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.


National Security


What happened to the people who fled the terror in Chechnya.

Early reports suggest that the two suspected Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are ethnically Chechen. Media reports suggest their family lived in Chechnya in the 1990s and later moved to neighboring Dagestan and then Kyrgyzstan. The Tsarnaevs moved to the United States about a decade ago, and the younger brother, Dzhokhar, became an American citizen last year. The connection between Chechen expatriates and the former Soviet Union might prove critical to understanding why these two men allegedly turned to terrorism.

Russia and Chechnya do not get along, to put it lightly. Chechnya is a tiny, autonomous republic in the southwest of Russia -- part of the Caucasus region between Europe and Asia between the Black and Caspian Seas. In 1944, Josef Stalin deported the entire population of the North Caucasus -- about 600,000 people in the republics of Ingushetia, Chechnya, and North Ossetia -- across the Caspian Sea to the Soviet republics of Central Asia on the suspicion they were collaborating with Nazi Germany.

The mass deportation was catastrophic: Crowded, poorly ventilated trains dumped people in the middle of the steppe between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, stranding them in the vast wastelands with no supplies. Although Nikita Khrushchev eventually returned the displaced Chechens to the Caucasus in 1957, the scars of that dislocation never went away. In many ways, the Caucasian displacement led to the militancy and separatism that still haunt the region.

After the fall of the U.S.S.R., some Soviet republics gained their independence. The "stans" of Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan -- all became independent countries. So, too, did the countries of the South Caucasus -- Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The North Caucasus, however, never gained independence from Moscow, though many wanted it. In the years after independence, the South Caucasus was ravaged by brutal ethnic wars in Georgia and between Armenia and Azerbaijan. By 1994, Chechnya had declared its own independence, and the Russian military surged into the country.

The first Chechen war killed thousands of people, mostly civilians, and thousands more fled the republic looking for refuge. A lot of them settled in Central Asia because a sizable Chechen population had remained there since Stalin's forced relocation, particularly in Kazakhstan. But, over the subsequent two decades, they had trouble integrating and settling down. Refugees living in the former capital of Almaty reported being harassed by the police after the 9/11 attacks on the assumption they were terrorists. Chechens who settled in the northern part of the country faced arbitrary arrest and deportation back to Russia. In 2007, Refugees International wrote a scathing assessment of Kazakhstan's treatment of Chechen refugees, noting that the Kazakhstan government prioritized its relations with Russia over treating refugees fairly.

There are conflicting reports over whether the Tsarnaev brothers lived for a brief time in Kazakhstan or in Kyrgyzstan. Fewer Chechens fled to Kyrgyzstan than to Kazakhstan, but those that did have faced similar difficulties settling in and feeling safe. In the second Chechen war, the Kyrgyz government was reluctant to recognize its refugee Chechen population for fear of antagonizing Russia, which under Vladimir Putin had brutalized the country and killed a large number of Chechen civilians.* During that war -- which first broke out in 1999, when Chechen militants invaded Dagestan and the Russian army was mobilized after a series of terrorist bombings killed almost 300 people -- Kyrgyz media portrayed Chechens as "cut-throats and monsters who kidnap people and trade them as slaves."

*Correction: A previous version of this sentence incorrectly referred to the "first Chechen war."

As a result, many Chechens who fled to Central Asia did not find refuge, just harassment and continued uncertainty. It should not be surprising that thousands moved on, as apparently the Tsarnaev family did 10 years ago. The United States has been a country of refuge for people fleeing conflict in the former Soviet Union -- and not just in Chechnya. After the 2005 massacre in Andijon, Uzbekistan, for example, many Uzbeks who fled the government crackdown were able to settle in the United States. The United States has granted asylum to some Chechens who've fled the wars there, though we don't yet know if the Tsarnaev family was among them.

We'll have to see if any of this sad history is relevant to this week's bombing in Boston. Chechens have had a raw deal, chased from country to country and rarely integrating well. The community where the two brothers were apprehended, Watertown, has a large Caucasus population, though it's unclear how many are Chechen. There are also enclaves of Chechens in California, and a few live in Washington, DC. But it is difficult for such small numbers -- perhaps only a few hundred in the whole country -- to form supportive expatriate communities.

We have one hint that the Tsarnaev brothers weren't assimilating well. In a photo essay featuring Tamerlan, who died this morning in a shootout with the Boston police, he told the photographer, "I don't have a single American friend, I don't understand them." And in his profile on VK, a Russian-language social-networking site, Dzhokhar posted some YouTube videos that are supportive of Islamist extremism.

There's little we can conclude right now about the motivations of these young men, but any personal alienation would have played out in front of a historical backdrop.