Is the Boston Attack a Ripple Effect of the Conflict in the North Caucasus?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 75

(Source: AP)

The focus of the media on the suspected Boston bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers is fully justified, but understanding the wider context of the crime may be just as helpful (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/223152/). Whatever the brothers’ personal experience was, if it is confirmed in the end that they were indeed the perpetrators of the attack, their experience is unlikely to answer the key question of why they engaged in an act of terrorism on American soil.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s lengthy stay in Russia in 2012 has already caught the media’s attention as one of the most important and puzzling contextual questions in this story. The older Tsarnaev brother spent six months in Russia—from January to July 2012. Less than a year after his return to the United States, he may have staged the act of terrorism in Boston with the assistance of his younger brother, Jhokhar. The question of whether there was any connection between the older Tsarnaev brother’s prolonged stay in Russia and the bombing in Boston is completely legitimate. This long trip to Russia becomes an even greater puzzle when it is connected to several other related pieces of information. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reportedly questioned Tamerlan Tsarnaev at the Russian government’s request in 2011. The Russian government communicated their concern that Tsarnaev may have been on a path to radicalization and possibly engaging in terrorist activities in Russia (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/21/boston-marathon-dzhokhar-tsarnaev-injuries).

Yet, following the bombing in Boston, the Russian authorities allegedly denied they had any “significant” information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s activities while he was in Russia in 2012 (http://www.gazeta.ru/social/2013/04/19/5262545.shtml). If the Russian authorities had a special interest in Tsarnaev in 2011, it is highly improbable there was no interaction between him and the Russian security services when he was in Russia in 2012. Given the fact that the older brother was not even a US citizen, but only a permanent resident, he was even more vulnerable to any sanctions the Russian authorities may have deemed applicable. Another strange piece of information is the news that the Dagestani police have no interest in Tsarnaev’s contacts in the republic even now, in the wake of the Boston attack (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/223152/).

Given the realities in Dagestan, where friends, close and sometimes even distant relatives of insurgents are routinely questioned and harassed by the police, this reaction is very unusual. Again, it is useful to recall the sequence of events. In 2011, the Russian authorities questioned Tamerlan Tsarnaev through the FBI with regard to his possible involvement in terrorist activities in Russia; in 2012, Tsarnaev visits Russia; in 2013, Tsarnaev appears to have committed an act of terrorism in the United States, yet the Russian authorities say they are not interested in Tsarnaev’s contacts in Russia. Furthermore, it emerges that the Tsarnaev brothers’ uncle, Anzor Tsarnaev, was a law enforcement officer (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/223152/).

Could the Russian security services somehow be involved in any way in the Boston attack? Here we need to step back and remember the long-standing Russian propaganda campaign about Western security services fueling discontent and uprisings in the North Caucasus, including ethnic rivalry, the spread of radical Islamism, as well as financing and training of terrorist activities (http://www.rg.ru/2010/10/28/region.html). If this is purely Russian propaganda for internal consumption, then it should be taken for what it is. However, if the Russian leadership or a segment of the Russian authorities genuinely believes that the West, including the US, make use of Islamic radicals in the North Caucasus to “bring Russia to its knees,” then it is plausible that some influential people in the security services in Moscow may consider similar acts against the US as justifiable, or at the very least as conforming with the “rules of the game.”

There may also be a “cumulative effect.” While it is widely believed that the Russian government was involved in murdering Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 and murdering a critic of Ramzan Kadyrov in Vienna in 2009, this did not create much of a backlash in the West against the Russian authorities. At the same time one should not rule out that the Russian forces behind those attacks could have decided to continue such practices, particularly in light of the fact that the Kremlin saw a heavy US hand in backing the Russian-led opposition during the recent Moscow demonstrations last year.

Alternatively, of course, it may be that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had contacts with Doku Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate and staged the attack on the orders of the North Caucasian insurgency. The problem with this hypothesis is that Umarov announced a halt to targeting civilians in February 2012 and, since then, the insurgents have not been involved in indiscriminate violence against civilians, although there have been some attacks against civilian individuals. On April 21, the Dagestani jamaat denied any involvement in the attack in Boston (http://vdagestan.com/zayavlenie-v-svyazi-s-sobytiyami-v-bostone-ssha.djihad). Having learned of Chechens becoming involved in the civil conflict in Syria, Umarov further urged them to refrain from participating in this distant conflict, while the war in the North Caucasus is ongoing (see EDM, March 29). In these conditions it is quite unlikely that Umarov could have ordered an attack on the US.

Whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev had some dealings with the Russian security services or with the North Caucasian insurgency—or with both—during his visit in 2012, the fact remains that less than a year after his lengthy trip he appears to have committed a terrorist attack on US soil. This invites a double-pronged response to the external side of the terrorist threat, contingent upon final results of the investigation.

First, the United States may have to start paying greater attention to resolving the conflict in the North Caucasus. The Russian authorities have emphasized that the situation in the region is an internal Russian affair, but in light of the latest events, the situation in the North Caucasus in all likelihood has started to have an adverse effect on other countries and ceased being simply Russia’s domestic matter. Second, the US should decide whether Russia has joined the cohort of states, such as Pakistan, where radicals are trained or inspired to carry out attacks against Western countries. If so, travel and extensive contacts with Russia by certain individuals will likely become more intensely monitored.