When Boston Marathon runners rounded the bend from Beacon Street last week, they were in the home stretch of the race. As they poured through the closed intersection, they ran past a nondescript address: 510 Commonwealth Avenue.
The location was once home to an international support network that raised funds and recruited fighters for a jihadist insurgency against Russian rule over Chechnya, a region and a conflict that few of the runners had likely ever given any serious thought.
One mile farther, life in Boston was transformed in an act of horror that killed three and injured scores. And one week later, everyone in Boston and around the United States is thinking and talking and asking about Chechnya.
The investigation into alleged marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is still in its infancy, but a press release issued by the FBI late Friday suggested that at least one of the brothers may have had some kind of connection to Chechen Islamist militant networks, a suspicion heightened by the fact that elder brother Tamerlan spent about six months in Russia in 2012. (The most important Chechen jihadist group has disavowed the attack, but has not unequivocally ruled out the possibility of some kind of contact with Tamerlan.)
It will take time to discover whether there was a militant connection and, if there was, to what extent it is pertinent to the Tsarnaevs' decision to bomb the marathon.
But if the lead pans out, it won't be Boston's first brush with that faraway war. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, Islamist foreign fighters operated robust recruiting and financing networks that supported Chechen jihadists from the United States, and Boston was home to one of the most significant centers: a branch of the Al Kifah Center based in Brooklyn, which would later be rechristened CARE International.
Al Kifah sprang from the military jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Through the end of the occupation, a network of centers in the United States helped support the efforts of Afghan and Arab mujahedeen, soliciting donations and recruiting fighters, including at least four from Boston who died in action (one of them a former Dunkin Donuts employee). When the war ended, those networks did not disappear; they refocused on other activities.
In Brooklyn, that network turned against the United States. The center's leaders and many of its members helped facilitate the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and they actively planned and attempted to execute a subsequent plot that summer to blow up the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels in New York, which would have killed thousands.
When the FBI thwarted the tunnels plot, the Brooklyn Al Kifah office and most of the other satellite locations were shuttered. But in Boston, the work continued under a new name and with a new focus: supporting foreign-fighter efforts in Bosnia and Chechnya.
The following narrative is derived from interviews and thousands of pages of court exhibits, including correspondence, Al Kifah and CARE International publications, and telephone intercepts developed over a years-long series of FBI investigations into the charity that were made public as part of multiple terrorism-related prosecutions.
Established in the early 1990s, the Boston branch had emerged from the World Trade Center investigation relatively unscathed. Little more than two weeks after the bombing, the head of the Boston office, Emad Muntasser, changed his operation's name from Al Kifah to CARE International (not to be confused with the legitimate charity of the same name).