Jane Flavell Collins / AP

Tsarnaev prosecution employed flawed theory of radicalization

Despite evidence to the contrary, US law enforcement continues to claim that religious beliefs lead to terrorism

April 10, 2015 2:00AM ET

Two years after planting bombs at the Boston Marathon that killed three people, a federal jury found Dzokhar Tsarnaev guilty on all 30 counts against him. Now the trial goes to the sentencing phase, in which jurors will decide whether to impose the death penalty.

To bolster their case against Tsarnaev, 21, prosecutors portrayed him as a textbook case of religious radicalization. Prosecutors say he listened to jihadist-inspired music and watched videos of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric who was killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen. They point to messages Tsarnaev wrote on a boat where he hid from law enforcement, including “We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.” In its closing statement, the prosecution showed video of the bombing and argued that he was a “mujahedeen” who “wanted to punish America for what it was doing to his people.”

The strategy was clear: Link Tsarnaev to global jihad to sway the jury to find him guilty. Jurors trying to understand his unthinkable crime could easily latch onto this explanation. The only problem is that the government narrative rests on the flawed premise that religion is the key force that drives people to violence.

Friends of Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s say he smoked (and sold) a lot of weed, chased girls and otherwise showed no signs of deeply held religious belief. According to the defense, it was his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who influenced Dzokhar Tsarnaev. It is likely that the brothers were at some point influenced by the fringe belief that Islam is engaged in a defensive war against the West, but even this notion is unlikely to have stemmed from studying religious texts.

The case against Dzokhar Tsarnaev reflects a much bigger problem: the prevalence of theories of radicalization that have facilitated surveillance, criminalized religious belief and free speech and stigmatized Muslim communities.

In explaining radicalization, U.S. law enforcement officials have emphasized religion and, in some studies, psychological factors. The officials who adhere to radicalization theory believe there’s a straight line from personal problems to devout religious practice and harsh criticism of U.S. foreign policy (both constitutionally protected activities) to terrorism. According to radicalization theory, law enforcement can identify individuals who might engage in terrorism by looking at characteristics like adhering to strict forms of Islam.

But the conclusions that conservative religious practice is an indicator of radicalization and that law enforcement can identity would-be terrorists on the basis of specific behaviors and speech are faulty. In 2008, The Guardian revealed that a British intelligence study found no predictable path toward terrorism. According to the study, many extremists are religious amateurs who, if they ever pick up the Quran, are just looking for a single passage to justify violence.

In 2009 congressional testimony, the Rand Corp.’s Kim Cragin said years of research found that “no single pathway towards terrorism exists, making it somewhat difficult to identify overarching patterns in how and why individuals are susceptible to terrorist recruitment.” A January 2010 Department of Homeland Security–funded paper by two Bryn Mawr College academics argued that some paths to radicalization “do not include radical ideas or activism on the way to radical action, so the radicalization progression cannot be understood as an invariable set of steps or stages from sympathy to radicalism.”

‘Another reason radicalization theory won’t die is that it provides ideological justification for the domestic front of the ‘war on terror,’ which employs thousands of people.’

Even though mainstream radicalization theory has not been substantiated, the U.S. continues to rely on it. The White House’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program is the latest example. Started in 2011 and ramped up last September as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) rose to prominence, CVE facilitates federal-local partnerships to combat extremist ideas. While the U.S. government insists it is concerned with all types of radicalization, the clear focus is on Islamic extremism. At an anti-extremism summit in February, President Barack Obama said the program would “empower communities to protect their families and friends and neighbors from violent ideologies and recruitment.”

The community model, though, has been called into question. “The danger of this is that there’s a way in which community engagement, which is important in some ways, is getting merged or kind of blurred with surveillance,” said Arun Kundnani, the author of “The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror.”

Civil liberties advocates have criticized the government’s outreach program to Somali Muslim communities in Minnesota because of concerns over spying. After a group of young Somalis left the U.S. to fight with the Qaeda-affiliated group Al-Shabab, the St. Paul police, with federal funding, reached out to young Somalis to talk about extremism and identify radicalized individuals. A grant application to the Justice Department promised that the police would identify “targets” that “will increase law enforcement’s ability to maintain up-to-date intelligence on these offenders,” according to documents published by The Intercept. (The police say the intelligence aspect of the program was never put in place, though a spokesman told The Intercept that the police passed information gathered from the community to the FBI.)

The New York Police Department’s counterterrorism programs provide the most striking example of how radicalization theory justified spying. In 2007 the department published a study by two members of its intelligence division that concluded that “jihadi-Salafi” ideology “is the driver that motivates” terrorism. (Salafism is a deeply conservative form of Islam.) The study homed in on “radicalization incubators” like mosques, student associations and hookah bars.

This thinking undergirded the NYPD’s post-9/11 surveillance program, which was uncovered in 2011 by The Associated Press. Intelligence division agents fanned out across Northeastern Muslim communities, mapping mosques and Muslim-owned businesses, eavesdropping and noting where Al Jazeera played on television or where people talked about U.S. foreign policy. The NYPD also infiltrated Muslim student associations and employed provocateurs to voice inflammatory opinions in the hopes of eliciting incriminating responses. But the multimillion-dollar program generated no actual leads.

The FBI also exploits community outreach programs, licensed by post-9/11 guidelines from the attorney general’s office to gather intelligence and infiltrate mosques even when there is no specific crime under investigation. According to one FBI document, potential signs of radicalization include innocuous activities such as “growing facial hair.”

With all the flaws in conventional radicalization theory, why has it proved so persistent? According to Kundnani, law enforcement agencies want “knowledge that can be instrumentalized to say, ‘This is who you go after’ … The academic material that’s more methodologically sound does not do that. It’s not knowledge that can be instrumentalized in that way. What it says is that actually, a lot of this is unpredictable. That’s no use to an FBI agent.”

There’s another reason radicalization theory won’t die: It provides ideological justification for the domestic front in the “war on terrorism,” which employs thousands of government personnel and private contractors. The idea that Muslim behaviors and conservative religious practice can predict terrorism justifies limitless surveillance and community infiltration as well as the massive funding for it. Without the theory, law enforcement agents would have no excuse when asked why they have spied on Muslims without evidence of a crime.

Alex Kane is a New York–based freelance journalist and a former editor for Mondoweiss and AlterNet.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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