The Boston marathon bombers: Muslim radicals or ordinary American citizens?

In The Tsarnaev Brothers Masha Gessen tells the alarming story of a family who didn’t belong anywhere  — but were determined to make their mark

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road to a Modern Tragedy Masha Gessen

Scribe, pp.271, £14.99, ISBN: 9781922247506

As Masha Gessen herself admits — and as friends and journalist colleagues repeatedly told her — it was a strange choice to write this book. But you only have to get a few pages in to realise that Gessen, the author of a bestselling analysis of Putin, is ideally placed to take on the story behind the Boston marathon bombers. And she is the perfect person to situate it in the wider context of ‘the war on terror’ in a way that illuminates and inspires. This is quite simply a remarkable piece of old-school journalism.

On 15 April 2013 two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston marathon, killing three people and wounding 264 others. Two brothers, immediately identified as ‘Chechens’ (not strictly speaking true: they were American citizens), were implicated. In the ensuing manhunt, the eldest, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed. Last month Dzokhar was sentenced to death in a Boston court.

Gessen takes the story back a generation, travelling across the US and the former Soviet Union to interview family members, friends and colleagues. She draws a picture of an unavoidably fragmented group of people. The Tsarnaevs’ parents come from an eternally persecuted part of Soviet Russia: entire swathes of the Caucasus were deported during the Stalinist era. Gessen very carefully recounts the wider history of the area and the mentality of the people who had to live through all this during the 20th century in order to plant a seed in the reader’s mind: identity is extremely complicated.

Her purpose in doing this is to question whether the Tsarnaevs were ‘radicalised’ by some kind of Chechen branch of al-Qaeda or similar. Or it’s at the very least to introduce some shades of grey into that narrative. Gessen is meticulously objective, but she’s able to show that just as it is possible to paint the two brothers as ‘Muslim radicals’, it would also be possible to depict them as ‘ordinary American citizens’. The second option is, of course, far more terrifying than the first. In the Guantánamo-era mentality, the first seems containable. The second does not.

The Tsarnaevs had been living in Boston for over ten years when the bombings took place. The family retained close ties with friends and relatives in ‘the old country’, but Gessen contends that it’s really impossible to say whether they identified as Chechen or Russian or Dagestani. They had links to all these places, as well as to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Again, not very convenient if you are trying to portray someone as a radical who has had terrorist training in a specific place. Certainly Tamerlan had travelled to Chechnya shortly before the Boston marathon but, according to Gessen, it seems more likely that he radicalised the people he met there rather than the other way round. (Some acquaintances of his later became involved in an incident where the American flag was burned.)

The strength and difficulty of this kind of journalism is that it is not judge and jury and it does not draw fixed conclusions. Gessen does not know precisely whether the Tsarnaev brothers were responsible for the Boston bombings (although she states that she is taking it as read that they were). But she is not stating either that it is likely that they are innocent. She is simply examining the context. And the context is as fascinating as it is complex. Gessen does not look for excuses or blame but she seeks — relentlessly, good-humouredly and with all the insight she brings as a Russian raised in the US — to explain.

As immigrants to the US, the Tsarnaevs led an extremely difficult life, never really sure where money was coming from and what opportunities were available to them. Meanwhile, their children grew up believing what they were told: that there were ‘so many opportunities’ in the US. And yet these never seemed to materialise. Dzokhar was a low-level pot-dealer at university. Tamerlan was mostly aimless. Is this enough to make you into a terrorist if you become really annoyed about US foreign policy? Gessen seems to argue that possibly it is. Although at the same time she seems to want us to draw the opposite conclusion: can it really be possible that two fairly ordinary people would commit such a crime with very little motive? This is an utterly gripping book, both challenging and illuminating.

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Show comments
  • Gilbert White

    When you have to ask these sort of questions you have already lost the argument. Amazing New Yorker article on this. The Bolsheviks transmuted this ideologically poor material as troublemakers to Central Asia where a lot die. So the survivors go to Staten Island and guess wot they find out they hate the Yanks, too welcoming and liberal to strangers perhaps, more than they do the Russkies. Because of this some unnconnected american runner has to die or suffer life threatening injuries. The vested interests makeit all ok with fine words. Kafka himself could not do better.

  • TNT

    “As immigrants to the US, the Tsarnaevs led an extremely difficult life, never really sure where money was coming from and what opportunities were available to them.”

    Millions of immigrants, all over the civilised world, faced such conditions, and they never plotted and carried out mass murder.

    This is a uniquely Muslim ‘quirk’.

    • Damaris Tighe

      Took the words out of my mouth – this is the only response one can have to that sentence. America especially has always been a tough place for immigrants.

      • Gilbert White

        No irony here? A low level drug dealer. Even moderates like Malaysia extreme penalties it is considered a serious crime!

        • Damaris Tighe


  • itdoesntaddup

    It is surely clear that they did not identify as all-American boys. Dagestani, Chechen or even Russian at a stretch – perhaps. Next: Roof theories on why he was really a muslim, not a throwback white supremacist.

  • Infidelissima

    They were (are) as American, as the beheaders of Lee Rigby are British.

  • WTF

    Why are we even asking this question ? Islam preaches hate, these guys were brain washed by the religion of hate and the rest is history.

    Why are we even bothering with far too many ‘investigations’ or articles into why dysfunctional Muslims commit atrocities such as Boston or Woolwich, do the authors think it will make a jot of difference or come up with a different conclusion than the obvious that Islam is the religion of hate.

    They are simply religious terrorists and we should have automatic capital punishment for terrorism in the west. It probably wont stop terrorism but it will rid society of killers and save the tax payers money for incarceration. Why should it be that difficult for government to treat it in this simple manner !

  • Alex Williamson

    There is now no contradiction between being an ordinary American citizen and being a radical Muslim. The enemy walks among us. Thanks to mass immigration and multiculturalism, citizenship means nothing anymore. Blood still means something though.

  • WTF

    Its very telling how the lib*tards in America react over massacres like Boston and then the recent one in Charleston as it highlights their extreme hypocrisy and their real agenda.

    The Obama administration and Clinton down play Islamic terrorism to the point of making specious claims that lone wolf actions like Boston have nothing to do with Islam or its barbaric teachings. In contrast, whilst the black & white people of Charleston immediately came together against that slaying in a church, the ‘rapper-in-chief’ (as he is now nick named) along with his left wing sycophants have been resurrecting all the racial hatred of the 60’s once more.

    Unlike Baltimore where they had riots because the police were involved with the death of a knife carrying druggie, the Charleston killings didn’t need defusing as the residents of that town whatever their colour condemned the racist killings. Predictably, we saw all manner of ‘race pi*mps’ who had no connection to Charleston rushing to open old wounds and make political capital out of this tragedy.

    When ever there’s a death or problem that involves black people, even if colour has nothing to do with it, the Al Sharptons of this world and their followers pop in like some emergency aid drop just to stir the racist pot for a few days before finding somewhere else to go and cause more trouble. No one is saying that racism has been eradicated as people of ALL ethnic groups harbor bigots in their midst whether white, black, yellow or whatever. The reality in Europe and the USA is that racism based on color is at an all time low these days and the most blatant identifiable form of racism today comes from Islam, but when will our western leaders admit this !

    When it comes to the dangers that present themselves today its clear that radical Islam is the biggest threat and not racism based on colour. When will our leaders accept this rather than making lame excuses all the time !