National Security

Boston Common

Can the marathon bombing resuscitate U.S.-Russian counterterror efforts?

MOSCOW — So, there are Chechen terrorists and there are terrorists who just hail from Chechnya.

Reports indicate that the Tsarnaev brothers are Chechens who lived in both the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan and the Republic of Dagestan in the Russian North Caucasus. In 2002 or 2003, they sought and obtained political asylum in the United States. On September 11 of last year, Dzhokhar, the 19-year-old who, as I write this, is still at large, became a naturalized American citizen; 26-year-old Tamerlan, who was killed last night, had applied to be a permanent legal resident.

There is no indication that the brothers stayed in Chechnya during the war that raged in the region until 2002. There is no doubt that their early lives were distorted by that conflict, but their background does not explain why they appear to have turned against Americans, whose country gave refuge to their family and gave them an opportunity to realize the American Dream.

That opportunity has become a nightmare -- the bombing in which the Tsarnaevs are suspects marred hundreds of lives, and the violence committed during the manhunt has been shocking. The investigation will establish the milestones in the process by which these young people have become alleged terrorists. At this point, one can only guess at motivations. Had the Boston bombings been simply a distant echo of the Chechen war, the perpetrators would probably have chosen different targets. As committed, the Boston Marathon bombing was directed against modern civilization itself. 

Recently, amid the condemnations of the "global war on terror," it has become fashionable to say that there is no such thing as international terrorism. Diverse groups of terrorists, their loose alliances, and their franchises operate in particular environments, fight against certain kinds of enemies, and pursue political goals. Links among those groups certainly exist, but their collaboration does not reach the level of joint planning, strategizing, and execution. Moreover, there is some disagreement even among Western nations about who should be branded a terrorist, and who should not.

This disagreement is particularly stark when it comes to Russia. Generally, Chechen terrorists have been treated in the West as a special case -- desperate and misguided souls responding to their enemy's brutal force. Usually, the numerous terrorist strikes in Russia have not been included in the short list of major terrorist acts -- America's 9/11, London's 7/7, Madrid's 3/11, and the attacks in Mumbai and Bali. Instead, Russia was placed in a different category, where, like in Israel, terrorism was deemed a response to the government's repression, rather than an attack against humanity as such. When Vladimir Putin, then in his first term as president, reached out to George W. Bush on 9/11, the United States accepted Russia as part of the global anti-terrorist coalition. The coalition, however, did not last long.

With Russia's image increasingly suffering from accusations of rising authoritarianism and the United States having developed its own strategies of dealing with terrorists and insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S.-Russian cooperation has weakened dramatically. Some U.S. allies, like the United Kingdom in the wake of the Litvinenko case, severed their links with the Russian security agencies altogether. The Russians, not to be outdone, paid in kind. The so-called anti-Magnitsky list recently passed by the State Duma contains the names of several U.S. officials responsible for the Guantanamo prison.  There have been, of course, individual examples of successful Russian-Western cooperation on fighting terror, but they have been the exception not the rule.

International cooperation can only accomplish so much. There is little Moscow could have done to help the United States prevent the Boston bombings, both suspects having left Russia more than a decade ago. Yet, some lessons can be learned from the experience of the past several years, and acted upon:

  • Get tough on terrorism without regard to the politics behind it. Whether in Gaza or Chechnya, there can be no excuse for targeting civilians to pressure governments;
  • Restart and enhance international anti-terrorist cooperation. For the sake of ordinary people who might be hit by terrorists, make it immune from other differences between the governments;
  • Pay close attention to the current terrorist scene inside Syria's civil war. There are too many indications of a new Afghanistan-in-the-making there. As al Qaeda's story has demonstrated, terrorists easily change their targets. Jabhat al-Nusrah will not be always fighting Bashar al-Assad.

What happened in Boston will not be forgotten. Whether it will push the United States and others toward closer international cooperation in the fight against terrorism remains an open question.

ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

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