An odd story appeared in the Boston Globe on Thursday: it seems that “Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is asking the First Circuit Court of Appeals to stay his execution and consider four constitutional claims in his case that were not presented to the US Supreme Court, which last month reinstated the death penalty for Tsarnaev, ruling that he had received a fair trial for his role in the 2013 terrorist attacks that killed three and injured more than 260.” But doesn’t Tsarnaev believe anymore that “death for the sake of Allah is the highest calling”? Doesn’t he want to enjoy the virgins of paradise? Could it even be that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, after committing murder for Allah, has left Islam?
The appeal of the death penalty seems out of character for Tsarnaev, who remained defiantly unrepentant for a considerable period after the attack. As prosecutors argued in April 2015 that he deserved the death penalty, they released a video of Tsarnaev three months after his attack, looking into the security camera in his cell, primping his hair in the reflection, and then flashing the V sign and then giving his middle finger to his jailers.
And why not? He believed he had done a righteous deed. The motivations of Dzhokhar and his brother and fellow jihad murderer Tamerlan Tsarnaev became clear very quickly after Dzhokhar was apprehended. CNN reported a week after the bombings that “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, wounded and held in a Boston hospital, has said his brother—who was killed early Friday—wanted to defend Islam from attack.”
And just before he was captured, when he was hiding out inside a pleasure boat, Dzhokhar wrote a long self-justification on the inside of the boat, including the line: “When you attack one Muslim, you attack all Muslims.”
It came to light soon after the bombings that, on a Russian-language social media page, Dzhokhar had featured a drawing of a bomb under the heading “send a gift,” and just above that, links to sites about Islam. His brother and accomplice Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s YouTube page contained two videos by Sheikh Feiz Mohammed. According to a report published in The Australian in January 2007, in a video that came to the attention of authorities at the time, Feiz Mohammed “urges Muslims to kill the enemies of Islam and praises martyrs with a violent interpretation of jihad.”
Tamerlan also described himself as “very religious.” His friend Donald Larking affirmed this. “Tamerlan Tsarnaev was my friend and we talked about everything from politics to religion,” according to Larking. “He was very, very religious. He believed that the Qur’an was the one true word and he loved it.” Tamerlan did not drink alcohol because Allah forbade it — “God said no alcohol” — and his Italian girlfriend had converted to Islam, as his American wife did later. Tamerlan was a massive influence on his younger brother, who emulated him in every possible way.
There is other evidence that the brothers were tied into the international jihad network. The Boston Marathon bombs were similar to IEDs that jihadis used in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a jihad car bomb in Times Square in the summer of 2010, also used a similar bomb. The instructions for making such a bomb had even been published in al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine.
Not only were the motivations of the Tsarnaev brothers abundantly clear, another indication of their involvement in the international jihad network was how they fought off Boston police early on the Friday after the Marathon bombings with military-grade explosives. The question of where they got those explosives has never been answered. Nor has it ever been explained where the brothers got the military training that they reportedly displayed during the fight against police before Tamerlan was killed and Dzhokhar was captured.
“I ask Allah to have mercy on me, my brother, and my family,” Dzhokhar Tsarnaev said in 2015. He gave every indication of being a pious believer, as was his brother, and of this piety being the foundational motivation for the Boston Marathon bombings. So why is he appealing his death sentence now? The Qur’an guarantees a place in paradise to those who “kill and are killed” for Allah (9:111). Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has killed for Allah; if in the course of time, he is in turn killed, he likely believes that he will forever enjoy the favor of the “large-breasted maidens” (78:33) that the Qur’an promises as the reward of the just in paradise.
So what’s the downside? Unless all the years young Dzhokhar has spent in prison have given him time to reconsider his core assumptions. It’s unlikely. But it’s possible.