April 19, 2013— -- The two brothers suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings are of Chechen ethnicity, officials said today, identifying them with a group that has a long history of violence against Russia and ties to Muslim extremists groups.
Both Dzhokhar Tsarnaev 19, and his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaecv, 26, who was killed overnight by gunfire, were born in Kyrgystan, the brothers' uncle told reporters today. The brothers' father is currently living in the semi-autonomous Russian province of Dagestan, which is adjacent to Chechnya.
The entire region has been roiled by ethnic tensions, Islamic militants and corruption.
The history of Chechens may -- or may not -- shed light on the men's lives in America or their motivation for the bombings.
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Who are the Chechens?
Chechens are an ethnic group hailing from the southern edge of the Russian border, known as the North Caucasus region, whose history has been marked by its violent struggles for independence.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chechens launched two significant campaigns for independence, leading to the First Chechen War in 1994 (a year after the younger suspect was born) and the Second Chechen War in 1999, which has led to ongoing violence in the region.
Could this attack have something to do with those wars?
Maybe, according to Christopher Swift, a professor of National Security at Georgetown University, who said the second Chechen war has morphed into a "radical" and "virulent" war that has incorporated elements of the Muslim idea of jihad.
"That war initially began as a nationalist war, much like the first one, but very, very quickly metastasized into something that looks much more like the radical Salafi-Jihadi movements we've seen in other regions around the world," Swift said.
"The movement that's emerged from the 15 years of war is very radical, it's very virulent, it's very nasty, but up until now, it's also been very, very local. Their ideology and rhetoric talks about fighting jihad against the West, but their operations have always been in Russia itself and predominately within the republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia," he said.
"So the bombing in Boston at the Boston Marathon, doesn't really seem to comport with the operations we've seen from of this region in the past, but it does comport with the self-radicalizing ideology," he said.
What connection do Chechens have to Islam?
The majority of Chechens are Muslims, and the Council on Foreign Relations say that there are several ties between Chechen militants and Al Qaeda, noting that the U.S. has publicly said that Osama bin Laden had "fueled the flames in Chechnya."
The State Department has identified Al Qaeda financiers who also finance Chechen rebels, according to the CFR. The most prominent of these groups is the Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade.
A terror group in Chechnya has also identified itself with Muslim extremists, calling itself the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment, recognized by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist group.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute has said that ideas of jihad and an Islamic state spread among Chechen people as they fanned out across the Middle East following the Second Chechen War.
Have Chechen groups launched terror attacks before?
The Chechens have claimed responsibility for a number of major terror attacks on Russia in the past 10 years, including a 2004 attack on a Russian school in which more than 350 people, many of them children, were killed.
In addition to bombing shopping plazas, apartment buildings, parades, and trains over the years, Chechens launched an attack on a theater in Moscow in 2002 in which they held more than 700 audience members hostage. Russian forces used gas to try and sedate the Chechens, but ended up killing many of the hostages and militants.
Many of the Chechen terrorists involved were women whose militant husbands had been killed by Russian forces, earning them the moniker Black Widows.
The Black Widows became known as a deadly part of the Chechen terror groups, willing to sacrifice themselves as suicide bombers for the Chechen cause.
In 2010, Chechen militants claimed responsibility for the bombing of two metro stations in Moscow, killing nearly 40 people.
What does Dagestan have to do with this?
Dagestan is also a region on the Russian border, part of North Caucasus, and shared a border with Chechnya. Though Dagestan did not fight against Russia for independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, it became known as a lawless and corrupt state. Eventually, Chechen militants began to gain a foothold in Dagestan.
Dagestan has replaced Chechnya as the most volatile region in Russia, with reports of bombings, shootings, and kidnappings occurring every few days.