I woke up this morning to a CNN broadcast that made my heart sink: The Boston bombing suspects are of Chechen origin.
While the pain and heartache caused by the attacks on Monday are inexcusable under any circumstances, the marginalization and violence that plague the republic of Chechnya comprise a centuries-long ordeal. Many of us in the U.S. only know the Chechens as hostage-taking extremists who terrorize innocent Russians at schools and theaters. As the investigation unfolds, we must all understand why Chechnya is producing men like the Tsarnaev brothers.
First of all, when the Chechens originally tried to separate from Russia, Islamic fundamentalism was not the reason.
You will likely hear a lot of news analysts today conflating Chechen terrorists with Chechen separatists. This is a dangerous characterization. When Chechnya, which is comprised of mostly Sunni and Sufi Muslims, first declared independence in 1991, it was a bloodless move. Chechens had yearned for freedom from Russian subjugation since the 19th century, which culminated in the 1940s with Stalin’s forcible mass deportation of Chechens and other North Caucasus peoples to Kazakhstan. With only bad blood existing between the Russian government and the Chechens, an independent Chechnya should have been the natural solution.
Sadly, the Russian government actively avoided reaching a lasting political solution with the Chechens. After conducting a brutal air and ground assault on Chechnya from 1994-1996, during which upwards of 50,000 civilians were killed, Russian President Boris Yeltsin authorized a peace agreement with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. This ceasefire lasted until 1999, when rogue Chechen commander Shamil Basaev led a militant invasion of neighboring republic Daghestan, a move that the more moderate Mashkadov condemned.
When a series of apartment bombings struck Moscow that same year (which many reputable analysts attribute to a conspiracy by Putin and the Russian internal security service to further demonize the Chechen insurgents), the Russian government could make the case for a renewed campaign in Chechnya. Rather than providing strong political backing to Maskhadov, who was eventually killed by Russian security forces in 2005, Putin sought to convince the post-9/11 world that the Chechens were dangerous extremists who needed to be crushed. It has worked extremely well.
In 2004, Akhmad Kadyrov was handpicked by the Kremlin to lead Chechnya. Since his assassination in 2007, his son Ramzan has ruled using extreme measures of intimidation.
So, in the coming days, we will be better off remembering not just the pain and fear that terrorism causes, but also why terrorism exists at all.