The Missing Chechen Context on the Boston Tragedy

As I try to grasp the significance of the fact that a Chechen named Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a member of the ethnic group I have been studying for years at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and writing on for years in scholarly journals (that I have hosted on my website at under Publications), reached out to me to learn about his people, then committed an unspeakable act of terrorism in Boston, I wanted to mention the one thing that is notably missing in this story. The Chechen people. Most Americans know very little about this small Muslim ethnic group. While nothing can legitimize the despicable act of terrorism perpetrated by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I believe ethnic and historical background might provide some much needed context.

First of all, the Chechens I have met, including the members of the small tight knit community here in Boston, tend to be a rather Sovietized, secularized, moderate Muslims. The ones I know tend to emulate George Washington for freeing the 13 colonies from British oppression. The Chechens dream of the same thing for themselves from their historic nemesis, imperial Russia/Soviet Union/the post-Soviet Russian Federation.

In the 19th century the Chechens' ancient homeland in the Caucasus mountains was brutally conquered by Tsarist Russia. Tens of thousand Chechen highlanders were killed in the process. The Chechens were then forcefully deported to the depths of Soviet Central Asia by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1944. One third of the micro nation perished in the process. After the death of Stalin, the Chechens fought their way back to their homeland in their beloved mountains and continued to live under harsh Soviet rule.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the Chechens fought for independence from the rump Russian state. They wanted what Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Armenia etc. got: independence. Against all odds the Chechens achieved independence in 1996 after winning a brutal war against mighty Russia. But during the war, Arab jihad fighters from the Middle East joined the outgunned Chechens and taught them about their ancestral faith which many lost during the period of Soviet atheism. Gradually, political Islam returned to Chechnya in the late 1990s.

Then, in 1999, a small group of Chechen and Arab jihadists invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan. Russia responded with a full scale invasion. This time Russia fought more brutally than before and wiped out the Chechen capital of Grozny. As many as 200,000 Chechens died in this and the previous Chechen conflict. At the time you could see Chechen cities burning from space in pictures.

Ultimately President Putin's Russia prevailed and the Chechens were defeated. The Russians were criticized by the Bush administration for crimes against humanity at the time. The Chechens responded with acts of terrorism against Russians, including the notorious Beslan school hostage taking and the seizure of a theater in Moscow in 2002. There were also numerous suicide bombings including the notorious/tragic 'black widows' (Chechen women whose husbands were killed by the Russians) who became suicide bombers.

While it is mere speculation at this point, it can be hypothesized that this tragic history of victimhood at the hands of Christian/Soviet Russia and the terrorist response may have inspired Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother. While there are no links between Chechen insurgents/jihadists/terrorists and Al Qaeda, there is a long and bloody record of Chechen terrorism against a dominant state that may have inspired the two Chechen American brothers to carry out their senseless act of terrorism against a country that gave them refuge from their own war torn homeland. This is the ultimate tragedy of this case, that Chechens found sanctuary here in America and in my town of Boston, then may have brought the terrorism of their former homeland to America with such devastating consequences.