How Anti-American Are Most Chechens?

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Dzhanar-Aliev Magomed-Ali poses with his bicycle in front of his house in the Chechen settlement of Urus-Martan on January 20, 2007. (Reuters)

It's becoming increasingly clear that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older Boston bombing suspect, acquired fundamentalist beliefs at some point in 2008 or 2009, potentially while on a visit to Russia. Some reports have noted that he became unusually close to an Islamic convert named "Misha," who reportedly enthralled him with hours-long lectures on what it means to be a good Muslim, even convincing Tamerlan to stop composing music because "music is not really supported in Islam."

The fact remains, though, that the Tsarnaevs' target was not in Russia, the arch-nemesis of the Chechens, but in the United States, half a world away from Misha and in a country that had offered the brothers college opportunities and wrestling championships.

Which raises the question: Just how anti-American are the Chechens?

Not very. I spoke with three different Chechnya experts who vehemently denied that the people of the Northern Caucasus harbor anti-American views on a widespread basis. However, some of the Islamist groups that emerged amid repeated Russian invasions in Chechnya eventually aligned themselves with the broader jihadist cause of radicals in neighboring countries -- and it seems like the older Tsarnaev brother began admiring some especially bad apples.

But these splinter-group extremists don't just hate Americans, they hate anyone who doesn't agree with them.

"The Caucasian Mujahedeen are not fighting with the United States of America," the group said in a statement after the bombings. "We are at war with Russia, which is responsible not only for the occupation of the Caucasus, but also for heinous crimes against Muslims."

For the most part, "Chechens are Westernized, secularized, and Sovietized," said Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, where the younger suspect was enrolled. "There is a minority among the rebels that subscribe to the global view of jihad. But overall Chechens are very pro-American and pro-Western. They admire George Washington."

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For centuries, Chechens have had one sworn enemy: The Russians directly to the north of them, who swallowed up their territory in the 1850s and clung to it despite their efforts to break away. More than 17,000 people died when Russia attacked Chechnya after it declared independence in 1991. A second war in 1999 took at least 25,000 more civilian lives, and the ensuing unrest lasted for years. In 2003, a Boston Globe reporter described it as "a place of total lawlessness, where men with guns rule and human life carries little value ... One Grozny resident [said], 'We don't know if we'll be alive tomorrow or even five minutes from now.'" The original Djohar Dudayev, a former Chechen president and Dzhokar Tsarnaev's possible namesake, was killed by a Russian air strike while talking on the phone with Russians who had tricked him and then trailed his phone signal.

During and after the Second Chechen War, many of the rebel fighters in the area became increasingly radicalized, and some of them adopted the hard-liner philosophy of a jihad against infidels.

But that jihad, Williams says, is locally, not internationally, focused.

Chechen radicals have, over the years, cut deals with foreign fighters who were willing to give them money and weapons, said Muriel A. Atkin, a Russian history expert at George Washington University, and some of those outsiders "did include anti-Americanism as part of their agenda." But anti-Americanism among the typical Chechen? "I'm skeptical," she said.

There's also been some backlash against Westerners among the Kremlin-backed Chechen leadership. Mikhail Alexseev, a Chechnya scholar at San Diego State University, notes in a policy paper that there is plentiful generalized, anti-Western sentiment among Chechnya's Russian-backed government officials and among some of the country's elites. In a 2008 poll, 46 percent of respondents in the North Caucasus (which includes Chechnya), said the goals of the U.S. in the region was "global dominance." However, Alexseev notes that "it's plausible that Russian officials have shaped public opinion" because "anti-Americanism among the public gives an incentive to officials to blame their region's problems on the West's subversive designs." That strategy makes sense, since the U.S. has occasionally supported Chechnya in its wars with the Russians -- much to Russia's chagrin. Alexseev points out that in a July 2009 interview, Kremlin-backed Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov accused "Western intelligence operatives" of "working against Russia" and supplying "some kind of pills" to young Chechen men in order to make them do their bidding.

"The anti-Americanism only exists within people who are in with the Putin regime, or who have bought into the jihadi idea. Those people are marginalized to the general population," said Christopher Swift, a fellow at the University of Virginia Law School's Center for National Security Law who has studied Russia and Chechnya. "Even if the [Chechen extremist group] Caucasus Emirate has adopted a global jihad, their objectives are parochial and local."

It seems Tamerlan sided with a breakaway group of Salafist rebels who dominated mountain villages in Dagestan in the late 90s and practiced Sharia law, forbidding women from wearing revealing clothing and outlawing the sale of alcohol, according to the New York Times. Even for this group, though, the enemy is not the United States, but anyone who didn't subscribe to their ultra-orthodox views:

Bombings and assassinations are common. Alcohol shops are blown up; gunmen shot a schoolteacher who prohibited headscarves in class. A bomb buried in the sand of a beach volleyball court on the Caspian Sea sheared off the leg of a woman who played in a bikini.

But another local muslim said even he, a Chechen Muslim, was regarded an "infidel"

Some accounts say that Tamerlan was lured by these groups' warrior-like principles, depicted in flashy videos like this one, which circulated among the region's radicals:

"The Chechen warriors in the above videos are fighting not just for their homeland and families... but their faith," Williams writes in the Huffington Post. "While some young American men emulate gangster rap, play violent video games, join gangs etc., these sorts of online videos lead to the glorification of jihad for some born-again Muslims."

Tamerlan was apparently also a YouTube follower of the Chechen jihadist Gadzhimurad Dolgatov, who told Chechens that, "if you think Islam can be spread without spilling a single drop of blood, you're wrong."

Most Chechens are sticking to their moderate Islamic traditions. But a few, such as Tamerlan, bought into the new, terrifying fanaticism of the North Caucasus' holy war. And a few is all it takes.

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.


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