Q&A: Why Tamerlan Chose U.S. -- Not Russia -- As Target

Q&A: Why Tamerlan Chose U.S. -- Not Russia -- As Target

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Image: The Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque in the city of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.

Ed. Note: Chechnya landed on the front pages of American newspapers not long after the bombings in Boston. A remote region of Russia unknown to most Americans, it is the ethnic homeland of the alleged attackers, Tamerlan and Djokhar Tsarnaev. A visit there in 2012 by Tamerlan has led American intelligence officials to question what if any links exist between the area and the attacks. Jean-Francois Ratelle spent a year in the North Caucasus, including Dagestan and Chechnya, researching pathways toward insurgent participation there. He spoke with NAM’s Peter Schurmann about the region and its connection to the bombings.

New America Media: What was your initial reaction when you learned the suspects behind the Boston bombings were Chechen?

Jean-Francois Ratelle: I thought it was most likely home grown terrorism. I wouldn’t be surprised if [Tamerlan Tsarnaev] went to some kind of training camp during his trip to the North Caucasus region, but I don’t see any direct link [in the attack] to Chechnya or Dagestan.

His trip might have pushed him further in his views -- maybe because of the repression of radical Islam, or maybe because of what he heard or saw there. But Tamerlan still chose to come back to the United States to engage in jihad. He did not stay in Dagestan to join an insurgent group there.

So it is important at this point to understand that there does not seem to be a link to Chechnya or Dagestan, but much more to American society.

NAM: What does his decision to come back to the United States say about his ideological views?

Ratelle: At this point we don’t know why he came back. He may have come back to include his brother in his jihad. He might have come back because he perceived the enemy of Islam as being the United States, and not just Russia. We don’t know why he came back, but it seems an important aspect that he chose to come back and engage against the United States and not against Russia.

NAM: How does that distinguish him from insurgent groups within the North Caucasus?

Ratelle: What we have seen in Chechnya and other parts of the region since 2007 and perhaps earlier is that the more global Salafi jihadist ideology [as promoted by Al Qaeda and its affiliates] has been adopted by insurgent groups across the North Caucuses. However, they do not really support Al Qaeda’s anti-American and anti-Jewish agenda. Although the ideology is somewhat similar, it is almost entirely turned toward Russia and the Caucuses. This is why I think insurgent groups in the region were so quick to distance themselves from any identification with the bombings.

NAM: Reports show a split in the Tsarnaev family between the father, who was more influenced by Soviet culture, and a more religiously pious mother. Is this common in Chechen society?

Ratelle: First I would underline that the mother is not Chechen but is from Dagestan. That might make a little difference. But what we actually witnessed in all of North Caucasian society was a clash between the Soviet generation -- which rarely turns to radical Islam but rather practices a more moderate brand of Sufi Islam, and the younger generation born during perestroika or at the end of the Soviet Union. Many of them have tended to turn toward a more radical Salafist form of Islam as a way, in part, to challenge the older generation’s hold over society.

NAM: Chechnya in the immediate post-Soviet era has been described as a sort of gangland. Is that accurate?

Ratelle: It is an accurate description. But it has changed since then. One can now say that the criminals who once terrorized the streets are now in the government. They have recycled themselves.

NAM: How is Moscow likely to interpret the bombings?

Ratelle: Russians already have a very negative view of people from the Caucuses region. They are often described as being at best criminals, and at worst terrorists. Moscow will likely try to use the bombings to justify its own policy in the region going back more than ten years. Russia has been saying that it is fighting terrorists and extremists linked to Al Qaeda. I think this will also make it easier for the United States to support Moscow’s actions, especially with the Sochi Olympics approaching in 2014.

NAM: What has been U.S. policy in Chechnya in recent years?

Ratelle: The Caucusus Emirate and smaller insurgent groups all across the region have traditionally targeted the Russian government or local government. In their speeches we’ve rarely seen or heard an expressed desire to attack the United States.

But since 9/11 there has been tacit support in Washington of Moscow’s actions in Chechnya, seen as part of the “global war on terror.” Two years ago, Washington put Dokka Umarov [nicknamed Russia’s Osama bin Laden], the leader of the Caucusus Emirate, on the list of most wanted terrorists.

So I think it’s important to understand that a lot of people in Chechnya feel they have lost the support of the West in general, whether of the United States or Germany or France. After 9/11, the case of Chechnya was very rapidly associated with Al Qaeda, which is far from being proven.

NAM: What would Tamerlan have seen in Chechnya during his visit there in 2012?

Ratelle: We’re not talking about a war zone. The cities are fairly developed. They have not been destroyed by fighting. If you go deeper into the mountains, then you will see a few villages that do bear some signs of war. But in the cities of Dagestan and the other republics you don’t see this. For Chechnya, the major cities are fairly impressive – Grozny is one of the nicest cities I’ve seen in Russia, in terms of the smaller cities.

NAM: Where do you see Chechnya in 10 years?

Ratelle: What we are seeing there now is an internal civil war between Chechens, one side supported by Moscow and the other made up of various separatist entities. If this situation remains, leading to a worsening of the [local] economy and further [political and religious] repression, the violence will continue and young people without opportunities in society will likely look to join insurgent groups. Vendettas and vengeance for the death of relatives is an integral part of society there. What that means is that the violence will not likely stop in coming years.

Jean-Francois Ratelle is a Postdoctoral fellow at George Washington University. He completed his Ph.D at the University of Ottawa in 2012. His main research interests include the micro-dynamics of violence, civil wars, terrorism, Islamic radicalization, the North Caucasus, and the Balkans.