Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Aftermath of bomb attack on the Boston marathon. (Photo: Aaron Tang/Flickr)
The two suspects in the April 15 Boston marathon bombings have been named as brothers Tamerlan and Jokhar Tsarnaev, ethnic Chechens from southern Russia.
Their motivations remain unknown, as does any possible connection with separatist or Islamic militant activity in the North Caucasus.
Although sporadic violence continues, the region has been out of the international headlines for years. Chechnya, where separatists fought two wars with the Russians, is now held down by a Moscow-backed strongman.
IWPR Caucasus Editor Oliver Bullough looks at the current situation in Chechnya and neighbouring regions of the North Caucasus, and also discusses the history of militant activity there and abroad.
Chechen militants have been blamed for numerous attacks in Russia over the years, but would this be the first time we’ve seen something of the kind in other countries?
There was a bombing in Copenhagen in 2010, and rumoured plots that were foiled by police in France and Spain, but there’s been nothing on the scale of this attack outside Russia.
It is important, however, to draw a distinction between these two men being Chechens and the idea that they are militants. There is nothing at present to suggest they are connected to any political grouping.
In the early 1990s, the war in Chechnya seemed to be about gaining independence from Russia, but the insurgency seemed to taken on a jihadist form, and spread to nearby North Caucasian republics, too. Is it still about separatism, or is the insurgent war now aligned with some broader international jihadist agenda?
I would say that for the vast majority of Chechens – even those cooperating with Russia – independence remains the aim. A vanishingly small minority of people there supports the ideal of an Islamic state as expressed by the militants still fighting against Russia.
However, it does require an extremely fierce ideology to continue to fight Russia for two decades, so it is unsurprising that something hard-line should have appeared.
What aims are the insurgents pursuing? What are they fighting for these days?
At present, I think it’s about staying alive and keeping the fight alive. I don’t think they are under any illusions that they can win at the moment, but they believe that Russian policy will change as a result of money or manpower shortages, and they want to be ready to emerge from the mountains and take over if and when that day comes.
There are often media reports of North Caucasus militants fighting alongside the Taleban and other groups. To what extent do you think these groups are really engaged in jihadist activity abroad?
Rumours of Chechens fighting in Afghanistan or Pakistan have often surfaced, but they have never been proven by confirmed sightings.
There are Chechens fighting on the rebel side in Syria, so there may well be a broader alliance with the jihadist agenda. However, that is complicated by the fact that Syria is a Russian ally, so fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime may seem like a proxy for fighting the Kremlin itself.
Is there still conflict in Chechnya and neighbouring places like Dagestan? Have the Russians been able to hold things down through sheer might?
Chechnya is now broadly stable, though extremely tightly controlled. The government there runs a hybrid of Russian and sharia law, designed to bolster its legitimacy both among locals and in Moscow. Opponents vanish, and activists say torture is widespread.
Dagestan, which was a safe haven for Chechen refugees throughout the 1990s, is now far worse, with regular car-bombings and shoot-outs. On Chechnya’s western side, Ingushetia has also descended into violence, and there are occasional outbreaks elsewhere in the North Caucasus.
One of the Tsarnaev brothers is said to have been born in Kyrgyzstan, in other words in Central Asia far away from the Caucasus. Does that make any sense to you?
Yes, communities of Chechens remained in Central Asia after Stalin had the whole nation deported from the Caucasus. When the first Chechen war started in 1994, refugees naturally went to join them there. There are significant Chechen communities in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan, with close links to Chechnya. People often go back and forth.
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