Boston Marathon and the Chechen connection

The terrible events of the last week in America may significantly alter western perceptions of jihadist terrorism should those suspected of undertaking the Boston Marathon attacks be eventually proved to be culpable.

Two young Chechen males were singled out with the use of photographs. One of those suspects is now dead, and the other critically injured after a gun battle with Boston police (one police officer has also passed away). As The Guardian writes, “if it established that Chechens had planted the bombs in Boston, it would mark an unprecedented development: the first time militants from the former Soviet republic have carried out a deadly attack outside Russia.”

For those who are not aware, the province of Chechnya in southern Russia is demographically dominated by Muslims. They’ve been involved with a decades-old struggle for autonomy with Russia for some time, and have, at different times, been linked with the activities of al-Qaeda, with many young Chechen’s receiving training in other theatres of jihad such as Afghanistan.

However, many in the west have always presumed the Chechen conflict to be one that was rationalised within the boundaries of secession, a struggle not explicitly congruent with the goals of groups like al-Qaeda (saying that, al-Qaeda has shown time and again that they’re more than willing to support struggles of Islam against ‘foreign’ influence). For instance a 2009 report by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism stated that despite the visible presence of jihadist fighters associated with al-Qaeda, “the conflict in Chechnya is one of secession and not Islamic fundamentalism. The objective of the resistance is the creation of an independent Chechnya and not a fight against the west” (Scher 2009)[1].

However, it’s difficult to say that those accused of the atrocities in Boston are in fact linked explicitly to the run-of-the-mill jihadist terrorist groups America has been dealing with since September 11. It’s been written that those accused of the bombings grew up in America and were not known to be involved in militant activity. It’s actually pretty difficult to see what gains a Chechen would get from attacking American civillians, assuming that their raison d’etre is still dominated by dreams of Chechen autonomy.

Saying all that, radical Islam has proved to be a remarkably flexible ideological framework. It can both justify and motivate violence, but often acts a shroud for other context-specific grievances, such as competing value systems, political and social exclusion and territorial dispossession. These grievances could easily be one thing to motivate individuals to terrorism, even if their ethnicity might indicate some other rationalisation for violence.

What is clear to me, should those accused eventually be found guilty, it indicates the continued enigma that is terrorism. It’s difficult to pinpoint general root causes of these sorts of violent acts. In the case of jihadist terrorism, I personally favour the grievance-as-cause thesis behind terrorism. Studies of Muslim migrant communities have concluded that vulnerable parts of Muslim communities may attempt to recast their ‘otherness’ in a reactive identity (Roy 2004: 45) (ror the record, I reject the argument of Islam as a pathologically violent religion). Such reactions could be made reality through the act of bombing American civillians participating in a marathon.

We’ll have a to wait a bit longer to see the fog of conflict dissipate, until the truth about what exactly went on, that those suspected of the act are actually proved guilty, before we can draw strong conclusions. Whatever comes of it, these acts of violence have reverberated throughout the international system, and serve as a continued reminder of the lingering danger of terrorism.

[1] Scher, Gideon. 2009. ‘Chechen Jihad: An Analytical Overview’. International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Accessed 30 September 2009. Available at
[2] Roy, Oliver. 2004. Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. London: Hurst & Company.