Recently, two new words entered the common vocabulary of the western world when the identities of the Boston Marathon Bombers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were revealed. Those words are CHECHNYA and CHECHEN. The first refers to a land-locked country in Eastern Europe that is smaller than Riverside County, California and remains under the political control of Russia. The later refers to the indigenous people who live there, though the people refer to themselves as the Nokhchi. To those of us with an ear to the ground for subjects closely related to the military and intelligence trades, neither term is new. For many of us, the Chechens have been on our radar since reports came out of the two major wars fought in that country since the fall of the Soviet Union featuring some of the most heinous and savage attacks that could be imagined.
Chechen guerrilla fighters, who had rebelled against Russia at least five times in the last century, invaded and took hostage an entire hospital in 1995, bombed five apartment buildings in 1999, invaded and took hostage a theater in 2002, and invaded and took hostage a school full of children in 2004. These attacks, which are only a small sampling of those committed by the Chechens, were responsible for nearly 1,000 deaths and over 2,000 injuries, almost all of which were civilian. What was even more shocking than the actual attacks was the sheer savagery with which the Chechens conducted themselves. Reports of mass rape, slow and painful exsanguination, and decapitation were common.
The first important point to note about the Chechens is that they are Muslims whose adherence to Islam traces back over a millennium, and they have fought vehemently against foreign forces that attempt to invade their homeland. However, unlike other Muslims, Chechens have maintained key components of their pre-Islamic identity. Prior to their conversion, Chechens lived in tribes known as tieps, and still do in some mountainous regions of their country. Within these tieps, children are taught to fight from an early age, ancient ideas of honor and warriorship remain, and bigoted intolerance of their lowland counterparts, who have become intermixed with Russians, Georgians and other nationalities, is commonplace.
Over the past two decades, Chechen Islamists have been unsuccessful in beating back the advancement of Russian forces in their homeland, but they have become hugely dependent on Islamic sources of weapons and money while trying to do so. Much like the discovery of some ancient weapon, the leaders of the worldwide jihadist movement have co-opted not only the Chechen struggle for independence, but also Chechen tactics for doing so. Chechen fighters have been dispatched to conflicts around the world in order to spread their inherited savagery and intricate knowledge of IEDs and Soviet-era weapons to militant ranks in other countries and, much as they have done in the Balkans and Kashmir, the historic avenues into Western Europe and India respectively, the jihadists have made the North Caucasus—the region in which Chechnya is located and the historic avenue into Eastern Europe and Russia—an important theater in their desire for a worldwide Islamic caliphate.
With the American attitude toward Russia being one of constant suspicion since the days of the Cold War, programs have been opened to accept refugees and asylum seekers from the North Caucasus region. While the vast majority of those who have come are likely innocent people fleeing the constant fighting in their homeland, it’s not hard to see how a Chechen, influenced by the ideas of radical Islam, could use such programs as an easy way into the United States and other western nations in order to commit acts of terror sanctioned by jihadist leaders.
While the Tsarnaev brothers’ connection to Chechnya may turn out to be nothing more than common ancestry, the older brother’s six-month trip to the North Caucasus cannot be overlooked. Terrorist training camps and strongholds exist throughout that region and someone, somewhere had to teach him to build the volatile and sophisticated explosive devices used in the Boston Marathon attacks.
As if by some bizarre twist of fate, my first full length novel, Veil of Civility, was published on April 2, 2013 and deals with an organized attack on America by Chechen Islamists. I mention this not only as an obligatory plug for the book, but also to underscore the feelings I felt on Friday morning upon learning the identities of the Boston Marathon Bombers. As someone who has heavily researched both the region and the people of Chechnya, my blood froze. I was frightened at the very real possibilities of what could be coming next if these men were part of a larger group. With the whole of the Northeastern US’s law enforcement chasing after these men would they (and any unidentified allies) barricade themselves inside a hospital or school as they have in their homeland? Would the people in those buildings suffer the horrifying fates of previous hostages? An ancient Chechen proverb seems to indicate so: When will blood cease to flow in the mountains? When sugar canes grow in the snows.