As US investigators attempt to piece together the motivations and allegiances that led Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to bomb the Boston Marathon, attention is turning to the six-month stint that Tamerlan spent in southern Russia in early 2012. He stayed with his father in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan, the mountainous republic in southern Russia that borders the family’s ancestral homeland, Chechnya.
While there is no direct evidence yet that the brothers were inspired by the Chechen and North Caucasus terrorism movements, or even by Islamist ideals, the fact that Tamerlan spent half a year in Makhachkala, the most restive city in Russia, has prompted many questions.
As Chechnya has become more stable under the iron rule of pro-Kremlin leader Ramzan Kadyrov, its neighbour Dagestan has seen a low-grade civil war bubble away in recent years. Attacks on police and law enforcement officers occur almost daily, and whole villages are often cordoned off while Russian troops purge them of militants.
Dagestan’s Interior Ministry said today that neither brother had been in the republic for several years, but this contradicts the testimony of several relatives and neighbours who say Tamerlan was there last year. Members of the Tsarnaev family, while admitting that Tamerlan spent six months with his father in Dagestan, denied he had contact with the rebels there. His father has claimed that the boy socialised little, while his aunt told AP that Tamerlan seemed “more American” than Chechen and “didn’t fit into the Islamic world”.
But the Islamist insurgency in Dagestan is complex. It blends in with criminal networks, which also have tangled links with the administration itself, and it is always difficult to understand who has what sympathies or connections.
Tamerlan would not have had to attend a jihadi training camp to have come into contact with extremists. Many extremists live in Makhachkala itself. Much of the population exists in equal fear of the militants and the authorities, and it does not take long for visiting journalists to find people who have links with the insurgency.
Dagestan’s leading terrorist grouping distanced itself from the Tsarnaev brothers in a statement released at the weekend. The group, part of a network led by Doku Umarov, the Chechen terrorist leader who has claimed responsibility for a suicide bomber who killed 35 people at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in 2011, said it was not engaged in operations in the US and was battling solely against Russia.
However, a YouTube account apparently belonging to Tamerlan Tsarnaev contained a link to a video address made last year by a terrorist leader, now believed to have been killed, who says that anyone who works for the Russian authorities is a legitimate target. If the account was Tamerlan’s, it suggests he may have been inspired by the Dagestani terrorists, even if he was not acting on their orders.