Foreign and Defense Policy, Europe and Russia, Terrorism

Understanding Chechnya, jihad, and the region’s deep ties with al Qaeda: Q&A with Leon Aron

Chechen elders block a convoy of Russian army troops during the 1994 conflict. Image Credit: Northfoto / Shutterstock.com

Chechen elders block a convoy of Russian army troops during the 1994 conflict. Image Credit: Northfoto / Shutterstock.com

The news out of Boston is coming fast, and some of it will certainly turn out to be inaccurate. Right now, two men are believed to be the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon terrorist attack on April 15, 2013 that killed three and injured over a hundred. The brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev (26) and his brother Dzokhar (19), are both residents of Boston and have been for some years. Reporting indicates that they are originally from Chechnya, a restive, Muslim-dominated region of Russia. Are they simply disgruntled young men? Chechen jihadists? On a mission for al Qaeda? No one knows for certain, though it is clear that they maintain links with their family’s homeland, posting on Russian social media sites. Reports indicate that at least Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout with Boston police overnight, may indeed have embraced extremist Islamist ideology, and the younger Tsarnaev posted links to Islamist and Chechen independence sites on his webpage. More details are to come, but in the meantime, some answers from AEI’s lead Russia scholar, Leon Aron.

Q: Are you surprised to hear that the attackers in Boston are allegedly from Chechnya?

Aron: No, I’m not surprised. Islamic radicals have been very active in Chechnya since the early 2000s, when the Chechen independence movement truly radicalized into a fundamentalist movement. Since then, there have been several large attacks in Russia, such as the Beslan school siege in 2004 and the Nord Ost theater attack in 2002. Several Chechens were sent to Guantanamo. Although there has been some pacification of Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov (the Kremlin-backed Chechen strongman), it hasn’t been fully subjugated to Moscow.

Q: The two Boston marathon attackers are reportedly the children of Chechen immigrants and they have both lived in the US for quite some time. Does that make sense?

Aron: It doesn’t surprise me. There is a pattern here that includes 9/11 and the London tube terrorist attacks; the 9/11 planning was done in Hamburg. There is ample precedent for the radicalization of the children of immigrants, as well as members of assimilated families.

Q: What do we know about the ties between Chechnya and al Qaeda?

Aron: It goes back to the late 1990s, when the then second-in-command of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, went to Chechnya to look for a base. He was arrested but then let go. The Pankisi Gorge in Georgia was a training camp of al Qaeda until Georgia — with American help — ousted them. So it’s a long connection. To read more, see my paper on Chechnya here.

Q: There is a tendency among media analysts to focus on Arab terrorism, but in fact, some of the terrorist groups that are threatening the US are based out of Pakistan, the Philippines, and other non-Arab states. We tend to think of Chechnya as a Russian problem and not as an American challenge. How might this attack affect our view of the battle between Moscow and insurgents in the North Caucasus?

Aron: In many instances, the radicalization of these movements occurred along the way. The Chechen independence movement was initially secular; it was a region that suffered hugely — initially under the Soviets — when there were mass deportations to gulags in 1944. We see in many other places that something that begins as a secular movement becomes radicalized. After a Moscow theater was seized in a 2002 terror attack, there was a brutal Russian assault on Chechnya. And we saw how this movement became more of a martyrs’ movement that had nothing to do with the independence of Chechnya and more to do with jihad. It started as a Soviet/Russian problem, it festered, legitimate demands for independence were never met, and the younger fighters became radicalized.

Q: What is the current state of Chechnya and should we expect more attacks from there?

Aron: I think we should. Chechnya has never been as pacified as the Kremlin claims. Kadyrov — himself increasingly fundamentalist — has not established absolute control. What initially starts as a secular movement for independence becomes part of the worldwide jihad; it’s not unprecedented. We have two generations of Chechens who were brutalized, and there are two generations of Chechen men who have known nothing but war. Under Kadryov, there is huge unemployment and massive social unrest. Chechnya will almost surely continue to be a source of terrorism.

Q: Post 9/11, the Putin regime tried to draw a connection between Russia’s war with Chechen rebels and the global war on terror. That’s likely in the cards again if reports are correct that the perpetrators are indeed of Chechen origin. How should the United States respond? Should we adjust our policy toward the North Caucasus? And what do you see as Putin’s next steps?

Aron: There’s a long-standing Chechen terrorist connection. In November 2002, at the Hamburg trial of one of the 9/11 plotters, it turned out that three of the 9/11 pilots were recruited during al Qaeda training in Afghanistan, where they had come to “fight the Russians in Chechnya.” In December 1996, Zawahiri came to scout a potential base for al Qaeda in Chechnya. In an audio tape attributed to bin Laden (broadcast in 2002 by al Jazeera), Osama bin Laden mentioned a list of Muslim grievances: “As you look at your dead in Moscow, also recall ours in Chechnya.” The radicalization of the Chechen movement has long roots. But we won’t need to adjust much in the relationship with Russia, because despite the worsening of our relationship with Moscow, we continue to cooperate on anti-terrorist matters. But if we’re not careful, this could give Putin a pretext to once again say “we told you so” on human rights issues more broadly. The reality is that human rights violations in Chechnya (and elsewhere) are real; we need to cooperate on terrorism, but not allow it to become a fig leaf for the Kremlin to continue to abuse human rights throughout Russia.

33 thoughts on “Understanding Chechnya, jihad, and the region’s deep ties with al Qaeda: Q&A with Leon Aron

  1. The problem is that the US has chosen to act as a global cop. As long as that is the case angry young idiots will do stupid things and kill innocent people. Time to pull the troops back and end the quest for empire.

    • Maybe that is a problem. Maybe not. Maybe the problem is the opposite. Regardless – you have no evidence that it is the problem HERE. But that doesn’t stop you from spouting off. Maybe you should get a job at CNN.

      • Maybe that is a problem. Maybe not. Maybe the problem is the opposite. Regardless – you have no evidence that it is the problem HERE. But that doesn’t stop you from spouting off. Maybe you should get a job at CNN.

        But I do have evidence that was the problem on 9/11 and in plenty of attacks on American assets abroad. America is a beacon of hope for much of the world and most people like Americans. The problem comes when your military and your government intervene in other nations; by their actions they turn people who are friends or neutral into enemies.

        Keep in mind that a bigger problem is the loss of freedom at home and the massive spending that drives the country towards bankruptcy. The damage done will remove resources from the economy that could be used to make life better and to save lives over the long run. The trillions spent on meddling abroad can do a great deal of damage to the economy that will lead to the premature deaths of many more Americans than could possibly be killed by a few morons hiding in caves.

        • How can it be the case that American actions abroad “turn people who are friends or neutral into enemies”, but never the contrary? Are such actions always harmful to everyone involved? And why would America be a “beacon of hope for much of the world” if it were not for American power and American righteousness?

          • How can it be the case that American actions abroad “turn people who are friends or neutral into enemies”, but never the contrary?

            It is quite simple. The US has no natural enemies that it can turn into friends. Most people love the idea of America. Yes, you can make more friends by buying them off or helping them in some way but they are not a treat to begin with.

            The hate comes when your military and government support their oppressors abroad or attack them directly. Or when they put on sanctions that lead to starvation and death for the oppressed.

            That means that while you can take action that will make people friendlier to you the gains on that front are minor because those people were not a threat to begin with. But when you act as you do when you shoot up wedding parties or kill little children with drones you are likely to make enemies.

            Are such actions always harmful to everyone involved?

            It is always possible to do an evil that benefits someone.

            And why would America be a “beacon of hope for much of the world” if it were not for American power and American righteousness?

            It was not power but the ideals on which America was built that make it beacon of hope for much of the world. Sadly, both the right and left have rejected those ideals.

          • Akb1 ASKED: “How can it be the case that American actions abroad “turn people who are friends or neutral into enemies”, but never the contrary?

            I am an American who currently lives in Russia – but has spent much of his life/career overseas: I can tell you that the USA often has an arrogant approach to other countries. We tend to lecture more than listen. Also, we tend to expect other countries to give up longstanding business and strategic relationships based on our own strategic requirements. It tends to “rub others the wrong way”.

          • I see the problem as both. We help other countries and they stab us in the back. We mettle into other countries business they get mad.

            Now we’re starting to let countries mettle into our affairs through the UN which is anti america.

            We need to protect ourselves from other countries and their terrorists.

            But we need to have coherent policies in our national security and foreign affairs.

          • I am just tired of people saying that it is OK for them to initiate violence because they are the good guys. They can’t excuse criminal actions by their side and have to recognize that both sides are guilty of many crimes.

          • The Iraqis are grateful we rid them of Saddam Hussein.

            Then why did they kill so many of your people while you were still occupying the country?

            Again yours is a statement of ignorance. While there are Shiites who benefit from taking power away from Saddam the Christians, Mandeans, and Zoroastrians who had to leave the country to escape persecution are not so happy that Saddam was forced out. The relatives of the people your army killed are not happy. All of those tortured and killed by your military are not happy. If you are a moral and honest man or woman you cannot condemn criminals who killed innocent Americans in Boston without condemning Americans who kill innocent people abroad.

    • The US being a “global cop” has very little to do with us being attacked by terrorists. We were attacked during the Clinton years & we were not involved overseas in any big way.
      These people despise us & our values & culture. They will stop at NOTHING to destroy us. And until we realize that we are involved in a life & death struggle against them we will always be surprised by these attacks.

      Israel has been facing this problem for decades & has learned to fight back by installing smarter & more thorough security measures. Yes, they might seem extreme to some here but unless we start to address these holes in our system we will be hit like this.

      • It’s not really true that the U.S. has not been involved in the middle east in a big way – where are you getting that idea, the mainstream American media. But Iranians are well-aware that the CIA was behind the 1953 coup successfully overthrowing Mossadegh, who had successfully nationalized Iranian oil and deported the British. The Saudi’s became aware that they were being underpaid for their oil for years. Many Iraqi’s and Muslims throughout the world are aware that the CIA supported Saddam Hussein initially (as being secular, a Baathist), and that Hussein was assured by the US ambassador that the US considered it a local matter if he invaded Kuwait. Muslims are aware that they were successful in taking control of the Suez canal from the British, French, Americans. And America was intimately involved in the Balkans, which has a significant muslim population, and in attacking al Qaeda in Afghanistan, with civilian casualties, during the Clinton years.

        By what measure do you consider this not being the global cop?

        We have military bases and personnel all over the world. The reasons are complex, and despite the tendency of armed force to be used primarily to protect one’s self-interests rather than defend the common good, arguably the USA has done pretty well at meeting the latter goal.

        To the extent that we focus primarily on protecting our own interests, an inevitable result is going to be resentment, and at the furthest extreme violent guerrilla opposition. Constant fear is the price we pay for our power.

      • The US being a “global cop” has very little to do with us being attacked by terrorists. We were attacked during the Clinton years & we were not involved overseas in any big way.

        Really? You had stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, were running an embargo against Iraq, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and a few other countries. You were bombing civilians in Serbia. You were supporting Mubarak and a number of other dictators abroad. All of these actions matter to many people, particularly when your own Secretary of State gets on TV and tells the viewers that the death of 500,000 children is worth it if there is pressure put on a tyrant in Iraq.

        These people despise us & our values & culture. They will stop at NOTHING to destroy us. And until we realize that we are involved in a life & death struggle against them we will always be surprised by these attacks.

        Actually, they don’t. While there are many conservatives who despise the pornography and some other cultural aspects of America most others don’t really care. If your sons and daughters want to show youtube videos having sex in their dorm rooms they are no different than the Europeans who do the same things. The trouble is whey you try impose your values and goals on others.

        Israel has been facing this problem for decades & has learned to fight back by installing smarter & more thorough security measures. Yes, they might seem extreme to some here but unless we start to address these holes in our system we will be hit like this.

        Israel is stomping on the rights of people born within its own borders and has been at war with its neighbours. America does not have the same problems unless you choose to count the persecution of poor blacks in the Drug War. It has no natural enemies and only creates those that it has.

  2. And by my previous comment I mean to show that I am a deranged loon. I see the hand of the CIA everywhere. In my imagination they are competent, ruthless, and sinister.

    Or as I said above CIA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. You talk about “Chechen Terrorism”, Beslan, Nord Ost, etc.. Why do you not talk about the Russian Invasion of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria? Where 150,000 out of 800,000 people were killed by the Russian army during two wars? Do you have no care for Liberty?

    What about Khaibakh? What about Samashki? What about Shali? Grozny? Why is it okay when a government kills people who are trying to realize their own independence, and instead focus on the fall out of the wake of such genocides? Because “Terror” is a cool subject?

    Only talking about speculative terror links. This is shameful. An entire nation rose to take its own independence, and a fifth of them died for that dream. And all you can do is talk about how they are terrorists….

    • Only talking about speculative terror links. This is shameful. An entire nation rose to take its own independence, and a fifth of them died for that dream. And all you can do is talk about how they are terrorists….

      But these guys are criminals and terrorists. What matters are the acts that we take, not the motives. They killed innocent people. That is a criminal act so let us dispose of the use of false language and call a spade a spade.

  4. As a trained historian, I do understand the relationship between these folks and the world wide radical Islamic terror network.

    The Chechen Terrorism relationship has been documented by the UN, the CIA and the. French govt., but has been disputed for years by many Chechen nationals.

    It is still a very likely possibility this is a radical Islamist plot to use these folks in order to make the attack seem as a more widely supported position of their world vs. the USA, and generally western life style and philosophy.

    Whatever the facts, it remains that human beings were killed and may hurt – – yes we do live in a broken and busted world that is truly becoming worse. This event only proving that Darwin was wrong and clearly so!

  5. As far as I can see, half the losers on earth must trace everything back to imperialism and colonialism. And although I am against colonialism and imperialism, it’s sheer moral cowardice to waste your own screwed up life on terrorism because you have no meaning to your life. The truth is, it would be a great tragedy for about a third of the Earth if the U.S. ever did become pacifists, because there are so many hideous cultures on earth that have nothing to commend themselves for except opposing “The West.” And that goes for a lot of folks in the U.S. If the U.S. really became a pacifist nation, about half the folks I know in Berkeley would really have nothing to live for. CIA conspiracy theories are basically the only thing they get excited about, the only thing that animates them. Their lives otherwise are boring, and they’re either fat or ugly or stupid or mean, or all of the above, and usually they can’t get laid either. And you’ll find the same in Europe too, many “Westerners” have little to live for but being against themselves. Beyond that, they seem to have few hobbies, few studies, not much occupation, except being against “The West,” even if they live in “The West.” Let’s face it: I know a Middle Eastern guy who lived there. I listed to him all of the cities there I was curious about. His basic message was this: It’s a hellhold culture. The people were lost long before we got there. They’ll be lost long after we leave there. “The West” is just an excuse for a hideous, boring, lifeless culture. The main truth is, and this comes from people from there, “It sucks driving a taxi cab and having a fat wife and nine kids to feed and not much going on intellectually.” The only way these folks feel important is with a bomb in their hand, or a machine gun or a rocket launcher. They innovate nothing. Sharia has destroyed their ability to innovate. Sunni-Wahabi-Salfism is just a death cult for disaffected people, people who were going to be disaffected whether “Westerners” came through or not. Plenty of formerly-colonized places are doing fine, because they didn’t have hideous cultures like those of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two engines of world terror. Those other former colonies decided they wanted to live for something other than “remembering the oppressor.” Dump useless, destructive Sharia Law and get a life, oh Middle East and North Africa and Chechnya.

    • Hey, if you’re so happy about “the West”, why are you here bitching about pacifists bitching about the West? You should be out getting laid, thin, muscly, making money!! hey!! big Pimp!!

    • Conspiracy theories? It is actually a fact that the CIA has overthrown some regimes and tried to overthrow others. It is a fact that American dollars have funded oppression in many countries. It is a fact that drones have killed innocent people. Such actions create enemies where none are required. The criminals in Boston are not very different than the criminals who drop bombs on wedding parties and kill children by firing missiles at them. Initiating violence is wrong no matter who does it.

  6. Interesting piece. The strain on relations with Russia have been well documented. Will the turn of events effect our relationship with Russia? If so will we see more cooperation between the US and Russia?

  7. It is the qur’an. It always has been and always will be. Until Islam is eradicated or reformed, this will not end – Jihad is forever. THAT is the problem.

    • you never know who is around you, standing in line at a store the owner asked the man behind me, if he was ready for a holy jihad. Freaked me out that, the owner was an extremist from Syria.

      • Please. you see muslims all the time all over the place (well… they might go into hiding now… anyway, you’d probably hardly be able to tell this kids were muslims if you saw them on the street). Don’t fall into the clash of civilizations fear-mongering, it just lets someone control you.

        “I must not fear.
        Fear is the mind-killer.
        Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
        I will face my fear.
        I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
        And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
        Where the fear has gone there will be nothing……Only I will remain.”

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