The Northern Caucasus region of Russia has become an incubator of Muslim extremism amid the convulsions of a separatist conflict in Chechnya that killed tens of thousands of people, turned hundreds of thousands into refugees and sent embittered exiles across the globe.
Two ethnic Chechens -- one dead, the other in custody -- are suspects in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and injured more than 170. Dzhokar Tsarnaev was captured on April 19 after a day-long manhunt and a confrontation with police in which his brother, Tamerlan, was killed.
The family’s ancestral home is in Chechnya, and Tamerlan visited relatives there in 2012 during a half-year stay in Russia spent mostly in the neighboring republic of Dagestan, an aunt, Patimat Suleimanova, told reporters. An uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, also told reporters they were ethnic Chechens.
While Chechen separatists and their supporters have taken credit for several terrorist attacks in recent years, none took place outside the borders of Russia. An attack in the U.S. would be a first, according to Christopher Swift, a professor of national security studies at Georgetown University in Washington who has studied the insurgency.
“That is a big deal,” Swift said in an April 19 interview. “They haven’t attacked U.S. targets before because they’ve always been focused on Russia and gaining independence from Russia. To the extent they’ve ever cared about the United States, it’s been rhetorical and ideological, but never operational. This would change that.”
It isn’t yet clear what motivated the Tsarnaev brothers. Tamerlan spent most of his six months in Dagestan reading the Koran, according to his aunt, and the FBI said in a statement that he was brought to its attention two years ago by a foreign government concerned that he held extremist Islamic beliefs. A U.S. law enforcement official identified the government as Russia.
Yet the FBI said it had found no evidence at that time of Tamerlan engaging in terrorist activity, and his uncle said he believed the brothers’ actions had “nothing to do with Chechnya.” An Islamic rebel group based in the Northern Caucasus denied any link to the Boston bombings and said its fight was directed against Russia, not the U.S.
Alvi Karimov, a spokesman for Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, said last week the brothers “weren’t born, raised, taught or somehow shaped in the Chechen republic” and that the roots of their actions were to be found “in the place they rose and studied -- in the U.S.”
The Chechen conflict began almost two decades ago as an attempt by the majority Muslim republic to break away from Moscow’s control in the backwash of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The rebellion veered in an Islamic-extremist direction when Russian troops returned to Chechnya after a brief hiatus in 1999.
“It started as a Chechen nationalist movement, and as the second Chechen war dragged on, it became a radical Salafist movement,” said Swift, referring to an ultra-orthodox form of Islam. “They were democratic Islamists at the beginning, but the second Chechen War radicalized the rebel movement in profound and disturbing ways. They came to adopt the ideology of the global jihad movement.”
The originally secular movement shifted toward Islamic radicalism when its leaders saw that as a path to support from the Muslim world in the form of money and fighters, said Svante Cornell, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington who has studied the Caucasus and Central Asia.
“That some young Chechnyans who were initially motivated by local concerns got sucked up in global issues that have nothing to do with the original concerns makes a lot of sense,” Cornell said in a phone interview. “You know how people who are trying to be cool in the West wear a Che Guevara T-shirt? To be cool in Chechnya, you wear a Bin Laden T-shirt.”
The conflict began in December 1994 when Russian army forces entered the republic to suppress a bid by its political leaders for independence. After an uneasy truce from 1996 to 1999, it flared again when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops back into Chechnya following a string of bombings in Russian cities that Putin attributed to Chechens.
Estimates of those killed and exiled in the conflict have varied widely. A 2010 background report on Chechnya by the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that “tens of thousands of Chechens and Russians were killed or wounded in the two wars, and hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced.”
The Chechen capital of Grozny was devastated by fighting in 1994-95 and again in the conflict that started in 1999. Russian forces seeking to dislodge separatists from the city in 1995 used long-range bombing and shelling to attack rebel strongholds, often leveling surrounding structures as residents cowered in basements.
The U.S. government has accepted the principle of Russian sovereignty over Chechnya and the rest of the Northern Caucasus while criticizing what it says are human rights abuses committed by Russia and its local partners in suppressing the separatists.
In its annual human rights report for 2012, issued last week, for example, the State Department said cited reports from Russian human rights groups that security forces in both Chechnya and Dagestan were guilty of abducting suspected rebels, using indiscriminate force to detain people and torturing those arrested.
The republic has been relatively quiescent in recent years after Kadyrov, once a rebel, switched sides and brutally asserted control over Chechnya with Russian support. Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, who was assassinated in 2004, began the process of pacifying Chechnya.
At the same time, some separatists turned to terrorism. An attack by militants on a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, another republic in the Northern Caucasus, in September 2004 left 350 people dead, half of them children.
Chechen insurgents also carried out an attack on Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater in October 2002, a hostage-taking that resulted in 130 fatalities when Russian forces attempted a rescue operation.
A suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, the busiest air hub in Russia, killed at least 37 people in January 2011. A year earlier, twin suicide subway bombings during the morning rush hour in the Moscow subway killed 40 people.
Chechen militant leader Doku Umarov claimed responsibility for both the Domodedovo attack and the subway bombings. Russian authorities have linked Umarov to a foiled plot to attack the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, which they say they uncovered last year.
Putin, who was elected president of Russia in 2000 in part on the popularity he gained from unleashing the second Chechen war, vowed last year to combat Islamic extremists.