Thursday night, the FBI released photographs of two suspects wanted in connection with Monday’s bombing of the Boston Marathon. Shortly afterward, Boston police identified two men suspected of the attack, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Over the course of several chaotic early morning hours, a violent chase ensued. Tamerlan died in a shootout with police and as of this writing, Dzhokhar remains at large.
The brothers are originally from the restive Russian republic of Chechnya. Like many Chechens, the Tsarnaev family fled Chechnya in the 1990s amidst brutal fighting. There were two wars in the region—the first from 1994 to 1996 that largely kicked Russia’s military presence out of the republic, and a second one from 1999 to 2006 or so that succeeded in cementing Russian control.
The first Chechen War was a secular, nationalist war for independence. The countries of the South Caucasus—Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia—gained their independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Muslim-majority Chechnya wanted to be its own country as well. As the war dragged on it became an increasingly attractive target for Islamists looking for a new war to “Islamicize.”
In one noteworthy case, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was still running the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and had not yet joined al Qaeda, tried to sneak into Chechnya to participate in the fighting at the end of 1996. Russian authorities arrested him and he was imprisoned in Makhachkala, the capital of neighboring Russian Republic of Daghestan. In 1997, Russian forces had withdrawn from Chechnya, and Zawahiri was released from prison. By the end of the first war tens of thousands of Chechen civilians had died.
The second war in Chechnya started for more complicated reasons. Ostensibly it was because a group called the Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade—a multiethnic group of Islamists that was operating out of Chechnya—invaded Daghestan to support the separatist movement there. At the same time, a series of explosions ripped through apartment buildings in southern Russia, killing nearly 300 people. Vladimir Putin, who was Prime Minister at the time, claimed that those bombings along with the invasion of Daghestan were evidence of a growing Islamist threat to Russia from the Caucasus, and he mustered up support to send a massive military force into Chechnya.
By most estimates, another 75,000 people died in the fighting that followed, including at least 25,000 Chechen civilians. At least 200,000 more were forced to flee. This is where the conflict’s connection to the Tsarnaev family becomes meaningful: they were part of that massive diaspora fleeing the fighting. While media accounts differ, the family almost certainly spent time in either Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan in the late 90s or early 2000s.
Both governments have faced criticism for how they treated Chechen refugees. In 2007, Refugees International directly criticized the Kazakh government, accusing it of prioritizing relations with Russia over the fair treatment of the Chechen refugees. The U.S. Committee for Refugees levied similar criticism at the government of Kyrgyzstan in 2003.
These wars—and the experiences of the diaspora—are deeply important to Chechen identity, as is their history of resisting rule from Moscow. And within Russia, Chechens (to say nothing of Chechen terrorism) is a particularly touchy subject.
There is a good reason for all this: not only did the Kremlin blame Chechens for the 1999 apartment building bombings, but Chechen militants have been responsible for a string of deadly incidents throughout Russia for well over a decade. In 2002, around 45 armed Chechens stormed the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, taking over 800 people hostage. By the time Russian security forces tried gassing the Chechens, militants were shooting hostages in the head. Nearly 200 people died.
In 2004, Chechen militants took a thousand children hostage in a school in Beslan, a town in North Ossetia, a Russian republic near Chechnya. Russian forces eventually stormed the school, but over 380 people died in the assault, 186 of which were children. The Chechen hostage-takers shot many in the back as they attempted to flee.
Most recently, in 2011 Chechen militants suicide bombed Domededovo Airport, Russia’s busiest. They killed 37. This is in addition to a long series of bombs, shootings, and other acts of violence across the North Caucasus. A decade ago, Chechens were fighting alongside the Taliban; now, it is difficult to find any in the country, despite the continuing war there.
Russian officials are quick to underscore that they are victims of Chechen terrorism, not causes of it. As if to underscore this point, Ramzan Kadyrovv—the Moscow-approved strongman who currently governs Chechnya–left a comment on his Russian-language Instagram. It reads, in part, “Any attempt to make the connection between Chechnya and Tsarnaevys if they are guilty, [is] in vain… It is necessary to seek the roots of evil in America.”
Russia-U.S. relations are currently at a low point. Perversely, focusing so much on the two brothers’ ethnicity—even if they’ve barely ever been to Chechnya itself—might actually bring Washington and Moscow closer together. After all, it was Vladimir Putin, not George W. Bush, who was the first world leader to announce his country’s wide scale campaign against terrorism because of the violence in Chechnya. And since then, one of the few places where Moscow and Washington have found room to cooperate has been on efforts against Islamist extremism.
While this is the first known incident of terrorism committed by Chechens in the United States, it’s premature to suggest that this is “Chechen terrorism,” or directly linked to the wars there. Kadyrov is probably right that these two young men were radicalized–if they were (we don’t know yet) – in the U.S., and not in Chechnya. But beyond that we just don’t have enough information to draw many conclusions. In all likelihood, Russia’s appalling treatment of Chechnya is related to the plight of the Tsarnaev family, but it would be nonsense to blame Moscow for what happened. That blame lies with those who made the decision to plant the bombs in Boston. Only time will tell what drove them to their violent actions.