An uncle of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers expressed his gratitude Friday for the freedoms, democracy and lifestyle in America so often denied elsewhere. "I love this country. This country which gives chance to everybody else to be treated as a human being," Ruslan Tsarni said outside his Maryland home.
On the surface, his nephews took full advantage of that chance. They assimilated and became Americanized: graduates of an American high school, doing such American things as summer lifeguarding, competitive wrestling and boxing, living on Twitter and Facebook.
But the troubled places immigrant families come from, and often flee, such as Chechnya, can play a very different role in the lives of a younger, Americanized generation. As the youth search for their identity, they rebel against their parents and relatives like Tsarni, particularly with the Internet as a ready source of extremist connections.
The risk now is that the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, ethnic Chechen brothers ages 26 and 19, become glorified as heroes and spawn copycat attacks. In these cases, the danger does not come from highly organized groups but from alienated young immigrants with roots in Islamic-linked conflicts elsewhere.
We've seen this before
This phenomenon is not new. Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani American with an MBA who lived in Bridgeport, Conn., tried, and failed, to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square three years ago.
Three of the four London Underground suicide bombers were British men with roots in Pakistan. And more than a dozen Somali-American young men, who seemed well-adjusted to U.S. life, disappeared from the Minneapolis area to train and fight in Somalia with al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked terror group.
Parents, neighbors and friends, in each case, expressed shock and incredulity. Anzor Tsarnaev, the father of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers, said that his youngest son was "a true angel," that the boys must have been set up. It's important to understand that, yes, it's possible for young men to commit horrible acts. Not typical, of course. Most young American immigrants are just who they appear to be. But possible.
In the months, perhaps years, until the younger brother is tried, he, his brother and their aims are likely to be glorified. In Chechnya. Among Islamist and jihadist groups. Already, the Somali insurgent group al-Shabab has mocked the victims of the bombings.
What's needed now are the counter voices of those with influence over would-be copycats. Some immigrant and Islamic religious figures have spoken out, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Better still would be imams in mosques around America and the world -- there is no centralized voice in Islam equivalent to the pope in Roman Catholicism. Not just once, as some have done, fearing a backlash against Muslims, but loud, clear and repeatedly, in the mosques and communities themselves.
A way to get attention
The marathon bombings have proved, vividly, that attacks on the United States get big-time attention. In Russia, they would still have been horrific, but also, in some ways, not so unusual.
Chechen terrorists are for Russians like al-Qaeda for Americans, the first group they think of when a brutal attack happens. They are responsible for assaults in which hundreds have died: at a school, a theater, apartment buildings, an airport and more. Chechnya is an Islamist region in the Russian Caucasus. It has fought two recent wars for independence. Most of the world has paid little attention -- until the Boston Marathon spotlight.
Here's the irony: The United States has long been sympathetic to Chechens. The Tsarnaev family came to the U.S. seeking political asylum. It was granted. In part, this is because President Vladimir Putin has made Chechnya into a human rights hell hole. He has passed off his overkill brutality, to the extent he even acknowledges it, as simply a necessary part of the global war on Islamic terrorism. President Bashar Assad makes the same case in Syria. The Boston Marathon explosions have helped tip Putin's argument.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the captured Boston Marathon suspect, could, over time, give answers about the brothers' aims and ties. Reports already suggest that his older brother, Tamerlan, might have become radicalized when he visited Russia, and possibly Chechnya, last year. Was he linked to any groups? If so, which ones? Chechnya is a fragmented place with competing factions and, increasingly, radical Islamic groups, vying for power and influence. Did he get training?
FBI agents reportedly questioned Tamerlan Tsarnaev at the request of the Russian government to determine whether he had links to terrorism. None was found.
As the answers slowly emerge, everyone, particularly imams, needs to send would-be copycats the same loud, sustained message: Terrorists are to be condemned as cowards, not glorified as heroes.
Author and journalist Louise Branson was theMoscow correspondent for The (London) Sunday Times and an editorial writer at USA TODAY. She is writing an international thriller.
Elise Amendola, AP