Before they turned much of eastern Massachusetts into a battlefield, the lives of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were defined by a war in the faraway Russian region of Chechnya.
If the reported details are accurate, Tamerlan was seven years old and Dzhokhar just five months old when thousands of Russian troops, backed by tanks and warplanes, poured into the tiny republic of Chechnya in December, 1994, sent to crush the region’s dream of independence.
Up to 100,000 people would die over the next three years in what became known as the First Chechen War, which was followed two years later by the outbreak of a second conflict that finally saw Moscow reconquer its renegade republic. Twice that number would flee into the neighbouring Russian regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan, which were soon bursting with violence of their own.
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar appear to have been among those refugees. Reports suggest the family fled from Chechnya to Central Asia after the war broke out. Djokhar actually may have been born in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, a country that, like Chechnya, is majority Muslim. The family appears to have also lived in Kazakhstan, and to have later returned to southern Russia before moving to the United States.
What’s certain about Dzhokhar is that the 19-year-old has been identified by police as a suspect in Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings. He was taken into custody Friday night after a day-long manhunt that ended in Watertown, Mass. In the early hours of Friday, Dzhokhar escaped a shootout with police. His 26-year-old brother Tamerlan, who is also suspected of planting the marathon bombs, was confirmed killed in the Watertown firefight.
A profile on the Russian social networking website VKontakte that appears to belong to Dzhokhar provides a few other clues: it says he attended elementary school in Makhachkala, the capital city of Dagestan. He identifies himself as Chechen, says he speaks the Chechen language, and identifies his worldview as “Islam.” He belongs to online groups supportive of the Chechen independence movement.
Dzhokhar seems far from a radical in his online habits, though. He lists his personal priority as “career and money” and his VKontakte page has links to movies and music that he likes.
A YouTube channel that apparently belongs to Tamerlan suggests the older brother may have been more extreme in his beliefs. Among the videos listed as his “favourites” are several sermons from Sheikh Feiz Mohammed, a Lebanese-Australian preacher who has said Muslims should raise their children to be holy warriors.
The recent history of the Russian-Chechen conflict is an exchange of horrifying blows, with neither side respecting any boundaries about who is and isn’t a legitimate target. The Russian army repeatedly flattened Grozny, the Chechen capital city in an effort to wipe out those fighting for an independent Chechnya.
Grozny has been completely rebuilt now, but over more than a decade of intense warfare, nothing – not hospitals, schools or apartment blocks – was spared the indiscriminately fire of Russia’s warplanes, tanks and artillery. I visited the city for the first time in 2002 and couldn’t find a single building unscarred by heavy weapons fire.
Chechen fighters, for their part, carried out some of the most atrocious terrorist attacks of the past two decades. Chechen fighters have claimed responsibility for multiple bombings on the Moscow metro system, the downing of two passenger planes, and several mass hostage-takings that resulted in heavy civilian casualties, including a hospital in southern Russia in 1995 and a theatre in downtown Moscow in 2002, and the siege of an elementary school in the city of Beslan in 2004.
The Chechen conflict didn’t start out as a jihad, although it has certainly become one in the eyes of most of those still fighting it.
Dzhokar Dudaev, the first Chechen independence leader – whom the younger Mr. Tsarnaev was almost certainly named after – was a vodka-drinking general in the Soviet air force who returned to Grozny as the Soviet Union was breaking up in 1991. Mr. Dudaev believed Chechnya has as much right to independence from Moscow as Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan or any of the 14 states that the USSR eventually broke up into.
The Soviet constitution, however, didn’t recognize Chechnya as a constituent republic able to choose its own destiny like the others, and Moscow refused to acknowledge Mr. Dudaev’s September 1991 declaration of independence. Three years later – and fearing Chechnya’s rebellion could spread to other parts of what was now the Russian Federation – President Boris Yeltsin sent the army into Chechnya.
Though they were heavily outgunned, the Chechens put up astonishingly fierce resistance. After the assassination of Mr. Dudaev in 1996 – and with the international community offering no help to the outgunned Chechen fighters despite the evidence of atrocities committed by the Russian army – the Chechen fight became increasingly associated with extremist, Wahhabi, Islam.
The man who replaced Mr. Dudaev as the leader of the Chechen military was Shamil Basayev, a man who openly spoke of jihad and who argued – in an e-mail interview with The Globe and Mail following the 2004 Beslan school siege that left at least 380 people dead, most of them children – that all tactics were admissible in war. The Kremlin frequently alleged that Mr. Basayev and his men received money and training from al-Qaeda.
Mr. Basayev’s fighters forced Moscow to negotiate a peace treaty in 1997 that left Chechnya with de facto independence. Two years later – in the wake of a series of mysterious apartment block bombings in and around Moscow – Mr. Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, sent the Russian army back into Chechnya.