WASHINGTON – It was because of the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon that Americans suddenly started focusing on the Islamic jihadists waging a war half a world away in the North Caucasus.
Two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – who are American citizens but originally from the southern Russian province of Dagestan – allegedly exploded two pressure cooker bombs at mid-afternoon just as runners were crossing the finish line on Boylston Street.
The brothers actually were born in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, a secular Muslim nation that is home to the Sunni al-Qaida-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whose forces were thought to have been killed off. However, the movement is coming back with added strength and uniting with other Sunni terrorist elements in Central Asia.
The Boston Marathon explosions instantly killed three people and injured more than 265 others. The pressure cooker bombs were based on a recipe taken directly from an al-Qaida bomb-making instruction booklet featured in Inspire, a magazine published by the group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The magazine was the inspiration of yet another American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a U.S. drone attack in Yemen Sept. 30, 2011.
The Boston attack underscored the impending security threat for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, from North Caucasus fighters, including Chechens.
The concern is so great that the U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory warning U.S. citizens heading to Sochi to attend the Olympics they must “remain vigilant and exercise good judgment and discretion when using any form of public transportation.”
The advisory warns that the Games “present an attractive target for terrorists.” Counterterrorism sources suggest two terror attacks by Chechens in Volgograd, Russia, last month may have been carried out to test the response.
The North Caucasus Islamic fighters, known as the Caucasus Emirate, seek to establish Islamic caliphates in the region subject to strict Islamic law. Their efforts reflect potential security threats not only to Russia, where security forces are in a constant battle with North Caucasus militants, but also in Europe and the U.S. itself.
At the time of the Boston Marathon bombing, however, analysts puzzled over the reason for the actions of the two brothers.
Now, there are indications that the older brother, Tamerlan, who was killed, may have been a member of the Union of the Just.
He apparently had met with a distant cousin, Magomed Kartashov, who founded the Union of the Just, whose members seek Shariah and a pan-Islamic unity in Dagestan.
They’ve been known to speak out against U.S. policies against the Muslim world.
When he was visiting Dagestan over a period of six months, Tamerlan apparently shifted his outlook from a local insurgency to more of a global notion of Islamic struggle, which his cousin espoused.
The core ideology of the Union of the Just is practically the same as that of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, or the HuT.
HuT is a pan-Islamic political party founded in Jerusalem in 1953 that operates freely in many parts of the world, including the United States and other Western countries. However, it has been banned in Russia since 2003.
Both the Union of the Just and the HuT pursue the reestablishment of the caliphates that existed following the death of Muhammad.
The Hizb–ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, is now evident in some 40 countries, with more than a million members.
It is very active in the West, especially in the United Kingdom. It also is active in a number of Arab and Central Asian countries, despite being banned by some governments.
In the United States, it is known as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir America, or HTA.
It promotes the overthrow, both democratically and militarily, of democracies and dictatorships alike worldwide, arguing they are un-Islamic.
Article 56 of its constitution, for example, states there will be compulsory service, because “every male Muslim, 15 years and over, is obliged to undergo military training in readiness for jihad.”
Despite this background, however, the attack on U.S. soil at first was bewildering to most Americans, including intelligence and U.S. law enforcement authorities.
Americans knew virtually nothing of the decades-long conflict in that part of the world, principally against Russia, although it holds worldwide strategic implications as part of al-Qaida’s overall effort.
At the time of the Boston Marathon bombing, the leader of the self-styled Caucasus Emirates, Doku Umarov – a/k/a Emir Dokku Abu Usman – initially disavowed the intention of his Islamic fighters to wage a terrorist war against the United States. He said his group’s primary enemy was Russia.
Russia’s crackdown on jihadists at times has pushed some Muslims toward Wahhabism, which originated two centuries ago in of Saudi Arabia. In Russia, there’s a general fear of Islam that has prompted a backlash from Muslims who turn to more extremist views.
Russians are especially concerned about the spread of Islam, since in Moscow alone the Muslim population is approaching 1 million.
Discussions about building mosques in the city have dragged on for years amid protests.
Consequently, young Muslims move toward Wahhabism or the Hizb ut-Tahrir. According to experts, Wahhabis in Russia don’t have to try to convert people to their ideology. Instead, the Russian system itself is causing young people to adhere to this strict form of Islam.
Nevertheless, the conflict isn’t limited to Russia. Jihadists in the North Caucasus have been increasing in strength and forming ties with Sunni radicals in Central Asia to form a threat that is spreading into all of Russia and Europe.
The alignment poses a threat to U.S. interests abroad and, eventually, the U.S. homeland.
The North Caucasus region spans southern Russia, mainly comprised of the Russian provinces of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and South Ossetia. They are predominantly Muslim.
Conflicts between the North Caucasus and Russia go back centuries. During the Soviet period, however, Islamic interests were subsumed into a strong communist state.
But with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Chechens sought independence from the newly established Russian Federation. Their struggle for independence broke into what is known as the First Chechen War, from December 1994 to August 1996.
While an uneasy peace followed, the fighting with Moscow resumed in August 1999, until April 2000, known as the Second Chechen War.
Chechen mujahidin had invaded neighboring Dagestan, which prompted then-Russian President Vladimir Putin to bring in massive numbers of troops.
Russia overwhelmed the Chechens and occupied the separatist province with a heavy presence of Russian military forces and established their own puppet government there, answerable to Moscow.
The conflict became complicated when Islamic jihadists at the time said that they were quietly receiving U.S. assistance against the powers that the U.S. opposed in the Cold War.
Strategically, the U.S. still regarded Russia as an adversary. Consequently, U.S. assistance at that time flowed to the Islamic fighters since their conflict was with Russia. Also, at the time, the Republic of Georgia became a haven for Chechen fighters, with the Russians often coming into Georgia in “hot pursuit.”
One route was through the remote section in the North Caucasus mountains known as the Pankisi Gorge, bordering Chechnya, where Chechens often originated attacks.
The U.S. began to assert increasing influence in Georgia and persuaded the government under President Mikheil Saakashvili to battle terrorism and the al-Qaida elements there.
That’s when evidence of nuclear and chemical weapons materials, thought to be left there by the Chechens, were found in the gorge. Russians, consequently, began to regard the region as a destination for international “chemical terrorists.”
In the Pankisi Gorge, makeshift laboratories to produce ricin, a poisonous toxin derived from the castor bean plant, were found. Ricin is the chemical weapon used in Syria by both sides in the country’s three-year civil war.
U.S. intelligence found that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had links with al-Qaida, had operated in the area and along with Chechens was planning poison gas attacks against Russia. Zarqawi was killed in 2006 in Iraq in an attack by U.S. F-16s.
Pankisi Gorge itself is intriguing. It is populated by Kists, who are closely related to the Vainakh ethnic family, which also unites Chechens and Ingush and ethnic Georgians.
The rough, high terrain and unpredictable weather conditions make control of the border extremely difficult. Border crossings of individuals and criminal groups are common.
Even now, Russian officials accuse the Georgian government of sheltering Chechen terrorists and Arab Islamic fighter in the Pankisi Gorge.
It’s not out of the question that the Russians could use the presence of terrorism in the Pankisi – whether real or imagined – as a basis to Georgia again, as they did in 2008.
There are groups in the U.S. who back the Chechens’ fight against Russia, principally because of Moscow’s backing of Iran and the general Russophobic thinking that continues to permeate groups said to be affiliated with America’s neocons.
Some of these groups include the Caucasus Foundation and the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya. There are reports that the older Boston bomber – Dzhokhar – had attended so-called seminars organized in the Republic of Georgia in the summer of 2012 partly by the Caucasus Foundation.
It was similar to the help the U.S. gave to the mujahidin in Afghanistan that resulted in the ouster of the Soviet military in the early 1980s. Many of those fighters had returned to their homeland with the prospect of ousting Russian forces from their own predominantly Muslim region and ultimately declare independence.
Around 2006, however, the Chechens under former Soviet army officers Dudayev and Maskhadov began to emphasize religious fervor more than nationalism.
In October 2007, Doku Umarov declared establishment of the Caucasus Emirate and urged global jihad, separating himself from more moderate elements within the province.
Throughout the period, the Chechens have employed terrorism, being with the bombing in August 1999 of a Russian apartment building, which prompted Putin to order troops into Chechnya.
Some experts suggest it was a setup by Putin in an effort to move troops back into Chechnya.
At the time, Chechens warned Moscow that they had nuclear materials hidden in parks around the city, a strong indication that Chechen terrorists have knowledge of nuclear materials to make “dirty bombs.”
In October 2002, Chechens assaulted a Moscow theater, taking some 850 hostages. The attack was led by Basayev, who later was to admit that the U.S. secretly helped the Chechens against the Russians. Their demand was the end of the Second Chechen War.
After two and a half days, the Russian Alpha Group, a Spetznaz, or Special Forces, group, pumped chemical agents into the building’s ventilation system and raided it. They killed some 40 attackers but 130 hostages also died.
It was one of the first times that the so-called Black Widows, whose brothers, husbands and fathers had been killed, were found to be fighting alongside other attackers.
The Black Widows, many of them young women dressed in black, were wearing suicide vests, but some died when the chemical agents – thought to be a very strong tear gas – were pumped into the theater.
The Chechens in February 2004 and then again in 2010 bombed the Moscow metro, killing scores in each episode, showing that they could launch suicide bombings in the heart of Moscow.
In January 2011, the Chechens also launched a suicide attack at the international arrival hall of Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow, killing some 37 people and injuring 115 others.
Now, while the struggle against Russia continues, Chechens have united with Sunni militants in Central Asia and have moved to other Sunni countries and then headed to Syria through Turkey to fight against the Syrian government.
The North Caucasus fighters see the war against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and as a further attack on Russia because of the Kremlin’s support for Assad and Syria’s Shiite ally, Iran.
Russia’s backing of the Syrian regime is due to Iran’s reciprocity and Syria’s strategic location. In turn, Russia seeks to use Iran’s Shiite influence to offset the increasing gains of Sunni fighters in the Central Asian countries and the Caucasus, all of which were once part of the greater Soviet Union.
Moscow also sees the North Caucasus fighters gaining battle experience in Syria and receiving help from jihadist fighters from other countries to join against Moscow.
Russian security forces are particularly concerned, since the Chechens are threatening to launch suicide attacks during the Winter Olympics, in Sochi, only 250 miles from the Muslim provinces of the North Caucasus.
The other Sunni Islamist militants who would link up with the North Caucasus fighters are from Central Asia, Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and the Maghreb.
The creation of new Sunni Islamist groups and the spread of al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula has been developing since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
In turn, they are combining with al-Shabaab in Somalia and uniting across North Africa with Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
With Sunni militant fighters from the Caucasus involved, the development outlines an overall strategy of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Jihad through Russia
Zawahiri wants not only to form caliphates throughout the regions but to advance a two-pronged approach to jihad, moving in one swath through Russia and in another from the Arab Peninsula, across North Africa and into the Maghreb.
The emerging strategy then will fulfill Zawahiri’s dream of returning through Spain and then uniting with militants who live today in Europe.
Not over soon
It is clear that the battle against al-Qaida isn’t going to be over any time soon, and the growing prospect of the U.S. seeking to engage Iran could help exacerbate al-Qaida animosity even more against the United States.
Already, the battle lines are being drawn with once close ally Sunni Saudi Arabia – the bastion of Sunni Wahhabi thinking. Disgruntled with U.S. Middle East policy, the Saudis appear to have unleashed their Islamist forces now in Syria.
Even Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, in a reported recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, showed Riyadh’s control not only of the Islamist fighters in Syria but also the Chechens who are fighting there.
He had told Putin that he controlled the Chechens like a light switch and could guarantee Putin that there would be no Chechen attacks during the 2014 Olympics – if Russia would no longer support Syria and Iran.
Putin reportedly refused.