Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspected Boston bombers who led police on a wild shootout Thursday night, are of Chechen background. The 19-year-old Dzhokhar, who remains at large after his brother died, was born in the central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan.
Chechnya has long inspired violent struggle. In the 1990s and early 2000’s, Chechens waged a bitter fight for independence from Russia, followed by a brutal crackdown led by Vladimir Putin’s regime. Over the last decade, Chechen separatists fighting against Russia have developed operational and ideological ties with Islamic extremist groups—most prominently in Afghanistan, where they’ve flocked to aid the anti-U.S. insurgency, experts said.
In recent years, Chechens were “the most significant non-Afghan element of the insurgency,” in Afghanistan, said Sarah Chayes. Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, spent several years in Afghanistan. “It was an absolutely constant element of the insurgency,” she told msnbc.
Since the Chechen uprising in the 1990s, Russia has cracked down on the region, stifling political dissent. That has led some Chechen Muslims to travel farther afield in search of causes, Chayes explained.
“You have a horrific crackdown that makes it very difficult for people to function in their own environment,” she said. “Some of the most radical fringes have sort of broken off from the larger Islamist movements within their countries”—including other central Asian nations like Uzbekistan—“and become attached to this more internationalist global jihad,” she said.
In other words, that nationalist cause appears to have served as a gateway for some Chechens into the radical Islamic movement—turning the U.S. into a potential target.
“These links have gone on for some time, since the 90s,” Roger Kangsas, a dean at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, told msnbc.
Still, the brothers appear to have come to the U.S. as kids, and to have been relatively assimilated into American life. In 2011, Dzhokhar was awarded a prestigious scholarship by the city of Cambridge, Mass, and Tamerlan once boxed in a Golden Gloves charity program.
U.S. policy on Chechnya has shifted in the last decade. Before the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. had strongly criticized Russian policy on Chechnya. But those attacks led to a reversal as Russia sought to frame it’s crackdown as one against Islamic terrorists, much like the U.S. fight against al-Qaida.
James Hughes, a conflict resolution expert at the London School of Economics, described that shift in his 2008 book Chechnya: From Nationalism to Jihad.
“This was partly a moral revulsion against the associations between some Chechen rebels and al-Qaida, and partly a concession by the U.S. to secure Russian support for its campaign against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2002 and for the war in Iraq in 2003,” Hughes wrote. “After 9/11, Putin’s framing of Chechnya as part of the “global war on terror” has been incorporated into Western policy approaches to Chechnya, and Chechen groups and leaders have been placed on the U.S. and UN lists of terrorist organizations.”
The Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov released a statement online disavowing any tie to the Chechen cause. “Any attempt to make the connection between Chechnya and Tsarnaevys if they are guilty, [is] in vain,” the statement said, according to a Foreign Policy translation. ”They grew up in the United States, their attitudes and beliefs were formed there. It is necessary to seek the roots of evil in America.”