The Tsarnaevs’ Chechen resistance

By John Lloyd
April 23, 2013

Many men in Chechnya, the mountainous region in the Russian Caucasus that has been fought over for three centuries, define themselves as warriors. They see the title as both their birthright, and the source of their manly honor. Now, their example has gone global, like so much else.

Nearly 20 years ago, with Pilar Bonet of the Spanish daily El País, I persuaded two Chechens to drive us out of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, to some high ground, so that we might catch a glimpse of the Russian army advancing on the city. It was the beginning of the first Chechen war, in 1994. Russian President Yeltsin had tired of the defiance of the self- appointed Chechen leader Dzhokar Dudayev, who had declared Checnya’s independence – one of Russia’s Caucasus republics. He sent in the army.

Our drivers, a father and son, sped their rattling Lada out of the city and headed west, in the direction of the advancing Russians. As we drove, the older of the two men reached under the seat and, grinning, produced a Kalashnikov submachine gun and a pistol. He announced the intention to strike a blow for freedom against the Russians. Not wanting to join them in a bloody ditch, we asked to be let out, to the evident scorn of the son. The older man, with a hint of apology, said you must understand: “Lyubim oruzhie”  – “we love guns.”

That scene came back, with cinematic clarity, when I read about the two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, now suspected of planting the bombs at the finishing line of Boston’s marathon. As the evidence gathered by the security services accumulates and is fed to the news media, we are told that the two men, outwardly well adjusted to their adopted home, had become radicalized. We don’t know their motivations yet, but some are wondering whether they have been inspired by the images and myths of those of their ethnic kin still fighting in Chechnya  – fighting, now, for a sharia state purged of infidels. A scholar of the area, Christopher Swift, believes that the conflict in the Russian Caucasus, populated by a patchwork of peoples and tribes, “has metastasized into a kind of globalized jihadist theater, at least in the minds of the young people fighting there.” Those who read and ingest the stories of that conflict, and bring it home – wherever home is – are fighting “there” too. They, too, have come to love guns.

In Grozny I saw warriors everywhere and at every age. A four-year-old boy had a Kalashnikov – without a magazine – slung over his diminutive body, under the eye of his proud mother. A man who looked in his eighties carried another – with a magazine.

The Chechen-Caucasian code of manly honor – which Tolstoy celebrated in his last novel, Hadji Murat  – was again on display. The memory of Stalin banishing Chechens to Siberia and Central Asia for alleged collaboration with the German armies remained strong, and was burnished for visiting reporters. Many thousands of Chechens died there. The Tsarnaev family, banished to Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, survived.

The first Chechen war, from 1994-1996, ended with a sullen truce; the second, which took up the first few years of the new century, fanned into life by President Vladimir Putin, was a hideous affair, which saw Grozny all but flattened as a brutalized Russian army gradually ground down equally brutalized warriors. Arkady Babchenko’s memoir, One Soldier’s War, is a near unbearable account of two forces each avid to maim, torture and kill the other. In the end, Putin suppressed most conflict: But hundreds fought on, “going into the forest”‘ as the Chechen phrase has it, to carry on a struggle led first by the ruthless Shamil Basayev, then, on his slaying, by the no less fearsome Doku Umarov. Starting guerrilla life as an irreligious warrior, he then embraced the most radical Islamism and now calls for a sharia-governed state across the Northern Caucasus. Other leaders, similarly fundamentalist, confine their jihad to Chechnya: All now carry on the struggle in the name of Islam, even as most Muslims in the area reject them.

The near-20-year wars have Islamized a struggle that was once motivated by nationalism, as Umarov had been. Some units of his “Caucasus Emirate,” with reported links to Al Qaeda, are now fighting in Syria against the forces of President Bashir al-Assad. One commander of these units, calling himself Emir Saifullah, said on a widely distributed video that no distinctions should be made in the different theaters of a jihadist war – “to us, there is no difference between Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Caucasus, any place.”

Did that shift to violent jihad need to have happened? The few relative moderates among the Chechen fighters believe not. Ilyas Akhmadov, the foreign minister of the secessionists in the early 2000s, was received by a senior official of the U.S. State Department in 2001 – but his request for aid was refused. In his book, Chechen Struggle, Akhmadov argues that  “the lack of a principled assessment in the west contributed to the radicalization of the Chechen resistance.”

For the West to have supported the Chechen resistance would, of course, have been a strongly aggressive move against Russia. But by not doing it, the Western states may have contributed to a growing sentiment that Russia and the West were one and the same – common enemies of the one true faith.

For some impressionable young men, the example of war-hardened men of their kin cleaving to the most violently transcendent ideology on the planet is fatally attractive. “We are at war and I am a soldier,” said Mohammed Siddique Khan, a young British born man of Pakistani origin who led the four-man team that placed bombs in underground trains and a bus in London in 2005. His inspiration came from the fighters in the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, fighting – now with a chance of victory – against Allied and Afghani troops. The Chechen warriors, in Chechnya and abroad, have joined others on the stage of the “globalized jihadist theater.”

We see a deadly mixture: a code of honor that is centuries old with a means of communication – the Net – that is little older than is this century. The latter transmits the former; the impressionable young everywhere consume it. Some adopt it as their own. For, as the Chechen commander now fighting in Syria put it, “There is no difference.” The war is “any place.” Any place, that is, where there are men prepared to be warriors.

PHOTO: Runners continue to run towards the finish line of the Boston Marathon as an explosion erupts near the finish line of the race in this photo exclusively licensed to Reuters by photographer Dan Lampariello after he took the photo in Boston, Massachusetts, April 15, 2013. REUTERS/Dan Lampariello 

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/