The Boston bombings: The Chechen connection

The exact journey of the Boston bombers towards terrorism will remain the subject of speculation for a while yet. But what can we conclude thus far?

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The 'Boston bombers': What do we really know?
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Ghaffar Hussain
On 22 April 2013 08:27

Trying to follow media reports in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings is proving to be a very frustrating affair.

At first we were led to believe a Saudi student, who was fleeing the bombing site, was a suspect. It turned out he was just a victim doing what any sensible person would do in that situation. Then media outlets began publicising the names of two missing persons, who, it turned out, had nothing to do with the bombings whatsoever. Finally, two Muslim brothers of Chechen origin, who spent their early years in neighbouring Dagestan before moving to the US, emerged as the culprits.

But many important questions still remain unanswered. Were the attackers motivated by the global jihadist cause or were they Chechen nationalists? Were they lone wolves or part of a terrorist chain of command? Were they self-radicalised or were they recruited? If the past week is anything to go by, getting answers to those questions will not be straight forward.

What we do know is that no terrorist group has taken credit yet, which is highly unusual if the attack was linked to one of them. We also know that a jihadist connection, or at least motivation, is highly likely given that both brothers viewed and shared a number of jihadist videos via social media and expressed pro-jihadist sympathies online.

And yet the bombings do not bear the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda-style attack and the Tsarnaev brothers, based on information available thus far, do not appear to have adhered to a Salafist interpretation of Islam, which al-Qaeda cadres normally do.

A number of friends and family members of the elder of the two brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, have claimed that he became increasingly religious in 2010. In 2011, the Russian authorities tipped the FBI off about Tamerlan's links to terrorist groups based in the Caucasus, claiming he was planning to travel to the region in order to join them. The FBI investigated but found nothing to substantiate the Russian claims. In early 2012, Tamerlan did travel to Russia and, according to his father, spent that time in Dagestan and Chechnya visiting family. He returned to the US in July and, one must assume, began planning the Boston bombings.

Much has been made of the Chechen origin of the Tsarnaev brothers, and some have looked to the recent conflict in that region for answers. It is highly unlikely, however, that the Chechen conflict itself provided impetus for the bombings. The US, along with the UK and the EU, strongly opposed Russia's tactics, especially during the Second Chechen War (1999-2009), and even threatened economic sanctions at one stage.

Interestingly, and undermining notions of Muslim solidarity, many Muslim-majority nations refused to condemn Russia. Iran referred to it as an 'internal affair', which in diplomatic circles is code for not wanting to get involved, whilst others, with the exception of Saddam Hussain who expressed support for the Russian position, simply kept quiet.

Jihadists from the West and Arab states, however, did join the Chechen insurgency from the First Chechen War (1994-1996) onwards. In fact, I remember having a brief, and slightly odd, discussion with a couple of well-built men from Birmingham in 2000, who were preparing to go to Chechnya to fight the Russians.

Once international jihadists arrived in Chechnya, they began injecting global jihadist narratives into what was previously a nationalist cause, albeit with religious undertones. The Chechen insurgency subsequently split into different factions and those following traditional Sufi Islam, who were also more nationalistic, found themselves being opposed by the more extremist Salafis, who pushed for a more global agenda and a regional caliphate.

This led to an increasing number of Chechens joining the global jihadist cause, and, unsurprisingly, reports of Chechen fighters in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq have surfaced in recent years. Russian authorities have been very keen to highlight links between Chechen terrorists and al-Qaeda in order to garner global sympathy for their policies in the region.

It is possible that local Caucasian jihadists could be using the internet to reach out to the Caucasian Muslim diaspora, just as their Somali and Pakistani counter-parts have done in the past. On the other hand, it is also possible that Caucasian jihadist materials have been providing the mood music for what may turn out to be a domestic affair, a sort of Columbine meets Jihadism.

The exact journey of the Boston bombers towards terrorism will remain the subject of speculation for a while yet. Their Chechen backgrounds, whilst intriguing, are not insightful enough for us to form a coherent picture either. In the meantime we will just have to sit and wait for more details to emerge and hope media outlets start to offer a little more consistency and accuracy.

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @GhaffarH

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