Not Your Average Chechen Jihadis

Drawing the Wrong Conclusions About the Boston Bombing

Ever since the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were identified as ethnic Chechens, the national conversation about the incident seems to have focused on the connection between the violence and Chechnya. The two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, certainly lived in two places at once: in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in an imagined homeland in Chechnya and the North Caucasus more broadly. And although their ancestral land was something they knew mainly through family stories and nationalist mythology, they reveled in that part of their identity -- at least judging from their social media profiles and the other traces they left in the public domain. In other words, the Tsarnaevs seemed quintessentially American. Perhaps that is one reason their involvement in the Boston bombing is so horrifying.

Observers have already pointed out two elements of the brothers’ story that investigators will no doubt pursue: Tamerlan’s being visited by U.S. law enforcement officers in 2011 on a tip from an "unnamed" foreign government and his six-month visit to Russia, including to his father’s home in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, in 2012.

The North Caucasus region has seen no shortage of bombs and assassinations, and people from the area have been responsible for spectacularly brutal attacks on civilians in other parts of Russia, including the 2004 hostage crisis at an elementary school that left 380 dead and the 2010 suicide bombings on the Moscow subway that killed forty.

So far, however, there is no direct information linking the North Caucasus to the attack in Boston; armed groups in the region, including the Dagestani branch of the so-called Caucasus Emirate -- the jihadist network in the North Caucasus headed by Chechen warlord Doku Umarov -- issued a formal statement denying any connection to the Tsarnaev brothers. The jihadists claimed instead that the brothers were pawns in an elaborate attempt by Russian security services to turn American opinion against the North Caucasus underground and against Muslims more generally. That might be far-fetched, but it would hardly be the line of argument the Emirate would pursue if it were suddenly using American operatives to expand attacks outside of Russia. The logical thing would have been for the Emirate to claim responsibility.

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