Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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The Chechen connection

Now that Dzhokar Tsarnaev has been captured alive we may get some answers to the meaning of his and his brother's Chechen connection - and whether any links to their ethnic homeland inspired their terrorist attack.

The Chechen connection

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Now that Dzhokar Tsarnaev has been captured alive we may get some answers to the meaning of his and his brother’s Chechen connection – and whether any links to their ethnic homeland inspired their terrorist attack.

The Tsarnaev family apparently originated from the Russian Republic of Chechnya, which sits in the middle of a mountainous region in the northern Caucusus between the Black and Caspian seas.

At one point the family migrated to Kyrgestan in Central Asia, then moved to the Russian republic of Dagestan on the Caspian Sea – home to many Chechens. In 2002, the family received asylum in the United States.

The parents later returned to Dagestan, possibly because of illness. We know elder brother Tamarlan flew to Russia in 2012 where he spent six months , but we don’t know what he did there - whether he was visiting his parents, or perhaps receiving some kind of training.

We now know that "a foreign country", apparently Russia, requested two years ago that the FBI check Tamarlan on suspicion of links to Islamic radicals. The FBI cleared him. 

However, his YouTube Channel – assuming it was actually his – was linked to jihadi films such as “The Black Flags from Khorasan” – a musical tribute to the black jihadi flag that will supposedly be carried when Islamic jihadis conquer Khorasan – an area comprising Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, Central Asia and part of Iran.

While in Russia, did he seek out Chechen jihadis still hiding out in remote mountainous areas of Dagestan? Did Chechen Islamists offer him a cause he was willing to die for? Now we may find out.

Was he converted to radical Islam by jihadi websites. Or, as his uncle Ruslan Tsarni claimed Saturday, was he radicalized by an Armenian convert to Islam? While this sounds bizarre, Watertown, MA, where the last stage of the drama played out, is home to a huge Armenian community.

If Tamarlan's radicalization had foreign connections, what may prove pertinent are the links that some Chechen Islamists have to al Qaeda and to the movement for global jihad.

That wasn’t always the case for Chechen rebels. For centuries Chechnya’s Muslim clans were focused on getting the Russian empire off their back. In the 1940s Josef Stalin tried to solve the Chechen problem by deporting the whole Chechen population - around half a million people - to Central Asia. Those who survived were allowed to return to their homeland in 1956.

Flash forward to 1991, when the Soviet Union was breaking up: the Chechens declared independence and the region soon deteriorated into a lawless redoubt for kidnapping and smuggling. Russia invaded in 1994, taking heavy casualties, then attacked brutally with airpower and heavy artillery, killing tens of thousands of Chechen civilians.

Unable to subdue the Chechens, Boris Yeltsin let the Chechens have de facto independence. But in 1999, after Chechens had invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops in again. The rebellion was put down and a brutal pro-Russian warlord, Ruslan Kadyrov, was put in charge of crushing the embers.

Chechen rebels pulled off a series of hideous terrorist attacks in Russia in the 1990s and 200s, the most awful being a 2002 attack on a Moscow theater, and an attack on a school in the town of Beslan in 2004. In each case hundreds of civilians deaths killed, in part by the terrorists, but also in large part due to incompetence of Russian attacking forces.

By the mid-1990s, Chechnya’s nationalist rebellion had become Islamicized, abandoning traditional Sufism of the region and adopting the hardline Wahabi brand of Islam. Experts on Chechnya say the Chechen rebel movement has never had any direct problem with the United States, and is more focused on Russia.

However, elements of the Chechen rebels have long ties to al Qaeda, which has long taken a keen interest in their cause.

Chechens fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and established ties with Arab jihadis. Those ties paid off: Arab veterans of the Afghan jihad joined Chechen rebels in fighting against the Russians in the 1990s.

Osama bin Laden’s then number two, Ayman al Zawahiri tried to enter Chechnya illegally in 1996 to see if bin Laden could set up a new base there, following his expulsion from Sudan that year. But Zawahiri was caught and imprisoned for six months for entering Russia without a visa.

And according to the American Enterprise Institute’s Leon Aron, three of the 9/11 pilots, including Mohammed Atta trained in Afghanistan in hopes of fighting in Chechnya, but were told by the Al Qaeda leadership to focus, instead, on plans for an attack in the USA.

How ironic that it was ethnic Chechens who conducted the first “successful” terror attack inside the USA since 9/11. And that Zjhokar Tsarnaev received U.S. citizenship last year on 9/11. Were these coincidences, or was there a plan behind the horrors perpetrated by the brothers.

With Dzhokar Tsarnaev in custody, those tragic mysteries may finally be resolved.

Trudy Rubin Inquirer Opinion Columnist
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About this blog

Trudy Rubin’s Worldview column runs on Thursdays and Sundays. In 2009-2011 she has made four lengthy trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over the past seven years, she visited Iraq eleven times, and also wrote from Iran, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, China, and South Korea.

She is the author of Willful Blindness: the Bush Administration and Iraq, a book of her columns from 2002-2004. In 2001 she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary and in 2008 she was awarded the Edward Weintal prize for international reporting. In 2010 she won the Arthur Ross award for international commentary from the Academy of American Diplomacy.

Reach Trudy at trubin@phillynews.com.

Trudy Rubin Inquirer Opinion Columnist
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