The Boston Attacks: Shocking, Puzzling and Discomforting

 Taj Hashmi*


It is heartening that within five days of the latest terror attacks in Boston, by Friday (April 19th) the FBI and police succeeded in identifying the suspect brothers, killing one of them and pursuing the younger suspect by literally closing down the city. Despite the finger crossings, prayers and tweeting by Muslims: “Please don’t be a Muslim”, the suspects happen to be two young Muslim migrant brothers from Chechnya, Tamerlan Tsarnaev (26) – killed in police action – and the 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, still hiding. The least expected lethal explosions on the finish line of the Boston Marathon are not only shocking and horrific, but are also discomfortingly puzzling for security practitioners, analysts, law-enforcers and ordinary people across the board.

There is nothing so mystifying about the use of IEDs or homemade bombs by some “homegrown” terrorists in an American city. There is nothing baffling about the fact that after several failed attempts in the recent past, this time they succeeded in killing some innocent people, including an eight-year-old boy in the heart of an American city. Again, the “eerie” silence from the perpetrators of the attacks confirmed that no ideologically committed organized terrorist group – such as al Qaeda – was behind the attacks, as organized terrorists (unlike ordinary criminals) do not shy out from owning and bragging about the mayhem they cause to innocent civilians among their actual or purported enemies.

However, there are some unresolved questions and loose ends of the story. Why should any Chechen Muslim be angry with America is mindboggling. This is not so because Chechen Muslims are anything but peace loving, non-violent people; but because of the US government’s pro-Chechen stand since the beginning of their uprising against Russia in 1994. By 2004, America’s lukewarm and tacit support for Chechen fighters turned wholehearted and open. The US Ambassador to Russia publicly declared in the Russian capital that his country considered Chechen struggle as “legitimate” struggle for freedom, not as an Islamist terrorist problem.

Since the Russian annexation of Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia in the North Caucasus in the 1850s, the region, — especially Chechnya – has never totally accepted Russian hegemony since the days of the Czar and Soviet Union. Despite the breakup of the Soviet Union into 15 states in the early 1990s, tiny Chechnya (1.3 million people in 6,679 sq miles) has remained a part of Russia. By 1994 Chechnya emerged as the biggest internal security threat to Russia. Chechens and al Qaeda –backed foreign terrorists have been fighting the Russians and have killed more than 15,000 Russian troops, the equivalent of what the USSR lost in Afghanistan during its ten-year-long occupation up to 1989.

Chechen fighters, including the deadly “black widows”, have engaged Russian troops and civilians in asymmetrical bloody conflicts in guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and insurgencies within and beyond Chechen borders. They have so far indiscriminately killed thousands of Russian civilians including children, at schools, hospitals, metro stations. In 2003 and 2004 a couple of Chechen female suicide bombers destroyed two Russian airliners in flight. Despite some Russian success against the rebels, Chechnya is almost out of Russian control. Al Qaeda’s Ayman al Zawahiri visited Chechnya in 2004. Experts believe that Chechen, Arab, Central Asian and other al Qaeda elements are well entrenched in the region; and that Chechnya has become the microcosm of West’s war against al Qaeda or the so-called Global Jihad. Jihadists have already declared Chechnya as the base of a New Caliphate in the vast Caucasian / Central Asian region.

In the backdrop of Chechnya’s al Qaeda connections, America’s open support for Chechen rebels against Russia does not seem to be a good security strategy. It is anything but a reckless assumption that by its open support for the Chechen fighters (who could be genuinely anti-Russian freedom fighters) the US would get some diplomatic dividends at the cost of Russia. Americans should never lose sight of the fact that al Qaeda considers the US and its allies in the East and West as its main adversaries. Last but not least, Americans should also realize that their selective support for al Qaeda and its ilk — as they have been doing in Syria against the Assad regime – would eventually backfire.

Now, to turn to the Boston carnage and what is happening in its aftermath, it is too early to conclude if the Tsarnaev Brothers, from the Chechnyan diaspora in America, who are believed to be the main perpetrators of the attacks, are the so-called “lone-wolves” or disoriented, unassimilated and angry loners who become terrorists, or they are members of the Chechnya-based “New Caliphate” run by al Qaeda. Although al Qaeda or whosoever is possibly behind these attacks has not yet owned it up, it is still enigmatic, hence discomforting to all peace loving people in America and elsewhere. They have reasons to worry if there are Chechen and / or al Qaeda hands behind these attacks.

In sum, an effective counterterrorism is neither foolproof nor does it bring any light at the end of the tunnel of fear. America needs balanced diplomacy with long-term vision, and strategies. It cannot make its Homeland secured by making other countries / regions insecure by condoning and even promoting terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, against Russia, Syria or Iran.

* The author is a professor of security studies at Austin Peay State University at Clarksville, Tennessee. He is the author of Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year-War beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, Sage Publications (forthcoming)


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