Five hours after the Boston bombings, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev cryptically unveiled hints of the bombing brothers’ “message” when he tweeted, “Ain’t no love in the heart of the city, stay safe people.” Aside from referencing the bombings with disarming coolness, what did he mean?
Though the use of social media by perpetrators has not been thoroughly studied by analysts of terrorism and criminal justice, some people who do outrageous things reveal aspects of their motivations on social media.
About an hour after the “Ain’t no love” tweet, Dzhokhar tweeted, “There are people that know the truth but stay silent & there are people that speak the truth but we don’t hear them cuz they’re the minority.”
Could Dzhokhar have been speaking, respectively, of his relatively silent brother and his cryptically tweeting self? And if Dzhokhar as a Chechen/Islamic minority was “speaking the truth” on Twitter, what truth?
One possible translation: “The U.S., including the cities of Boston and New York, are empty of love despite the Christian rhetoric of love that prevails there. As struggling Chechen/Islamic immigrants, we know there’s no love in America.”
A second possibility: “My brother and I aren’t terrorists, just helpers of the people of the true God to stay safe by warning about godless American idols, like athleticism and an imagined personal ‘achievement’ in running a marathon. All things are from Allah, not from self or Jesus, an enabler of individualism.”
Of course, those mutually reinforcing readings are speculative. But other evidence suggests such readings might not be far off the mark.
In a 2009 photo essay, Tamerlan said he didn’t “have a single American friend” after years of high-level boxing in the U.S. Less well known is that Dzhokar uploaded to his personal page on VK.com a video making an “emotional plea to anyone with a heart” to engage in jihad.
Though Dzhokhar has been painted as a slavish follower of his older brother, the evidence also suggests that both brothers were following a fundamentalist wing of Islam prevalent in Chechnya, Kazakhstan and Dagestan. Tamerlan was in Dagestan for half of 2012.
If we take seriously Dzhokhar’s postings, we might acknowledge the critical importance of Islam, even more than Tamerlan, as a pole star for Dzhokhar. In January, Dzhokhar tweeted, “when we consider prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w) (may Allah pray for him) as our role model that’s when we achieve true success & a path to Jannah (Paradise)”
Dark readings of the “Ain’t no love” tweet are reinforced by Dzhokhar’s tweet from September 2012 calling anyone an “idiot” who would equate “Islam” with “terrorism” and his tweet from January 2013 calling the 9/11 attack “an inside job.”
However twisted the logic, Dzhokhar apparently viewed Americans inside Boston and New York as having brought Allah’s wrath upon themselves.
A month before the bombings, Dzhokhar ominously tweeted, “Never underestimate a rebel with a cause.” In context and hindsight, that might have raised an eyebrow. But there’s something more profoundly unsettling than possibly missed chances to prevent these bombings.
The brothers’ basic views may be little different than the views shared by many Muslims.
That could explain why there’s been such a muted response about Boston from Islamic officialdom. Muslim leaders say that the bombers misread the Quran as an invitation to act as Allah’s agents, but few have objected to the view that Allah’s wrath should rightly rain down on America.
Of course, some sects of Islam are love-oriented, Christian-friendly, and ecumenical, like the Sufism of the poet Rumi. Muhammad’s Quran, though, emphasizes love of Allah over all. The Quran warns that people who worship others than Allah will see severe punishment. Some Muslims find that to be a warning to Christians. Jesus stressed not only love of God, but love of neighbor, which some Muslims view as inherently heretical.
Given the apparent ordinariness among many Muslims of the Boston bombers’ basic views, America’s real problem going forward may not be detecting Islamic hostility, but dealing with its breadth and depth. It could be that there ain’t no love for America in the heart of Islam. If so, big problem.
David Oedel teaches law at Mercer University.