As much of the Boston area is under lockdown, fear is pervasive and information is imperfect.
And, at such an early stage, many assumptions ultimately prove to be mistaken.
If it does indeed prove to be the case that the horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon were perpetrated by two brothers of Chechen origin, Tamerlan and Dhzokar Tsarnaev, there is a possibility – and it is essential to appreciate that we are only dealing with possibilities at this point – that we are witnessing a further internationalization of Chechen terrorism and possible new linkages with international terror networks.
In Chechnya itself, which has suffered from brutal Russian oppression of Chechen attempts at independence or even genuine autonomy, terrorism has a long history.
Further, Vladimir Putin was one of the earliest local leaders who had identified the involvement of al-Qaeda before the rest of the world confronted the events of September 11, 2001.
Given the extreme harshness of Russian actions in Chechnya, there was a reluctance to give credibility to al-Qaeda linkages. But there is little doubt that over the years we have witnessed horrific examples of terrorism by a small but fanatical segment of Chechens.
In 2004, Chechen terrorists held several hundred school children hostage in Beslan, an event that ended tragically with the death of more than 300 of the school’s children. There were Chechen attacks at a Moscow theatre, on subways and allegedly at some apartment buildings.
Consequently, it is not inconceivable that the alleged perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings were inspired by events in Chechnya and in Russia in general. It is also possible that the two young suspects were radicalized by extremists at a mosque in the Boston area.
What is particularly disturbing is that in terrorism we often see a combination of factors and increasing international linkages.
Some individuals may be initially motivated by some grievance in their original homeland but then are radicalized in local mosques and also co-opted by international terror groups.
In the case of Chechen extremists, we have seen Chechen terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Terror groups have often valued them for their determination and skills.
It has also been the case with terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah that they have used individuals who cannot be readily identified by security services in various countries who are looking for individuals of Middle Eastern origin. In Bulgaria, for example, Hezbollah used Caucasian individuals who had western passports to bomb a bus carrying Israelis.
The two brothers in this case had lived in the United States for a number of years, looked Caucasian, and blended in with the local population. They would have been ideal tools for terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda or Hezbollah.
Ultimately it may turn out that the brothers Tsarnaev were “freelancing,” but if they were part of an international terror network, this would be particularly frightening development.
Aurel Braun is Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto and is currently a visiting professor of government at Harvard University. He has published extensively on strategic studies, international relations and communist affairs with a special focus on the problems of the transformation of the socialist systems in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe.