Drone Strikes and the Boston Marathon Bombing

So did one or both Tsarnaev brothers actually read Inspire? Pro Publica has suggested that Tamerlan did. But whether or not he did, the drone-strike trope has become a standard theme in jihadist propaganda channels, and there's strong evidence that Tamerlan was tuned in to those channels. And he seems to have been buying the larger America-is-at-war-with-Islam meme. A man who knew Tamerlan says he "was upset with America because America was in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries."

No doubt there were lots of ingredients in Tamerlan's radicalization, possibly including Russia's brutal treatment of fellow Chechens. He may have even gotten inspiration or guidance during a 2012 trip to Russia. But his radicalization seems to have preceded that trip, and, in any event, in the end he needed a rationale for killing Americans, not Russians. That's where drone strikes can come in handy, and the latest issue of Inspire spells out the logic explicitly: Because America is "ruled by the people," its "rulers (people) should pay for their country's action till they change their system and foreign policies." So "war on America including civilians" is legitimate, says Inspire, so long as Americans are killing Muslim civilians with drone strikes. "The equation should be balanced. Like they kill, they will be killed."

We'll never know for sure whether recurring news about civilians killed in drone strikes helped push Tamerlan over the edge or helped him rationalize atrocity. But I assume jihadist recruiters know their business, and know what kinds of things can incite people like the Tsarnaev brothers. And they seem to consider Obama's drone strike policy a gift from God. If that "gift" isn't what gave us the Boston bombing, it will probably, if continued long enough, give us some other horrific bombing down the road.

When Lisa Merriam celebrated the assassination of al Awlaki in Forbes, she was under a misapprehension that seems to have motivated that assassination and has helped sustain Obama's drone strike program: that the enemy should be thought of as a kind of overseas army, and if we kill all its soldiers, we'll have won.

In truth, the enemy isn't just jihadists, but jihadist memes. And if every time you kill a jihadist you create several more by spreading the memes, you're not winning. That's especially true if some of the jihadists you create are already in America--assets more valuable to America's enemy than 100 jihadist foot soldiers in Yemen.

Another premise of Obama's drone strike policy is that "high value" targets are hard if not impossible to replace. After all, who could possibly fill the shoes of the famously charismatic al-Awlaki? Now we have our answer. Though Obama ensured that al-Awlaki isn't around to preach to people like Tamaran Tsarnaev, Tsarnaev seems to have found someone equally charismatic to follow: Feiz Mohammad, an Australian YouTube preacher who, as Noam Scheiber of the New Republic notes, has "the chiseled look of a former athlete" and "impeccable dramatic timing".

Obviously, to note how American policies contribute to terrorism isn't to diminish the moral culpability of the terrorists or to embrace jihadist rationales. And it's not to suggest that terrorists should get veto power over American policies. If Inspire inveighed against, say, freedom of religion in America, no compromise of that principle would be in order even if terrorism was the price paid for defending it. But with drone strikes, the whole point of the policy is supposed to be to prevent terrorism. If the policy is in fact contributing to terrorism, that's a pretty strong argument against it.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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