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How Anger Has Festered In Russia Republic Of Chechnya


The suspects in the Boston bombing, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, have their family roots in Chechnya. It's in the North Caucasus, a war-torn region of southern Russia that is a patchwork quilt of different ethnic groups. The region is mostly Muslim. And while the vast majority of Chechen exiles practice their religion peacefully, we are beginning to learn more about the Tsarnaev brothers' interest in radical Islam.

To find out about Islam in the region, we called up Oliver Bullough. He's the Caucasus editor for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. Good morning and thanks for coming on.

OLIVER BULLOUGH: Good morning, it's my pleasure.

GREENE: So, the Tsarnaev brothers identified themselves as ethnic Chechen, although they've never lived in Chechnya for any extended period of time. Now, we should say Chechnya is this area of southern Russia. I mean, talk about what role Islam plays down in this region.

BULLOUGH: Well, Islam is very significant for Chechen self-identification. And in Chechnya, Islam, particularly the Sufi Islam, which is the version of Islam that they historically follow, has been absolutely crucial in their efforts over the last 200 years to resist the advance of the Russians and conquest by the Russians. So in 1944, they were deported by Stalin to Central Asia. And once again Islam and the structures of Sufi Islam provided a crucial framework for them to survive in exile. So historically, Islam has been crucial to the Chechens. I would not say it was necessarily the most important element of their national identity. I mean, obviously, the language and other things are important too, but it is certainly one of the very important elements.

GREENE: Tamerlan Tsarnaev, you know, ethnic Chechen, but we understand that he made a trip to Dagestan, which is another region in the North Caucasus. I mean, what is driving the anger among some Muslims in this area of Russia now, today?

BULLOUGH: Well, when the war started in 1994, it was pretty much a straightforward, in the traditional model, war for independence...

GREENE: This is the Chechen war against Russia to try to gain independence. Right.

BULLOUGH: The Chechen war against Russia. Exactly. But the war has been so savage and the Russian response was so overwhelming that it distorted the original aims of the resistance. So many people have died and so many people have fled that the only fighters who are really left now are people who are inspired by the aims of radical Islam.

Since you mentioned Dagestan, it should be said the fighting has spread outside Chechnya. Chechnya today is pretty much peaceful. But Ingushetia and Dagestan, which are the two ethnic regions on either side of Chechnya, have been rocked by spillover violence and most of the anger is caused by heavy-handed Russian response to Muslims, to raids on mosques. And this feeds upon itself, so you get a degree of anger from mainly young men who feel they're being discriminated against.

GREENE: Has there been any evidence of that anger spreading to other targets, I mean like the United States?

BULLOUGH: This incident was I think partly so shocking for those of us who have written about Chechnya for a while because it was so unexpected that any Chechens would attack the United States. I think in general, even among Chechens on the sort of radical fringe, there is broad sympathy for the United States.

GREENE: Yeah, you have written a piece about this, I mean suggesting that you feel like there could be a combination of factors. I mean, something coming from the time that these brothers spent in the United States, feelings that could have nothing to do with their certain ethnicity, but also perhaps some anger going back to their family's background and experience from Chechnya.

BULLOUGH: Yes. I mean, I think that this kind of jihadi-inspired violence has been an issue with second-generation immigrants all over the world. And I think it's inevitable that as Chechens there will be a feeling that this is part of the culture that they grew up with, particularly if you look online and look at the videos that are available. There is an absolute mass of material online glorifying the bombings and the suicide bombings and so on. So if someone is motivated in that direction, then they can have their desires and their opinions confirmed online by an enormous amount of material.

So, yeah. I mean, I think it would be very rash and foolish to deny that their Chechen heritage was somehow connected to this. It seems likely that it was, but I think that there's probably more than one factor and it seemed to me to be about more than one thing. So trying to reduce it one thing would be oversimplifying it and perhaps that would be dangerous.

GREENE: We've been learning more about the region of Russia known as the North Caucasus from Oliver Bullough. He's the author of "Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys among the Defiant Peoples of the Caucasus."

Oliver, thanks so much.

BULLOUGH: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.