Skip to main content

Suspects' culture of migration and machismo

By Thomas de Waal, Special to CNN
April 21, 2013 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tom de Waal: Boston suspects are Chechen, a minority group that has suffered under Russia
  • De Waal: Their parents were in two savage wars with Russia and displaced from homeland
  • Suspects lived a typical Chechen life of migration, he says, part of a macho culture
  • Chechens resent the label "terrorists," he says; suspects seem to have embraced it

Editor's note: Thomas de Waal is a senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the co-author, with Carlotta Gall, of the book "Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus" (1998).

(CNN) -- It's not easy being a Chechen. The family of Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston bombers, have, like all their ethnic kin, led lives marked by violence and deportation.

Chechnya is a small land in the Caucasus mountains that was one of the last places to be conquered by the Russian empire in the 19th century. Chechens are also Muslims. In February 1944, Joseph Stalin added them to his list of "punished peoples," whole ethnic groups who were deemed disloyal to the Soviet Union and subjected to wholesale deportation.

Thomas de Waal
Thomas de Waal

Every Chechen -- man, woman and child -- was packed into freight cars and shipped to the freezing steppe of Soviet Central Asia. The republic of Chechnya was erased from the map. Around a quarter of the 400,000 deported Chechens died in the process. It was only 13 years later, after Stalin's death, that they were miraculously forgiven and allowed to return home. But some, including members of the Tsarnaev family, stayed on in places like the republic of Kyrgyzstan.

Fifty years later, in 1994, the year after Dzhokar Tsarnaev was born, the Russian government unleashed a new wave of violence, sending in the army to crush a turbulent independence movement in Chechnya. The Russian defense minister of the time predicted it all would be over in 24 hours. Ten years later, after two savage wars, the Chechen city of Grozny was in ruins, tens of thousands of Chechens were dead and many more in exile once again.

A protester\'s placard accuses Russian president Vladimir Putin of having blood on his hands for the wars in Chechnya.\n
A protester's placard accuses Russian president Vladimir Putin of having blood on his hands for the wars in Chechnya.
Russians cry inside the Beslan school gym remembering when at least 300 kids and parents were killed by Chechen rebels in 2004. \n
Russians cry inside the Beslan school gym remembering when at least 300 kids and parents were killed by Chechen rebels in 2004.
The two young Tsarnaev boys were the children of the war generation, displaced from their homeland, growing up as a reviled Muslim minority.
Thomas de Waal

From 2002, Chechen extremists began to wage terrorist acts against Russian civilian targets, most horrifically against a school in the town of Beslan, where nearly 300 people were killed. The region is outwardly much more quiet now, but a low-level Islamist insurgency continues in and around Chechnya that takes dozens of lives each year and is mostly out of the headlines.

The two young Tsarnaev boys were the children of the war generation, displaced from their homeland, growing up as a reviled Muslim minority.

In their biographies we can see some typical characteristics of Chechen life.

Where are Chechens from? Not the Czech Republic

The first is the migrant life. Maybe one-fifth of Chechnya's pre-1994 population of 1 million has fled to different parts of the world, the vast majority of them to various European countries. A second is an aggressively macho culture. Chechnya has a warrior tradition and many Chechen males and their fellow Muslims from the Caucasus seek to compensate for discrimination by excelling in martial arts. Tamerlan and Dzhokar took up boxing and wrestling respectively.

A third characteristic is that, as refugees from a misunderstood minority group associated with "terrorism," they apparently found solace in the Islamic Internet, the multiplicity of devout or jihadist websites that linked them with similarly alienated Muslims around the world.

Intl. influences on Boston suspects?

What makes these two different is that their alienation turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Resentful of being labeled terrorists, they apparently turned to terrorism.

What also differentiates the two brothers is that, unlike most Chechen migrants, they ended up in the United States. Most of the refugees who end up in this country see it as a safe haven. But in this case, a virulently anti-Western streak appears to have followed the two into exile, or caught up with them here.

Opinion: What we know about Chechnya

In Chechnya, Russian Cold War suspicions fused with militant Islamic rhetoric. Chechnya's first pro-independence president Dzhokhar (or Jokhar) Dudayev was a Soviet general turned Chechen nationalist who hated NATO as much as he did the government in Moscow.

In the 1990s, at the height of post-Cold War rapprochement, ordinary Chechens blamed Washington for turning a blind eye to President Boris Yeltsin's war against them. More recently, the local warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, whom Moscow has installed as leader of Chechnya, implausibly blames the West for backing the jihad against Russia.

Members of a wandering wounded generation, the Tsarnaevs seem to have been all-too-typical Chechens in the tribulations of their lives, but one-offs in the way their journeys ended.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Thomas de Waal.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT