What Drives Some Young Muslim Men To Violence?

It's been a week since the Boston Marathon bombing, and people are still wondering why they happened. Media sources have suggested possible motivations, like the suspects turning to radical Islam. Host Michel Martin gets perspective on how young Muslims are reacting to this case, and how Islamic extremists are spotted. She hears from AbdelRahman Murphy, a youth director at a Tennessee mosque; and Mohamed Elibiary, who works with radicalized Muslim youth.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. It's been a week since those twin blasts rocked the Boston Marathon. As you probably know, the authorities now have someone in custody, a young man - a Muslim-American, a naturalized citizen. But even before they did, a number of commentators pointed out how much racist and anti-Muslim vitriol you could find on the Web.

We're wondering if this was just venting, fear, frustration; or what exactly it means in the big scheme of things. So we've called a person who studies social media, to ask that question. But of course, we now know that, assuming the young man in custody and his deceased brother are the responsible parties, we do know they were Muslims - ethnic Chechens, immigrants who faced - as one newspaper put it - the headwinds many immigrants have faced before.

Still, why? Why would someone want to do such a thing? So to talk more about this, we've called upon two people who spend their days talking to Muslim youth about some of these very issues. AbdelRahman Murphy is a youth director of the Muslim community of Knoxville. Also with us is Mohamed Elibiary. He is the founder of Lone Star Intelligence and his firm has provided training for federal law enforcement agencies on preventing homegrown terrorism. I thank you both so much for joining us.

MOHAMED ELIBIARY: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Mr. Elibiary, let me start with you. You've worked with people, with young people, who have been attracted to these ideas. Have any of them actually participated in a plot like this or have expressed a desire to do that?

ELIBIARY: Usually the phase that I get actively engaged with a youth on this, it's before they've actually focused on a specific plot and they're kind of in the shopping around and ideology phase. And they haven't honed in on a specific act but they're slow crossing over from just being angry or upset to the phase of something needs to be done. But they haven't quite figure out what that specific action is.

MARTIN: And where are these young folks? These young folks when you are called in to kind of get involved with them, is there some through line? Do they tend to be young? Do they tend to be men?

ELIBIARY: Well, yes, absolutely. I have never seen a female example here in the homegrown sphere here in the United States. There might've been a case but I haven't read any literature or interacted with one. The men tend to be young males, late teenage to late 20s, and their personal life is kind of chaotic.

And that's, kind of, the framework of that profile. Obviously, that profile covers tens of millions of Americans. So you actually need to work with the folks who are going to be closest to them. So sometimes you'll hear from parents or uncles, relatives. They'll report it either to local law enforcement, federal law enforcement, or to a cleric in a community. And those people sometimes will reach out to people like Tsarnaev.

MARTIN: And before I - Mr. Murphy, I haven't forgotten you but Mr. Elibiary, before I turn to Mr. Murphy, and I do want you to stay with us, is there some through line? Is there one? Is there kind of a consistent theme that is the thing that gets people involved and at least wanting to think about doing something like this? Or, as you said, something has to be done. Is there something consistent that you have noticed?

ELIBIARY: Well, there's always outside pressure and outside pressure. And the inside pressure in their personal life is, like I said, kind of chaotic. They don't have their life in order. They're not working towards any specific goals in an organized fashion, either with a steady job or raising a family or something.

On the outside pressures, researchers have kind of often called it a cognitive opening. It's something from outside that kind of shocks them to the core. That could be something as simple as a parent who has went deceased and they found themselves without a support network. Or it could be a radicalizer of some sort who actually saw that they were kind of weak of mind and decided to give their life a purpose.

MARTIN: Hmm. Mr. AbdelRaham Murphy, as a youth director of a mosque in Tennessee, let me just me say at the outset I can't imagine you might even hesitate to participate in a conversation like the one we're having for fear of people believing that, you know, all Muslim youth are running around being disaffected, you know, and angry and hating America and so forth. So I can appreciate the ambivalence that you might have.

But with the caveat that we're not talking about all Muslim youth I just want to ask what are the concerns that the young people present you with? And are there things that are distinct to their being here, or their presence here as Muslim-Americans?

ABDELRAHMAN MURPHY: I do want to, I think, you know, what Mohamed said was very on point about there's a lot of just personal trauma that sometimes leads to making poor decisions, but I don't want it to be understated, the rarity by which you find people who are actually threats. I mean, you know, you do have discussions with kids but very rarely - I travel to new cities every month to do youth programs and things like that.

And within Knoxville, which is a pretty fairly liberal city in Tennessee. We're not that near to Murfreesboro or whatnot. I haven't heard in my experience more than one case in two years, and that case was in Chicago. There was a young man named Adel Daoud who made some poor decisions. But again, he was also personally traumatized.

But, again, I do think that we've - in Knoxville, personally, we've seen a lot of support from the greater Knoxville community. We are Knoxvillians. You know, we support and we love the city. We love the state, obviously. And the kids don't see themselves as anything but American. And so there's really no sort of like, I guess, dichotomy in their identity when it comes to this stuff.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about some of the concerns or young Muslim men, in particular, young men in particular that may - may - play a role in someone wanting to embrace radical ideology or participate in an act of terror. So Mr. Murphy, let me just ask. Are there, you know, point taken and it cannot be repeated too often, that we're talking about a very small group of people.

But are there broader concerns that you could - that maybe other people who are not Muslim might not understand that then could be part of a trigger for somebody?

MURPHY: I think one thing - the broader concern that I have is to make sure that the young people that I work with are fully aware of the severity, within the religion, of acts like this. I think there tends to be sometimes, because of foreign affairs or whatever, I don't want to say sympathy, but I do want to say there tends to be some sort of maybe, well, like lack of empathy for the victim as much as there should be.

And even some question about, well, I've heard from certain websites that our religion does preach this. And obviously those websites are completely, you know, invalid and not grounded in principle. And so my job, then, is to educate my Muslim youth as well as the general youth. I'm also the chaplain at the University of Tennessee, one of the chaplains there.

I do panels discussing what the Quran, what Islam does say about, for instance, you know, if someone takes a life of one it's as if they took a life of a nation, of all humanity. And so my job is to educate about the reality of these acts so that we can have an appropriate response and an appropriate emotional feeling when it happens. You know, a feeling of being upset, being, you know, very compassionate with the victims.

MARTIN: Mr. Elibiary, I was struck by the comment that the older brother, now deceased, made, or was quoted as making on one of his Facebook pages, where he was quoted at one point as saying that he doesn't have a single American friend. I don't understand these people. And I just wondered if that was a common thread with the people with whom you have interacted. That they feel isolated.

ELIBIARY: Absolutely. That is a comment that kind of sticks out at you. It shows that the individual, while they're living in the society, are actually totally disengaged psychologically from the society and that is almost a subconscious cry for help when he puts out that kind of a message.

People like Mr. Murphy are actually helping folks like that older brother at that phase when he issued that statement to actually build up resiliency to ever considering a specific action as legitimate, which is the phase that comes after that disassociation from society. You have to disassociate yourself before you're going to become comfortable with doing mass murder of some sort.

MURPHY: And one thing - just to chime in, one thing, I think, that could have been the reason why the older brother had said such things, is that there oftentimes is a lifestyle discipline in the Muslim community. Obviously drinking alcohol is not permitted in Muslim faith and certain things like that, and so to find an alternative resource for recreation is something that a lot of Muslim youths struggle with, and as a youth minister, youth director, you'll find a lot of youth groups across the country for Muslims are trying to provide permissible, really fun alternatives so that people can feel like they do have quote-unquote American friends.

MARTIN: Finally, we only have about a minute or two left, so Mr. Murphy, I'll just ask you this. Is there something that you would want the rest of us to learn from this?

MURPHY: There's - I mean, number one is that these things don't function inside of a vacuum. You know, there's so much going on in the ecosphere of this person's life that has contributed to the poor decisions that they made - the two brothers. But I think, in general, the response that I've seen in general, compared to other, you know, things that have been perceived or attributed to the Muslim community, have been really, really wonderful. I think that, you know, the community in Knoxville particularly have been really supportive. The news media outlets immediately reached out to us to us to ask us, you know, to obviously give statements and positive things like that.

But I do wish and hope that the general public - right - our American brothers and sisters, our fellow citizens, would learn, number one, that it's very important to be educated before you make statements, and these statements can hurt people's feelings. Some of the youth were bullied at school, at work, things like that, and so to be very careful with the words that we use because you can really damage someone's self-esteem and identity.

MARTIN: Mr. Elibiary, we only have a minute. Can you just briefly give me some advice about what you think we should learn from all this?

ELIBIARY: I think we should continue to redouble our efforts in society to new immigrant communities, which the Muslim community is just one segment of - to continue to put out a pro-integrationist message into - being youth, as they're growing up, understand they're Americans. They might be coming from a different culture or something, but America is a very cosmopolitan and multi-cultural identity and you can find your place in it.

Simultaneously, I think that the youth programs that help youth bring - that are totally open, nothing is off - that can't be discussed, that open door approach that Mr. Murphy talked about there in Knoxville is extremely important so that they can bring all kinds of delinquencies...

MARTIN: OK.

ELIBIARY: ...violence being one.

MARTIN: All right. We'll talk again and thank you for joining us. I'm sorry we're meeting under these circumstances, but I'm happy to have the chance to speak with you both. Mohamed Elibiary is the founder of Lone Star Intelligence. That's a security crisis consulting firm. His firm has provided training for FBI joint terrorism task forces on preventing homegrown terrorism. Abdelrahman Murphy is the youth director of the Muslim Community of Knoxville. They were both with us from Dallas, Texas.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MURPHY: Thanks, Michel.

ELIBIARY: Thanks.

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