Did the Tsarnaev Brothers Have Links to Chechen Militants?

By Valery Dzutsev

Based upon what has been learned about the personal profiles of the Boston terror attack suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers (see https://jamestownfoundation.blogspot.com/2013/04/a-preliminary-profile-of-boston-bombers.html), little suggests that they were linked to the insurgency movement in the North Caucasus or another jihadi movement. At the same time there are unclear indications that the suspects behaved in an unusually aggressive way prior to the attack in Boston (https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/04/19/bombing-suspects-were-local-normal-immigrants/OBTQATfZa9UhMISGpgP3eN/story.html). The younger brother, Jokhar’s entries on the micro-blogging site Twitter also did not indicate anything especially suspicious, although some of his tweets may sound enigmatic or even ominous if read with prior knowledge of the author’s possible involvement in the Boston bombing (https://twitter.com/J_tsar).

On February 3, 2012, the leader of the Caucasus Emirate Doku Umarov announced a moratorium on attacks on civilians in Russia (see EDM, February 9, 2012). Since then the moratorium has not been lifted. Umarov’s reasoning for the halt on attacks against civilians in Russia sounded unusually realpolitik as he said that Russian citizens were engaging in protest acts against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government and the Emirate did not want to stand in their way. He referred to the process of the struggle of Russian civil society with the Kremlin as a “Chekist regime, of which they are the hostages.” Doku Umarov’s predecessors, Aslan Maskhadov and Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev, followed an analogous strategy (https://www.rferl.org/content/will_umarov_ban_on_terrorism_last/24472811.html). If the moratorium on targeting civilians has not been lifted by the Caucasus Emirate leadership, then it would be highly implausible that North Caucasian militants who have avoided attacking Russian civilians would instead choose to attack civilians in the United States.

The Tsarnaev brothers spent only a limited time in Chechnya. Apparently, they briefly resided in the republic just before the start of the second Russian-Chechen war, which began in September 1999. It is plausible that the brothers may still have been exposed to some conflict-related trauma resulting from the war, which uprooted hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war-torn rebel republic.  The most plausible explanation for the April 15 Boston Marathon attack, given the information publicly available currently, is that some personal events triggered a violent response from the Tsarnaev brothers. However, many more Chechen refugees live in European countries, than in the US. Many of them have also suffered psychological trauma, but there have not been attacks involving Chechens like this in Europe before.

Russian security services have ethnic Chechens as well as other ethnic groups at their disposal to perform “dirty jobs.”  In 2009, ethnic Chechens that were in all likelihood helped by the Russian government carried out a killing of a defector from Chechnya, Umar Israilov in Austria (https://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/15/chechen-murder-austria-russia). On April 16, 2013, Russian president Putin offered assistance with the investigation in the Boston attack a full three days before word was revealed to the Western media about the reported involvement of the two Chechen immigrants (https://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-04-16/world/38566064_1_boston-marathon-tom-donilon-obama). Putin’s proposal may suggest it was a courtesy, but it also might indicate some prior knowledge about the attack. So potentially one could conspiratorially theorize that the Russian security services may have planned the attack in Boston in such a way as to point to “Chechen terrorists”. However, even this elaborate version has little, if any, supporting evidence, given the fact that the Tsarnaev brothers moved to the US when they were extremely young and hardly could have been recruited by the Russian security services.

As we review what we know of the evidence of the attack and then weigh the possible ties between the Tsarnaev brothers and Chechen militants in the North Caucasus, the fact that North Caucasian terrorist number one in the eyes of the Washington and Moscow—Doku Umarov, the head of the Caucasus Emirate—has declared a ceasefire on civilian targets inside Russia, diminishes the possibility that the Tsarnaev brothers could have been part of an elaborate plan by Chechen terrorists to attack US civilians.  Chechens have been fighting Russians for over 200 hundred years and it makes more sense to limit their targets to Russia proper than expand their activities to the United States.