When authorities revealed the identity of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, the news that the two men, Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, were of Chechen origin might have put a smile of satisfaction on Vladimir Putin’s face. After all, the Russian President might have concluded, a terrorist attack by Chechens in America would go some way in vindicating his hard-line approach to Chechen rebels.
The fact, however, is that the evidence so far does not support that view. Judging by what we know at this point, while the Tsarnaev brothers came from a Chechen family, their ideology had little in common with the nationalist drive that defines the conflict between Chechen separatists and Moscow. From what we know, it appears that the elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, developed his radical ideology by following the views of Islamist extremists. His views appear to focus more on the plight of Muslims than on Chechnya’s claims for independence. The Chechen cause may have influenced his views to the extent that he saw the strong-arm tactics of the Russian State as further proof of the plight of Muslims, not of Chechens. As his former brother-in-law told reporters, Tamerlan was concerned about the oppression of the Muslim population around the globe. More ironically, he was also “angry that the world pictures Islam as a violent religion.”
By contrast, the Chechen conflict is driven by the pursuit of independence. Chechen fighters have, indeed, become radicalised. But their fight is with Moscow, not with America. That’s why news that the Boston bombing suspects were Chechen was so perplexing. Chechnya has a long history of profoundly acrimonious relations with Russia, including Stalin’s mass deportation of hundreds of thousands of Chechens to Siberiaduring World War II. In the 1990s, as the Soviet Union came apart, Chechnya tried to secede from Russia, prompting the Yeltsin Government to respond with a furious military campaign. The two-year war that started in 1994 was remarkable for its brutality and ineffectiveness, as Russian troops destroyed Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, and killed fighters and civilians including large numbers of non-Chechen Russians living in the republic but failed to put down the rebellion. The civilian death toll of that campaign is estimated at more than 100,000, and the republic was laid to ruin. In 1996, the two sides signed a peace agreement granting Chechnya de facto independence from Moscow.
It was a humiliating defeat for Russia, and one that laid the ground for Russia’s next leader, Vladimir Putin, to march onto the scene and bring a new brand of post-Soviet swagger to Russia’s global profile. Some Chechen militias became increasingly radicalised and known for horrific acts of terrorism. While the Tsaraevs do not appear to have been motivated by the separatist ideology of Chechen fighters, the brothers may well have taken inspiration from the separatists’ high-profile attacks on civilians. In 1999, Moscow was rocked by a series of bombings, including of a shopping center and an apartment building, in which more than 60 people were killed. Though the bombings were not conclusively linked to Chechens, the separatists were blamed, and Putin responded by launching the Second Chechen War to retake the republic. It was even more brutal than the first, but it ended in victory for Russia and even more devastation for Chechnya.
The Chechen rebels retaliated with a new level of terrorism, which only increased Putin’s determination and the Russian public’s support for the Government’s take-no-prisoners approach. The long list of high-profile terrorist attacks helped solidify Putin’s support at home, providing the foundation for a resurgent, dominant presidency in the fledgling post-Soviet Russia. Putin’s tactics contributed to the radicalisation of many in Chechnya and the North Caucasus region. The Chechen rebellion was joined by Islamist radical fighters from the Middle East, as well as Central and South Asia, including from al-Qaida, imparting material support as well as training and indoctrination to native Chechen militias. With Chechnya firmly in the hand of Moscow and its backers, some Chechen fighters joined other campaigns. The core of the Chechen fighters’ ideology, however, is Chechen nationalism. But while the Boston bombers’ tactics resemble the worst excesses of Chechen militants, their ideology does not, which provides much less of a reason for Putin to find satisfaction in the identity of the suspects in the Boston bombings.
(Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor.)
– worldpolitics review