Parts of Boston Bombers’ Radicalization Narrative Remain Murky

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 78

Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Source: Johannes Hirn via RT)

Since the start of the second Chechen war in the fall of 1999, the Chechen armed resistance has evolved, with poorly educated people from the villages gradually replaced by young people with higher education. This is a kind of protest reaction by youth against the Kremlin’s policies in the North Caucasus.

This pattern, however, does not apply to Tamerlan Tsarnaev. He was an ethnic Chechen who was born in the remote Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan. He did not reside in Chechnya, and did not have contacts with Chechens who lived in Chechnya. All his relatives and friends were in Kyrgyzstan as he was maturing. Even the fact that the Tsarnaev family moved to Dagestan in the North Caucasus in 1999 does not mean that he experienced any pressure there. Along with his brother Dzhokhar and his sister, Tamerlan was in Dagestan for a little more than a year and then returned to Kyrgyzstan to travel to the United States.

Tamerlan arrived in the US in 2003, when he was 15–16 years old. He adopted the local way of life, and his aim was to become an American and an athlete competing for the United States (RIA Novosti, April 25). Tamerlan married 24-year-old Catherine Russell and they have a daughter who is now three years old. According to his wife and his in-laws, he was not a particularly religious person, although he had recently started to pray five times a day, which he had not done before (www.ntv.ru/novosti/565876#ixzz2R4yeTMnE).

Tamerlan’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, who lives in the US, said that he noticed changes in his nephew’s behavior in 2009, when Tamerlan accused him of not following Islamic traditions. This attitude is a feature of followers of Salafi teaching and runs completely against Chechen traditions. In his uncle’s opinion, Tamerlan was strongly influenced by an Armenian convert to Islam. Thus the available evidence suggests that, by 2009, Tamerlan was a 21–22-year-old young man who was being influenced by a recent Muslim convert. In 2009, he was interrogated for an incident of domestic violence and was later denied US citizenship. It is possible that this event may have pushed him toward Islam. He perhaps decided that, without citizenship, he had poor prospects in the US (www.itar-tass.com/c1/714050.html). It is not unusual for individuals who become interested in Islam at this age to start looking for answers on the Internet and watch a multitude of videos on this topic on YouTube. But Tamerlan’s YouTube page does not list anything special, and nothing on this page suggests he had a particularly deep engagement with the Muslim faith (www.youtube.com/user/muazseyfullah). Rather, his YouTube viewing history includes two video addresses of a Dagestani rebel, Emir Abu Dujan, and songs by Timur Mutsuraev, a Chechen bard who is well-known in Russia. The singer, however, renounced the resistance, met with Ramzan Kadyrov and left the Chechen political scene in 2007 (www.utro.ru/articles/2008/07/01/748508.shtml). Overall, the elder Tsarnaev brother’s YouTube channel provides no grounds for considering him a radical.  

Tamerlan visited the capital of Dagestan, Makhachkala, in January–July 2012 (http://m.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/20/tsarnaev-brothers-dagestan-boston-bombings). By the time he visited Russia, Tamerlan already had Russian citizenship. However, his Dagestani neighbors and relatives claim they did not see him make any suspicious contacts while there.

Earlier, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) asked the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to probe whether Tamerlan was involved in radical movements (http://news.mail.ru/incident/12823795/). Moreover, according to his mother, FBI officers had followed Tamerlan for the past five years (www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=agqESYHqOwg). Yet, it appears that Tamerlan was not considered to be dangerous by the US security services, either five years ago or one year ago, and he was allowed freely to leave and enter the country.

Russian security service veterans, on the other hand, argue that Tamerlan was used by experienced and well-trained professionals to carry out the attacks in Boston. Indeed, Tamerlan behaved more like an amateur (www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=Ym3aWDS92QM&feature=endscreen). Otherwise, it is difficult to explain why, after such a tragic operation, he did not bother to hide, even though he should have known he would have been recorded by numerous security cameras around the Boston Marathon. The younger brother, Dzhokhar, apparently attended a party and a gym two days after the explosions in Boston (http://investcafe.ru/news/29585?utm_source=web&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+skyline2+%28Investcafe_news%29).

Tamerlan Tsarnaev represents a case of a Chechen who was born far away from his historical homeland, and such people, arguably, tend to be greater patriots of their republic and nation than Chechens who are raised at home. These diaspora members voraciously consume information about Chechnya and look for opportunities to aid their homeland. However, such a desire sometimes pushes these people in the wrong direction. While in the North Caucasus, Tamerlan in all likelihood would have been interested in what was happening in Chechnya and in the North Caucasus in general. However, several questions arise: Why did the Russians not question him, if they noticed he had made any suspicious contacts in Dagestan? And if they suspected as much, why did the Russian authorities not warn their US counterparts that Tamerlan had contacts with Salafis—for example, members of the Association of Scholars Ahlu-Sunna?

The Tsarnaevs’ choice of the target country is also strange, if Tamarlan was being influenced by North Caucasian militants. As the insurgents in the North Caucasus blame Russia for all of their troubles, they have not been hostile toward the United States. And, in fact, for a long time, the US tried to aid Chechens, including Chechen activists who were raising awareness about human rights abuses in the North Caucasus. Tamerlan may have been torn between his American dream and his patriotic feelings toward his homeland. Hopefully, the surviving attacker, Tamerlan’s brother Dzhokhar, will reveal what happened and explain why they targeted the Boston Marathon.

Meanwhile, activists have created a group in support of the Tsarnaev brothers on the Russian social network Vkontakte. On the very first day of its existence, the group already had 800 members (http://vk.com/johar_tamerlan). The principle that “the worse the situation is for America, the better it is for Russia” still runs strong in Russian society.