The bombing attack in Boston—if it was carried out by the Chechen brothers identified in this morning’s media—appears to be the first outside Russia by people from the North Caucasus region, whose key aspiration has been independence from Moscow. There is no indication, at least so far, that this bombing had any political motivation. But Chechen militants have been at the center of some of the most notorious terrorist attacks in Russia itself since the Soviet breakup.
The brothers were identified as Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, a 19-year-old who lived in the town of Cambridge, the home of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his brother Tamerlan. The latter was killed in a standoff with police last night.
The Chechens and Russians have been at odds since the 19th century, when Russia captured the mountainous strip of land north of Georgia. In 1994, Russia invaded the region in order to tamp down separatists. That led to the two wars, which Russian leader Vladimir Putin finally put down by appointing a brutal protege to crush the rebellion.
But the Chechens meanwhile carried out brutal terrorist attacks within Russia. In 2002, a group of Chechen militants seized a Moscow theater showing the musical Nord-Ost, taking everyone inside hostage. When it was over, some 170 people were dead, including about 130 of the hostages. Two years later, Chechen militants seized a school in Beslan, a city to the west of Chechnya, this time resulting in the deaths of more than 380 people. In both cases, most of the deaths occurred in botched rescue operations by Russian authorities.
In the 1990s, Islamic militants from elsewhere in the world drifted into the Chechen fight, thus internationalizing it. Some Chechens fought alongside Arabs and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In those cases, their involvement was clearly politically motivated. It’s not clear yet whether Boston should count as the first attack outside Russia led by Chechens, or just the action of two disgruntled young men.