Are Chechen Immigrants a 'Threat'?

There are still many questions left unanswered as America seeks to understand how the Tsarnaev brothers could have inflicted harm on the innocent people of the country that has granted them shelter, food and education.

But there is one question that should not be asked at all, and that is whether the horrendous attacks in Boston should prompt the United States and other countries to consider immigrants a security threat just because they belong to a certain ethnic group.

And yet this question is being posed time and again in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks allegedly staged by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. "Should these attacks prompt Western countries to reconsider the threat posed by Chechen immigrants?" one reporter had asked me even before Dzhokhar gave U.S. law-enforcers his version of what had motivated him and his brother to allegedly go on a deadly rampage in Boston. Another journalist has pondered whether the attacks should be treated as a wake-up call to governments that until now have thought that only "Arab immigrants can be a threat."

As someone who spent 15 years in Russia writing about violence in the North Caucasus among other issues before coming to work in Boston, I have an unequivocal answer to this question: It would be completely wrong to conclude from the case of the Tsarnaev brothers that one's ethnicity alone can provide sufficient ground to suspect someone of terrorism.

For one, while the father of the Tsarnaev brothers is Chechen, their mother belongs to the largest ethnic group living in Russia's North Caucasian republic of Dagestan -- the Avars. If we were to follow the flawed logic of racial profiling, which contradicts democratic values, should not then governments be concerned about Avar immigrants?

Also, consider the fact that the older of the Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlan, was born the in the southern Russian republic of Kalmykia. Should not the U.S. government ponder whether there is a Kalmyk threat?

It is then also worth recalling Dzhokhar was born in Kyrgyzstan and both brothers lived more than seven years in this Central Asian republic, which is located 4,000 kilometers away from Dagestan and Chechnya. Is that sufficient ground to explore whether there is a Kyrgyz angle to the "threat"?

If anything, the case of the Tsarnaevs proves that ethnic stereotypes can backfire. The FBI agents -- who ran a check on Tamerlan in early 2011 upon request of their Russian counterparts and concluded that he posed no threat -- must have been briefed on reports that militant Islamists of Chechen origin have fought U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but have not targeted the U.S. homeland.

Rather than engage in the futile exercises of racial stereotyping, we all should look hard at all factors that may have contributed to radicalization of the two brothers -- who spent 10 years in America, graduating from high school and going to college here, but yet allegedly ended up killing innocent people.

Some American experts have opined that the two brothers may have brought his grievances with them when they migrated to America in 2002. But my reconstruction of their lives makes me think that their radicalization began in the United States.

Radicalization of Tamerlan seems to have started circa 2009 and it appears to have accelerated after his return to the United States from a six-month trip to Russia's North Caucasus. The Emirate Caucasus, the umbrella organization for terrorist and insurgency networks operating in that region has denied any involvement in the Boston attacks.

However, it is worth recalling that when announcing establishment of this organization in 2007, Chechen warlord Doku Umarov proclaimed that "our enemy is not only Russia, but also America, England, Israel and all those who wage a war against Islam and the Moslems." That might have been just rethoric to attract more Islamists from outside Chechnya into his ranks as Umarov sought to re-frame the conflict as a struggle for establishment of a caliphate in the North Caucasus rather than a war for Chechen independence.

But, clearly for some of the region's militant Islamists, the war that they are waging against Russia is part of a global holy war against "infidels" that stand in the way of creating a caliphate that would encompass much of the Greater Middle East, but also parts of Russia that has substantial Moslem population.

We don't know whether allegations in the Russian press that Tsarnaev have interacted with militant Islamists during his trip to the North Caucasus last year are true.

But we do know that Dzhokhar reportedly told his interrogators that the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated the brothers to "defend Islam from attack" and that Tamerlan was the leader in their duo.

If true, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's revelation indicates that the key driver behind the duo's alleged attacks was their perceptions of mistreatment of Moslems in general and not grievances of Chechens as an ethnic group even though Tamerlan apparently did harbor such grievances.
Tamerlan's failure to make either professional or athletic career may have also contributed to his disaffection as the divorce of his parents and their departure from the United States. But thousands of young men and women drop out of colleges, hit a wall in their careers and see their parents divorce, like Tamerlan did, but they don't go bombing the innocent people because of that. Tamerlan's exposure to propaganda of political violence by religious extremists may have made the crucial difference.

The case of the Tsarnaev brothers demonstrates that governments remain unable to win the battle for hearts and minds of the disaffected youth that is being waged online and offline by religious radicals -- who call for a global war against "infidel" regimes.

Learning ways to disrupt and counter such propaganda, fighting together with partner nations to win one small victory after another would protect us from the common threat of terrorism that U.S., Russia and other nations face -- than spreading resources thin to try prove racial stereotypes.

Simon Saradzhyan is a research fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center. Prior to joining Harvard in 2008, Saradzhyan had worked as a journalist and researcher in Russia, writing about violence in the North Caucasus among other issues since 1993.