Boston marathon suspects

Handout pictures released through the FBI website on April 18 show the suspects wanted for questioning in relation to the Boston Marathon bombing April 15. (FBI/Handout/Reuters / July 2, 2013)

The two suspects in the Boston marathon bombings—Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19—have been identified as being natives of Chechnya who fled that war-torn region of Russia as children with their family.

Unclear is the role the men’s Chechen roots played in the radicalization that led them, according to police, to plant explosives among the crowd at Monday’s Boston Marathon. But quoting the men's father, who lives in southern Russia, the New York Times reported that Tamerlan Tsarnaev visited Chechnya last year during a trip to his father's home in neighboring Dagestan. The elder Tsarnaev told the Times his sons are innocent.

The Tsarnaev brothers left Chechnya as children in the 1990s, apparently during the fighting of the first Chechen war, and reportedly moved to another part of the former Soviet Union, one of the Central Asian republics. News reports indicate they also lived in Dagestan for a time. The family came to the United States as refugees about a decade ago, according to news reports.

Chechnya has been home to bloodshed, rights abuses and a volatile mix of rabid nationalism and rising Islamic fundamentalism since the first Chechen war began in 1994.

That mostly secular, nationalist war of secession broke out on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. When the USSR disintegrated into 15 separate republics, with the Russian Federation being the largest and most dominant, places like Chechnya that stayed a part of Russia also began agitating for independence.

Chechnya is in the North Caucasus, a mountainous region, breathtaking in parts, that has chafed under Moscow’s rule for centuries. Tensions go back to the 16th Century, when Chechens began converting to Islam in part, scholars say, to enlist the help of the Ottoman Empire against feared Russian domination. Today, Chechnya and the neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia are predominantly Sunni Muslim.

The first of the Chechen wars broke out in 1994, when then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin refused to grant sovereignty to the newly formed “Chechen National Congress.” Instead, arguing that granting independence to Chechnya would lead to a disintegration of the Russian Federation, Yeltsin sent troops to put down the rebellion. The decision would haunt Yeltsin until he stepped down as president on New Year’s Eve in 1999 and handed over the country to Vladimir Putin.

Though Grozny, the Chechen capital city, was devastated by air strikes, and Russian forces brought overwhelming military force to the conflict, Chechen fighters were able to keep Russia from gaining control through a series of guerrilla attacks. Eventually, a cease-fire was declared and a treaty signed in 1996.

The next few years brought failed promises from Russia to help Chechnya rebuild--plus a growing Islamic radicalization among some Chechen fighters. Criminal activity soared, and kidnapping became the region’s dominant economic activity.

There were internal tensions: Chechnya’s secular forces clashed with “Wahhabist” Islamic militants. A band of Chechen Islamic fighters launched a failed incursion into neighboring Dagestan. And by the time a series of apartment building bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities killed more than 300 people—acts that Russian officials blamed on the Chechens, though many Russians suspected a secret police plot—the stage was set for a new war.

Russia brought better tactics, more firepower and even greater brutality to the second Chechen war. And on the Chechen side, the cause mutated from a mostly secular one into a quasi-religious one. Secular Chechen leaders gave the most radical Islamist fighters free rein, and even some Chechen leaders who had been purely secular in the previous war adopted religious customs—at least in public.

At the same time, some Chechen rebel units turned to terrorism outside of the war zone. Chechen fighters took over a packed Moscow theater in October 2002, and a resulting raid by Russian special forces employing a chemical agent designed to knock out the militants left about 130 hostages and all the kidnappers dead. Two years later, Chechen and Ingush fighters took over an elementary school in the town of Beslan in southern Russia, and the siege ended in violence and more than 380 deaths.

In Chechnya itself, fighters killed in battle became known as “martyrs.” In interviews in village safe-houses and mountain hideouts, Chechen fighters reveled in telling stories of terrific battlefield heroism drenched in the language of martyrdom.

During a rebel retreat from Grozny, for example, a large unit of fighters and some of their family members became trapped in a minefield. As Kheida Yusupova described it in a February 2000 interview in Samashki in Chechnya, she and her two children were among those trying to escape to the mountains.

It was dark and cold, she said, and snow covered the ground when the group either stumbled into the minefield or were lured there by a Russian trap. Horror ensued.

The Chechens lost the commanders leading their men across the field. Some fighters vied for the chance to blaze the trail, even if it meant certain death, Yusupova said at the time.

"I'll see you in paradise," the Islamic militants would say, according to Yusupova and other accounts. They would then shout, "God is great" and race ahead. 

The war attracted fighters from across the Caucasus and even other Muslim lands outside of Russia. And the violence spread across the region, including market bombings and assassinations in Dagestan, Ingushetia and elsewhere.

Russia was eventually able to suppress Chechnya and install a Moscow-approved government. But the Chechen authorities who report to Moscow and the Russian forces that still work in the region have been accused of widespread human rights abuses, and corruption, criminality and occasional violence still plague the republic.

Hostility toward Russia remains high among many. And the Islamic fundamentalism that caught fire during the first Chechen war is now entrenched in the region.

As for the other places the Tsarnaev brothers lived in the former USSR, reportedly Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, neither is seen as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. Both countries have solid relations with the United States and have little history of Islamic terrorism, said Christopher Stevens, an assistant professor of history and government at Misericordia University who studies relations between Moscow and the former Soviet republics.

“Religion tends to be highly nominally observed,” Stevens said. “People call themselves Muslims, but the Kazakhs I’ve met aren’t overtly religious. … The same thing in Kyrgyzstan.”

What’s more, the governments in those countries, both of which employ authoritarian measures from time to time, work to control any rise in Islamic fundamentalism.

“Now, just because you don’t see it does not mean it’s not a problem,” Stevens said. “If you bury it by censorship, that means it’s only going to exist in small, dark places—mosques the government doesn’t control or private apartments. …

“But it’s certainly not on the streets. They don’t tolerate it on the streets. They don’t tolerate it in the newspapers. They don’t tolerate it in the mosques—and they do try to control the mosques.”

Colin McMahon, the Tribune’s national content editor, covered the second Chechen war as the Tribune’s Moscow bureau chief.