The terrorists who wreaked deadly havoc by bombing the Boston Marathon and then going on a shooting spree in nearby towns did not disclose the reasons behind their actions or claim responsibility for the attack.
But as evidence emerges, more is becoming known about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers suspected of carrying out the attacks. They were reportedly devout Muslims who were born into a family of ethnic Chechens, lived in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, and studied in Russia’s North Caucasus, before coming to the United States as children. Over time, the older brother, Tamerlan, became a more radical figure. Whatever his motivation, he was following a similar path to that of some insurgents in the North Caucasus, who once focused on achieving secular independence for their homeland, but went on to become intertwined in international jihadist networks that share a belief that their number one enemy is America.
Members of these networks have been reported to have fought US troops in Afghanistan and planned attacks against America’s allies in Europe. Until now, members of these networks refrained from attacking the United States. However, given America’s involvement in the Greater Middle East and its counterrorism partnership with Russia, it would not be surprising if militant Islamists from the North Caucasus have started to turn their attention to the United States.
Whatever reservations these networks may have had about targeting the United States must have vanished after the US State Department added the Islamic Caucasus Emirate, or Imarat Kavkaz, to its list of terrorist organizations in 2011. Imarat Kavkaz is the umbrella group for terrorism and insurgency networks fighting to establish a caliphate in the North Caucasus.
The leader of this organization, Doku Umarov, has not yet explicitly threatened the United States, but any nation supporting Russia’s counterterrorism campaign in the North Caucasus and opposing establishment of an international caliphate is by default an enemy of Imarat Kavkaz.
That said, the Tsarnaev brothers do not appear to be core members of a professional terrorist network, based on initial reports. Their poorly planned exit strategy is evidence of their lack of training. Nor do the two brothers — who received political asylum to enter the United States in 2002 — appear to be members of any sleeper cell. Otherwise they would have maintained a low profile prior to the attack. Instead, both actively competed in sporting events; the older one, Tamerlan, even granted an interview and posed for photos that were published under the headline, “Will Box for Passport.”
Disturbingly, just like the 9/11 attackers, Tamerlan didn’t “succumb” to the attractions of his host nation and came to nurture such a strong dislike for the “infidels” around him that in the end he decided to kill innocent people. In the interview for the “Will Box for Passport” slideshow, Tamerlan confessed to having not a single American among his friends because he didn’t understand them. He also highlighted his strong religious beliefs. A YouTube account attributed to Tamerlan shows the owner’s affinity for militant interpretations of Islam and support for violent jihadists.
There is another feature of the bombing plot that is particularly worrisome: The elder brother’s resolve to inflict harm on America at the cost of his own life is clear from reports that he wore a suicide vest. It’s very difficult to prevent a terrorist from carrying out his deadly act if he is prepared to die in the course of the attack.
The horrendous Boston attacks not only reaffirm the long-known convergence of vital US and Russian counterterrorism interests, but also demonstrate that the sources of this threat could be common. The tensions and divisions — between nations, and religions — in one part of the world can easily be felt in another one.
United States, Russia, and their allies should make every effort to not only jointly prevent such attacks, but also address the root causes that turn some youths — who should be the future and hope of our nations — into weapons of terror and death.
Simon Saradzhyan is a research fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center. Prior to joining Harvard in 2008, Saradzhyan had worked as a journalist and researcher in Russia, writing about terrorism and insurgency in the North Caucasus among other issues.