The Long Arm of the Chechen War – How Empathy and Identity can be Twisted to Devastating Results

The Internet mouthpiece of the Chechen rebel and later terrorist movement — the Kavkazcenter.com— has long linked the Chechen independence struggle to a wider militant jihadi struggle—naming, but not limiting—Russians as their legitimate enemies.  Indeed Western powers have also been named as legitimate targets, with the statement made that “everyone who wages war against Islam and Muslims” are common enemies. The global militant jihadi narrative that Muslims are under attack worldwide and the call for fighters to strike back may have  ensnared the two Chechen brothers in Boston despite the outward appearances of assimilation into American culture.

As I found in my work interviewing terrorists worldwide—including conducting psychological autopsies through interviews of friends and families of over half of the Chechen suicide operatives – the trajectory to becoming a terrorist nearly always included a group, an ideology, and social support.  These factors were active in playing upon the individual vulnerabilities of the potential terrorist recruit to cynically ensnare him (or her) into enacting terrorism. 

While we will need to wait for more information, in the Boston case, the identification of the young men with their traumatic Chechen past perhaps coupled with Internet radicalization or in person contact with actual fighters via Internet or on trips home to Dagestan — may have influenced them to accept the common militant jihadi narrative of Muslims worldwide being under attack—and its perverted justification for terrorist strikes, including against Western powers.  The goals of such attacks are of course to cause terror, suffering, and revenge for Muslim civilian deaths elsewhere, and to change the course of politics. “Victory or paradise” is the call of the Chechen terrorists meaning in their mindset, to die for the cause is to take on the glory of “martyrdom”.

Sadly the freedoms afforded to these young men in the United States were not enough to protect them from such cynical manipulation of whatever pain or insecurities that was going on inside of them.. The details of how this happened are yet to be revealed but my guess is it has its roots in their identification with the Chechen separatist movement and its unfortunate infiltration by militant jihadis from the middle east.

For those interested in the history of the recent Chechen struggle, it began as a secular bid for independence in 1991 as the former Soviet Union fell apart, but as events unfolded Chechen separatists at that time were sorely disappointed when Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Armenia etc. were supported by the West in their moves for independence but Chechnya—being inside the Russian Federation was not. 

In spite of the lack of recognition, the Chechen rebels did not stop their struggle but continued their fight while Russia sent their military to quell them in two iron fist incursions, the first occurring from 1994-1996, and the second from 1999-2004. It involved the carpet bombing of Grozny the capital of Chechnya and a mass exodus of millions of fleeing Chechen refugees—some who like the alleged Boston bombers made their way even to the United States as asylum seekers. 

Between these two wars, what had started as a secular independence movement transitioned into a militant jihadi one.  Help for the Chechen rebels came not from the West, but from the Middle East and the former Afghan jihadis who were still euphoric over defeating the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The foreign fighters eager to declare jihad in Chechnya as well, brought with them funds and the militant jihadi ideology and introduced the up till then unknown “martyrdom” or suicide operations into the fight.  This completely changed the secular independence struggle into the Chechen “jihad” with the new goal of establishing an Islamic emirate—something the majority of Chechens never embraced despite their rebel movement transitioning from freedom fighters to terrorist militants. 

As a terrorist movement, from 2000 onward, the Chechens launched over thirty suicide attacks utilizing over one hundred suicide operatives—interestingly, including nearly as many female as male operatives.  These suicide bombers overtook the Moscow theater threatening to blow up the eight hundred hostages they held for three days.  Two years later, they held over one thousand hostages—mostly women and children—in the Beslan school, threatening to kill everyone.  Two Chechen females exploded themselves on two separate internal Russian flights bringing the planes down.  And Chechen terrorists also blew themselves up on the Moscow subway and elsewhere in Russia.

In 2005 the movement spread to the surrounding region—with rebel leader Basayev announcing the formation of the New Caucasus Front” to institute a regionally a group of fighters situated throughout the Caucasus to rise up against Russia to fight for independence and to institute a regionally based Islamic state in Dagestan, Ingushetia and the surrounding Muslim republics.

Caught in the middle of a warzone, with families shattered and atrocities common from all sides, Chechnya became a virtual hellhole, prompting widespread emigration, first to surrounding areas and then to the West.  As Chechen refugees spread across the world seeking asylum, the majority settled in foreign lands as peace loving and good people who valued education for their children and assimilated well. 

But a tiny minority of Chechens that spread out worldwide, carried the traumas of war inside and some also retained or later took on the militant jihadi ideology.  Chechens instigators have recently been arrested for allegedly recruiting for Al Qaeda affiliated groups in Europe—some recently arrested in France — as well as having been active as al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, instigators in Pakistan, and elsewhere.  Indeed when I made interviews in Belgium I ran across those who had been recruited into Al Qaeda affiliates by a Chechen actively recruiting in Antwerp.  

And now sadly, it looks like even inside the U.S., Chechen refugees—perhaps having had their ethnic connection to the Chechen struggle played upon by cynical manipulators of vulnerable young men—have been sadly convinced to strike against the very people who offered them safe harbor and a new life apart from a deeply troubled region.  Apparently in the case of these young men—despite being an entirely new generation, the struggle that their parents left behind found, or followed them here.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Georgetown University Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs”  In the last decade she interviewed over four hundred terrorists, suicide bombers, terrorist supporters, family members, close associates and hostages.  She also conducted psychological autopsies with a Chechen colleague on over half of the 112 Chechen suicide bombers investigating what put them on the terrorist trajectory and what motivated them to explode themselves.

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