U.S. and Russian investigators are hunting for a possible connection between suspected Boston bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and militant groups in their family homeland of Chechnya. Even before a link has been found, Kremlin-owned media are broadcasting a snarky “we told you so” about the danger posed by Islamic extremist groups based in the troubled North Caucasus region.
For two decades, Moscow and Washington have been at odds about how to view the conflict in and around Chechnya. The Russian army has twice been sent in to restore the Kremlin’s control over the rebellious Muslim region on its southern flank, only to see Chechen militants continue to stage spectacular and violent attacks on civilian targets in Moscow and other Russian cities.
To Moscow’s frustration, the Chechens battling the Russian army in Chechnya were often portrayed as freedom fighters – the same way, the Kremlin notes, that Afghanistan’s mujahedeen were portrayed while they were fighting the Soviet army, with U.S. support, in the 1980s.
President Vladimir Putin was quick to call President Barack Obama and express his sympathy following the Boston Marathon bombings, just as he was the first to call Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
On Friday, after it became clear that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers, had spent six months in Chechnya and the neighbouring region of Dagestan last year, the two leaders spoke again about how the two countries’ intelligence services could co-operate in what the Kremlin statement called “the battle with global terrorism.”
Russia is clearly hoping that the White House will now see the Islamist groups based in the North Caucasus the same way it does. “From freedom fighters to terrorists: Identity of Boston bombers shifts U.S. attitudes to Chechnya,” read one hopeful headline on the website of RT News, a Kremlin-owned television channel.
The FBI said in a statement over the weekend that agents questioned Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 at the request of a foreign government – now identified as the Russian government – which believed he “was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups.” The FBI said it “did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign,” and conveyed those findings to “the foreign government.”
Russia’s Interfax news agency reported on Sunday that there was “no reliable evidence” linking the Tsarnaev brothers to the Caucasus Emirate militants. The official website of the Caucasus Emirate in Dagestan also released a statement denying any involvement in the attacks.
“The Caucasian mujahedeen are not fighting against the United States of America. We are at war with Russia,” the statement read. The website added that Mr. Umarov last year told his supporters that, even in their war with Russia, they should cease attacks on civilians and focus instead on government and military targets.
Kremlin-owned media were also quick to pounce on the events in Boston as proof that the U.S. and Russia are fighting the same enemy, seizing on a dubiously sourced Fox News report that suggested Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have unspecified “links” to Doku Umaraov, the self-declared “emir” of the Chechen fighters.
The Chechen government installed in 1999 is strongly pro-Moscow. But separatists from Chechnya, Dagestan and next-door Ingushetia continue to battle for what they call an independent and Islamic “Caucasus emirate.” They have claimed responsibility for a horrifying string of attacks on civilians around the country, including the bombings of passenger planes and commuter trains, as well as series of mass hostage-takings in Moscow and other cities.
To Mr. Putin and his government, this is both Russia’s own “war on terror.” and a struggle fed by the NATO war in Afghanistan.
“This Islamist activity in the North Caucasus is not only a threat to Russia,” said Dmitry Babich, a political analyst for Voice of Russia, a state-run radio station. “It’s also a threat to the U.S. It’s also a threat to Europe, but somehow the Western countries just refuse to recognize it.”
Washington, Ottawa and Brussels have routinely condemned the terrorist attacks across Russia. Human rights groups, however, were loudly critical of the Russian army’s behaviour in Chechnya, occasionally suggesting that the no-holds-barred campaigns to reconquer Chechnya helped fuel the spread of Islamic extremism. The United States and the Britain gave political asylum to high-profile Chechen separatists, their courts accepting the argument that they faced violent persecution if they returned to Russia.
The wars in Chechnya prompted thousands of ordinary Chechens to flee as well, most of them going to Turkey and Europe and a smaller number to North America. The father of the Tsarnaev brothers, Anzor Tsarnaev, first came to the U.S. on a tourist visa in April 2002 with his younger son. Once in the country, the father applied for political asylum, the New York Times reported.