By Jay Holmes
Last week the prime suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing attack were identified as two Chechen immigrant brothers. Some are suggesting that the recent history of Chechnya may have had an influence in the motives of the perpetrators. A few are suggesting that the bombers may have been operating as part of a Chechen Rebel faction. The latter suggestion is, as yet, unsupported by evidence. Nonetheless, a brief review of Chechnya can be useful in understanding current events.
Chechnya is a 7,600 square mile republic within Russia, located in the far corners of Eastern Europe in the foothills of the northern Caucasus mountains of Georgia. It claims a population of approximately 1.2 million people. This means it it is nearly as large as the US state of Massachusetts but has about a fourth as many people as the Boston metropolitan area. About ninety percent of Chechens identify themselves as Sunni Muslims.
Based on evidence discovered in caves, archaeologists tell us that Chechnya was inhabited by homo sapiens in 120,000 B.C. Adequate evidence has been cataloged across Chechnya to suggest that humans have occupied the area continuously for the past 8,000 years.
Due in large part to geography and in larger part to mankind’s propensity for warfare, Chechnya has a particularly violent history. As various groups have brought pressure to bear against the Chechen people, they have responded by living at higher or lower altitudes as a defensive mechanism. For the most part, the Chechens are a “mountain” people. How far up or down the mountain they have lived depended on their ability to defend their foothill areas and the adjacent high plains margins from other claimants.
In the 1500s, both the Turkish Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire sought control of the Caucasus mountains. From their mountain enclaves, the Chechens fought with both groups.
In the 1600s, the Islamic religion was introduced in Chechnya. With the hopes of forming an alliance with the Turks, the Chechens converted to Islam. The Russians continued their expansionist policies. The Chechens continued their vertical defensive strategies.
In the 1700s, the Chechens became more organized in their resistance against the Russians. In 1774, the Russian Empire defeated the Ottoman Empire, and Russia attempted to consolidate control over the Caucasus. In 1784, Chechen general Sheik Mansur led a revolt against the Russians. The revolt failed, but he remains a folk hero in Chechen culture.
In 1834, Imam Shamil established a theocratic state in Chechnya and other Caucasus areas not under Russian control. He instituted Sharia law. Only twenty-five years later, the Russians defeated him, further cementing Russian control over the northern Caucasus.
In 1917, as the Communist Revolution took hold across the Russian Empire, Chechens banded together with other north Caucasus ethnic groups and formed the Confederation of North Caucasian Peoples. In 1921, the Soviet army defeated the Confederation and began the phase of Russian/Chechen conflict that continues to this day.
In 1944, Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin ordered the deportation of all of the Chechens that the Soviets could round up—about half a million people. Half of them died during their deportation and exile.
In 1953, after Stalin committed his one act of kindness to the Soviet peoples by dying, the Chechens were allowed to return to their homeland.
After the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1991, in the new Russian spirit of “freedom and equality for all,” the Chechens tried to secede from the fledgling Russian Federation. When economists pointed out to Russian leader Boris Yeltsen that Chechnya contained valuable petroleum deposits and oil pipelines, Boris realized that Chechnya needed a little less freedom. He refused to allow them to leave the Russian Federation. Proving that all Russian Federation members are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Since Chechnya was refused its independence, the Chechens have fought two wars with Russia. In reality, the two wars are phases of one long war that intensified after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The term “two wars” simply refers to periods of heavier Russian military operations inside of Chechnya. Those Russian military operations in Chechnya were brutal and included the large scale murder of unarmed civilians.
In June of 1995, Chechen terrorists, led by Shamil Basayev, conducted a hostage raid on a Russian hospital in Budyonnovsk. They took approximately 1,500 civilians hostage. After a four-day standoff, Russian troops stormed the hospital, and the Chechens escaped with about 110 hostages. Approximately 130 people were killed in the rescue attempt.
On January 10, 1996, Chechen Islamist terrorists kidnapped about 3,000 hostages in the Russian Republic of Dagestan. Russian troops allowed a convoy of the Chechen rebels and 160 hostages to head for Chechnya. Then they surrounded the convoy in the village of Pervomayskaya. After a five-day standoff, Russian troops launched an assault against the Chechen terrorists. Most of the rebels and about 40 of the hostages were killed.
On January 16, 1996, Chechen Islamist terrorists hijacked a ferry with 165 passengers and crew from the Turkish port of Trabzon. They demanded that Russian troops stop fighting Chechen rebels in Pervomayskaya. The hostages were released three days later, after Russian troops captured Pervomayskaya.
On October 23, 2002, forty Chechen Islamist terrorists took about 800 hostages in the Moscow Theater. In the ensuing rescue attempt, all 40 terrorists were killed, and about 160 hostages died due to inhaling the gas used by the Russian rescue team.
In 2003, Russia attempted to install another puppet government in Chechnya based on Russian controlled elections. It’s unlikely that Russians themselves believed the results of the sham election.
On September 1, 2004, thirty Islamist terrorists from Chechnya and the neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia seized a school in Beslan, near Chechnya. They held approximately 1,100 children, teachers, and parents hostage. It is believed the guerrillas were made up of Chechen, Ingush, and ethnic Russian Islamist militants. When a bomb inside the school was detonated, the hostages attempted to escape. The terrorists set off more bombs and opened fire on the fleeing children and adults. At least 330 hostages were killed, including 155 children. Nearly 600 were wounded. Russian prosecutors held Shamil Basayev, the most ruthless of the Chechen rebel commanders, responsible for the incident.
Russia’s New Age Stalin, Vladimir Putin, has attempted to use a divide and conquer strategy by repeatedly trying to prop up one Chechen faction against another. Thus far, the strategy has failed. The struggle is now reduced to a fight between militant Islamists backed by al-Qaeda and other Islamic groups, and the Russian government and their local proxies.
To what degree the Tsarnaev brothers, who allegedly set the bombs at the Boston Marathon, were influenced by events in Chechnya is difficult to measure. Until now, Chechen nationalists have refrained from striking against Western targets. Given the variety of Islamic terrorist groups operating in Chechnya and elsewhere, anything is possible, and though individuals in Chechnya may be connected to the Tsarnaev brothers, it is unlikely that the greater Chechen nationalist movement would have reason to strike against a target in the US or the West. One can only hope that the FBI will succeed in discovering a clear and complete view of the Boston Marathon Bombing and of any participants connected to it.