The Chechen connection

The horror of Boston is familiar to many in Chechnya—but that doesn’t mean the region was involved

Roots: Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a baby with (from left) his father, mother and an uncle

Suleimanova Family/Reuters

Rustam Tabayev’s youth in Chechnya was tragic, but not that unusual.

His family’s apartment in Grozny was destroyed by Russian bombs during the first Chechen war of 1994 to 1996. Soldiers ransacked his brother’s library, leaving books scattered up and down their street. They fled to Baku, Azerbaijan. “We lost everything,” he says.

His father was a doctor in the Russian army, serving elsewhere. This was enough to brand the family as traitors in the eyes of some Chechen rebels. Threats reached them even in Baku. Meanwhile, two of Tabayev’s cousins enlisted in militias fighting the Russians. “You’re sitting at home and someone’s bombing you. It’s a common reaction of all men to want to do something,” says Tabayev.

One cousin joined a group of nationalist fighters. Another joined Ibn al-Khattab, a foreign Arab and radical Islamist who had fought in Afghanistan and met Osama bin Laden.

That cousin had never been religious before, says Tabayev, but Islamist recruiters were everywhere and he was convinced by their message. His family tried to talk him out of it, to no avail. “They’re like zombies,” says Tabayev, speaking of young men who joined the Islamist rebels. “They don’t want to hear anything.” Both cousins disappeared and are presumed dead.

Tabayev eventually moved to Moscow with his sister, went to university and has a successful career. Now 31, he wears a fashionable suit and designer stubble. His family’s apartment in Grozny has been rebuilt with government funds. He visits often. It’s mostly calm there, and his life in Moscow, where he also heads an organization of Chechen youth, is good. But he remembers less happy times in the Russian capital, and those memories returned with news that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two brothers suspected of bombing the Boston Marathon, are ethnic Chechens.

“I knew that, all over the world, the idea would go that all Chechens are terrorists. I know what this is like, because I know what it was like in Russia,” he says, recalling his early years in Moscow, when police frequently stopped and searched him and he struggled to find work.

Chechen Islamists have been linked to numerous terrorist attacks against Russia, and have fought in Afghanistan. But they have not previously targeted America. And there is little to suggest the Tsarnaev brothers were radicalized in Chechnya. Both boys spent much of their youth in Kyrgyzstan, where many Chechens still live, some 70 years after Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin deported them there during the Second World War. The family then briefly moved to Dagestan, a Russian republic in the North Caucasus bordering Chechnya. The boys’ mother is not Chechen, but Avar, the predominant ethnic group of Dagestan. Tamerlan’s online footprints suggest he felt close emotional ties to Chechnya—where it seems he had never lived. A skilled amateur boxer, Tamerlan told a photographer in 2009 that unless Chechnya became an independent state, he would like to compete for the United States rather than Russia. Chechnya is now run as a de-facto fiefdom by Ramzan Kadyrov, a pitiless strongman whose loyalty to Moscow ensures an unending flow of Kremlin money, which he uses to pay for perks such as flying in Hollywood celebrities to help him celebrate his birthday. Kadyrov has effectively suppressed the Islamist rebellion on his territory.

“His terrorists are on the run, hiding somewhere in the mountains. They have very poor communications with the outside world and do not have the capacity to organize terrorist attacks, especially across the Atlantic,” says Maria Lipman, chairwoman of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s society and regions program.

There is speculation that Tamerlan might have been further radicalized, or even trained, on a trip to Russia for six months last year. If so, it likely happened in Dagestan, where his parents now live, rather than Chechnya.

According to Lipman, any attempts by Tamerlan to contact Muslim extremists there would probably have attracted the attention of Chechen authorities. “Him travelling around Chechnya meeting with radicals would not be likely, because of just how tough, how brutal the local leader is,” she says. Dagestan, however, is much less stable than Chechnya, and many Chechen Islamists who have been pushed out of Chechnya now live there. It is, says Lipman, a “cesspool of terrorism,” where civilians are frequently targeted in attacks that are rarely noticed in the West.

It’s conceivable that Tamerlan was radicalized in Dagestan, but at this stage, no one knows for certain. He spent his formative years in the United States, and the roots of his hatred might have grown in America, or on the borderless recruiting grounds of the Internet.

The Boston bombings brought to the U.S. horrors that are familiar to many Chechens. That doesn’t mean they originated there.

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