Tamerlan Tsarnaev: A Chechen jihadist in Boston?

The Boston bombing was committed by Chechens, who have a long history of deep resentments and revenge against their oppressors. Is that us? Photo: AP/FBI

WASHINGTON, April 19, 2013 — The Boston Marathon bombing has been tied to two ethnic Chechens, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The Tsarnaevs emigrated to the United States with their parents in 2002, and Dzhokhar became a naturalized American citizen a year ago; Tamerlan had a green card.

The Chechen link is full of possibilities; Chechnya was almost synonymous with terrorism in Russia ten years ago, and many Muslim Chechens were radicalized as jihadists during their war with Russia. 

Chechnya is in the Caucasus mountains in the south-eastern corner of Europe. It shares a border with Georgia and is a federal region of Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechens attempted to break away from Russia, and the result was a bloody and brutal war. Chechen terrorists in Russia set bombs in the Moscow Metro (the subway system) and were responsible for attacks on other targets that resulted in thousands of Russian casualties. In turn, Russian repression of the Chechens devastated Grozny, the capital, and resulted in thousands of civilian deaths.

Chechens are predominantly Muslim, and that war radicalized many of them just as the Soviet war in Afghanistan did the Afghans. As jihadists, they formed a strong dislike of the United States, but Islam aside, America gave tacit approval to the Yeltsin government’s approach to pacifying the region. The region didn’t remain pacified, and hostilities broke out again under President Vladimir Putin. This time the United States protested human rights violations, but Chechnya remains a region of virulent anti-American sentiment.

How the Tsarnaev brothers became jihadists, or even whether they did, remains unknown. Both brothers were too young to have fought in Chechnya before they came to the U.S. They were Muslim, but there is no evidence that has been made public that they were involved with any radical Islamist networks. The FBI is looking for such evidence, and if any is found, it will be a serious concern. 

There’s the possibility that the Tsarnaevs were self-taught and self-radicalized terrorists, using the internet as their open school of terrorism. As destructive as their bombs were, experts have declared the devices crude and not nearly as deadly as they could have been. They seem to have had no plan in the wake of the bombing, improvising as they went along. While extremely damaging and destructive, their activities have been described as amateur.

Were they motivated by radical Islam, or did they have other motivations? That remains to be determined, but Tamerlan Tsarnaev maintained a YouTube page which included categories for “Islam” and “terrorism.” The videos in the terrorism folder have been removed, along with a video in Islam. The remaining videos (the most recent added five months ago) are taken from other sources, including the YouTube channel for Tauhid Online, and include phone conversations with a man identified as Sheikh Abdul-hamid al-Dzhukhani, an imam in Yanbu el-Bakhr, Saudi Arabia. (“Tauhid” or “Tawhid” is an Arabic word that refers to the Oneness of God, and is an expression of the absolute monotheism that is at the heart of Islam.)

Tsarnaev’s other videos are almost all about Islam, mostly in Russian, and including such titles as “seven steps to successful prayer” and “Who is the Almighty Allah?”

In his final conversation with his uncle, Tamerlan greeted him with the standard Arabic salutation “salaam alaikum,” then asked him about the devoutness of his religious observances. Tamerlan was clearly keenly interested in his Islamic faith. That doesn’t mean that he was a jihadist, but the likelihood of that conclusion is high enough to be of considerable interest and concern to investigators.

It’s premature to declare that the bombing of the marathon was an act of Islamic terrorism, but it is fair to ask whether it was. It is also unfortunate that the question is almost automatic. While apologists for Islam are quick to point out that most Muslims aren’t jihadists (the average Muslim is probably as peaceful as the average Catholic or Baptist, and as eager to be helpful to his or her neighbors), they also argue that Islam should not be judged by its extremists any more than Christianity is judged by its extremists. 


SEE RELATED: Who are the Boston Bombers? Islamist or Americanized youth (Video)


Islam, unlike Christianity, draws no clear lines between politics and religion. While young people of different faiths are drawn into radical political movements, young Muslims seem prone to fuse their radical politics with radical religion in a heady, potent mix. 

The fact that the Tsarnaev brothers were Muslims but not Arabs should remind us of something else. The regions along Russia’s Caucasian and Central Asian borders are hot-beds of anger and unrest. Muslims throughout the region and from a variety of ethnicities share the same political-religious resentments of Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Iran. The fusion of Islam and political activism isn’t just toxic among Arabs, but everywhere that it’s found. That is abundantly clear in Chechnya.

Chechnya is relatively calm now, but the Caucasus has always been famous as a place of long memory and deep resentments. We should hope that those resentments aren’t organized in America.


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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