Tamerlan Tsarnaev: 21st century conspiracist

Just as Timothy McVeigh was in the 1990s, the Tsarnaev brothers are quintessential conspiracists of their era

By Alex Seitz-Wald
Published August 5, 2013 4:35PM (EDT)
Tamerlan Tsarnaev                                    (AP/The Lowell Sun/Julia Malakie)
Tamerlan Tsarnaev (AP/The Lowell Sun/Julia Malakie)

We already knew that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the apparent mastermind of the Boston Marathon bombing, “took an interest in Infowars,” the website run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, but now the BBC's investigative program Panorama reports that Tsarnaev had literature espousing all manner of anti-government conspiracy theories and even white supremacism.

After a months-long investigation into the bombing, including exclusive interviews with friends of Tamerlan and his brother Dzhokhar, Panorama found that Tsarnaev had articles claiming that both 9/11 and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing were perpetrated by the government, while another warned about "the rape of our gun rights." The brother also subscribed to publications espousing white supremacy, including one that stated that "Hitler had a point."

It complicates the picture of the Tsarnaev brothers presented in the media as simple home-grown jihadis, inspired by violent Muslim groups like al-Qaida.

The BBC describes the literature as "right-wing," but it's actually much more complicated than that. Tsarnaev illustrates how 21st century anti-government conspiracism melts down typical ideological barriers in a postmodern stew of various radicalisms, united by a common deep distrust of the government.

This manifests itself in different ways, depending on the political movement from which a believer grew out of -- maybe everything from 9/11 to Sandy Hook is a plot to take away the guns, or maybe it's all a scheme to enrich Wall Street -- but the paranoid right and paranoid left are finding common cause online at places like Infowars unlike any other time in history. And when even the political center is vehemently anti-Washington, and revelations like those brought forward by Edward Snowden lead moderates to distrust the government, the fringes seem more appealing than ever.

The brothers were clearly also influenced by radical Islamic thinking. Just before he was captured, Dzhokhar scrawled a note reading, "We Muslims are one body. You hurt one you hurt us all." And a friend who spoke with the BBC echoed what many others have said about Tamerlan, stating, "He just didn't like America. He felt like America was just basically attacking all Middle Eastern countries ... you know trying to take their oil."

These various strains seem conflicting, but what unites them is a common enemy in the United States government and a fringe paranoia about its methods. In that way, for instance, 9/11 trutherism can find equally fertile ground in the Occupy set, right-wing anti-government militias and the Muslim world.

Research shows that “the best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” as Viren Swami, a psychologist who studies conspiracism at the University of Westminster in England, has explained. So when conspiracists of different stripes, whether they be left, right, or even politically Islamic, meet online, the process is additive rather than reductive.

Just as Timothy McVeigh was a product of the American conspiracism of his day, which leaned more purely to the right, the Tsarnaev brothers are a product of the 21st century's flavor of paranoia, which is both more complicated and arguably more virulent, thanks to the democratizing rise of the Internet and growing acceptance of anti-governmentalism in the mainstream.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal today adds fascinating new details about Tsarnaev's conspiracism, reporting that he was first introduced to many of them through an elderly man he took care of who suffered brain damage after getting shot in a robbery. The future-bomber had his own subscription to a white supremacist magazine, marked up a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and read material about how the Newtown school shooting was a conspiracy. His former brother-in-law adds that he and Tsarnaev watched the 9/11 Truther film "Zeitgeist" together.

"He was fascinated with it, he was beginning to think that all sorts of things were connected by a conspiracy of some kind," the former brother-in-law, Elmzira Khozhugov said. "If you had a conversation with him, you'd get a feeling that he was still searching, and I'd get the idea that he was going in the wrong direction."

Alex Seitz-Wald

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