BACKGROUND: The details of the tragic incident have been broadly publicized in media across the world. The two brothers who seemed to have been largely integrated in American society turned to carrying out an act of terrorism in their newly acquired home country, which left many both in the U.S. and beyond wondering what made the Tsarnaevs perpetrate such an indiscriminate – and seemingly senseless – act of violence.
In fact, as scholarship on terrorism and political violence suggests, individual motivations for carrying out terrorist attacks can vary significantly, encompassing a range of psychological, ideological, economic and other causes or a combination thereof, leaving room for broad speculation. Yet what really deserves attention is the background of the terrorists. Indeed, until recently acts of Jihadist terrorism in Western countries have almost exclusively been perpetrated by natives of Middle Eastern countries, often of Arabic descent. As a rule, they have been identified as members of Al Qaeda, a modern-day Jihadist revolutionary International with global links.
In contrast, the Boston attacks were the first carried out by natives of the Caucasus in the U.S., and in a broader context outside the borders of the Russian Federation. Does this mean that, as some observers allege, that the major force of the North Caucasus Islamist resistance, the Caucasus Emirate or some of its units have come to declare a war on “infidels” in the West? After all, information soon surfaced that Tamerlan, who seems to be the mastermind of the attacks, visited Dagestan for half a year in 2012, which presumably coincided with the period of his radicalization.
IMPLICATIONS: Shortly after the terrorist attacks in Boston, the websites of the North Caucasus-based insurgents distanced themselves vehemently from the deeds of the Tsarnaev brothers asserting that it was against Russia, not the U.S. or the American people, that they are waging a war. In fact, given the harsh conditions of the regional insurgency, it is hard to believe that the leadership of the North Caucasian insurgents would be either willing or capable to engage in a conflict with yet another power. Logically speaking, it is also difficult to see why they would sponsor an act likely to promote increased intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. Such cooperation will create a great many problems for the North Caucasus insurgency, which is at least partially dependent on money inflow from various North Caucasian Diaspora groups scattered across the world.
Given the high level of ideological indoctrination among part of the Chechen and Dagestani Salafis, who consider their struggle to be an integral part of the ongoing global jihad in the name of Islam, the possibility of a North Caucasian insurgent leader having provided some form of support or inspiration to Tamerlan Tsarnaev during his stay in Dagestan cannot be completely ruled out. Yet these accounts largely fail to take into consideration a number of key factors. First, even though they were physically born in Chechnya, both Tsarnaev brothers have spent their lives outside the North Caucasus, either in Kyrgyzstan or the United States. Tamerlan never lived in either Dagestan or Chechnya, so he could not have developed any serious ties to local youth who would have introduced him to Dagestani (or Chechen) insurgency leaders. This is even more valid for the younger Jokhar.
In fact, establishing such ties would normally rely either on a solid acquaintance between a candidate and leaders of the local jamaats, or on well-connected intermediaries who would strongly “recommend” him to these jamaats based on their knowledge of the aspirant, putting themselves and their relatives at risk in the process. The probability that Tamerlan would have established direct contact with Dagestani jamaats during his several months long stay in the republic are extremely low given the general concern among insurgents over attempts of the federal and republican security services to plant agents into their ranks. Considering the fact that Tsarnaev had lived outside the republic, nobody knew him properly in Dagestan, and since his father Anzor had served in the Soviet Ministry of Interior, Tamerlan had virtually no chance of establishing contact with Dagestani insurgents during his short stay in 2012. Another factor is the awareness of the Russian security services of him as a potentially dangerous element, of which Moscow had warned the FBI as early as in 2011.
Another question arises as to whether the Russian intelligence services may have framed the young and eager Tamerlan during his stay in Makhachkala. In fact, Moscow possesses an extended network of agents across the entire North Caucasus, which has been increasingly successful in infiltrating insurgent groups. Generally speaking, Tsarnaev could have been lured into contact with a fake leader of a local jamaat, instructing him on how, when, and why an attack should be carried out against Americans given their alleged misbehavior in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Islamic world. After all, having lived outside the republic for most of his life and with limited connections among the locals, Tamerlan likely lacked extensive knowledge of the area, the insurgency, and its leaders. In Moscow’s perspective, carrying out such an attack with global repercussions would fit well with its foreign policy agenda, modifying to a significant degree its relations with the U.S. and some key Western nations, as well as severely discrediting the still active insurgency in the North Caucasus, where Chechnya-style zachistkas have recently been on the rise (See the 04/17/2013 Issue of the CACI Analyst).
CONCLUSIONS: Naturally, both possibilities outlined above are just speculations based on an amount of presently available sources. It is quite possible that the Boston attacks were a case of what is termed grass-roots terrorism, where individuals lacking any external connections become radicalized, often exposed themselves to materials freely available on the internet or elsewhere, to the point that they become capable of carrying out acts of terrorism on their own. Those interested in putting together deadly explosives can easily find all relevant information in the internet. This may also have been the case with the Tsarnaev brothers given the largely amateurish character of the bombs they planted, and their behavior during the days that followed the Boston bombings facilitating their capture. It is indeed unfortunate that given the state of current technologies both in terms of their accessibility and deadliness, in combination with extensive media coverage, acts of terrorism carried out by particular individuals with unclear motivations can discredit whole ethnic, religious, and racial communities.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Emil Souleimanov is associate professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is author of Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2013) and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007).