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Boston and the expanding danger of Chechen Islamist jihad

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The media attention focused on the Boston Marathon bombers has continued to emphasise their Chechen origins, but there has been little investigation as to why the brothers attacked such a popular, internationally oriented gathering. One clue might lie with the longstanding conflict in the remote region of Chechnya.

Two Chechen-born, US naturalised brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have been identified as suspects in the bombing. Tamerlan, named after the 14th century Turkish-Mongol leader who established an empire stretching from Turkey to Tibet, and Dzhokhar, enjoying the name of the first leader of the post-Soviet break-away Chechen state, are thought to be linked to a 12-strong terrorist sleeper cell.

The FBI had interviewed Tamerlan two years ago regarding his interest in jihadist Islam after the agency was tipped off by the Russian government he could be a security threat. Nothing, however, was found to hold him. In January last year, Tamerlan returned to his native Chechnya and to nearby radicalised Dagestan for several months. He returned as a ready and waiting jihadist.

There is no particular connection between Chechnya, Dagestan and the US, nor has the US a history of involvement in the area. Chechen terrorist attacks outside Chechnya have been directed at Russia, and Russia and the US have long pursued very different and often competing foreign policy agendas. At a different stage of the Chechens' struggle with Russia, the US might even have been seen as an ally.

Along with the rest of central Asia, Chechnya came under Mongol rule from the 13th century but, when the Mongol empire collapsed, it came under Russian domination. In order to counter this new invader, the Chechens sought the protection of the Ottoman Empire and converted to Sunni Islam. By the late 18th century, Russia had expanded into the Caucasus region, formally incorporating Chechnya in the early 1800s. The Chechens rebelled against Russia during the 19th century and whenever Russia, or its successor, the Soviet Union, was weak. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Chechnya again pushed for independence, but its role as a key hub in Russia’s oil industry led to Russian repression and two brutal wars in which war crimes became commonplace.

Islam and national identity had long been fused in Chechnya and increasingly melded with jihadist Islam. Over the past 20 years, a radical jihadi ideology took over from the nationalist cause. Chechen jihadists are now found in jihadist war zones as far apart as Afghanistan and Mali in West Africa. Just as London experienced home-grown Islamist terrorism in 2005, it appears that Boston has experienced a similar attack.

But while the world increasingly focuses on the backstory of the Boston bombers, its view is distracted from events elsewhere. On the day three people were killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, 10 people were killed in terrorist bombings in Iraq and 75 the day after, with hundreds more injuries. Six more were killed the day after that. On the same day, around 160 people, including 30 children, were killed in Syria, and again hundreds more were injured. This is not to mention so many other places in the world regularly and consistently racked by violence.

The Boston bombing has caused the West to sit up and take notice. Again. But complacency and a limited perspective sometimes mean it misses the bigger and much more troubling picture.

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