With the possibility that two young Chechen men were behind the Boston bombings, a look at Chechnya and its link to terrorism will help us put the issues of the past week into context.
Chechnya is located in the northern part of Russia's Caucasus region, midway between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea as shown on this map (in beige):
If you look at the map carefully, you will see why Chechnya is of importance, particularly to Russia. It is along the pathway to Caspian Sea oil and, strategically, it is along the land bridge that connects Russia to the Middle East, particularly Iran and Iraq, as shown here:
Now you can see, in advance, why Russia has acted to defend its strategic control of Chechnya.
Chechnya has a two hundred year history of being governed by Moscow and, after the fall of the USSR, Chechen separatists launched a campaign for independence. This campaign led to two wars and an ongoing militant-led insurgency.
Let's look at a few key points about Chechnya.
Who are the Chechens? They are a largely Muslim ethnic group that has had a long history of conflict with their Russian masters. After the Russians reconquered the Chechen territory that had been occupied by the German army during the Second World War, Stalin accused the Chechen people of collaborating with the Nazis. On February 23, 1944, the Chechens were forcibly scattered throughout the entire Soviet Union. Over an eight day period, between 350,000 and 400,000 Chechens were deported after men from each village were lured to take part in fake Red Army Day celebrations. They were detained at gunpoint and Red Army soldiers rounded up Chechen women and children, giving them only minutes to gather basic belongings. On February 29, 1944, 159 convoys were underway, mainly consisting of cattle trucks or freight cars. After twenty to thirty days, deportees arrived at their destinations, often in Kazakhstan and Far Eastern Siberia. Those who resisted were either shot or arrested and then expelled to Central Asia. For thirteen years, the Chechen people endured hardship, living in villages that they were not allowed to leave and working in factories where they were very poorly paid. Chechen children were not allowed to use their mother-tongue and were educated in Russian. In 1957, Nikita Khrushchev allowed the Chechens to return to their homeland.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, separatists in the new Russian Federation Republic of Chechnya formed an independence movement called the Chechen All-National Congress and, in 1993, declared full independence under the leadership of Dzhokar Dudayev, a move that was strongly opposed by then-President Boris Yeltsin for reasons I noted above. After accusations of corruption by Russia, on November 26, 1994, domestic opposition forces aided by Russian Army units, attempted to overthrow Dudayev in what became a two year long battle known as the First Chechnya War. This was followed two weeks later by three divisions of Russian armour and pro-Russian Chechen infantry as shown on this map:
A massive aerial bombing campaign of Grozny, the Chechen capital, followed, killing many civilians and resulting in hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons. During 1995 and 1996, a long and bloody guerrilla war was fought; Chechen fighters were forced to use terrorist tactics in their attempts to rid Chechnya of its Russian invaders. In late 1995, Russia called for elections to replace the Moscow-backed government that had replaced Dudayev after Grozny was levelled. In April 1996, Dudayev was killed, likely by a Russian ground-launched rocket while he was talking on a satellite phone. Russia withdrew from Chechnya when it became apparent that the cost of the war was too high and that the ongoing conflict was very unpopular among Russians.
In September 1999, a series of apartment block bombings in Russia led to the killing of over 300 people; 90 in one blast in Moscow and 130 in another four days later. These bombings ushered in the reign of newly minted Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who used the bombings as a reason to launch another major military campaign in Chechnya. To this day, the actual parties behind the bombings remain unconfirmed and Chechen rebels have repeatedly denied involvement. Some experts have even suggested that the Federal Security Service (FSB) the successor to the KGB (headed by Mr. Putin), was responsible either overtly or by not acting on their knowledge that may have prevented the bombings.
The Second Chechnya War began when Russia stated that it intended to subdue bands of bandits hiding in Chechnya's mountains. When the Russians withdrew from Chechnya in 1996, a wave of kidnappings and other crime took place in the Caucasus region with many hostages being Russian Army conscripts. In March 1999, Russia's Interior Minister was kidnapped from the airport in Groznyy and was later executed. A Chechen militant group led by Shamil Basayev and Doku Umarov took action against the Russian forces in Chechnya, killing over 1100 Russian troops between August 1999 and early 2000 and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 10,000 rebels. Nearly a quarter of a million Chechen civilians were displaced internally. Both sides accused each other of using chemical weapons. As time passed, the militants decided to change their tactics, moving away from the idea of creating an independent Chechnya and heading towards the creation of an autonomous Islamic region that encompassed the entire Caucasus region.
Which terrorist groups act in Chechnya? According to the U.S. State Department, the Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade founded by Shamil Basayev and Saudi-born Ibn Al Khattab is the primary channel for Islamic funding of the Chechen guerrillas through links to al-Qaeda financiers on the Arabia Peninsula. Its aim is to found an independent Chechen state that is governed by Sharia law. It is the IIPB that is largely responsible for the attacks against Russia as noted below. Chechyna's long history of guerrilla warfare has attracted Arab fighters that may also be linked to al-Qaeda. Shamil Basayev who was killed in July 2006, was an Islamic militant and was responsible for the 2004 attack on a school in Beslan, North Ossetia (a southern Russian republic) where 186 children and 148 adults were killed in a two day hostage taking with an additional 810 people being wounded as shown here:
What other attacks are Chechen rebels responsible for?
1.) A bomb blast in May 2002 in Kaspiisk during a military parade killed 41 people including 17 children.
2.) The October 2002 seizure of Moscow's Dubrovka Theater ended up killing over 120 theater patrons when the gas used by Russia's Special Forces to disable the hostage-takers overcame many of the hostages.
3.) A December 2002 dual suicide bombing that attacked a building housing Chechnya's government killed 83 people.
4.) A bomb attack on the Nevsky Express high speed train travelling between Moscow and St. Petersburg caused a derailment that killed 27 people and injured 95. The bomb is believed to have been triggered by a cell phone.
5.) In March 2010, two female suicide bombers detonated bombs in Moscow's metro subway killing 39 people.
As we can see from this information, Chechnya and Chechens have a long and painful history, particularly in the nation's fractious relationship with its sometimes Russian masters. While many experts feel that there appears to be connection between Chechen rebel groups and al-Qaeda, it is rather surprising to see that the events of the past week show that it is possible that the tactics used by Chechen militants to rid themselves of Russian influence may now have found a new home in the United States.