War-torn Caucasus may be at root of the brothers' rage

5:09 PM, Apr 19, 2013   |    comments
A wounded blast victim is wheeled in a hospital near Domodedovo airport in Moscow after a bomb attack blamed on Chechen militants. (Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP)
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MOSCOW - The journey that led two brothers to bomb the Boston Marathon has its roots in the strife-ridden violent Muslim region of Russia known as North Caucasus, where jihadists have been trying to take over for years, an expert says.

"Although the two suspects may not have lived in Chechnya, they are likely to have socialized with Chechens, both in the United States and online," said Oliver Bullough, an author and North Caucasus expert.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, the younger of the two ethnic Chechen men who moved to Massachusetts with their family, appears to have attended school up until 2001 in Dagestan, a southern Russian republic that sees almost daily attacks by Islamist militants against police, security officials and moderate Muslim clerics.

A page on Russia's Vkontakte social-networking site belonging to a person of the same name and similar appearance as Dzhokhar lists his worldview as "Islam" and his priorities as "career and money."

His brother, Tamerlan, 26, killed on Friday in a gunbattle with police, also seems to have been a keen Internet user: A YouTube account bearing his name features links to extremist Islamist videos by anti-U.S. clerics.

Although it is yet unclear how much time, if any, the two men spent in Chechnya, which is a neighboring country of Dagestan, ties among Chechen diasporas are traditionally strong.

"Although the two suspects may not have lived in Chechnya, they are likely to have socialized with Chechens, both in the United States and online," said Oliver Bullough, an author and North Caucasus expert.

The homeland of the brothers was ravaged by two especially brutal wars in the 1990s and 2000s, when Russian forces bombarded the republic and rampaged through its cities and towns.

The Kremlin's fierce anti-insurgency campaign in Chechnya and, later, Dagestan produced a new generation of Islamist radicals, loosely bound by a separatist organization known as the Caucasus Emirate, who adopted terrorism as their primary weapon.

As the movement drew younger members disillusioned from years of Russian military onslaught and occupation, suicide bombings, previously restricted largely to the Middle East, became commonplace in Russia.

In 2002, Chechen fighters, armed with explosive vests, seized a Moscow theater in a hostage standoff that resulted in nearly 130 civilian deaths. Two years later, Muslim insurgents besieged a school in the republic of North Ossetia, killing 331 hostages, many of them children.

More recently, even Moscow has been home to terror attacks. In March 2010, 40 people were killed when two suicide bombers from Dagestan detonated explosives on the subway. Less than a year later, a suicide bomber killed 37 people at the capital's Domodedovo airport.

But while the Tsarnaev brothers remained far from the Islamist violence that plagues the North Caucasus, signs of religious adherence - and to the Chechen cause - abound. On his VKontakte page, Dzhokhar also posted links to Islamist websites, and belongs to several groups devoted to Chechnya and Chechens.

Bullough suggested that the two men may have been infected by an all-consuming anger over their people's often brutal treatment at the hands of Russian forces.

"The Chechens are one of the most unfortunate peoples on the planet," he said. "And they have a lot to be angry about."

It was this fury, Bullough said, that may have caused the two young men to lash out at America, though the United States has condemned the violence in Chechnya and is not ally of Russia, the principal oppressor of the republic.

"If you are looking for a cause, you will find one," he said.

Many Chechens are reported to have found such a "cause" in Syria, where Muslim fighters from the Caucasus are known to be present in a jihadist fight.

"Everybody knows about the Chechens fighting in Syria; they're part of the foreign fighters," Sami Shaar, a Syrian rebel currently based in Turkey, told USA TODAY.

But, Chechnya, especially its capital, Grozny, has witnessed a period of relative calm in recent years, ever since President Vladimir Putin appointed a former separatist fighter, Ramzan Kadyrov, to rule the republic.

Kadyrov has frequently been accused of human rights abuses at home, and of ordering the killing of his enemies abroad, including in Europe. He denies the charges.

Kadyrov was reported last week to have been placed on the secret part of a list drawn up by Washington of Russian officials subject to sanctions over suspected human rights abuses. The Chechen leader laughed off the reports and said he had no plans to visit the United States. He also lashed out sharply at the White House's foreign policies.

But Kadyrov angrily dismissed any connection between Chechnya and the Boston attacks.

"They grew up in the United States, their views and convictions were formed there. That's where you need to look for the root of the evil," he said on Friday.

Dan Peleschuk, Special for USA TODAY

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