Although the Chechen separatist movement from Russia acquired links to radical Islam in the second half of the 1990s, it began as a national liberation struggle with little religious coloration. Only as the war deepened and offers of aid poured in from the Middle East did one witness the hijacking of a nationalist movement by those of a fundamentalist bent. One may surmise that the Tsarnaev brothers were well aware of this history, and their knowledge of the Chechen language would no doubt have made accessible sources on the Internet that associated radical Islam with the liberation of Chechnya -- or Ichkeria, in the language of Chechen rebels. However, for Chechen separatists, it is Russia and not the United States that has traditionally been the enemy.
To have been brought up as a Chechen in Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s would have meant confronting stereotypes -- Chechens were known as successful businessmen who were often at odds with the law. There were unconfirmed reports that immediately prior to the First Chechen War, the rebel leader, Dzhokhar Dudaev -- himself a member of a World War II refugee family from neighboring Kazakhstan -- flew to Bishkek to develop the drug trade, using Kyrgyzstan as a trans-shipment point between Afghanistan and Chechnya. More recently, several Chechens have been involved in high-profile criminal groups, some of which were reportedly founded by refugees from the First Chechen War.
In the last few years, as part of a broader movement to indigenize the culture and economy of the country, criminal groups composed of ethnic Kyrgyz have marginalized the Chechen-led mafia, and a major Chechen criminal kingpin in Kyrgyzstan, Aziz Batukaev, was sentenced to 17 years in jail in 2006 for numerous crimes, including the murder of a Kyrgyz parliamentarian. The Batukaev case reappeared in the news over the last week with his early release from prison and flight to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. The official explanations for his release pointed to his poor health, but there is much speculation in Kyrgyzstan that officials were bribed to secure his release.
Although many Chechens returned to their homeland following the collapse of the USSR, the Tsarnaev family seems never to have gone back to their native republic, and instead has remained in a diaspora of Chechens -- who may be compared in some respects to Palestinians, another refugee nation where a sense of historical injustice fuels outrage against the existing order. Like most diaspora peoples, there is a highly developed sense of community among co-ethnics living around the world.
It is too early, of course, to know whether or how the status of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as outsiders, in Kyrgyzstan and the United States, contributed to their acts of violence in a host country. Living at the margins of domestic or international society, with doubts about one's identity, may lead some persons to seek a radical cause to fill the void, but the reality is that millions of others occupy similar cultural ground without resorting to violence.