Wednesday, April 24th, 2013...3:48 pm

Editorial: From Chechnya to Boston

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The details of the terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon finish line still remain murky. However, there seems to be a connection between violent upheaval in the North Caucasus region and the carnage in Massachusetts.

First, the alleged perpetrators of the heinous bombing, brothers Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, are from a Chechen family. (Some commenters on Web sites apparently have been confused about the difference between Chechnya and Czechoslovakia, which no longer exists as a nation, or the Czech Republic. From one commenter: “So the Boston bombers are from Czechoslovakia. WTF do they have against America?”) And press reports indicate that Tamerlan, 26, the older brother killed in a shootout with police last week, was motivated by Islamist ideology from his ancestral land. Perhaps, Dzokhar, 19, the younger brother, who faces a federal death penalty for his part in the plot, followed along out of fraternal loyalty. Tuesday’s New York Times reported that he admitted his role in the deadly bombings, under questioning by law enforcement authorities in the intensive care ward of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev reportedly had become “more devout and religious” in recent years. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) had alerted the FBI that he was a “follower of radical Islam.” In 2011, FBI agents interviewed Tsarnaev, but didn’t find any evidence of his participation in terrorist activity. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI alert on the elder brother has expired prior to his return from a 2012 visit to Russia. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano briefed a Senate panel Tuesday on the matter, and was scheduled to provide more details in a classified meeting.

On Monday, the New York Times published a front-page story from the capital of Dagestan, about Tsarnaev’s 2012 visit with relatives. “When he came, he talked about religion,” Tsarnaev’s aunt, Patimat Suleimanova, told the Times.

It appears now that the carnage at the Boston Marathon, on April 15, had its roots in repression and rebellion in a faraway part of the world.

A Boston Marathon runner embraces a  woman near Kenmore Square, after two bombs exploded in the area on April 15. It now appears that a history of repression and terrorism in Chechnya provided the motive for the two brothers responsible for the carnage in Boston. (Photo: Alex Trautwig / Getty)

A Boston Marathon runner embraces a woman near Kenmore Square, after two bombs exploded in the area on April 15. It now appears that a history of repression and terrorism in Chechnya provided the motive for the two brothers responsible for the carnage in Boston. (Photo: Alex Trautwig / Getty)

“The victims of the Boston bombings presumably knew little or nothing of the Islamic enclaves of Chechnya, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia that for the past two decades have remained semi-autonomous regions within Russia and have kept these Russian borderlands along the northern range of the Caucasus Mountains in a state of turmoil,” Nick Hayes wrote this week on MinnPost, the local news Web site. “Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the new norm for this region appears to be a pattern of civil wars, terrorist strikes, hostage crises, kidnappings for ransom and reprisals by the Russian Special Forces.”

To gain a better understanding about the little-known history of Chechnya, and how the Tsarnaev brothers might have been motivated to commit their violent acts in Boston, I talked this week with Hayes, a professor of history who holds the university chair in critical thinking at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

In his MinnPost piece, Hayes sketched some Chechen history, going back to the repression under Stalin, who suspected the Chechens of collaboration with the Germans and had them deported to Central Asia and Siberia. “After Stalin’s death, Chechens trickled back to their homelands,” he writes.

More recently, Chechnya has been at war with Russia, from 1994 to 1996, and again from 1999-2002. At the end of what’s called the Battle of Grozny, in early 2000, the Chechen capital was utterly destroyed. The Russians “leveled Grozny… it was just total rubble,” said Hayes, who added that the Chechens were actually a minority population in their own land by that time.

Not to minimize the pain from the deaths and injuries in Boston, but the toll from Chechen terrorism in Russia has been on a much greater scale. For example, on Oct. 23, 2002, about 40 armed Chechens, part of the Islamist separatist movement, took 850 hostages in Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater. The siege ended when Russian Spetznaz forces pumped a chemical agent into the building’s ventilation system; all 40 of the attackers died from the gas attack, along with about 130 hostages.

Even worse was the Beslan school massacre in 2004, when Ingush and Chechen Islamist terrorists took 1,100 hostages, including 777 children. When Russian forces entered the school on the third day of the siege, there was a bloodbath. At least 334 hostages were killed, including 186 children.

Hayes mentioned that Shamil Basayev, the leader of the radical wing of the Chechen separatist movement, was the person responsible for many of the worst terrorist outrages, including the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis.

“You could treat him as the Osama Bin Laden of the Caucasus,” remarked Hayes, who also pointed out that Basayev took credit for a variety of terrorist attacks, and sent videos to the new media in which he taunted Russian President Putin.

The point Hayes makes here is that the Chechen militants have always been quick “to take credit for their crimes, they boast of them.” But, Hayes commented, “It’s striking in this case that none of the Chechen organizations claimed responsibility for the Boston bombing. My own interpretation of that is, this was the Tsarnaevs’ application to be embraced by these groups.”

The Tsarnaev brothers had little connection to “the real Chechnya,” Hayes noted. “It is quite obvious that [Tamerlan Tsarnaev] had connections, or sought connections, or imagined connections with what’s called the Kavkaz Center, or the Caucasus Emirate, which seems to be the central umbrella organization for the variety of terrorist movements that aspire to create an Islamic state from the Caspian to the Black Sea, and has generally claimed responsibility for the vast majority of many terrorist incidents in that region that our media never really reports anymore.”

The Kavkaz Center issued a statement distancing itself from the bombing of the Boston Marathon — they said that their fight was against Russia, not the U.S. But perhaps Tamerlan Tsarnaev sought Islamist terrorist cred, with his pressure cooker bombs.

Yet Hayes leaves open the possibility that there was “some other Chechen contact or influence” in the attack by the Tsarnaevs. He also allows that the Kavkaz Center might not “control the proliferation of terrorist cells across the Caucasus.”

“Terrorist organizations do not accept every volunteer to their cause,” Hayes wrote in his MinnPost article. “The infamous Serbian terrorist and assassin in the 1914 killing of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip, had been rejected as ‘too small and weak’ by several Serbian terrorist groups. He vowed ‘to prove that he was the equal of the others.’ Tragically, he made his point.

“The Tsarnaev brothers probably wanted to show someone in the North Caucasus that they were the equal of the criminals who have bombed Moscow, Dagestan and Chechnya. Point.”

Conspiracy theories likely will proliferate in the aftermath of the lethal terrorist attack in Boston. Hopefully, this aberrant violent act will not lead to scapegoating Muslims, or to a further erosion of civil liberties, which have been whittled away in the post-9/11 era. We should ignore those politicians who call for the younger Tsarnaev brother to be tried by a military commission, or locked up in Guantánamo.

And we can correct those who confuse Chechnya with the Czech Republic.

— Mordecai Specktor /

(American Jewish World, 4.26.13)


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