Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Nine questions about the Boston bombers

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst, and Jennifer Rowland, Special to CNN
April 21, 2013 -- Updated 1736 GMT (0136 HKT)
Dias Kadyrbayev, left, with Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsamaev in a picture taken from the social media site VK.com. Kadyrbayev is expected to plead guilty August 21 to charges in connection with removing a backpack and computer from Tsamaev's dorm room after the April 2013 bombing, according to a defense lawyer. Dias Kadyrbayev, left, with Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsamaev in a picture taken from the social media site VK.com. Kadyrbayev is expected to plead guilty August 21 to charges in connection with removing a backpack and computer from Tsamaev's dorm room after the April 2013 bombing, according to a defense lawyer.
HIDE CAPTION
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen: Many unresolved questions about how or why brothers carried out bombing
  • He says experience of other terrorists in the West could shed some light
  • Some who spent formative years in U.S. were radicalized over the Internet, he says
  • Bergen: Three pairs of brothers were among 19 hijackers on September 11

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad" and a director at the New America Foundation. Jennifer Rowland is a program associate at the New America Foundation.

Washington (CNN) -- We don't yet know how or why the Tsarnaev brothers, the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, decided to carry out their attacks, but a look at how their stories correlate with those of some other terrorists living in the West could provide some answers to the questions that many are now asking about them.

1. How could someone who grew up in the United States, as the younger brother did, become a terrorist?

Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood Army Base in Texas in 2009, was born and raised in Virginia.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

He self-radicalized, in part, over the Internet, which he used to reach out to the Yemen-based preacher Anwar al-Awlaki for advice about whether it is permissible for Muslim soldiers in the U.S. military to kill their comrades in the name of jihad.

Awlaki, a leader of al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen, was somewhat noncommittal in his responses but did not discourage the act.

Investigators will surely be combing through the e-mail traffic of the Tsarnaev brothers to see if they either reached out to militant Islamist clerics or downloaded lectures by such clerics. They will also examine the brothers' Internet usage to see if they visited jihadist forums or downloaded propaganda from al Qaeda or other allied groups. And of course, it's possible their decision to carry out the attacks was reached without any outside influence.

Boston suspects: Immigrant dream to American nightmare

2. How do you square the multiple descriptions of the brothers as "good guys" with the fact that they plotted mass murder?

Boston bombing suspect in custody

It's worth recalling that Mohammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the suicide attackers who bombed the London transit system in 2005 killing 52 commuters, was a beloved teacher at a primary school in the northern city of Leeds who taught children with developmental problems, and the happily married 30-year-old father of a baby daughter. Colleagues and acquaintances described Khan as a gentle, kind man.

No surprise then that we are hearing some similar positive characterizations of the brothers Tsarnaev.

3. Did the brothers have any training or practice on explosives?

It seems quite unlikely that the perpetrators would have been able to successfully set off two deadly bombs within seconds of each other without some sort of training or practice.

Bomb-making recipes certainly exist on the Internet, but actually building effective bombs is generally a skill that requires some training or practice, and even then a successful detonation is not guaranteed.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Faizal Shahzad, for instance, received bomb-making training from the Pakistani Taliban before he constructed a bomb in an SUV that fizzled out rather than blowing up as he intended in Times Square on May 1, 2010.

The older Tsarnaev brother, Tamerlan, spent six months in Russia last year. What precisely he did there will surely be of intense interest to investigators. Could he have received some kind of bomb-training from Chechen militants who are experienced in making explosives?

Najibullah Zazi, a Pakistani-American who had also lived for many years in the United States, plotted to blow up bombs on the Manhattan subway around the eighth anniversary of 9/11. Zazi travelled to Pakistan a year before his planned attacks to learn bomb-making techniques from al Qaeda militants. Was this the kind of model that Tamerlan Tsarnaev followed?

Also, might the Tsarnaev brothers have done some kind of test runs of their explosive devices in the United States?

Opinion: Suspects' culture of migration and machismo

4. If the brothers' motivation had something to do with their Chechen heritage, how might that have played out in this case?

In the years after 9/11, dozens of young Somali-American men traveled to fight in the civil war in Somalia. Just as the Tsarnaev brothers, these Somali-Americans were first-generation Americans.

For these new Americans, the politics of their homeland can sometimes become more meaningful and important than it was for their parents who fled the chaos of their native countries for the safety of the United States, and who now want to put those conflicts behind them.

What exactly prompted the FBI to interview Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011, following a tip from Russia that he was "a follower of radical Islam" and was contemplating leaving the United States to join a clandestine organization?

5. Did FBI officials make a mistake when they questioned Tamerlan, but didn't seem to further monitor him?

Maybe. This is reminiscent of the case of Major Hasan whose emails to fellow militants came to the attention of the feds before he killed his fellow soldiers at Ft. Hood, but were not followed up on.

Carlos Bledsoe, a convert to Islam, shot up a military recruiting office Little Rock, Arkansas, killing a soldier in 2009. Bledsoe was also on the radar of the feds before he travelled to Yemen. It was only after this trip to Yemen, where he linked up with an al Qaeda affiliate, that Bledsoe carried out the shooting at the recruiting office.

6. Did the brothers intend to die during the attacks or their aftermath?

It seems shocking to many that the Tsarnaev brothers might have been wearing suicide vests during their gun battle with police on Thursday night, but in reality several U.S. citizens and residents have intended to die in terrorist attacks.

Three of the young Somali-American men who traveled from Minnesota to fight in civil war in Somalia later carried out suicide attacks there.

Major Hasan undoubtedly went into his attack on a military base full of armed U.S. soldiers believing that it would be the last thing he did before he died. (That prediction did not come true. He was wounded in the attack but not killed).

The Al Qaeda recruit Zazi, who plotted to bomb the Manhattan subway in the summer of 2009, planned to die in this attack but was arrested before he could pull it off.

Analysis: Older suspect grew increasingly religious

7. Were the brothers really "lone wolves"?

Given all the mayhem the two brothers are allegedly responsible for -- two bombings that caused three deaths and some two hundred injuries at the Boston Marathon as well as the subsequent murder of a policeman at MIT -- did they have some kind of additional help?

According to Boston law enforcement officials, there is no evidence of such help and it's worth recalling that Hasan was entirely a lone wolf who nonetheless managed to kill 13 on a U.S. military base with heavy security.

8. Did the older Tsarnaev radicalize his younger brother?

Perhaps. Where there is some kind of terrorist cell there is sometimes a leader who instigates action. We saw this in the case in Lackawanna, New York where a group of Yemeni-American men who trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan before 9/11 were radicalized by Kamal Derwish, a Yemeni American who had spent many years living in Saudi Arabia. Derwish encouraged his fellow Yemeni-Americans to travel to Afghanistan for military training.

9. How unusual is it for brothers to carry out terrorist attacks together?

More frequent than you might think. The deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history on 9/11 involved three pairs of brothers among the 19 hijackers: brothers Waleed and Wail al-Sheri, Hamza and Ahmed al-Ghamdi and Nawaf and Salem al-Hazmi.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT