What to make of Chechen connection?

Linda Boyd

The Boston bombings caught many Americans by surprise, but I suspected an Al Qaeda link.

The attacks had its signature: two carefully timed bombs at a large gathering of national significance, and during a period of various political anniversaries. And yet there was something unknown that distinguished the attacks from a typical Al Qaeda operation.

The answer was revealed when the perpetrators were killed and captured. I thought an international dimension existed. What surprised me was where the overseas element came from.

The operation’s perpetrators, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were ethnic Chechens. It startled me since the Chechens’ primary angst was against the Russians, not the Americans. A Chechen attack toward a Russian target couldn’t be discounted, considering the deep animosity between both peoples.

There had not been one attack against an American target with a Chechen linkage until now. It raised the question of how the United States became a target in the Chechen’s eyes — or is it that simple?

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There only are about 250 Chechens in the United States. Chechnya, unknown to most Americans until the bombing, is a part of southwestern Russia. It lies between the Caspian and Black seas in the northern Caucasus Mountains. Peaks there range from 13,000 to 18,000 feet. Chechnya is approximately the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island. The region is predominately Muslim. It has sought independence from Russia off and on since the 1800s. Chechnya experienced two bloody wars in 1990s. It is home to Islamist groups sympathetic to Al Qaeda. Finally, various Chechens have also fought in areas with a strong militant Islamist presence, including Syria and Afghanistan.

A vital question is what grievances do the Chechens have against the Americans that might have instigated the bombing? What may have compelled the Tsarnaev brothers to initiate the attack?

Washington’s Chechnya policy entailed chastising Moscow for its repressive measures toward the region. The United States also has blacklisted Chechen Islamists affiliated with Al Qaeda. It’s unlikely American foreign policy served as a motivator.

A potential explanation is that one or both brothers might have been radicalized by militant Islamists. It is possible those individuals may have corrupted the Tsarnaev brothers by contending it is every Muslim’s duty to wage jihad against:

The American people regardless if Washington has attacked his/her nation. They may have argued that America’s support of Israel plus its ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq is a direct threat to Islam.

Any country is a target if it is aligned with another nation directly engaged in combat operations in or against a Muslim territory. The United States is consequently vulnerable, given its affiliation with Russia.

When, where and under what circumstances did the Tsarnaev brothers fall prey to militant Islamists, if that’s what transpired, is a vital question. Both brothers had seemingly accepted their new home country. Each was involved in different athletic activities, most notably boxing. Both received different sporting accolades at the high school and state levels. And yet each developed an interest in radical Islam at some point.

What were the origins of their interest? Did the brothers feel isolated? Did they experience culture shock shortly after arriving in the United States? Did a radical Islamist recruiter, supporter or associate sense the aforementioned sentiment — and exploit it?

Where did the radicalization occur? Was it prior to the family’s relocation to the United States, since they had lived in Chechnya, Kyrgyzstan, possibly Kazakhstan, and Dagestan?

Is it possible that during these various moves that the family unknowingly developed friends or acquaintances with militant Islamist ties, individuals who exploited any frustrations the brothers experienced while in the United States to instigate feelings of disdain toward the Americans that resulted in the Boston bombings?

A key issue authorities are revisiting is the elder brother’s six-month visit to Russia last year — a visit that included trips to Chechnya and Dagestan. Tsarnaev was interviewed by the FBI after Russian authorities alerted the FBI of their suspicions that he had joined various Islamist groups. The FBI disputed the assertion after interviewing him. Agents requested additional information from their Russian counterparts, which was ignored.

It begs the question of why did the Russians suspect the Tsarnaev brothers had ties with radical Islamists. Was it owing to his Chechen roots? And why didn’t they reply to the FBI’s requests? The FBI may have placed Tsarnaev on a watchlist under the right circumstances, if the Russians had furnished the requested information.

It’s difficult to ascertain which of these questions will be answered eventually. What is certain is that Chechnya has caught the American public’s attention. Whether the southern Russian republic will remain a short- or long-term interest remains unknown.

The answer rests with the extent and depth of the Tsarnaev brothers’ interaction with militant Islamists, if that even existed.

Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He’s lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Comments or questions can be directed to

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