Democracy Lab

The Invisible War

Russians weren't paying much attention to their own war on terror. But that was before the attacks in Boston.

MOSCOW — The page on the Russian social networking site VKontakte features two images of a 19-year-old man, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who's suspected of involvement in the Boston bomb attacks. One is a self-portrait, in black and white, that casts him as proud and ambitious. The other shows the young man hugging a male friend at a kitchen table, looking for all the world like two happy, ordinary teenagers.

The biographical information is sparse: Born on July, 22. Not married. Languages: Russian, English, and Noxçiyn mott (Chechen). Education: School Number One in the city of Makhachkala, 1999-2001, Cambridge and Latin School 2011, Boston. Religion: Islam. The most important goal in life: career and money.

The young man was a resident of Boston, but he inhabited an entirely different world online. On his page he links to several Russian-language sites frequented by radical young Muslims. His interests: "Everything about Chechnya," "Chechens," Mosques," and "Islam" -- as well as something called "the Corporation of Evil," which describes itself as "a magazine of sarcasm to mock your friends." The participants in the groups, who seem to consist primarily of ultraconservative Salafis from around Russia, discuss the issues that Muslims face there on an everyday basis, ranging from the lack of mosques in cities in Siberia or European Russia to the human rights abuses that have taken place in regions of the country where Islam is prominent. Even though he had lived in Boston for more than a decade, the younger Tsarnaev was still an active participant in the Russian Muslim community. But does that really explain why Dzhokhar and his older brother Tamerlan (who was killed during a police shootout on Friday) would want to destroy the lives of people in Boston?

"There could be several reasons for Muslims to hold a grudge against America," Gulnara Rustamova, a human rights advocate for Salafi Muslims in Dagestan, told me. "Americans kill Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq. That could be the motive for these young men."

The family of the two Tsarnaev brothers appears to have lived for a while in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan (a place that became home to many Chechens after Stalin deported them from their home republic in 1944). Later the family moved back to the North Caucasus, settling in Dagestan, a republic with a population of about three million that borders on Chechnya. The family emigrated from there to the United States in 2002.

Not long ago Dagestan was still a relatively peaceful place. But that began to change after Chechen guerrillas fought two disastrous wars for their independence from Russia -- the first from 1994 to 1996, the second starting in 1999. In the end, Russia used its military might to tamp down the rebellion, above all by persuading some powerful Chechen clans to switch to their side. But the Kremlin's indiscriminate use of artillery, airpower, and punitive raids ensured that the appearance of stability remained superficial. In reality the insurgency in Chechnya not only continued, but soon spread to other parts of the North Caucasus that are home to large Muslim populations. The number of attacks, bombings, and counterinsurgency operations in Dagestan in particular has steadily risen over the years.

To make matters worse, the region's Muslims are not only fighting against Moscow. In many cases they've also begun to fight each other. The rise of ultraconservative, Saudi Arabia-style Salafism in the region has increasingly pitted its adherents against the more moderate Sufis who traditionally make up a big part of the local Muslim population. (In this context, it's noteworthy that Tamerlan Tsarnaev used his YouTube page to denounce a video that showed Caucasian Sufis burying one of their own, alleging that their rituals make them "idolaters.")

In fact, the dirty war in the region is accelerating. Special operations by Russian security forces and terror attacks by Islamic fundamentalists take dozens of lives. In the first four months of this year alone, 67 people have fallen victim to terror attacks in Dagestan, but the news media hardly mention the casualties. Russians only pay attention to the insurgency when suicide bombers attack the Moscow subway or the airport. Whenever this happens, experts invariably urge the Kremlin to analyze why the jihad by Salafi community in North Caucasus keeps on simmering.

"We do report on victims, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, kidnappings, and torture happening all over North Caucasus, but people are tired of hearing about it," said Tatyana Lokshina, director of the Human Rights Watch office in Moscow. "A terror attack on Boston that is so far away from Russia concerns Russians much more than what is happening in the south of the own country," she added.

It was a remark that struck home. I've been covering the turmoil in the North Caucasus for 13 years now -- ever since the Second Chechen War convulsed the region yet again. I tracked the radicalization of young Muslims in the republics adjoining Chechnya as they began to talk of creating an independent state based on sharia, to be called the "Caucasus Emirate."

Some of them took up arms, committing guerrilla attacks against Russian institutions. The Russians responded by unleashing their special forces, regular army, and police against anyone who sympathized with the movement. But with wars going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, my editors' interest in stories from this seemingly obscure area waned. Why would anyone pay attention to places like Dagestan or Chechnya when there were conflicts aflame all over the Middle East?

I remember how much effort it took to persuade my editors to allow me to cover the murder of my colleague and friend Natalia Estemirova, the prominent human rights activist. She was shot dead in Chechnya -- by whom, precisely, remains obscure. A few journalists traveled to Grozny to say goodbye at her funeral. It was sad to see how small the group was. But it wasn't only the West that had lost interest in Russia's local wars. Just a few years ago I remember how some editors at a Russian radio station asked me why I'd gone to the trouble to interview Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, the most powerful leader in North Caucasus. "Why do you keep going to the North Caucasus?" they asked me. Their marketing research had showed that only 13 percent of their listeners showed any interest in news from the region.

Last weekend, as reported by monitors from the human rights organization Memorial, tanks and artillery bombarded an area outside the Dagestani town of Gimry (pop. 4,000). Hundreds of people with small children left their homes and fled to a neighboring community called Temroary, where they filled apartments and houses to overflowing. Men had to sleep in their cars or in mosques.

For weeks, Russian police and security service forces have been fighting what they describe as a "special operation" against a guerrilla group in the Gimry area. The fighting has left more than two thousand displaced people without their clothes, valuables, or food. And yet even the local newspapers (much less the media in Moscow) provided little coverage of the crisis. "We Muslims of Dagestan are treated as if we are not citizens of Russia and all newspapers talk about is the terror attack on Boston," one refugee, Napisat Magomedova, told me.

"Gimry? Is that in Armenia?" Aleksei Venediktov, the editor of Ekho Moskvy radio station, asked me in an interview today. When it happens on a daily basis, he explained, even terrorism can make people tired and indifferent: "Dagestan is just like Ireland during The Troubles there, when an explosion at a gas station didn't make much news." He noted that many Russian nationalists tend to refer to Dagestan and Chechnya as if they're foreign states. They've been known to demand that the Kremlin build a wall and separate the region from the rest of Russia.

But today the news that two Boston terrorists might be Chechens lit up the Internet. "How can it be?" another wrote, referring to the younger Tsarnaev's self-professed interest in a lucrative career. "Are they some sort of bourgeois neo-Islamists? Interesting combination! So they believe in Allah and Mammon? Real believers don't value career and money most." "Americans are paying for supporting the ‘Chechen freedom fighters,'" commented another. "This is all fake! Americans take somebody from a ‘risk group' -- refugees, Muslims -- and create the conditions for an arrest." Few seemed to accept the more obvious conclusion: That the traumas caused by the lingering war in the North Caucasus have now reached all the way to the United States.

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