As an Islamic supplication to God is sung in Arabic, hands place different pairs of sunglasses beside the chameleon to make it change color. “There is no God but you, and we have not worshiped you as we should!” The chameleon turns pink. “Praise to God, alone in your sovereignty!” It turns aquamarine.
It’s unclear what drove Mr. Tsarnaev allegedly to bomb the Boston marathon with his younger brother, Dzhokhar, and it’s too late to ask him; he was killed in a shootout with police. But investigators hope his Internet habits might shed light on who he was – and who he became.
The YouTube channel under his name is a puzzle. Popular songs in Russian and dance-trance music are interspersed with videos about Chechnya – where his family origins lie – Islam, and the concept of jihad as Islamic holy war. But rather than indicate direct links to a specific group, the videos seem to hint at a deeper yearning for a heroic jihadi persona.
That would fit with reports that the Tsarnaevs followed the teachings of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American Al Qaeda propagandist who was killed in Yemen by a US drone strike in 2011, say analysts. Mr. Awlaki specialized in simple rhetoric and avoided ideological hair-splitting to focus on armed struggle.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev grew up in Kyrgyzstan and the Russian republic of Dagestan. But the family feared the repercussions of fighting in neighboring Chechnya and moved to the US, seeking asylum. Tamerlan arrived in 2004. He was reportedly unhappy in the US and recently became more religious.
Nothing indicates the marathon bombing was linked to Chechnya’s jihad-tinged campaign for independence. But interest in Chechnya may have exposed Tsarnaev to jihadist thinking, says Dr. Gary Bunt, a specialist in online Islam at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.
“Chechen Islamic radical groups have always had a strong presence online,” he says. “I’m not suggesting that’s part of the cause. But radical language and ideas could have been engendered by looking at some of that content.”
The YouTube channel suggests that kind of cross-pollination. One video is a song about jihad by Timur Mucuraev, a popular Chechen singer. Two videos posted under the heading “Terrorism” have been removed – it’s not clear by whom – but according to The Washington Post they concerned a Dagestani jihadi named Gadzhimurad Dolgatov who was killed in December.
English and Russian videos
Tamerlan’s Internet surfing apparently went beyond Chechnya. The YouTube channel has Russian and English-language videos, plus a few in Arabic with Russian subtitles, that address questions of Islamic piety from a conservative perspective.
One video condemns Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. Another trumpets female modesty. As a slideshow plays of women in gowns and face-veils, a man’s voice speaking English with an American accent gives context:
“Woman in the street look in the mirror, she looking to be sure she has the best style, she looks good, she can attract a man,” the voice says. But a Muslim woman uses the mirror to “make sure she’s dressed appropriately … that she’s covered to please Allah [the glorious and exalted].”
Then there’s Sheikh Feiz Muhammad, an Australian preacher. In a video elsewhere on the net he attacks Harry Potter. In this one he lectures an audience on the importance of following not only the Quran, but the sunnah, or personal example of the prophet Mohamed.
Those who disregard the sunnah “are not Muslims, even though they claim to be Muslims,” he warns. His argument is the kind of argument often used by extremists to justify attacks in Muslim countries. For most Muslims, by contrast, questioning another’s faith is strictly forbidden.
Sheikh Feiz’s video appears under the heading “Likes.” So does “The Ultimate Muhamed Al-Luhaidan Video,” which shows men praying in a mosque while English text cites the Battle of Uhud in 625 AD to illustrate the value of martyrdom. The prophet Mohammed led his followers from Mecca, his home city, to Medina. But a Meccan army pursued them there and nearly wiped them out – a test of their faith, says the video.
“Think not of those killed in the way of Allah as dead. Nay, they are alive, with their Lord, and they have provision," say the video captions.
Similarly, the English language-video “The Emergence of Prophecy: the Black flags from Khorasan” depicts a prophetic tradition of an unstoppable Muslim army surging out of central Asia.
“The prophet said, ‘When you see the black flags coming from the direction of Khorasan, you will join their army’,” begins the narration, to scenes of horsemen pounding over desert. Next the men are holding AK-47’s over their heads as they ford a stream. “That army has already started its march.”
Those scenes of struggle and solidarity align with Awlaki’s discourse, say analysts. As a recruiter for Al Qaeda, his goal was broad appeal. And as a native English-speaker, he was well-suited to reaching a global audience.
Awlaki “didn’t focus on the sectarian dimension of belief,” says Rashad Ali, a researcher with CENTRI, a counter-terrorism consultancy in London, and former member of the international Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. “Rather, he sought a middle ground to frame his ideology without drawing attention to the heresy presented by terrorism, which goes against tradition.”
Awlaki influenced Maj. Nidal Hasan, a US Army officer who shot dead 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, in Texas, in 2009. Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in New York’s Times Square in 2010, also cited Awlaki as an inspiration.
Awlaki’s message apparently reached the Tsarnaevs, too. Dzhokhar told FBI investigators they were influenced by his teachings and learned to make pressure-cooker bombs from Inspire, an Al Qaeda magazine Awlaki was involved with, according to ABC News.
“His material, his sermons, are still obtainable online,” says Dr. Bunt. “The same is true of Inspire magazine.”
Trance and dance
The YouTube channel could offer a glimpse into Tsarnaev’s state of mind. But it also presents oddities, incongruencies, and unanswered questions.
Alongside Timur Mucuraev’s song about jihad are “Vocal Trance Pure Essence V. 13” and “Trance and Dance Mix 2012.” There are also two goofy songs by Russian singer Vasya Oblomov; one video shows him drinking vodka, the other shows Russian police in awkward situations.
So far everything suggests the Tsarnaevs acted alone. But while ideas and information can be found online, most jihadis “have some sort of guidance, be it tactical, organizational, or simply moral support,” says Mr. Ali, citing his own observations and the 2011 book “The Al Qaeda Factor.”
The YouTube channel was created last August, and only 15 different videos appear to have been uploaded and seven “liked.” But why an aspiring bomber might have left even a few digital footprints is a mystery.
Moreover, “if he only started this account last year, he must have been active online before then,” says Bunt. “If there’s a digital footprint out there it’s going to be on laptops and servers.”