This week's post comes from friend and colleague Chris Facer, who was just accepted into the graduate program in history at the University of Washington. His specialization is Middle East History, with an emphasis in the Turkish language and Ottoman Legacies.
When several homemade bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon two years ago, the devastation left three people dead and over 200 injured. The subsequent manhunt and firefight left a police officer dead as well as Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of two brothers who carried out the attacks. April 15th marks the two year anniversary of the start of these tragic events. Just this week, a jury found the surviving brother Dzhokhar guilty of 30 criminal counts, many of which carry the possibility of the death penalty. It seems that many Americans, and many people all around the world, are still confused as to why two Chechen brothers (Dzhokhar and Tamerlan) committed such a heinous crime. Much emphasis has been placed on the fact that these men were of Chechen decent. So why is this fact so important? This is a crash course into Chechnya and its relation the Boston Marathon Bombing. First, let's figure out where Chechnya is...
The majority population of Chechnya follows Sunni Islam, with most people following a particular school of Islamic thought known as the Shafi’i tradition. This school of Islamic thought is a very logical formulation of religious thought, which states that rules and religious laws must be founded on precedence of the Prophet Muhammad’s example, or those close to him. The population of Chechnya and most of the greater North Caucasus converted to Islam during the 16th-19th centuries, believed by most historians as a combative measure against Russian imperialism during this time. Resistance movements in Chechnya and the greater North Caucasus are not a new attraction, quite to the contrary they have been steadily been going on since Ivan the Terrible attempted conquest of the region in the 1500’s.
However, increased encroachment into the region by Peter I in the Russo-Persian war (1722-1723) truly put the majority of this region in the hands of the Russian Empire. This reality constantly put Chechen culture (and the Caucasus cultures) under the scrutiny of the Russian Empire, leaving many people trying to undermine the imperialistic forces in their backyards. A constant cycle of undermining and revolt plagued much of this region into modern times. In more recent history, two important events have highlighted the oppression of the region; the deportation of many Chechen and Ingush populations after the Second World War, and the Chechen Wars that occurred in 1994-2009.
After the Soviet victory over the Nazis, many Chechen and Ingush (another group of Caucasian people who live in and around Chechnya) people were deported to modern day Kazakhstan. Some estimates have been projected to just over 495,000 people forcefully deported to a foreign land under Soviet control. This is exemplified by the fact that by 1944, over 60% of the populations of Chechen and Ingush people had perished during the war. To make matters words, even Soviet war heroes who had fought on the front lines against Nazi Germany ended up being deported. This deportation has been classified as an act of genocide by the European parliament in 2004, emphasizing the atrocious circumstances placed on the people.
The reality of Chechnya by 1990 was a non-sovereign state under Soviet control. However, the Chechens saw a window of opportunity as the world witnessed the impending collapse of the Soviet Union. As the USSR began to lose strength in the region, many Chechen rebel movements gained strength and pushed against the Soviets, leading to years of conflict in the form of two wars. The First Chechen War occurred in 1994-1996 and saw Chechnya become a more autonomous Russian Republic. This war was not without its share of tragedies. Many of the moderate Chechen leaders were assassinated by the Russian government under Boris Yeltsin. This is emphasized by American journalist Eric Margolis, who claims that in the assassination of moderate Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev, “All the moderate Chechen leaders were assassinated, leaving only a handful of extreme militants.” He continues by underscoring the fact that the technology used to kill Dudayev was developed and sold to Russia by the United States, even going so far as to say that the U.S. largely financed Russia for this war. So now we have a country with an infrastructure in ruins, no remaining moderate political leaders, an economy that is rapidly recessing, growing militant Islamic factions, and encroaching Russian forces. These factors lead to the second Chechen war, less than five years since the end of the first war.
The Second Chechen War had a distinctly Islamic flavor to it. In the Second Chechen War, the narrative is one of a religious call to "jihad” against opposition forces from both outside and inside the country. The Chechen people saw the rise of such Chechen Islamist militants as Abdallah Shamil, Doko Umarov, and Sheikh Abdul Halim Sadulaye. These leaders rose to positions of political power, calling for a unified Jihad on varying levels from within Chechnya, the North Caucasus, and even the entire world. These different flavors of extremist Islamic views combined into a figurehead government in the creation of the Caucasus Emirate, a Jihadist group that seeks to create an emirate in the Caucasus with six separate state divisions within. At the same time, the Chechen people witnessed Russia returning to claim control over the country in the ascension of the pro-Russian Akhmad Kadyrov as president of Chechnya. Akhmad was killed in 2004 by Chechen Islamists; currently Ramzan Kadyrov, the son Akhmad, is now the head of the Chechen Republic.
Now that we have ventured into the setting and history of Chechnya, what does it all mean for the Boston Marathon Bombing? The Tsarnaev family has been caught up in the historical turmoil of Chechnya for years. The Washington Post reported that the brothers were raised for a large part of their lives in Kyrgyzstan, where their family ended up during the Chechen Diaspora. They moved to the republic of Dagestan, which is next door to Chechnya, for a year before they were able to move to the United States as refugees with their immediate family.
In the United States, it has been reported through various news outlets that the brothers were very normal and fit in to U.S. society quite easily. However, Tamerlan became very discontent with his situation, and even more so the situation of Chechnya. He slowly became attracted towards radicalized political Islam, and in 2012 made a trip to Dagestan to meet his distant cousin. There, his cousin Magomed Kartashov encouraged his further radicalization. In 2012, he returned to the United States, and many family members said his attitude had changed dramatically. Many of his statements now had strong religious undertones to them. His more extremist points of view can be highlighted by his regular disruptions of sermons at his local mosque which preached violent action. This behavior was repeated until the day of the bombings.
It should go without saying that such an act should be condemned and warrants no place in the 21st century, but one can see the proverbial dominoes in a row of how these brothers were enticed by the path of violence in what they saw as a justified cause. Coming from a family whose lives were so disrupted, and displaced with no perceived outlet for their anguish, extreme measures could be seen as a means to push back and feel empowered again. When asked what provoked his nephews to commit these acts, the uncle of the two brothers replied, “Being losers — hated to those who were able to settle themselves. We are Muslim. We are ethnic Chechens. Somebody radicalized them…”
Perhaps this speaks to the story of Chechens, who were and still are caught in the cycle of violence, repression, extremism, and disillusionment. The story of Chechnya has a similar ring throughout the North Caucasus, as does the story of the Tsarnaev brothers. When a people are pushed down so harshly for such a long time, harsh resistance in return is not uncommon. Such resistance can be propagated through many different outlets. It just so happens that in this case, people have used Islam in this region to do so. The history of Russian occupation has pushed many people towards jihadist methods to defend their homeland and has been a primary factor which makes the North Caucasus such a volatile region today.
What's next for Dzhokhar? His trial now moves into the sentencing phase, where the jury decides the punishment which will be given for his thirty guilty charges. Throughout the case, Dzhokhar's lawyer has been focusing almost exclusively on keeping him off of death row, opting instead for life without parole. He pleaded guilty right away, and has since spent the majority of the trial being portrayed as merely a young follower of his brother's heinous plan. Though many would say he deserves death for his actions, his execution would only serve to make Dzhokhar a martyr. The financial, moral, and logistic issues of the death penalty aside, killing Dzhokhar would play to the arguments of terrorist recruiters, and would provide no opportunity for Dzhokhar to renounce his militancy later in life. Now, the fate of his life, and the memory of the Boston Marathon Bombings, rests once more in the hands of twelve innocent Americans. A courtesy not afforded to those slain by the Tsarnaev brothers.
TL;DR: Chechnya and the North Caucasus have been under constant pressure and occupation for over three centuries, leading some people to use Islam as a violent outlet against the occupation of their homeland
Peter Finn, Carol D. Leonnig and Will Englund. Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Were Refugees From Brutal Chechen Conflict. Washington Post. April 19, 2013.
Remembering Stalin's Deportations. BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3509933.stmFebruary 23 2004.
Eric Margolis. Stalin’s Crimes Haunt The Sochi Games. EricMargolis.com. February 1, 2014.
Simon Shuster. Dagestani Relative of Tamerlan Tsarnaev Is a Prominent Islamist. Time. May 08, 2013.
Justin Worland. Everything You Should Know About the Boston Marathon Bombing Trial.Time. January 5, 2015.