Lorenzo Vidino is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich, Switzerland. We’ve paired his text with archival images from photographer and videographer Robert King, who cut his professional teeth dodging bullets and rockets in Chechnya in the mid-90s. As one of the very few Western photographers covering the region at the time, we found them a prudent depiction of just how different the situation in Chechnya appears next to the specter of homegrown, socially networked terror allegedly perpetrated by the Tsarnaev brothers.
A Chechen fighter tosses a hand grenade into a Russian armored personnel carrier. In August of 1996, Chechen rebels successfully booted the Russian Army out of the Chechen capital, only to lose it to Russian forces once again in 2000. Photo by Robert King.
The Tsarnaev brothers are the first Chechens to have been implicated in alleged jihadist attacks on US soil. But the more we learn about Dzhokar and Tamerlan, the blurrier their motives become. Why would these two seemingly well-integrated young men indiscriminately kill citizens of the country that welcomed them with open arms? What has America done to Chechnya? And is the horror we witnessed in Boston the beginning of a frightening new trend—an amalgamation of foreign and domestic terrorism into a bouillabaisse of confused and largely undefined hate?
While we’ll still be searching for more information about the Tsarnaev brothers and what motivated them for months—if not years—to come, their roots in Chechnya and the history of that country are a good place to start.
In the early 19th century, Chechnya resisted Russian attempts to occupy their small mountainous motherland, nearly 1,000 miles south of Moscow. The fight intensified when the region was assimilated into the Soviet Union. To quell rebellion in the 1940s, Stalin forcibly relocated the entire Chechen population to remote areas of Central Asia, repopulating the mountains with ethnic Russians. Some 200,000 people, one-third of the Chechen population, lost their lives to this process, called Operation Lentil.
A family takes an afternoon walk amid the rubble and burned-out apartment blocks destroyed during the fighting between Russian forces and Chechen rebels. Photo by Robert King.
While Islam remains a central part of Chechen identity, religion didn’t play a major role in the nationalist struggle until recently. In the mid-90s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechens again attempted to wrestle their independence from Moscow. Volunteer fighters, preachers, and NGOs espousing Wahhabism (an Arab Gulf version of ultraconservative Islam) flocked to the region to fight against Russia and instill Chechens with their radical views. A Chechen administrator explained at the time, “They [the Wahhabis] went to the market, and they paid with dollars. There was no power here; there was disorder everywhere, and their influence was very strong. The poor Chechen people were already suffering so much, and our young guys simply couldn’t think. They were ready to accept any ideas.”
Over the last 20 years, Chechen militants have kept up a low-level insurgency against Russian authorities and moderate Islamic institutions. In 2004, militants invaded a school in Beslan, a town in Northern Ossetia, and gruesomely slaughtered more than 300 schoolchildren and parents. In separate incidents, Chechen female suicide bombers, dubbed “black widows,” blew themselves up on Russian airplanes, in a Moscow theater, and inside Moscow’s airport and subway system.
A young glue-sniffer stands next to a bulletriddled wall in Grozny, 1997. Photo by Robert King.
Most Chechens abhor this violence and the radical interpretation of Islam that incites it. They remain staunch nationalists seeking Chechen independence and the majority do not harbor animosity toward the United States, a country that has repeatedly criticized Russia’s tactics in the Caucasus and granted asylum to leaders of the Chechen resistance.
Still, for political reasons, it’s expedient for Russia to characterize Chechen fighters as al Qaeda-linked terrorists. This incorrect analysis is motivated by Moscow’s desire to garner global sympathy, while simultaneously crushing the Chechen resistance. But links between Chechen militants and various al Qaeda groups undoubtedly exist. Jihadists from all over the world have fought in Chechnya. And Chechens have also fought alongside jihadists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and, more recently, Syria.
But are these religious and political dynamics really responsible for radicalizing the Tsarnaev brothers? Videos posted to Tamerlan’s Facebook and YouTube pages indicate a clear interest in Salafist and jihadist ideology. But you won’t find battlefield footage of the Chechen struggle. Instead, he seemed more interested by extremist activities in Afghanistan and the speeches of Feiz Mohammed, an English-speaking radical preacher popular among Western Salafists. It is possible, even likely, that indirect memories of the struggle in Chechnya did influence the Tsarnaev brothers in some roundabout way, but it remained a region they barely knew.
A group of Chechen citizens gather around an unexploded rocket fired at their village by Russian forces, 1999. Photo by Robert King.
In the aftermath of the Boston attacks, Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov stated, “Any attempt to make a connection between Chechnya and the Tsarnaevs, if they are guilty, is in vain. They grew up in the United States. Their attitudes and beliefs were formed there. One must look for the root of the evil in America.” As with most politicians, the president’s statement should be taken with a grain of salt, but the facts seem to increasingly show that the Tsarnaevs’ radicalization took place where most things originate today—on the internet.
Before discovering that the Tsarnaev brothers were allegedly behind the attacks, many commentators speculated on whether the perpetrators had been “domestic” (i.e., right wing/militia) or “foreign” (i.e., jihadist). This analysis is deeply flawed and glosses over the more pervasive homegrown-jihadist problem that has spread throughout the US in the last few years. Some of these American youth are deeply religious and fit into comfortable stereotypes of fundamentalist Muslims. Others live a hybrid existence—espousing jihadist ideology, while at the same time smoking weed, wearing trendy clothes, dating, and listening to rap.
The more we learn, the more confusing it all becomes. In 2012, Tamerlan traveled to Dagestan, near Chechnya, allegedly to link up with local jihadists. It seems he failed to do so. But he attracted the attention of Russian intelligence, who then tipped off the FBI. After interviewing him, the Feds decided not to monitor him. This decision was obviously fatal.
After the events of Boston, nothing could be more counterproductive than stigmatizing the American Muslim community, which is as horrified as any other by the attacks and could be a huge asset in preventing new ones. Moreover, the problem should not be overemphasized or politicized—both things are likely to happen.
For more on the Boston Bombings, read these: