conflicts they helped feed.
On the morning after the Boston bombing, the Indonesians in the hotel coffee shop were barely glancing at the news out of Boston. Children were chirping away with their parents as they slurped down bubur, a type of rice porridge, and the general air of unconcern was contagious. Why?
Well, the terrorists just up the road have been relentlessly pursued by the Indonesian state, their networks disrupted, and scores of their operatives either killed in shootouts with police or jailed (Mr. Bashir was given a 15-year jail sentence in 2011 for financing the creation of a terrorist training camp in Aceh, in northern Sumatra).
Is the threat to Indonesia over? No.
Indonesia is the most populous Muslim majority nation, and is also a democracy, albiet one with serious flaws. The open nature of society and the fact that there's always going to be some small subset of young men susceptible to violent whisperings in their ears (or via social media) means that the problem of Islamist militancy is hard to completely vanquish.
But Indonesians are getting on with their lives. Militant Islamists had nearly no chance of taking over the country a decade ago, and they have even less of one now. This is a country that has shown that the problem can be managed, even in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation.
Which takes us back to Boston.
The elder Tsarnaev brother accused of pulling off the attack, Tamerlan, was killed during a police shootout. He appears to have been a fringe member of America's small Muslim minority. At a mosque on Prospect Street in Cambridge, he was expelled for disrupting a sermon on Jan. 18, after the prayer leader referred to Martin Luther King as a great man and Tamerlan leapt up, denouncing praise for an "non-believer."
An enormous amount of speculation is currently going on in the US about what "radicalized" the accused young men, the role of religion in the motivations, and whether their background as ethnic Chechen immigrants to the US led to their attack. But while it's much more rare for a US resident to carry out an attack like this than in, say, Indonesia, there shouldn't be any great mystery as to the likeliest motivations.
Like the most nihilistic of Islamist militants in Indonesia or the Middle East (and really, who thinks randomly killing 8-year-olds cheering at the end of a marathon is going to draw much support for any cause?), they came to share a set of views that are wildly at variance with most teachings of Muslim movements. Instead, they latched on to a set of radical, modern beliefs that started being propagated in small prayer groups away from large mosques and now is largely spun out in online discussion forums. (The view that the Internet is a university for global jihad has been around for several years.)
The men could have easily learned how to build their crude bombs from websites like Al Qaeda's English-language "Inspire" magazine, and gotten their fill of bloodthirsty rhetoric about the need to strike out violently against the "infidel."
Olivier Roy, a leading scholar of modern Islamist movements, was recently interviewed by The New Republic about the Boston Marathon attack, and thinks that the brothers' links to Chechnya or Dagestan are secondary to their alleged decision to set off the two bombs at the Boston Marathon.
Many of the security people are convinced there should be a thread, but it doesn’t seem to be the important thing. They may find a connection here and there, of course. The decision to become radical, the decision to become a terrorist, and the planning of the coup is their own. They didn’t get instruction, do this and that at this time....
No, they want to make headlines. That’s the point. They want to become a hero. It’s why I compare them with many of the guys who did the Columbine sort of terrorist attacks against a school. They were very young guys, probably loners and slightly suicidal. They want to end in beauty, they want to do something extraordinary.
Another, more prosaic argument in favor of a lack of outside direction is the fact that the two boys came off as the gang that couldn't shoot straight (although they did shoot with devastating effects). They hung around the Boston area for days after the attack, and appeared to have set no money aside to flee.
If there was extensive communication with an organized jihadi movement, their chances of being uncovered would have been very high. Monitoring those kinds of communications is something both the US and other countries have gotten very good at. Did the older brother, who visited Dagestan not so long ago, according to reports, get "radicalized" on that trip? He certainly may have spent time at salafy mosques (the brand of Islam favored by and propagated by Saudi Arabia), but that's usually not enough to breed a terrorist.
Mr. Roy's comments are worth reflecting on, because they espouse an idea that is rarely seen in the US press – that such killers frequently see themselves as vigilantes for good, or at least as seeking to carve a name for themselves in history (like the two students who murdered 13 at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999). It often boils down to a twisted attempt to overcome one's own creeping feelings of insignificance.
That was much the case with the Islamist militants in Indonesia, some of whom I met back in the late 1990s and the early years of the last decade. They were transforming themselves into cartoon super-heroes and escaping their own drab lives.
Indonesia, by and large, eventually brought them to heel. The local terrorists accomplished nothing beyond ruining the lives of others, and their own. The destruction allegedly caused by the Tsarnaev brothers is far smaller. Hopefully they will not be given the prominence they must have craved.
For the past few weeks I've traveled through Indonesian communities that were heavily marked by terrorism. There are few signs of people living in fear. There's little reason for the people of Boston to live in fear either, and I doubt they will.