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Chechen link with marathon suspects surprises experts

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Saturday, April 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Wars, the spread of radical Islam and a brutal forced-deportation punished the last several generations of people in the North Caucasus, ancestral home of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers' family.

Still, the tie between the suspects — brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — and Chechnya shocked people familiar with the region's recent conflicts.

“It is a big surprise to find out Chechens were linked to the Boston Marathon bombing,” said Lena Surzhko-Harned, political science professor at Mercyhurst University in Erie.

Many Americans learned of Chechnya during the early 1990s, when then-President Boris Yeltsin launched a war against separatists there. President Vladimir Putin oversaw a second war that began later that decade, when Dzhokhar was in grade school in neighboring Dagestan.

But the Chechen republic's volatile relationship with Russia reaches back to czarist conquests of the regions, Surzhko-Harned said. Chechens' rebelliousness survived the Soviet revolution; after World War II, Josef Stalin accused Chechens of collaborating with Germany during the Nazi invasion. He forcibly deported them to Siberia, Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan in the mid-1940s, said Jennifer Murtazashvili, a professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

As many as one third of them died in the process, Murtazashvili said. Nikita Khrushchev allowed their return in the 1950s.

The brothers were born in Kyrgyzstan, their uncle Ruslan Tsarni told reporters outside his Maryland home. A Boston photographer's photo essay of older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev said he came to the United States via Kazakhstan.

“They wouldn't have picked up much in terms of radicalization there because (Central Asian) governments are very, very oppressive of Islamist movements. Most Islamists fled to Afghanistan,” said Murtazashvili.

“Most (Chechens) are not very religious,” and many identify with Sufism, a sect of Islam attacked by adherents of radical Wahhabism, Murtazashvili said.

But religious radicalization spread into the North Caucasus after sweeping the Middle East during the 1970s and ‘80s, said Anton Fedyashin, executive director for the Initiative for Russian Culture at American University. Much of that radicalization crystallized during Putin's war, he said.

“It was a period of enormous instability which had lasted since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Fedyashin said. During the second Chechen War, “well over half” the population was unemployed.

A cease-fire with Moscow and the heavy hand of Russian-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov brought relative stability to the region in recent years. Kadyrov said in a statement that the suspects grew up in the United States, so “the roots of this evil are to be found in America.”

Nearly all of the terrorist attacks committed by Chechens since 1992 took place in Russia. Two targeted Europe, according to the University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or

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