Tamerlan Tsarnaev, accused in the Boston Marathon bombings, collected publications from the extreme right in the United States, reports the BBC. Such writings contain conspiracy theories linking the U.S. government and Israeli agents in global plots for world domination that include suppressing Islam. According to Alan Cullison of the Wall Street Journal, Tamerlan had a subscription to the American Free Press. An anti-Semitic stew of conspiracy allegations is a main feature of the American Free Press newspaper and other similar publications. Reporters for the American Free Press have worked in a loose coalition of other conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites organized globally in the Voltaire Network.
Apocalyptic aggression and violence spurred on by conspiracist thinking plays a role in shaping contemporary political life in the United States, as it has in Massachusetts since the Salem witch hunts. Video of the bombings in Boston on April 15, 2013, revealed a scene of horrific apocalyptic carnage. Soon after the bombing suspects were identified, the Internet seethed with posts about the Tsarnaev brothers, identified by authorities as the perpetrators. One revelation was that the YouTube playlist of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brother who was killed before being captured, featured a long video concerning the "Black Flags from Khorasan," a marginal Islamic religious prophecy.
Right after the Tsarnaev brothers were identified as suspects, Mother Jones's Adam Serwer interviewed Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy (4/19/13). Zelin said the video "is essentially an end-time prophecy" and is "definitely important in Al-Qaeda's ideology." Over the next few weeks, a number of journalists reported more details about the apocalyptic prophecy.
For example the Boston Globe ran an op-ed by Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center, who urged a different take (4/20/13). Saradzhyan wrote that Tamerlan had a YouTube account that showed an "affinity for militant interpretations of Islam and support for violent jihadists." In addition, when young people embrace a doctrinaire form of a religious theology (or any ideology), they sometimes develop a hardline and combative approach.
Fanatical forms of apocalyptic belief, however, are an important strain of thought shared by a small percentage of violence-prone religious fanatics in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Apocalyptic beliefs by practitioners of these three related "Abrahamic" religions take many forms, from passive, to defensive, to aggressive.
Mustafa E. Gurbuz suggests the media should use more complex analyses of "human behavior and especially terrorism, which needs to be understood from a sociological eye." Gurbuz warns that when media carelessly emphasize a terrorist's "increasing devoutness to Islam," it is "counterproductive" and endangers "a billion Muslims at large, who are peacefully living all around the globe." It needs to be emphasized that Gurbuz has a good point, and these apocalyptic and aggressive views are marginal within global Muslim populations, contrary to the assertions of high-profile media pundits who are bigots.
Scholars studying social movements look at religions using a large set of analytical tools that tease out how the sacred texts are read, the official doctrines as well as the common practices of members, the degree of fundamentalism and its relationship to gender roles, and many other aspects. They also study how spiritual belief addresses the arc of history and what happens when prophecies are fulfilled. This latter is the study of apocalypticism, which includes struggles between good and evil and the possible end of time itself and the presence of God on Earth.
These sorts of apocalyptic beliefs are present in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the percentage of religiously faithful who believe them or act based on them varies greatly. Those in any faith who take apocalyptic visions and use them to justify violence are only a fraction of the devout in that spiritual tradition. It's not the religion, but the combination of apocalypticism, anger, and aggression -- whether the justification is religious, political, or incomprehensible.
Harvard professor Jessica Stern interviewed scores of terrorists for her book Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. Stern sees individual psychological factors as playing an important role. Yet she suggests that there is generally "a complex mix of psychological, ideological and sociological factors." The single most common factor among the terrorists she studied is that they shared a sense of humiliation from some external force for which retaliation was an act of honor. This especially appeals to young men.
On the Social Movement Study Network (SMSN) website, Professor Cynthia Burack of Ohio State University agrees, and says terrorist attacks have "political, sociological, demographic and psychological coordinates, combinations of which contribute to the destructive outbursts."
In 2012, Professor Roger Griffin sketched out how apocalyptic aggression is behind much "religious terrorism," and singled out "Chechen terrorists as modern Zealots." These two points were chapters in Griffin's book Terrorist's Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning. The Tsarnaev family is ethnically Chechen, with relatives in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, which Islamic militants want to merge with Chechnya into an Islamic republic.
Griffin, a recognized authority on neofascism and right-wing ideology, bemoans the fact that U.S. and British journalists routinely miss obvious clues related to apocalyptic belief and violence. Griffin's book explores the psychological imperatives of constructing a new heroic identity by the alienated terrorist, but situates that in the context of the sociological and ideological framework in which an apocalyptic timetable makes sense.
Griffin writes about Anders Behring Breivik, a Christian religious fanatic who carried out the 2011 Norway terrorist attacks. Breivik is described as having "a sociopathic mindset replete with elements of conspiracy theory, megalomania, narcissism, apocalypticism, and the urge to commit violence," adding that this "nexus of traits" leads terrorists to "a total incapacity to feel compassion for the intended victims."
Whether or not the Tsarnaev brothers adopted the specific prophecy about the Black Flags of Khorosan, the militant form of Islam they embraced was constructed over decades through storylines that wove prophetic apocalyptic narratives and conspiracy theories about betrayal and humiliation into anger at U.S/ military interventions. To understand the processes generating much contemporary terrorism, it helps to understand the role of apocalyptic aggression.
Chip Berlet has written about conspiracy theories and apocalyptic aggression for decades. A portion of this article was originally written for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.