Skip to main content

Suspects' culture of migration and machismo

By Thomas de Waal, Special to CNN
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Sun April 21, 2013
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
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT