Clockwise from top left, Tarek Mehanna, Ahmad Abousamra, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Credit: FBI photos

In A Time Of Self Radicalization, The Global Is Local

June 3, 2015

Tarek Mehanna, the Sudbury man convicted of providing material support to Al Queda; Ahmad Abousamra, the Stoughton man turned social media guru for ISIS, reportedly killed this week in Iraq; the Tsarnaev brothers; and now Usaama Rahim. All unrelated, but all young men from this area accused or convicted of terrorist activities. It’s enough to get you wondering if there is something deeper going on around here.

"It's not in the water that is for sure," said former Department of Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem. "Boston is like every other major city. We’re diverse, We welcome the world. We want people to study here, we want people to work here. We accept differences of opinion as well as differences of religion."

But there is one thing that sets Boston apart from a lot of other cities, says Veryan Khan, the editorial director of the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC).

"If you think about Boston, it has one of the largest student populations in the world," she said.

Khan says that students are often deeply engaged in an intellectual, trial-and-error process about their worldview, and that can sometimes lead to radicalization. Kayyem agrees.

"I think the youthfulness definitely plays into it, just in the sense that young people tend to be mobile, they tend to be wired, they tend to be informed and they also tend to be sometimes disaffected," she said. "They tend to be looking for something to make meaning into their life."

Khan points out that the young, wired and disaffected are exactly who groups like ISIS are looking for.

"If you’re capable of using social media you are now a target for the Islamic State," she said. "A potential recruit. And it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done in the past."

Khan says that’s in stark contrast to years past, when groups like Al Qaeda sought recruits who were pure, pious individuals and knew the Koran inside and out.

"But Islamic State’s the great redeemer," she said. "It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past. You could have been a drug addict, a non-Muslim, a prostitute, even, and they will redeem you and wash you of your sins. That’s a great message for someone who’s maybe feeling disenfranchised."

But only a minuscule percentage of students — even the disaffected — will radicalize. And as Kayyem points out, by no means are students the only ones who do.

"We're always looking for the thing that will explain, 'Why do some people become radicalized?'" she said. "But if you look at these cases, some people are students, there’s doctors, there's disaffected wrestlers like Tsarnaev, I mean there's no model for who becomes a threat to our society."

Khan and Kayyem both stress that despite our student population, despite what might seem like a trend here locally, there’s no evidence that the Bay State is more prone to terror activity than anywhere else.

"It’s not a hotbed, by any means," Khan said. "Are there activities? Yes, But there’s activities globally."

"Yeah it is happening in other cities," Kayyem said. "There has been, I think, over 50 arrests so far of people who have become radicalized and are attempting to plan something."

As everyone from politicians to law enforcement have been saying for years, terrorism is a global issue. And that means it’s also a local one — here in Boston — and everywhere else.


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