The ongoing manhunt for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has turned attention to a faraway and unfamiliar place: Russia’s southern border region of the Caucasus.
But so far the links between the horrors in Boston and this distant region—a land of stunning mountains, lush valleys, and upland villages—are tenuous. The operative comparison in the coming days may not be with bearded jihadists fighting in the forests of the North Caucasus but rather with homegrown American terrorists radicalized by the internet and misguided youthful ardor. We must all wait for the facts to come out.
Chechens are the quintessential outsiders in Russian culture. “In the gloom, the Chechen roams beyond the river,” Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s national poet, warned in 1820. They were at the center of Russia’s frontier wars of the nineteenth century, in which the czars eventually subdued upland Muslim groups and formed what is today the Russian Federation’s southern frontier.
After the end of the Soviet Union, Russia again fought two wars in Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s. The two conflicts were different in aim and scope. The first, from 1994 to 1996, was sparked by Russia’s armed intervention to bringing a local nationalist movement to heel, a Chechen secessionist struggle that sought to create an independent Chechen state. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, in fact, was born near the beginning of this conflict and even shared the first name of Dzhokhar Dudaev, the leader of the anti-Russian nationalist movement killed by Russian forces in 1996.
The second conflict, which ran from 1999 until Russia’s official cessation of its “anti-terror operation” in 2009, morphed into a branch of the global jihadist war. While Al-Qaeda operatives frequently made reference to the struggle in the North Caucasus, evidence for the presence of actual Al-Qaeda fighters there—in the 1990s or since—has been slim.
The conflicts wound down nearly five years ago, but acts of terrorism, during the wars and after, were spectacularly awful events: the seizure of a hospital, the taking hostage of an entire theater in the middle of a performance, the wiring of an elementary school with high explosives, which killed more than 300 students and teachers, the bombing of the Moscow metro.
Both the pro-Russian Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, and his archenemies—the underground jihadists in the North Cacuasus—have disavowed any connection with the Tsarnaev brothers. Kavkazcenter.com, the main mouthpiece for North Caucasus armed groups, has even been marketing the conspiracy theory line that the accused are being framed by the American media. None of this is the behavior of a global Chechen terror network with a supposed branch office in Boston.
But the Tsarnaevs were probably not strangers to the long-term effects of violence. An entire generation of Chechens was scarred by the multiple Caucasus conflicts, and the Tsarnaev brothers seem to have been part of this post-Soviet world—young men whose families fled violence and sought new lives in other parts of Russia and abroad.
The two brothers reportedly arrived in the United States in the early 2000s and, by all accounts, were settling into rather normal lives, attending school and community college, winning a scholarship, participating in a local boxing club and wrestling team. Like Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, or Lee Boyd Malvo, the younger apprentice of Washington sniper John Allen Muhammad, both Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev had a range of grievances and experiences that might have pushed them toward violence.
They certainly had a ready way of interpreting their own grievances: the long history of war, exile, and flight that has sadly characterized Chechen communities for the past century or more. But at this point, these connections seem to have existed in the confused fantasy world of these young men; no reporting has yet surfaced to reveal a broader network of ethnic Chechen terrorists stretching from the Caucasus to Cambridge.