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 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT