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.



The Slow Death of Palestinian Democracy

With Salam Fayyad's forced resignation, President Mahmoud Abbas has eliminated his political rivals in the West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Kuwait on Monday to raise the Palestinian flag over the Palestinian embassy in Kuwait City for the first time in 22 years. The move was long overdue -- the embassy had been closed as punishment for former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's decision to side with Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait in 1990. But even as Abbas buried the hatchet with the Kuwaitis, he was dragging Palestinian politics back to the Arafat era.

Abbas's visit to Kuwait came two days after Abbas pushed out his reformist prime minister, Salaam Fayyad. Fayyad's departure came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the dysfunction inside the Palestinian Authority (PA): His reform agenda had been a constant irritant to Abbas. The two Palestinian leaders have barely been on speaking terms for more than a year, according to a former advisor to the Palestinian Authority. (Fayyad, for instance, opposed Abbas's push at the United Nations last year for non-member observer state status, insisting that Palestinians would be better served by continuing to build viable institutions.) The tension between the two was arguably the closest thing one could get to a system of checks and balances in the PA.

With Fayyad's departure, Abbas seems to have overcome any institutional restraints on his power: He heads both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah, the dominant faction within it, and is also now four years past the end of his term as president of the PA, with no new elections in sight. After a two-decade experiment in Palestinian democracy and state building that began just after the U.S. liberation of Kuwait, it's now hard to deny that Abbas looks an awful lot like the autocratic Arafat -- minus the signature keffiyeh and fatigues, of course.

Abbas wasn't always an autocrat, however. When he was elected in 2005, he positioned himself as the counterweight to Arafat's corrupt and manipulative leadership style. But things went south after Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. The United States and Israel sought to bolster the wobbly Abbas in the West Bank, plying him with weapons, training, intelligence and cash to insulate him from Hamas encroachment. Over time, the Palestinian leader not only found his footing, he tightened his grip on the West Bank.

Media freedom in the West Bank, for example, has been increasingly under threat. The Palestinian Authority has arrested numerous journalists and blocked several websites critical of its administration of the West Bank. Recently, 26-year-old Anas Awwad was thrown in jail -- though he was later pardoned -- for a Facebook post that poked fun at Abbas. Remarkably, the Abbas government invoked Article 195 of Jordan's penal code, which criminalizes criticism of the Jordanian king, in the case.

Abbas will not stand for political challengers, either. Just ask Arafat-era Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, who had the audacity to challenge Abbas's monopoly on Palestinian politics. Abbas responded with a relentless campaign, launched in the name of countering corruption, to freeze Dahlan's assets at home and abroad. Abbas eventually pushed Dahlan out of Fatah, and subsequently revoked his parliamentary immunity. Longtime PLO figure Yasser Abd Rabbo, who refused to back Abbas's statehood maneuver at the U.N. last year, and senior Fatah official Samir Mashharawi, who openly supported Dahlan, were also stripped of their positions last year.

Put plainly, there is little political freedom in the West Bank these days. The Palestinian president has no political challengers. He has no vice president. He has no heir apparent. And he does not allow for a healthy exchange of political ideas in the public space. With the imminent exit of Fayyad, his domination of Palestinian politics in the West Bank appears complete.

To make matters worse, Palestinian basic law stipulates that, were the 78-year-old Abbas be unable or unfit to fulfill his job, succession would fall upon Hamas parliamentarian Aziz Dweik, the speaker of parliament, for 60 days. This would undoubtedly create a political crisis within the PA and possibly trigger a funding cut off from Washington. On this score, Illinois Reps. Peter Roskam and Dan Lipinski are spearheading a bipartisan initiative in the U.S. Congress to urge Abbas to alter the succession laws to exclude Hamas, identify next-generation leaders committed to diplomacy with Israel, and open up the West Bank's political environment.

But things may get worse. The Jerusalem Post reported that Abbas is now mulling the idea of naming himself prime minister to replace the outgoing Fayyad, which would raise the anxiety over succession to a whole new level. But even if Abbas makes way for a new premier, the reported short list of candidates doesn't inspire confidence: Frontrunner Mohammed Mustafa is Abbas's right hand man for economic matters, Azzam al-Ahmad is the Fatah faction's front man in unity talks with Hamas, Munib al-Masri is a billionaire with little hands-on political experience, and Rami Hamdallah is an academic administrator and political neophyte. Abbas could certainly surprise the world by naming a bona fide reformer, but that's hard to imagine.

Thus, with Fayyad's departure, after more than two decades of fits and starts of political progress, Palestinian politics is right back to where it started. One man -- this time in a suit, instead of a keffiyeh and fatigues -- presides over a people not only desperate for independence, but desperate for change.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images