|THE Tsarnaev family, like many families from Chechnya, were part of a diaspora that had scattered all over the globe: Turkey, Syria, Poland, and Austria, and, apparently, suburban Massachusetts. Displaced first by Stalin, who was as distrustful as he was vengeful, and then driven out by the indiscriminate violence of two wars since the fall of the Soviet Union, modern-day Chechens are a people that live outside their homeland as much as inside it. Before 19-year-old Dzhokhar and 26-year-old Tamarlan ended up in Watertown, they traveled a long, searching route familiar to many Chechens, passing through Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous country in Central Asia, and Dagestan, a Muslim republic in Russia that borders Chechnya.
How they came to set off a series of bombs at the finish line of the Boston marathon is now a matter for investigators. For the most part, they seem to have remained apart from the evolution of the conflict in Russia’s North Caucasus over the last decade. What began as a war of national separatism in Chechnya in the mid-1990s has metastasised into an Islamist-inspired insurgency spread throughout the other republics of the Russian North Caucasus: Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and especially Dagestan, where Dzhokhar attended school for some years.
Over the last decade, the more moderate, secular figures in the original Chechen resistance were purposefully ignored by Moscow and pushed aside by more extremist fighters. Today’s conflict is a grinding civil war fueled in equal parts by the more violent strains of Salafi Islam and a toxic cycle of never-ending revenge killing. Across the whole of the North Caucasus, the police battle militants that are organised into jamaats, local cells that range in size and sophistication from a few teenagers watching jihadi videos at home to organised and hierarchical militias.
A cocktail of violence, poverty, and in some places, a near total breakdown of the state, has led to the ascendancy of Salafism, an extremist strain of political Islam with roots in Saudi Arabia. If nothing else, the sense of order and self-organisation offered by Salafism offers an alternative to being an idle spectator of your own misfortune. Many Salafis in the North Caucasus are outwardly peaceful, if wholly illiberal. They speak of wanting to be left alone to live in autonomous communities governed by Sharia law; the more militant ones who have fled “to the forest” dream of creating a pan-Caucasus Islamic emirate.
Most of those who live in the North Caucasus are caught somewhere in the middle: between a perpetually fearful state that is wary of the independent power base even peaceful Salafism represents and the Islamist rebels who, by simply asking for a package of bandages or a piece of stale bread before they return to the mountains, make them a target for the police. Local authorities have responded with paranoid and indiscriminate crackdowns, treating every Salafist as a potential terrorist. Moscow is largely out of energy and ideas; the conflict may have crossed into a state of intractability.
Chechnya itself, the site of two wars and the historic homeland of the Tsarnaev family, has, at least on the surface, been pacified under the eccentric and brutal rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, the republic’s 36 year-old president. Funded by billions of dollars sent from Moscow, Grozny has undergone a startling reconstruction. The Chechen capital is now intersected by wide, grassy boulevards (especially the main thoroughfare, now called Prospect Putin) and fountains spray arcs of water lit by colored lamps, making it a surreally pleasant place to take a stroll. There is a whiff of Las Vegas in the air, cut by the odor of Pyongyang. The rise of Mr Kadyrov has unleashed an ironic, if not nightmarish, turn of events for the republic: in a desperate bargain to fend off the separatists of the 1990s, the Kremlin has allowed Chechnya to become a kind of self-ruled and foreign territory of which the original separatists could only have dreamed.
It remains unclear how much of this history had to do with the bombs in Boston. The fact that two young men of Chechen origin committed an act of terror is not the same as saying Chechen terrorism has come to United States. Mr Kadyrov, usually spectacularly unreliable in his pronouncements, may have gotten it more or less right when he suggested via his Instagram account (his preferred method of communication these days) that the “roots” of Dzhokhar and Tamarlan’s “evil” are best found in America, not Chechnya. Although Doku Umarov, the nominal head of the North Caucasus militancy, declared in 2007 that “anyone who wages war against Islam and Muslims” are potential targets, no terror attacks in the West have been linked to Chechen or Caucasus militants. The website Kavkaz Center, the mouthpiece for the rebels that normally glorifies acts of terror carried out by North Caucasus fighters, made pains to disavow the Tsarnaev brothers and distance itself from the Boston attack. It may be that the marathon bombings signal, at least in one way, the al-Qaeda-fication of the North Caucasus militancy: the internet allows anyone, anywhere to find the final nudge of inspiration and justification in a ready-made ideology.
In the end, whatever twisted sense of grievance and fury that drove the Tsarnaevs may have found its ultimate trigger in their adopted homeland more than in the one of their memory. Dzhokhar and Tamarlan are Chechen and Muslim, but they are also immigrant young men, struggling with their own sense of isolation and frustration. The language and motifs of the Caucasus militancy may have acted as a kind of salve, however desperate, for whatever dislocation they felt in America. Their uncle, who lives in Maryland, called the brothers “losers” who didn’t know what to make of themselves in America and thus were left “hating everyone who did”.
And so, in Boston, the cultivated sense of grievance and justification of the North Caucasus militants may been infused with the feelings of loneliness and revenge found in American men who commit acts of horrific violence: a case of “Beslan meets Columbine”, with disastrous results. If al-Qaeda and American male-rage have anything in common, it is that both foster the sort of self-obsessed nihilism that can have tragically bloody results. “I don’t have a single American friend,” Tamerlan is quoted as saying in a photo essay that followed his aspirations as a competitive boxer. “I don’t understand them.” Now it is America struggling to understand the Tsarnaevs.