tarmerlan tsamaev

It Was Probably the Internet, Not Chechnya, That Radicalized the Boston Bombers

The Tsarnaev brothers are the first Chechens to have been implicated in alleged jihadist attacks on US soil. But the more we learn about Dzhokar and Tamerlan, the blurrier their motives become. Why would these two seemingly well-integrated young men indiscriminately kill citizens of the country that welcomed them with open arms? What has America done to Chechnya? And is the horror we witnessed in Boston the beginning of a frightening new trend—an amalgamation of foreign and domestic terrorism into a bouillabaisse of confused and largely undefined hate?

While we’ll still be searching for more information about the Tsarnaev brothers and what motivated them for months—if not years—to come, their roots in Chechnya and the history of that country are a good place to start. 

In the early 19th century, Chechnya resisted Russian attempts to occupy their small mountainous motherland, nearly 1,000 miles south of Moscow. The fight intensified when the region was assimilated into the Soviet Union. To quell rebellion in the 1940s, Stalin forcibly relocated the entire Chechen population to remote areas of Central Asia, repopulating the mountains with ethnic Russians. Some 200,000 people, one-third of the Chechen population, lost their lives to this process, called Operation Lentil.

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A family takes an afternoon walk amid the rubble and burned-out apartment blocks destroyed during the fighting between Russian forces and Chechen rebels.

While Islam remains a central part of Chechen identity, religion didn’t play a major role in the nationalist struggle until recently. In the mid-90s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechens again attempted to wrestle their independence from Moscow. Volunteer fighters, preachers, and NGOs espousing Wahhabism (an Arab Gulf version of ultraconservative Islam) flocked to the region to fight against Russia and instill Chechens with their radical views. A Chechen administrator explained at the time, “They [the Wahhabis] went to the market, and they paid with dollars. There was no power here; there was disorder everywhere, and their influence was very strong. The poor Chechen people were already suffering so much, and our young guys simply couldn’t think. They were ready to accept any ideas.”