Searching for Boston’s Heart of Darkness in Chechnya

19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev,  the younger of two brothers who allegedly planned and carried out the bombings that killed three people at the Boston Marathon  and then an MIT police officer, was recovering from his injuries in a Boston hospital as prosecutors prepared terrorism and other criminal charges against him.

Investigators and reporters are piecing together the story of Dzhokhar and his brother, Tamerlan, 26, who died in a shootout with authorities.  And they’re tracing their heinous actions to the war-torn regions of Chechnya and Dagestan in Russia’s Caucasus area, their family’s original homeland.

Tamerlan, who apparently was far more alienated from American life than his stoner younger brother, was a target of Russian police’s suspicions as far back as 2011, when they contacted the FBI.

According to The New York Times, “the request was ‘based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer…” The FBI questioned Tamerlan and other family members, but turned up nothing and dropped the matter. Yet that questioning was enough to hold up Tamerlan’s application for U.S. citizenship.

Dzokhar Tsarnaev (left) and his elder brother Tamerlan at the site of the Boston Marathon bombings Monday. Source: FBI.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (left) and his elder brother Tamerlan at the site of the Boston Marathon bombings.  Source: FBI.

With good reason. The elder Tsarnaev brother traveled to his ancestral region for six months last year. Although his family described him as a lazy slacker who stayed in bed half the time, “the oppressive, fearful atmosphere blanketing the Russian republic was unavoidable,” The Washington Post reported:

A police operation in Dagestan and Chechnya in mid-February last year, shortly after Tsarnaev’s arrival in the region, led to the deaths of 17 police officers…On March 7, 2012, a female suicide bomber killed herself and five police officers. Less than two weeks later, on March 23, a Muslim cleric and his bodyguard were killed by a remote-controlled bomb. Ten days later, three rebels and a soldier died in a gun battle.

And on May 4 in Makhachkala, where Tsarnaev was staying, two suicide car bombs killed 13 people and wounded more than 100.

Apparently this senseless violence made a deep impression on the disaffected young man, as The Times recounted:

One month after he returned to the United States, a YouTube page that appeared to belong to him was created and featured multiple jihadist videos that he had endorsed in the past six months. One video featured the preaching of Abdul al-Hamid al-Juhani, an important ideologue in Chechnya; another focused on Feiz Mohammad, an extremist Salafi Lebanese preacher based in Australia.

Who can explain the combustible mixture of disappointment, rage and religious zeal that may have created a terrorist? And how can we understand the combination of filial love and misplaced loyalty that apparently dragged in a younger brother who appeared to be a well-liked American teenager?

    The Caucasus region of Russia and neighboring states. Source:

The Caucasus region of Russia and neighboring states. Source:

The poison of radical Islam must be a central explanation. Though of course 99% of Muslims aren’t involved in these crimes, the vast majority of terrorist acts in the world today are committed in the name of Islam. The boiling stew of resentment and historical grievance that pervades Muslim cultures from Iraq to Pakistan is used to justify any act, no matter how heinous, against the “infidels.”

So, even though Russia is the principal enemy of Chechen Muslims and the U.S. is not involved, this generalized rage may have spilled over on to the streets of Boston, claiming the lives of three young people and one eight-year-old boy.

As Jeffrey Toobin wrote in The New Yorker:

If there is any lesson from the tragedies, it’s that we will never be able to identify in advance the people who wreak this type of evil…. Evil and illness will always be with us… Fertilizer and pressure cookers will always be available. Longer times between attacks; smaller weapons; fewer casualties—those may be the best results we can expect.

Until the fiery rage of radical Islam burns itself out, I’m afraid he’s right.






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