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The news out of Boston is coming fast, and some of it will certainly turn out to be inaccurate. Right now, two men are believed to be the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon terrorist attack on April 15, 2013 that killed three and injured over a hundred. The brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev (26) and his brother Dzokhar (19), are both residents of Boston and have been for some years. Reporting indicates that they are originally from Chechnya, a restive, Muslim-dominated region of Russia. Are they simply disgruntled young men? Chechen jihadists? On a mission for al Qaeda? No one knows for certain, though it is clear that they maintain links with their family’s homeland, posting on Russian social media sites. Reports indicate that at least Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout with Boston police overnight, may indeed have embraced extremist Islamist ideology, and the younger Tsarnaev posted links to Islamist and Chechen independence sites on his webpage. More details are to come, but in the meantime, some answers from AEI’s lead Russia scholar, Leon Aron.
Q: Are you surprised to hear that the attackers in Boston are allegedly from Chechnya?
Aron: No, I’m not surprised. Islamic radicals have been very active in Chechnya since the early 2000s, when the Chechen independence movement truly radicalized into a fundamentalist movement. Since then, there have been several large attacks in Russia, such as the Beslan school siege in 2004 and the Nord Ost theater attack in 2002. Several Chechens were sent to Guantanamo. Although there has been some pacification of Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov (the Kremlin-backed Chechen strongman), it hasn’t been fully subjugated to Moscow.
Q: The two Boston marathon attackers are reportedly the children of Chechen immigrants and they have both lived in the US for quite some time. Does that make sense?
Aron: It doesn’t surprise me. There is a pattern here that includes 9/11 and the London tube terrorist attacks; the 9/11 planning was done in Hamburg. There is ample precedent for the radicalization of the children of immigrants, as well as members of assimilated families.
Q: What do we know about the ties between Chechnya and al Qaeda?
Aron: It goes back to the late 1990s, when the then second-in-command of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, went to Chechnya to look for a base. He was arrested but then let go. The Pankisi Gorge in Georgia was a training camp of al Qaeda until Georgia — with American help — ousted them. So it’s a long connection. To read more, see my paper on Chechnya here.
Q: There is a tendency among media analysts to focus on Arab terrorism, but in fact, some of the terrorist groups that are threatening the US are based out of Pakistan, the Philippines, and other non-Arab states. We tend to think of Chechnya as a Russian problem and not as an American challenge. How might this attack affect our view of the battle between Moscow and insurgents in the North Caucasus?
Aron: In many instances, the radicalization of these movements occurred along the way. The Chechen independence movement was initially secular; it was a region that suffered hugely — initially under the Soviets — when there were mass deportations to gulags in 1944. We see in many other places that something that begins as a secular movement becomes radicalized. After a Moscow theater was seized in a 2002 terror attack, there was a brutal Russian assault on Chechnya. And we saw how this movement became more of a martyrs’ movement that had nothing to do with the independence of Chechnya and more to do with jihad. It started as a Soviet/Russian problem, it festered, legitimate demands for independence were never met, and the younger fighters became radicalized.
Q: What is the current state of Chechnya and should we expect more attacks from there?
Aron: I think we should. Chechnya has never been as pacified as the Kremlin claims. Kadyrov — himself increasingly fundamentalist — has not established absolute control. What initially starts as a secular movement for independence becomes part of the worldwide jihad; it’s not unprecedented. We have two generations of Chechens who were brutalized, and there are two generations of Chechen men who have known nothing but war. Under Kadryov, there is huge unemployment and massive social unrest. Chechnya will almost surely continue to be a source of terrorism.
Q: Post 9/11, the Putin regime tried to draw a connection between Russia’s war with Chechen rebels and the global war on terror. That’s likely in the cards again if reports are correct that the perpetrators are indeed of Chechen origin. How should the United States respond? Should we adjust our policy toward the North Caucasus? And what do you see as Putin’s next steps?
Aron: There’s a long-standing Chechen terrorist connection. In November 2002, at the Hamburg trial of one of the 9/11 plotters, it turned out that three of the 9/11 pilots were recruited during al Qaeda training in Afghanistan, where they had come to “fight the Russians in Chechnya.” In December 1996, Zawahiri came to scout a potential base for al Qaeda in Chechnya. In an audio tape attributed to bin Laden (broadcast in 2002 by al Jazeera), Osama bin Laden mentioned a list of Muslim grievances: “As you look at your dead in Moscow, also recall ours in Chechnya.” The radicalization of the Chechen movement has long roots. But we won’t need to adjust much in the relationship with Russia, because despite the worsening of our relationship with Moscow, we continue to cooperate on anti-terrorist matters. But if we’re not careful, this could give Putin a pretext to once again say “we told you so” on human rights issues more broadly. The reality is that human rights violations in Chechnya (and elsewhere) are real; we need to cooperate on terrorism, but not allow it to become a fig leaf for the Kremlin to continue to abuse human rights throughout Russia.
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