- By Christian CarylChristian Caryl is the editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in conjunction with the London-based Legatum Institute. A former reporter at Newsweek, he's also the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at the National Interest.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the suspected Boston Marathon bomber shot dead by Boston police early this morning, may have left some interesting clues to his motivations on YouTube. A user with the same name posted five of his favorite videos here.
The most political of the clips isn’t aimed at the West, but at the president of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. The Russian-language video harshly criticizes Kadyrov, whom it denounces as an "apostate" — contrary to Kadyrov’s repeated public claims that he’s an ardent defender of Islamic values.
A bit of background: Kadyrov is a Chechen collaborator with the Kremlin, which has given him a free hand in the rebellious republic in return for supporting Moscow’s nominal control. Kadyrov’s father Ahmad originally supported the Chechen rebels in their first war of independence that began in 1994, then turned against them in 1999 and switched his support to the Russians. (Kadyrov Senior, who by then had become president, was killed by a bomb in 2004 — presumably planted by pro-independence rebels as an act of revenge.) So this video suggests that the person who posted it saw himself as an ally of Chechen Islamists who are still fighting against Moscow’s rule in the Caucasus.
Another video includes a diatribe against Sufis. It shows members of a Sufi brotherhood burying one of their own. The poster has added a caption noting the following in Russian: "This video shows the true essence of the Sufis. These people do not fear Allah, but place someone on the same level with him, praising their dead ‘sheikh.’ Note that the clip does contain a single reference to Allah." The user, like many fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, considers himself an orthodox believer who regards the Sufis as heretics.
That the user who favorited the videos regards himself as a passionate defender of orthodox Islam is reinforced by two of the other videos. One, in Russian, explains in great detail the proper approach to prayer. The other shows a sermon, entitled "Who is the Almighty Allah?," by an English-speaking Muslim preacher named Shaykh Omar Al-Banna. "Everything is praising Allah — rock, land, tree," the preacher says.
By far the weirdest of the five is the one entitled (in Russian), "’Chameleon’ is one of the names of Allah." It shows a chameleon changing its appearance as plastic glasses of different colors are placed next to it. I guess that could be a reference to someone with a radically different identity hiding in plain sight in a society that he actually despises. But it certainly seems like a bit of a stretch.
Tsarnaev’s YouTube account has sections beyond favorites, including one on "Terrorists" with since-deleted videos and one on "Islam," as BuzzFeed has highlighted. There’s also this video devoted to praising the pro-independence fighters in Chechnya. "You’re like a wanderer in this mortal world," the song notes. "Devote your life to jihad."