ShareThis Page

Chechen link with marathon suspects surprises experts

| Saturday, April 20, 2013, 12:02 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

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.