Boston Attacks Turn Spotlight on Troubled Region of Chechnya
Published: April 20, 2013

WASHINGTON — The possible motivations of the two brothers linked to the Boston Marathon bombings are as yet publicly unknown. Of Chechen heritage, they lived in the United States for years, according to friends and relatives, and no direct ties have been publicly established with known Chechen terrorist or separatist groups.

Yet, with at least one brother talking of Chechen nationalism on the Internet, their reported involvement in the marathon attack throws a spotlight back on one of the darkest corners of nationalist and Islamic militancy, and to a campaign for separatism and vengeance responsible for some of the most unsparing terrorist acts of recent decades.

Fired by a potent mix of blood codes, separatist yearnings and Islamic militancy, Chechen groups have staged a string of intermittent but spectacular attacks in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia since the 1990s. They have bombed trains, planes and subways, attacked a rock concert and slammed a truck bomb into a hospital. In 2002, they seized a crowded theater in Moscow, an attack that culminated in a commando raid that killed 130 hostages.

In the spring of 2004, a bomb placed in a stadium in Grozny, the regional capital, killed the Kremlin’s handpicked Chechen president. That summer, female suicide bombers with hand grenades brought down two Russian passenger jets nearly simultaneously, killing 90 people.

Days later, a group of terrorists working for Shamil Basayev, the one-legged separatist military commander who was then Russia’s most wanted man, stormed a public school in the small town of Beslan, in a nearby republic, leading to the deaths of more than 300 people, most of them schoolchildren, their parents and their teachers.

Such violence had typically been confined within Russia.

Reports, often based on little more than rumors or Kremlin-sourced leaks, of extensive Chechen involvement in terrorism or insurgencies elsewhere have been a staple of public commentary on such violence since 2001.

These reports — of Chechen snipers and bomb-makers appearing in one conflict after another, and of Chechens filling the ranks of armed groups in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — often proved to be exaggerated.

Chechnya’s battles with Russia and against Russian rule had been fought in recurring if irregular cycles for centuries; Chechens did not have to travel to find their foes, much less their targets. In interviews many Chechen emigrants and fighters have emphasized that they consider their enemies to be local, not foreign.

But in time outside influences crept into the North Caucasus’s homegrown war, and the moves and countermoves between Russians and Chechens spread beyond Russia’s borders.

Two wars erupted between Russia and Chechen separatists in the 1990s. The first had old roots. Many Chechens, an independent Muslim people of the highlands, have long chafed at what they view as Russia’s imperial rule. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of the Warsaw Pact, Chechen separatists perceived a fresh chance to claim their own state.

Chechnya’s oil reserves provided an incentive for both sides to refuse to yield their claims, and Islam colored the fight. Arab fighters appeared in Chechnya with the onset of the first war, saying they had come to help fellow Muslims fight oppression.

By the mid- and late-1990s, several training camps operated almost openly in rural Chechnya, led in part by a foreign jihadi, Ibn al-Khattab.

Later, however, many Chechens said the Arab influence had declined amid tensions between the Sufi Chechens and Sunni Arabs, who typically adhere to different Islamic traditions and practices. In addition, the allure of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, Chechens say, drew many Arab fighters away from Chechnya’s mountains.

And yet the ripple effects of the Chechen wars eventually played out in 2004 in the Arab emirate of Qatar, where Russian agents assassinated an exiled Chechen leader with a car bomb, and on the streets of Vienna in 2009 when Chechens gunned down a fellow Chechen who had broken from the Kremlin-supported leadership in the republic to file a complaint in the European Court of Human Rights. The complaint detailed torture by the Russian-backed security services, and the republic’s current president, Ramzan A. Kadyrov.

Just a week ago, the United States put Mr. Kadyrov, a former rebel turned ally of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and the primary subject of the torture complaint, on a secret list of Russian citizens banned from the United States for human rights abuses, according to people briefed on the list.

Curiously, the most political of the video clips posted on social media by one of the Tsarnaev brothers was not aimed at the West, but at Mr. Kadyrov, who is loathed by many Chechens and regarded as a vicious Kremlin stooge.

Mr. Kadyrov on Friday dismissed the Tsarnaev brothers and any ties between the Boston bombing and Chechnya. “The roots of this evil are to be found in America,” he said in a post on Instagram.

With all its longstanding crosscurrents, and partly because of its seeming remoteness and small scale, the Chechen conflict has long confounded American leaders and policy makers.

Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia immediately after the Soviet breakup, launched a war from 1994 to 1996 to re-establish control of the region. As Mr. Yeltsin’s prime minister, Mr. Putin ordered a second war in 1999, after a brief period of Chechen self-rule that was characterized by criminality and accusations of terrorism.

Mr. Putin waged a relentless campaign that included carpet bombing and the indiscriminate shelling of Grozny, with more ordnance than any European city had endured since World War II.

While the United States has shared intelligence on Chechen militants with the Russian government over the years, American officials have been reluctant to be too associated with Moscow’s Chechnya policies, which resulted in the destruction of Grozny, the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and the indiscriminate imprisonment of many young men. Then, as open resistance declined, control was maintained by flagrantly rigged elections and collective punishment.

At one point during President George W. Bush’s administration, a debate broke out over a proposal by a National Security Council official to effectively partner with the Russians in fighting Chechen rebels. Other officials from the State Department and Pentagon vociferously opposed it, arguing that the United States should not ally itself with the Kremlin’s tactics.

By then what had started as a separatist revolt had partially assumed a jihadi cast. The Chechen cause had been adopted by the likes of Osama bin Laden and other foreign radicals, who tried to insinuate themselves into the struggle; several Chechen rebel leaders embraced Islam as a rallying cry.

Bin Laden’s top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, had traveled to Russia in 1996 to explore the possibility of relocating operations to Chechnya and was arrested on a visa violation, only to be released several months later. Mohammed Atta, a future Sept. 11 hijacker, and other members of a Qaeda cell initially wanted to join the jihad in Chechnya but were told it was too hard to get in and were advised to go to Afghanistan instead.

With the defection of some rebels like Mr. Kadyrov and his father, Moscow eventually re-established control over most of Chechnya. Much of Grozny was rebuilt.

But the separatist insurgency has never been extinguished. Whether the Boston bombing was tied to it is still unclear, but a generation of young Chechen men have never known a peaceful homeland, coming of age as young Muslims with few prospects at home in the Caucasus, and difficulties finding a place abroad.

Peter Baker reported from Washington, and C.J. Chivers from the United States.