The Tsarnaev brothers’ brutal bombings in Boston kindled new interest in counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and Russia, given the brothers’ connection to Chechnya and Russia. During the period between the 9/11 attack in 2001 and the Boston attack, Moscow and Washington frequently have discussed the need for strategic cooperation on the issue of terrorism. It even seemed at times that some practical steps forward were achieved in this area. In June 2010 the U.S. State Department placed Doku Umarov, self-styled jihadi of Chechen origin and leader of the "Caucasus Emirate," on its lists of international terrorists. A year later, the United States termed the "Emirate" itself a terrorist organization. In both instances, State Department representatives declared that the activities of Umarov and his supporters were of grave concern not only for Russia but for the security of the United States as well.
But these isolated steps and accompanying declarations did not breed a system of cooperative measures or any effective counterterrorism relationship. And the lack of any such relationship proved problematic in some specific instances. In March 2004, seven men dubbed “Russian Talibs,” all of whom had been seized in Afghanistan in 2002 and detained at America’s Guantánamo Bay prison camp, arrived in Russia. Their detainment was often described in the Russian media as a tragic mistake, while the prisoners were portrayed as victims of the oppressive American system. They were tried in Russia, and acquitted. But they were not so benign after all. A year after the acquittals, two of the Russian Talibs, Timur Ishmuratov and Ravil Gumarov, were arrested on charges of orchestrating a gas pipeline explosion in Bugulma, Tatarstan. A third detainee, Rasul Kudayev, was arrested after an October 13, 2005, raid of a large group of militants in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria.
The Boston tragedy illustrates the security challenges seen in the North Caucasus. Throughout the 1990s and during the first half of 2000s, violence in the region was confined largely to Chechnya. But the last several years have seen a dramatic increase in terrorist attacks and acts of sabotage in neighboring republics, especially in Dagestan and Ingushetia, but also to a lesser extent in Kabardino-Balkaria. Since 2004 the most dangerous attacks perpetrated by the Caucasus terrorist underground, including the Domodedovo airport bombing of 2011 and the Moscow Metro explosions of 2010, fell not under the banner of Chechen ethnopolitical self-determination but rather of radical Islam.
The spread of militant Islam across the North Caucasus is considered by many Western experts as the result of Russia’s policy of extreme centralization during Vladimir Putin’s presidential terms. Of course, Putin’s enormous popular appeal can be attributed in part to his tough rhetoric and practical approaches. But his personal role in this complex ideological and political shift in the North Caucasus should not be overestimated simply because the shift began before his presidency. Moreover, the rise of Islamic radicalism across the region is only partly a result of the Chechen wars and the ongoing fight against the federal government in that republic. Rather, it was spawned by many factors, including the social frustrations of the post-Soviet period, the attendant search of new identities, the failure of secular nationalism and ethnic separatism, and ineffective governance. It is worth noting that the first conflicts between Sufi Muslims and Salafites in Dagestan occurred in 1994 and 1995. In 1998, Islamic radicals attempted a coup in Makhachkala and proclaimed the area surrounding three Dagestani settlements to be a “Special Islamic Territory.” Thus, it certainly wasn’t an accident that Chechen jihadists such as Shamil Basayev and Ibn al-Khattab chose Dagestan, the weakest link in Russia’s system of republics, as the target for their infamous raids in the fall of 1999.
Among the Chechen separatists and radical Islamists who have led the anti-Russian movement since the late 1990s and early 2000s, anti-Western and anti-Semitic sentiment has been strong, acting as motivation alongside the goals of the “anti-Imperial fight.” When in 2007 Doku Umarov, the so-called president "of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria," made a statement announcing the establishment of a "Caucasus Emirate," he declared not only Russia but also Israel, Europe and the United States as enemies of his movement.
But the question remains: to what extent were Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnayev, the main suspects in the Boston bombing, connected with these Caucasian or international terrorist networks? In recent days, attempts to answer this question have focused on formal-judicial approaches. If a connection with Al Qaeda or other known terror networks is established, we can discuss serious, organized terrorism; but, if such linkages are neither visible nor obvious, it is not a subject for conversation.
However, such formal-judicial connections are not crucially important in today’s global environment. Contemporary terrorism is built on the principle of networks, and thus there is no need to formally ally oneself with an organization, as was the case with the Communist Party. Rather, access to a personal computer, the Internet and social networks is sufficient to become influenced by radical ideas and receive the information necessary to carry out a terrorist attack. For a budding terrorist, this path is much less dangerous than trips to Afghan or Pakistani training camps.
The Tsarnayev family history illustrates the difficult and controversial life of migrants (the family moved from Kyrgyzstan to Dagestan and thence to the United States). For the two brothers, only 26 and 19 years old, respectively, this has meant multiple changes of scenery, all in isolation from their historical homeland and without proper levels of adaptation or assimilation. It is no wonder that one of the brothers would lament that he could count no Americans among his friends. At the same time, they noted special interest in "Chechnya and all that is connected with it," as well as with Islamist commercials and songs about jihad. Thus, for the formation of this value system, close proximity to Doku Umarov or to one of his associates was by no means necessary. Today’s U.S. investigation is considering the circumstances of a six-month stay of Tamerlane Tsarnayev in the Russian Caucasus. But could any six-month experience radically change his whole personal trajectory or world outlook? Maybe this stay triggered a radicalization that was programmed by previous experiences and difficult searches for an identity in a wholly new country.
Such questions should get more attention than the traditional yet pervasive suspicion of Kremlin brutality. Just three years ago, Faisal Shahzad, an American of Pakistani origin who had received his U.S. passport just the year before, was officially accused of planning a terrorist attack in New York's Times Square. One detail of his case stands out. Shahzad started to implement his plan after a visit to his historic homeland, where he spent five months. Clearly, the “American Dream” does not become “Paradise Regained” for everyone. It also can exacerbate ethnic and religious feelings.
Islamist and nationalist sentiments are not caused solely by Russian policy. And, while Russian-American cooperation on counterterrorism is an urgent task, such cooperation has its detractors in both countries. In the United States, neoconservative hardliners harking back to the “Cold War” tend to see Moscow as a mini-Soviet Union and the number one U.S. adversary. In Russia, there is a paradoxical alliance of isolationists and “liberals.” The former view America as a permanent threat, and the latter fear that cooperation will complicate the political position of current opposition elements. Consequently, prospects for increasing cooperation between Washington and Moscow are unclear. The two countries have been unable to develop a consensus at the highest political levels, and their bureaucracies tend to be rather inert. But the price of further inaction is high, and the future will soon reveal whether the two nations’ strategic and tactical imperatives can trump the ingrained opposition seen in both.
Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, in Washington, DC.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Yana Amelina. CC BY-SA 3.0.