Chechnya and Boston: What’s the Connection?

2013-05-01 by Richard Weitz

The significance of the ethnicity of the two Boston Marathon bombers is still unclear, as is the reasons for their transformation into Islamist terrorists, but the North Caucasus has been a hotbed of radicalism and militarism for at least a century.

Although the Tsarnaev brothers may have spent much time in the United States, at least the elder brother spent considerable time in the region. Many of their friends and relatives, including their father, still live in the North Caucasus, which includes the republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia.

The conflict between Russia and the Chechen separatists has provided a good environment for the rise of terrorism. Many leaders of the Chechen independence movement during the past two decades were trained in the al-Qaeda camps. Credit Image of Chechen flag: Bigstock. 

The North Caucasus became radicalized after Czarist Russia conquered the previously independent Muslim peoples and forcibly incorporated them into the Russian Empire.

The Soviet government then repressed all genuine forms of religious expression in the North Caucasus, creating an ideological void that Islamists exploited following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Difficult social, economic, and political conditions further encouraged the turn to radical Islam. Many North Caucasus residents embraced radical Muslim messages as providing a convincing explanation for their personal problems as well the underlying malaise plaguing their communities.

One of the first steps the Bolsheviks took after seizing power in 1917 was to attack the country’s religious establishments and urge foreign communists to do the same in their countries. Under Stalin, this antagonism towards religion in the Soviet republics reached its height. The dictator also took specific actions that furthered antagonized Muslims when he deported the Chechens to Siberia and Kazakhstan during World War II, accusing them of collaborating with the Nazi invaders. Most did not return until 1957.

The Soviet Communist Party required foreign Communists to embrace atheism as well. The Soviet Union unwittingly further alienated the world’s Muslims when Moscow made the disastrous decision to try to impose its secular policies in neighboring Afghanistan. Islamic militants from throughout the Muslim world joined the resistance to the Soviet occupation.

Many of these fighters eventually joined al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who seized power in Afghanistan when the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.  

The collapse of Communism left an ideological vacuum, while the end of censorship and Soviet border controls gave Russian Muslims greater connections with the larger Islamic world, including increased ties between Russian-based and foreign terrorist groups. The officially sanctioned versions of Islam in the Russian Federation found itself in a vicious struggle with more radical interpretations, often supported by foreign extremists seeking to exploit the collapse of Soviet border controls to propagate their doctrine among Russian Muslims.

In many regions, the state-sanctioned official Spiritual Administrations and tarikhas (Sufi brotherhoods) lost control to what more radical groups, often collectively referred to as “Wahhabis.” Organized as “jamaats,” these groups called for purifying Islam of all local beliefs and practices added since the time of prophet Muhammad and apply a strict interpretation of the sharia.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ideological, socio-economic, and political conditions in the North Caucasus republics have helped radical Islam gain popularity. Unlike many other Soviet ethnic minorities, the peoples of the North Caucasus found their independence aspirations frustrated. At first, the separatists did not include a strong radical Islamic presence, but the spread of Muslim militancy throughout the Northern Caucasus followed the rise of al-Qaeda.

Many leaders of the Chechen independence movement during the past two decades were trained in the al-Qaeda camps established by Osama bin Laden with Taliban support.  

In addition, political conditions also helped push the residents of the North Caucasus to embrace Islamist extremism. A limited number of powerful clans allied to the federal government in Moscow monopolized political power. These groups systematically abused their power by appropriating resources for their own use while neglecting the needs of the local population, who lacked the ability to shape political developments through peaceful political action. Endemic corruption also led people to embrace the radical purifying version of Islam.

Economic problems throughout the North Caucasus—high unemployment, widening income gaps, and deteriorating public education–contributed to widespread popular alienation. A mafia-like economy arose in the North Caucasus republics. Almost all businesses, regardless of size, must pay the authorities for protection. All North

Caucasus republics are subsidized from federal budget, but most of this money never reached the local citizens. The Islamist extremist groups also proved to be skilled social workers. Thanks in part to lavish foreign religious funding, they provided targeted economic assistance as well as spiritual goods to those in need of both. People came to consider radical Islam as their best path to a better life.

These conditions created a receptive environment for Islamist militancy in the North Caucasus.

Islam’s call for an end of corruption, greater social justice, and opposition to existing local social, economic, and political conditions appealed especially to young and unemployed people. Having little stake in the existing arrangements, they were eager to change prevailing conditions.

The first war in Chechnya, which lasted from 1994-96, radicalized many local Muslims. Although the war was primarily couched in nationalistic terms, Islamic extremists exploited the Russian military attacks to propagate their vision of an Islamic state, ruled by the sharia, which would encompass the entire North Caucasus. With the help of foreign militants motivated by the jihadist ideology, Muslim fighters used the Chechen republic as a safe haven to attack neighboring Muslim-majority regions in an effort to end Moscow’s control of those republics as well.

Although some Chechen leaders wanted to concentrate on local reconstruction rather than propagating Islamist fundamentalism elsewhere, the Chechen government found that that only foreign source willing to provide assistance was the global Islamist movement.

The Taliban government in Afghanistan was the only foreign government to recognize Chechnya as an independent state.

while Islamist terrorists organizations provided concrete military and other support. The foreign extremists, backed by Islamist radicals from elsewhere, joined with their local allies to convert Chechnya into a base of operations to attack neighboring Muslim-majority regions in an effort to end Moscow’s control over those republics as well.

Even after Moscow reconquered Chechnya after 2001, Moscow’s subsequent tactic of giving pro-Russian local authorities a free hand to employ brutal tactics against suspect terrorists and their other opponents further radicalized Muslim populations in the other republics, where Moscow’s local allies were less effective than the ruthless Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya. His frame of mind was evident when Kadyrov accused the Boston police of deliberately killing the elder brother to prevent any exonerating evidence regarding the Tsarnaev from coming to light.

The persecution of non-violent Muslims throughout the North Caucasus, compounded by widespread discrimination in other parts of Russia practiced against all Muslims due to their being seen as potential Islamist radicals, also helped recruit people for Muslim terrorists groups and their support personnel.

The poor security situation has forced many North Caucasus residents to flee elsewhere, including to the United States.

Most have adapted well to their new homeland, but a few obviously have not. We should not hold the entire Chechen diaspora responsible for the actions of a few evil men who for reasons that are still unclear turned against the country that offered them potential prosperity and genuine liberty.


"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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