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Boston bombings suspects: The Chechen connection

Published April 21, 2013 1:01 am

Analysis • Tsarnaev brothers influenced by the tragedies of homeland they never lived in.
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Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov said Friday that the Boston bombings had nothing to do with his nation because the "boys" suspected of the acts were raised in the United States. Their attitudes and beliefs, however twisted, he said, were formed in America.

Kadyrov may not be entirely sincere, though. It's true that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 26 and 19 years old, respectively, were just kids when their father, Anzor, immigrated to Boston a decade ago. They grew up in this country, went to school here. The elder brother, a boxer who spent some brief time in Salt Lake City four years ago, was described as a loner. The younger one, Dzhokhar, is said to have been hitting marijuana hard. Neither claim, if true, would make them unique.

Nothing in their American lives seems to offer a plausible explanation for what they're accused of doing last week.

But their connection to Chechnya might.

The Tsarnaev brothers spent little, or possibly no time in the land of their ancestors — but actually, that fact in itself may help to understand them better. The Tsarnaev family, as tens of thousands of their compatriots, lost their homeland in 1944, when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin punished the entire Chechen population's perceived (and actual) disloyalty to Moscow during World War II by shipping them from the northern Caucasus to Central Asia and the Siberian wastes. As many as half died on the way. The Tsarnaev brothers began their lives in exile, in Kyrgyzstan.

The family lived there for a long time but never assimilated. Chechens rarely do, at least that's a common perception in Russia. Here's the stereotype: dark complexion; speaking Russian with a thick accent; brave and aggressive, always picking fights; proud and loyal to friends and family but also treacherous and sneaky to outsiders; religious; fiercely independent.

After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, few Russians were surprised when Chechen leader and the younger Tsarnaev's namesake Dzhokhar Dudayev unilaterally declared his country's secession from Russia. Moscow refused, and the act was followed by two horrific wars with the Russian Army.

Those wars changed a lot of things in the region, and the most important one was that the movement that began as a pro-independence one gradually turned into radically Islamist. It also became international: there were Arab fighters and commanders helping the Chechens fight against the Russians, and there are hundreds of Chechen fighters around the world helping the likes of al-Qaida in hot spots, such as Syria and Libya.

In the end, the Chechen rebels were defeated. Chechnya remains part of Russian Federation and is ruled by a Moscow puppet regime led by Kadyrov, whose father in 1990 fought against the Russians but then switched sides — and was assassinated. There still is armed resistance in the entire area, and it is now mostly Islamist. The slogan is "global jihad." The tactics are kidnappings, assassinations and bombings.

Here are some examples:

• The September 1991 apartment bombings in three Russian cities: 293 people died.

• The October 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis: 130 people dead.

• The September 2004 school siege in North Ossetia: 380 people dead, mostly young children.

• The March 2010 Moscow Metro bombing: 40 people dead.

There are plenty more.

It might seem to have nothing to do with America. But in 1996, when the first war with Russia ended in a stalemate, Chechnya's then-prime minister vowed to begin "a third world war" against the United States. (Never mind that his then-president, Aslan Maskhadov, was at the time in Washington trying to make friends.)

More details probably will emerge of what happened, but all that may have had a stronger impact on the Tsarnaev brothers than anything their new homeland had to offer.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev's YouTube channel featured videos in support of fundamentalism and violent jihad. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev tweeted in March 2012: "a decade in America already, I want out."

The Tsarnaevs began their American lives in 2002. Their uncle Ruslan told a reporter that "they got their start as refugees, as refugees from war." Being young, full of angst over the tragedies of the past, stuck between different worlds and unable to belong may have turned out a deadly combination for the two young men, and those who happened to be in their way.

Tribune Print Director Michael Nakoryakov was a journalist in Moscow before joining The Tribune in 1991.




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