Since Boston bombing, terrorists are using new social media to inspire potential attackers

Five years ago, a deadly attack during the Boston Marathon made America’s nightmare come true: the radicalized boy next door.

The research my colleagues and I conduct at Georgia State University tracks how terrorist organizations expose people – mostly young men – to radical messages and extreme violence on social media. The goal: changing their worldview and eventually guiding them to act.

The Boston Marathon bombing marked the beginning of a new trend that is almost impossible to prevent. Before, individuals would receive guidance and training from terrorist organizations in person. Now, these same groups simply inspire individuals to carry out attacks on their own, for which the group can claim credit if they are successful. We call that “self-radicalizing.”

Radicalization of the boy next door

It remains puzzling to many how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a 19-year-old stoner who listened to Jay-Z and watched “The Walking Dead,” could – with his older brother, Tamerlan – killed and injured so many innocent civilians. Authorities at least knew more about Dzhokhar because he was taken alive. His brother died during a police chase.

Courtroom sketch of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Jane Flavell Collins via AP
Dzhokhar did not fit the profile experts have identified as typical of self-radicalized terrorists – either jihadi (a Muslim Holy warrior) or extreme right-wing versions. They were unlike many terrorists who gravitate to extremist ideologies.

According to researchers Alice Marwick and Becca Lewis, people who are radicalized “may have a hard time finding like-minded friends in their day-to-day lives, or connecting with romantic partners.”

Dzhokhar was described by Rolling Stone magazine, for example, as attractive, popular and a student athlete. He was also flunking courses and lost his financial aid at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth in the semester leading up to the attack. But that hardly explains why he went on to plan the deaths of potentially hundreds of runners and spectators.

Eventually, prosecutors found copies of Inspire magazine on Dzhokhar’s laptop. The magazine is an English-language online publication that was published by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. They also found videos of sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born firebrand jihadi cleric who was killed in 2011 in Yemen by two U.S. drones. Awlaki’s videos are still circulating on social media years after his death.

The evidence and Dzhokhar’s testimony suggest that the brothers were inspired by propaganda. Both Awlaki’s sermons and Inspire magazine advocate and provide specific “how-to” instructions on mass casualty attacks. Dzhokhar and his brother learned how to make the pressure-cooker bombs from one of the most well-known articles published by the magazine: “How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”

For example, the text explains: “Can I make an effective bomb that causes damage to the enemy from ingredients available in any kitchen in the world? The answer is yes. But before how, we ask why? It is because Allah says … every Muslim is required to defend his religion and his nation.”