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Michael Jansen: Attack a mystery
April 22, 2013
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Last week’s violent events in Boston are rooted in an anti-colonial war that has been spluttering on and off since the late 18th century when the Russian empire imposed control over the Caucausus mountains that had been under Turkish and Persian domination. Religious leaders and faith have always played a major role in the campaigns of the North Caucasus, like most independence movements in Muslim countries.

In 1785-91 Sufi Shaikh Mansur Ushurma launched a campaign to establish a Transcaucasus Islamic state but when he was wounded, captured and died, his role was assumed by Ghazi Mullah, who was killed in battle in 1832. His successor, Gamzat-beg, was murdered and the leadership was shouldered by guerrilla leader Imam Shamil, the supremely heroic Chechen figure, from 1834-1859 until he was also captured by the Russians and put under house arrest. He died in 1871 at Medina where he is buried.

From 1917-20, during the chaotic period following the Russian revolution, Caucasian separatists established the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus under a constitution drafted by Shamil. His grandson was one of the republic’s founders.

It was conquered by the Red Army and became the Soviet Mountain Republic. In the late 1930s, Chechnya was merged with Ingushetia but the restive Caucasian tribesmen gave the Russians no peace. Towards the end of World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin deported the restive Chechen and Ingush peoples to the Kazakh region and Siberia. Thirty per cent died in exile. Survivors were permitted to return to their homelands in 1956.

Between 1979-89, hundreds of Chechens fought with the mujaheddin against the Russians in Afghanistan, gaining training and experience, and in the 1990s they fought with Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs and Croats.

In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chechens rebelled against Russia, demanding independence. Russia waged a cruel and destructive war against the Chechens from 1994-96. This was succeeded by a second conflict sparked by the invasion by Chechen fighters of an Al Qaeda affiliate, the “Islamic International Brigade,” of the neighbouring republic of Daghestan. This campaign was put down with great force, the separatist leaders were slain, and a pro-Moscow leadership imposed on Chechnya.

The Chechen brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who perpetrated the bombing at the Boston marathon, killing three and wounding more than 170, and slew a policeman and wounded another, were physically tough but psychologically fragile young men carrying this heavy historical burden.

They were born in the former Soviet republic that became independent Kyrgyzstan, eventually moved to Dagestan but left during the 1991 rebellion, and had a roving existence until the family emigrated to the US in 2002. The father, Anzor, found work as a car mechanic, the mother, Zubeidat, as a cosmetician. Several years ago she took to religion, started wearing the hijab and fasting. Two years ago the couple left the US for Dagestan where Anzor was receiving treatment for cancer.

Tamerlan, a teenager when he arrived in Boston, became a champion boxer and was seen as a candidate for the US Olympic team. He enrolled in a community college but dropped out and did not have steady work. He never really adjusted to life in the US, claimed he had “no friends,” and in 2009 was charged with domestic violence against his US girlfriend (later wife). His brief detention left him with a criminal record that may have prevented him from securing citizenship, which rankled and soured him on the US.

Over the past five years Tamerlan became increasingly religious. For about a month, he grew his beard and took to wearing thobes. Last year he accessed fundamentalist videos and websites and spent six months in Dagestan where there is an ongoing fundamentalist insurgency. It is not known if he had contact with the rebels although there were frequent violent incidents while he was staying with his family in the capital, Makhachkala.

Dzhokhar was eight on arrival, fit in perfectly, becoming a popular, star pupil at an exclusive school in Cambridge.  However, he gained the reputation of being a party-boy who smoked “pot.” Until last week he was a second year student at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, living in a hostel on campus and studying, according to The Boston Globe, to be a marine biologist. His father said he wanted to be a surgeon while other reports held that he sought to study dentistry.

On September 11, 2012, the 11th anniversary of the attack on New York and Washington, he became a naturalised US citizen. At the end of that year he contacted a history professor at the university and expressed an interest in Chechen history. He, reportedly, was in contact with Chechen groups in Russia.

During the past 15 months he was failing his courses. Nevertheless, after the Boston bombing he returned to the campus. On Thursday after the pictures of the brothers were released by the US authorities, he returned to Cambridge where he and his brother robbed a convenience store and went on the rampage, that killed Tamerlan and culminated in the capture of Dzhokhar. The manhunt put under curfew four million residents of the greater Boston area and occupied thousands of police from Massachusetts and neighbouring states.

The New York Times suggested that the younger, more successful, more assimilated brother was under the influence of the elder.

Why they decided to mount an attack on the Boston marathon is still a mystery but the Chechen connection is thought to be a motivating factor, although the Chechen struggle is far removed from the US.

The fact that the bombers were Chechens is certain to have reverberations in this region where two-four million Chechens and Ingush, known as “Circassians,” have settled, most since initial Russian expulsions at the end of the 19th century. They live in Turkey, Jordan, and Syria and Iraq where they have prospered and maintained their identity and traditions. They consider their exile to be “genocide.”

The spirit of the “Islamic International Brigade” remains alive and well among young Chechens who have joined jihadis fighting in the Russian-supported government in Syria which, ironically, is largely backed by the Circassian community. Indeed, Circassians conscripted into the Syrian army could be fighting Chechen volunteers with the rebels.

Daily violent incidents in Dagestan combined with reports of Chechen jihadi involvement in Syria might, just might, have led Tamerlan, the less well adjusted brother, to believe that he and Dzokhar could highlight the Chechen cause by staging a strike on a well publicised US event.

However, their tools were crude, home-made bombs and the operation was ill-considered and clumsily executed as the pair were soon identified and hunted. Once their photos were circulated by the authorities, they made one mistake after another that ensured that they would be captured or killed.

____________________________________________
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict
 

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