Not Your Average Chechen Jihadis

Drawing the Wrong Conclusions About the Boston Bombing

Apr 22, 2013
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Ever since the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were identified as ethnic Chechens, the national conversation about the incident seemed to focus on the connection between the violence and Chechnya. The two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, certainly lived in two places at once: in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in an imagined homeland in Chechnya and the North Caucasus more broadly. And although their ancestral land was something they knew mainly through family stories and nationalist mythology, they reveled in that part of their identity -- at least judging from their social media profiles and the other traces they left in the public domain. In other words, the Tsarnaevs seemed quintessentially American. Perhaps that is one reason their involvement in the Boston bombing is so horrifying.

Observers have already pointed out two elements of the brothers’ story that investigators will no doubt pursue: Tamerlan’s being visited by U.S. law enforcement officers in 2011 on a tip from an unnamed foreign government and his six-month visit to Russia, including to his father’s home in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, in 2012.

The North Caucasus region has seen no shortage of bombs and assassinations, and people from the area have been responsible for spectacularly brutal attacks on civilians in other parts of Russia, including the 2004 hostage crisis at an elementary school that left 380 dead and the 2010 suicide bombings on the Moscow subway that killed forty.

So far, however, there is no direct information linking the North Caucasus to the attack in Boston; armed groups in the region, including the Dagestani branch of the so-called Caucasus Emirate -- the jihadist network in the North Caucasus headed by Chechen warlord Doku Umarov -- issued a formal statement denying any connection to the Tsarnaev brothers. The jihadists claimed instead that the brothers were pawns in an elaborate attempt by Russian security services to turn American opinion against the North Caucasus underground and against Muslims more generally. That might be far-fetched, but it would hardly be the line of argument the Emirate would pursue if it were suddenly using American operatives to expand attacks outside of Russia. The logical thing would have been for the Emirate to claim responsibility.

On his trip to Russia, Tamerlan may well have taken inspiration from the ongoing struggle between Russian security forces and Emirate fighters, but the modus operandi in that battle is decidedly different from the one attributed to the Tsarnaevs. In Dagestan, the targets tend to be uniformed police and security officials. In Chechnya -- a relatively peaceful place since the formal cessation of Russian military operations there in 2009 -- the targets are usually people that the jihadists label “apostates” -- local Chechens loyal to the regional government of President Ramzan Kadyrov, who has ruled Chechnya as a virtual puppet of Moscow since 2007. (His father, Akhmad Kadyrov, also Chechnya’s president, was assassinated by local jihadists in 2004.) The goal, in most cases, is to kill Russian government loyalists, whatever their ethnicity or religion.

Doku Umarov certainly did claim responsibility for some of the shocking terrorist attacks that have periodically ravaged Russia. But these date from before early 2012, when he formally called for an end to strikes on civilians. Other attacks have been the work of freelancers or local field commanders. In these cases, the brutality and scale are thought to have been efforts by these fighters to increase their own standing within the organization. The Tsarnaevs might have been freelancers themselves, but a relatively small-scale, although barbarous, attack in a foreign country would have been an odd resume builder for a person looking to catch the Emirate’s eye. And if Tamerlan received training in the North Caucasus during his most recent trip there, as some have posited, he put it to little use. The Boston bombing was considerably less sophisticated than the high-profile attacks formerly staged in Russia (or, for that matter, than the heavy-arsenal killing sprees of some American gunmen).

American and Russian officials will no doubt work together to follow up on any connections Tamerlan might have made during his most recent trip to the North Caucasus. According to the FBI, Russian security officials did, in fact, point him out to U.S. homeland security personnel in 2011, but if Moscow were truly serious about the potential threat, it would be inconceivable that Russian officials did not monitor him on his return to Dagestan the following year. And if Russia expressed no further interest in the case even after Tamerlan’s trip, it would not be surprising if the United States investigated and then dropped the case for wholly legitimate reasons.

Republican lawmakers have labeled this episode an intelligence failure by the Obama administration, but despite the stories of advance warnings from Moscow, Russian officials are now eager to cast attention away from the brothers’ ethnicity and any links with Russia itself. In a statement that came immediately after the Tsarnaevs were announced as suspects, Kadyrov pointed out that the brothers had no connections with Chechnya other than their family background. He argued that investigators should look to the American culture to explain their behavior. A senior official with Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Vladimir Kotliar, likewise downplayed any connections with Russia. Given that one of the Tsarnaev brothers was an American citizen, the other the holder of a Kyrgyz passport, and both residents of the United States for nearly a decade, Moscow’s bemusement at the intense American interest in finding a Russian angle is understandable.

It may yet emerge that Tamerlan did, in fact, have some link to the North Caucasus jihadist scene, but even if he did, it would still do little to explain the involvement of his younger brother, Dzhokhar, who seems to have been as deeply American as Lee Boyd Malvo, the younger shooter in the Washington sniper attacks of 2003. Nor would it likely have any real impact on U.S.-Russian relations, other than convincing some American policymakers of the point that their Russian counterparts take for granted: that people from the North Caucasus, by their very presence, are somehow a security threat. That will be especially important in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics in 2014, when Moscow will be especially security-obsessed and will want to deepen its already tough surveillance of religious Muslims, especially young men, in the North Caucasus. The United States, convinced of the threat, will likely look the other way when it comes to ongoing human rights abuses in the region.

The brothers’ father and aunt, Anzor and Maret, who have both spoken to the media, seem to have understood this point intuitively. They have consistently maintained that the two brothers were set up and are wholly innocent of any role in the Boston bombing. This may sound like a bizarre conspiracy theory but from the perspective of people from the North Caucasus, scenes of armored vehicles on city streets, an entire neighborhood in lock-down, and a dramatic shoot-out between heavily armed federal police and alleged terrorists on the lam are familiar sights. Sons that fall to Russian bullets are consistently believed to have been innocent victims. And in fact, many of them are. When Russian federal forces begin an “anti-terrorist operation,” few of the targets exit alive. The Watertown, Massachusetts, operation was a different matter entirely, of course, but the optics were all too familiar. With the Tsarnaev family’s background, distrusting the state -- any state -- comes with the territory, and in the North Caucasus, that is never a bad rule of thumb to follow.

In the long term, the Chechnya link will probably end up being less important than, oddly, the Syrian one. In blocking further international involvement in the Syrian crisis, Russian officials have long maintained that Syrian rebel groups are dominated by al Qaeda affiliates, whose victory in the Syrian civil war will have dire consequences for the region and beyond. Now, Russians have already begun to portray the Tsarnaevs as an unlikely link between Boston and Damascus. There are somewhere “between 600 and 6,000” Chechens from the North Caucasus fighting in Syria, said Kotliar in a recent interview with Russian media, “and from what happened in Boston, perhaps Americans will finally draw the lesson that there are no good terrorists and bad terrorists, no ‘ours’ and ‘yours.’” Keep arming the Syrian rebels, the argument goes, and sooner or later you will have to face the consequences of a Syria overtaken by Islamist radicals.

That might not be a bad line of reasoning, especially given what we know about the complicated mix of ideologies and motivations inside the Syrian opposition movement. And after Boston, Moscow now has an additional argument, however tenuous, against greater international involvement in Syria. That is also why, from the perspective of the Tsarnaevs’ parents, things all look like a set-up -- tarnishing the reputation of Chechens as a way of serving some vague end contemplated by an all-powerful Russian state. Chechnya’s moment in the American consciousness may end up leading in a bizarre direction: the tragic aftereffects of the death and maiming of people in Massachusetts may well be the continued killing and brutalization of a great many more in Syria.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Affairs.