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Moshe Gammer, a history professor at Tel Aviv University died a day after the 15 April bombing of the Boston marathon. He had been an early scholar of the history of the North Caucasus, its societies and culture, which academics usually passed by. He had written books and journalism on the North Caucasus, especially Chechnya. His last book, The Lone Wolf and the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance (1), is a history of the Chechens’ struggle against the advance of their powerful neighbour, Russia. Gammer discussed the transformation of the Chechen independence movement, which had started after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Chechnya moved from secular nationalism to more religious ideologies. The book had been on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Amazon wish list: Tamerlan (who died in a Boston police shoot-out on 18 April) and his brother Dzhokhar were the only suspects in the bombing, and both were Chechen by birth: the country suddenly became a hot topic.
Though Boston led the US media to write about Islamisation in the North Caucasus, the Tsarnaevs seem to have acted as lone wolves, although not in the sense of the Chechen wolf (borz), which is a national symbol of those who seek independence, and the emblem on their flag. In terrorism studies a lone wolf pursues terrorist goals solo (or with just a few close comrades), “either driven by personal reasons or their belief that they are part of an ideological group” (2). In Norway, the far-right Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in 2011, was a clear example of this sort of terrorist. In a recent book (3) Jeffrey Simon highlights attacks by lone wolves back to the early 20th century in US history.
There are many lone wolves inspired by Salafi jihadism or Al-Qaida ideology, especially in western countries. Some jihadist leaders urge young Muslims to such attacks in the name of al-jihad al-fardi (individual jihad), following the words of Osama bin Laden: “Do not consult anybody about killing Americans.”
According to US officials, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has told FBI agents that he and Tamerlan were influenced by the online sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the US preacher killed in Yemen in 2011 by a CIA drone (4). This suggests that both were lone wolves, though not Chechen ones. Despite unconfirmed reports that Tamerlan met insurgents in the North Caucasus on visits in 2012, it seems he was not radicalised in the context of Caucasian jihadism.
There was an influx of jihadis into Chechnya at the beginning of the first Chechen war against the Russians in 1994, when Arab fighters began to move there from Afghanistan, looking for a new battlefield after the defeat of the Soviets. Some, including the Saudi Khattab (Samir Saleh Abdullah al-Suwailem), had been in Tajikistan helping Islamists in the 1992-94 civil war.
However, during Chechnya’s first war, the jihadis did not create a separate movement, but agreed to rally under the nationalist banner of President Dzhokar Dudayev, the first independent leader of Chechnya after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the Russian army was defeated in that first war, a peace treaty was signed in 1997 that Boris Yeltsin, then Russian president, described as a “deal of historic dimensions, ending 400 years of history [of conflict between Russia and Chechnya].” In 1996 Dudayev had been assassinated by a laser-guided missile while he used a satellite phone to speak to King Hassan of Morocco, an intermediary between the parties.
After an internationally endorsed democratic election, Aslan Maskhadov was elected as Chechnya’s new president. But Russia did not honour its commitments to fund Chechnya’s rebuilding. Maskhadov, who like Dudayev was a military man and a secular nationalist, had always believed in a political solution for the Chechen conflict. Russia’s policies pressured him and created the opportunity for jihadis inside Chechnya.
Well-funded jihadis helped local Islamists expand their presence in Chechnya by attracting young from Chechnya and the neighbouring republics, building sharia courts, Islamising society and opening training camps for new Arab fighters. Between 1997 and 1999 the number of jihadis from Arab countries increased: 45% of Arab fighters went to Chechnya during this period (against 30% during the previous war). The alliance between jihadis and the Chechen hardline nationalists led by warlord Shamil Basayev was based on a mutually beneficial exchange, but became the catalyst for the reinvasion of Chechnya in 1999 after this alliance tried to help Islamists in the neighbouring republic of Dagestan when Russian forces attempted to block the establishment of an Islamic state.
The second Chechen war began a new phase of clandestine jihadi activity in the North Caucasus. Even though the jihadis’ Islamising policies were not popular among the Chechen population, the 9/11 attacks allowed the Russian authorities to justify a brutal military campaign as part of the “war on terror”. The smokescreen meant that widescale human rights violations, under former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, escaped the gaze of the international media.
A quarter of the Chechen population was killed or displaced during the two wars and, after 2003, Arab fighters started to leave Chechnya, some to go to the new jihadi battlefield of Iraq. The Russians consecrated their victory by assassinating the moderate president Maskhadov on 8 March 2005 and installing a pro-Russian government, which greatly weakened the nationalist movement.
However, the Chechen insurgency spilled into neighbouring republics. And in 2007 the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus (IEC) marked a more explicit Islamic ideology for the North Caucasian armed groups operating in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Local grievances, including Russian policies, were the major motivation for a new generation of Caucasus insurgents: they were not involved in global jihad, only attacks against Russia. The IEC claimed responsibility for the Domodedovo Airport suicide bombing in January 2010 and the suicide attacks in the Moscow metro in March 2010. It denied any involvement in the Boston bombings.
While North Caucasus jihadis previously relied on ideologues from abroad, the region also generated its own local ideologues, such as Said Buryatsky, Anzor Astemirov and Abu Dujanah. On the other hand global jihadis became increasingly interested in the North Caucasus, and translated much of their literature into Russian, the main language of many locals. Jihadi web forums have endless material on the IEC. Yet up till now the North Caucasian jihadis failed to give Russia much trouble.
The Tsarnaev brothers were clearly fonder of their maternal homeland, Dagestan, than the country that welcomed their father, the US. Dagestan has recently become pivotal to North Caucasus jihadism, with 300 terrorist incidents in 2010. Yet the Tsarnaevs never tried to link the Boston bombs to any cause in the region. Chechen historian Mairbek Vatchagaev asks: “Why did Tamerlan Tsarnaev … not demand an end to the bloodshed in Dagestan, but was interested in what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq?” (5). The answer may be that his radicalisation was in no way linked to the North Caucasus.
The North Caucasus jihadis are mainly motivated by the local grievances of poverty, unemployment, corruption, violations of human rights and the hegemony of the Russian authorities. The enemy is Russia. The Tsarnaev brothers were lone wolves, but certainly not Chechen wolves.
Murad Batal al-Shishani is a London-based political analyst specialising in Islamic groups, the Middle East and the North Caucasus.
(1) Moshe Gammer, The Lone Wolf and the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance – A History, C Hurst & Co Publishers, 2005.
(2) Raffaello Pantucci, “A Typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary Analysis of Lone Islamist Terrorists”, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), King’s College (London), March 2011.
(3) Jeffrey D Simon, Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat, Prometheus Books, Amherst, 2013.
(4) See Daniel Klaidman, “Exclusive: The Awlaki/Tsarnaev Connection”, The Daily Beast, 26 April 2013. Awlaki’s fluent English speeches, widely posted on jihadist websites, attracted many lone wolf jihadists in the West.
(5) Mairbek Vatchagaev, “Why Tamerlan Tsarnaev Is Outside of Chechen Mentality”, Eurasia Daily Monitor, The Jamestown Foundation, vol 10, issue 83, 2 May 2013.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.