Law enforcement officials are touting news that the Boston Marathon bombers acted alone. The source for their conclusion? Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has averred from his hospital bed that he and his brother had no links to any terrorist organization. This may or may not be true; it’s possible that even if Dzhokhar is sincere he may not have known about links cultivated by his brother during Tamerlan’s sojourn to Dagestan last year. But even if it’s true that their bombing was not directed by foreign terrorist organizations, it was certainly inspired by them.
In seeking to explain their heinous actions, Dzhokhar cited an alleged war against Islam waged by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that U.S. troops have been responsible for most civilian deaths in those countries. This is blatantly not true (the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Islamist groups have killed far more civilians and they have done so deliberately, not accidentally as in the case of most “collateral damage” caused by U.S. forces). But it is a standard al-Qaeda propaganda line that the brothers swallowed–along with the more general al-Qaeda justifications for making war on “infidels.” More than that, it appears that the brothers may have gotten bomb-making instructions from Inspire, the English-language magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Even if no further links with al-Qaeda or related groups (such as the Caucasus Emirate) are discovered, it is still not correct to claim, as so many media outlets now do, that the brothers were “self-radicalized.” They were radicalized and trained by al-Qaeda–whether in cyberspace or outside of it. It is also likely, moreover, that older brother Tamerlan, the ring leader, came into contact with influential individuals in either Boston and/or Dagestan who guided his intellectual development toward becoming a jihadist. Whether those individuals formally belonged to a terrorist organization or not, they were doing its bidding as long as they were urging violence against the West.
In short, while we need to be worried about “lone wolf” terrorists, we must not lose sight of the fact that they are not entirely autonomous individuals. There is still a terrorist support structure that exists in Dagestan–and other places in the Muslim world such as Yemen and Pakistan–which is closely connected with acts of terror in the West and that needs to be dismantled.