Micah Zenko

What Is the Why

Does it really matter what motivated the Boston bombers? 

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Following the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks that killed three people and injured over 170, President Obama addressed the nation: "We still do not know who did this or why…. [M]ake no mistake — we will get to the bottom of this. And we will find out who did this; we’ll find out why they did this." It should be noted that it is premature to say if the Boston Marathon attacks are acts of "terrorism" under the definition found in U.S. law: "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."

By Friday night the "who" question was (as best we know) answered with the death and arrest of the two suspected perpetrators, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. In the following days, headlines began to focus on the "why": Washington Post: "Search for Why Begins in Boston Marathon Bombings"; Chicago Tribune: "Boston Marathon Bombing Investigation Turns to Motive"; and Financial Times: "FBI Searches for Bombing Motive." Working off whatever unverified information they came across, experts, policymakers, and others felt comfortable guessing what motivated the two suspects, with their uncle providing the most concise explanation: "Being losers."

It is understandable for Americans to seek answers for the Tsarnaev brothers’ motivations for such brutal attacks against innocent civilians and running gun battles with the police. There is a natural curiosity to determine what psychiatric disorder, psychosocial stressors, or personal or political grievances could compel someone to behave so abnormally. In the absence of a preexisting rationale or trigger, the abhorrent violence becomes all the more frightening since it seems both totally random and possible at any moment. Moreover, understanding motivations may provide some sense of closure for victims, victims’ families, and the affected communities.

However, trying to answer why the Tsarnaev brothers conducted the Boston Marathon attacks will largely be a futile effort. It is extremely difficult to untangle the multiple motivations that lead someone to become a terrorist, though this does not deter scholars from attempting to do so — here are 324 such studies through 2008. According to the Washington Post, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev "told interrogators that the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated him and his brother to carry out the attack." Policymakers and pundits will dismiss this rationalization with little acknowledgment, analysis, or certainly sympathy. Moreover, even if we could agree that we had perfect information for why the attacks happened — based upon the perpetrators’ words, and corroborated with official investigations — we won’t engage in honest self-reflection or change public policy in response.

First, no state wants to acknowledge that their policies, institutions, or culture might contain any flaws that could serve as primary motivations for terrorism. Politicians cannot accept any correlation between domestic or foreign policies and terror attacks. To do so would — the argument goes — assign some moral equivalence to "our" behavior and "their" behavior, and thus legitimize the goals and means of terrorism. Even on a societal level, the phrase "this is why the terrorists hate us" has become shorthand for especially glaring examples of America’s conspicuous consumption, gluttony, or sloth. But behind the jokes is pride that our founding fathers wanted us to have the freedom and opportunity to buy and consume and do whatever we like, without concerns as to how others might perceive this.

Second, even if we know the Tsarnaevs’ motivations drew primarily from American domestic or foreign policies, the United States will not subsequently alter them, since that would be perceived as making concessions to terrorists. The theory is that if a state reveals that it is vulnerable to coercion, terrorists will pocket that appeasement, sense weakness, and escalate their demands with additional attacks. Historically, terrorist organizations have been lousy at achieving their intended political objectives. Max Abrahms looked at 28 groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the State Department and determined "the groups accomplished their forty-two policy objectives only 7 percent of the time." Seth Jones and Martin Libicki compiled a dataset of all terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006. Of all 648 groups, only 27 (4 percent) achieved their strategic political demands. Similarly, of the more than 400 terrorists groups that Audrey Kurth Cronin analyzed, "less than five percent, by their own standards succeeded fully in achieving their aims."

Even when by happenstance the United States does what a terrorist organization had requested, Washington cannot admit it. In April 2003, the United States began withdrawing its military forces from Saudi Arabia — the central demand of Osama Bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa: "Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places." The removal of most U.S. servicemembers from Saudi Arabia — there were 4,000 there in 2003, and 278 today — was presented as the inevitable winding-down of the Iraqi war and no-fly-zones. However, a senior U.S. defense official expressed concern at the time "that it not look as if it’s precipitous, because it will look like bin Laden won." Demonstrating resolve is mandatory even when implementing long-planned military-basing decisions.

Third, since there can be a multiplicity of motivations, knowing "why" does not lend itself to easy policy responses. In May 2010, Faisal Shahzad — a Pakistani immigrant who moved to the United States in 1999 and became a citizen in 2009 — tried to detonate an SUV packed with explosives in Times Square. In a videotape recorded before the failed attack, Shahzad declared it "will be a revenge for all the mujahedeen and oppressed Muslims." He later reportedly told investigators "that he was upset over repeated CIA drone attacks on militants in Pakistan." (He received explosives training from the Pakistani Taliban in the Waziristan region in late 2009.) Still another analysis determined that Shahzad was ultimately inspired by the Pakistani security forces storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad that was held by armed militants in July 2007.

Were these motivations examples of "blowback" indicating that the CIA should refrain from drone strikes, or evidence that more strikes were needed to kill more Pakistan Taliban members? (Unsurprisingly, the latter occurred.) Or, has the Pakistani government subsequently reduced its long-standing practice of using brutal force and conducting extrajudicial killings during its counterinsurgency operations? (The just-released State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’ Pakistan chapter says "no.")

Fourth, categorizing groups that are responsible for terrorist attacks is different from knowing their motivations. An October 2010 study of 86 foiled and executed terrorist plots against U.S. targets from 1999 to 2009 identified 10 distinct ideologies: left, right, anti-Muslim, animal rights, anti-abortion, militia/anti-government, al Qaeda and allied movements (AQAM), AQAM-inspired, white supremacist, and unknown/non-ideological. Of the 86 plots, 40 were undertaken by AQAM or AQAM-inspired groups, 32 by white supremacist and militia groups, and only three were classified as unknown. Being conscious of the groups most responsible for recent terrorist plots helps law enforcement officials prioritize their preventive efforts. Yet, in so much as we could assign the Tsarnaev brothers to one of these groups (we cannot yet), membership is not necessarily motivation, since individuals may align themselves with terrorist organizations, but never conduct or provide material support for acts of terrorism.

There is inadequate information to guess why the Tsarnaev brothers did what they did. Since answering this question is inherently difficult if not impossible, and will not compel any substantive public policy changes, what then is our motivation to understand terrorists’ motivations? Ultimately, the who, what, when, where, and how of aberrant behavior catches our interest, but the why is what captivates and draws us in. Without some clear animating impulse to explain evil, the story line is mechanical and impersonal, unsatisfying and incomplete. Given the inherent uncertainty in understanding the Tsarnaev brothers’ actions, at a minimum we should refrain from undertaking policy changes based upon whatever perceived motivations we come up with.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola