Posts Tagged ‘Boston Marathon Bombing’

The Tsarnaev Women Tell Chechnya’s Story

Monday, May 6th, 2013

There were three important women in Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s life—five, if you count his sisters—and each is a window into the culture to which he seemed to cling in the final years of his life.

First, there is his aunt, Maret Tsarnaeva, a Chechen refugee from Kyrgyzstan and now a resident of Toronto, by way of the U.S. In a press conference the day her nephew Dzhokhar was being hunted in the streets of suburban Boston, Maret, with her rust-colored hair and silvery manicured nails, gave a magnificent performance. She was brassy and assertive, commanding the attention of the reporters calling to her with questions. “I’m lawyer from back home,” she declared, exhorting the FBI to prove to her that her nephews were responsible for the bombing of the Boston marathon. “How difficult is that? Give me evidence!” she demanded, flicking her hand into the air as if peppering the press with her disdain. She talked about her nephews, but also about her youth in Kyrgyzstan, where the Tsarnaev brothers spent part of their childhoods. As a Chechen, Maret said she had to prove her mettle, to go over and above her Kyrgyz and Kazakh peers because, unlike them, “I was not in my land.” Asked about Tamerlan’s radicalization, Maret acknowledged that he did indeed turn to Islam in recent years. “He started praying five times a day, but I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” she said. “You just say words, gratitude to Creator.”

Maret is the old Chechnya: secular, Soviet, severed from its roots, paranoid and cynical in its knowledge, acquired painfully and firsthand, of what a government can do to its subjects. When Maret talked about her nephews being framed, she knew what she was talking about: “Lawyer from back home” actually meant state prosecutor, a key actor in a judicial system that was in practice a political bludgeon, one that actively invented charges against potential opponents. Maret also talked about Islam as a thing that is both native and foreign to her. Islam was something into which she was born, and which, to her, likely, is a set of pleasant traditions and holidays that give her a sense of belonging to an old history. For someone who had a Soviet upbringing, being born a Muslim was akin to being born Chechen; it was just another mark of ethnicity, and, towards the end of the Soviet experiment, didn’t mean much more than having a non-Slavic name.

Enter her sister-in-law, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, wife to her brother Anzor, mother to her nephews Tamerlan and Dzhokhar. You look at that old baby photo of Tamerlan from the late 1980s, and you see Zubeidat looking like a more sullen version of Maret. Her hair is uncovered and fashionably teased; her dress is secular, even stylish. At a press conference in Makhachkala, Dagestan, a quarter of a century later, she is a woman transformed, though the long, morose face is still the same. In between, she had moved from the wasteland that was nominally Buddhist Kalmykia, where Tamerlan had been born, to nominally Muslim Kyrgzystan, had another son, Dzhokhar, and two daughters, emigrated to America, gone to beauty school, married off her older son and daughters with uneven success, was arrested for shoplifting, divorced her husband, and moved back with him to her native Dagestan.

Somewhere along the way, Zubeidat found Islam in a way Maret never did.1 It is said that Zubeidat pushed Tamerlan toward the old faith when he started to lose his way, and it is also said that Mikhail Allakhverdov, the mysterious “Misha,” a Ukrainian-Armenian convert to Islam, had pushed Zubeidat or Tamerlan or both closer to Islam. And from there, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar seem to have moved on to more intense forms of the religion, including an interest in the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. It is something that seems to have percolated through the house and into Zubeidat’s newfound faith: She told one of her customers that the September 11 terrorist attacks were an inside job designed to turn the world against Muslims. “My son knows all about it,” Zubeidat is said to have claimed . “You can read on the Internet.”

Zubeidat is the new Chechnya, and the new Dagestan. At the Makhachkala press conference, she is dressed in a long-sleeved black caftan, her face framed tightly by a black and white hijab. Her mourning is expressive and theatrical, almost Middle Eastern. She talks about how she regrets moving to America— “why did I even go there?”—about how she expected America to keep her children safe, but instead “it happened opposite,” she says, weeping. “America took my kids away.” If the Tsarnaevs hadn’t emigrated, Zubeidat contends, “my kids would be with us, and we would be, like, fine.”

That, in the new Chechnya and the new Dagestan, is highly unlikely. While the Tsarnaevs were in Kyrgyzstan and America, the region began to change rather violently. After the First Chechen War ended in 1996, Chechnya became a mix of lawless wilderness rife with violence and kidnapping, and pockets ruled by fundamentalist warlords, like Aslan Maskhadov. After a second war between Russia and Chechnya broke out in 1999 and dragged on for years, Vladimir Putin installed Ramzan Kadyrov as president of Chechnya. Kadyrov was the son of a separatist mufti and led a vicious militia that switched to the Russian side early in the second war, and become allied with the FSB.

Kadyrov, who now posts photographs of his devout family at play or going on Muslim pilgrimages on his Instagram account, is accused of grotesque human rights violations. He now rules Chechnya with a mix of terror and a torrent of money from Moscow. He has led Chechnya down the path of increasing Islamization. Women are now required to cover up, lest they be harassed by the authorities or, worse, subject to paintball attacks by Kadyrov’s modesty vigilantes. Kadyrov has also voiced his support of honor killings, a rather stark turn for the once secular republic. “Now Chechen women must wear hijab and long dress with long sleeves to go anywhere out of home. There have been many situations of the public humiliation of those who tried to resist,” a Chechen woman told me. She asked to remain anonymous for fear for her family’s safety. “The previous generation was under the radicalization of Wahhabi regime during 1996-1999, but the Wahhabis lost, they didn’t achieve the goal to cover all Chechen women with hijab. But now the government has achieved that goal. This young generation of radicalized girls and boys might be a real threat to the society in the nearest future.”

Even before this policy had firmly taken root, the region became a source of unique terrorism: the female suicide bomber. The first woman to detonate herself was 22-year-old Khava Baraeva, who, in 2000, drove a truck packed with explosives into a local Russian military base, killing three. She was going after the commander who had killed her husband. Other Chechen and Dagestani women followed her lead, blowing up military posts as well as civilian targets inside Russia. Two women, for example, simultaneously brought down two Russian airliners in 2004, killing 89, and two young Dagestani women blew themselves up in the Moscow metro, in March 2010, killing 40. Half of the terrorists who seized the Dubrovka theater in Moscow in 2002 were women, strapped with explosives. Experts estimate that up to 40 percent of suicide bombings originating in the region are perpetrated by women.

The women have come to be known in Russia as “Black Widows.” At home they are known as shakhikdi, the Russianized feminine form shakhid, or martyr. “A lot of the women in these radical Islamic groups, for example, in Indonesia, they don’t get personally involved in frontline warfare but they raise their sons so that if their father is killed, they can step right away into his shoes,” says Mia Bloom, a scholar at Penn State’s International Center for the Study of Terrorism, and author of Bombshell, a book about women suicide bombers. “Women act as the glue within the terrorist cell,” she explains. “The daughter of one cell leader will marry a cell leader in another area to create linkages, like in 15th century European courts. And the women are to make sure that their men stayed fierce.” Bloom adds that, though it’s hard to do this in the U.S., in conflict zones “the mothers will convey a certain ideology or worldview to the children.” Others, like Mariam Farhat, a Hamas activist, encouraged her sons to go on suicide missions, and publicly bemoaned the fact that she didn’t have more sons to send into battle.

Chechen and Dagestani women took it one step further; they went into battle themselves. It is a stunning paradox, given that at home they live in what Bloom calls “an extraordinarily patriarchal society—so much so that the women at the Dubrovka theater were wearing explosive belts, they were not the ones with the detonators.” The man is the means and the ends of a Chechen home. When a Chechen woman is married, she is not allowed to speak at the wedding. Often, her relatives can’t even come. It is a celebration of the man’s acquisition. “In a Caucasian family, where the man dominates, woman is raised to take care of the man and to sacrifice for the man,” the Chechen woman told me. “The Caucasian code of ethics requires the woman to be modest and quiet. But during the war in Chechnya I have witnessed so many times how Chechen women would step before tanks and armed soldiers, aiming weapons at them, if their men were in danger of being captured or killed. So, this socially required behavior changes when it comes to a life and death issue. Mothers are ready to sacrifice for their sons, sisters for their brothers, wives for husbands, and so on.”

Though Zubeidat refuses to accept her sons’ guilt—“No, never,” she said that day in Makhachkala—and though a Russian wiretap caught her talking with Tamerlan about jihad, it seems unlikely that she would strap herself with explosives and charge forth against the enemy. Chechen and Dagestani mothers usually don’t. And that’s where Katherine Russell comes in, especially after a woman’s DNA was said to have been found on a fragment of the bomb.

Russell, the daughter of a Rhode Island doctor, met Tamerlan at a night club, converted to Islam, and, after marrying the elder Tsarnaev brother, reportedly became more observant and began to pull away from her family. She went to work while her husband stayed home. According to her friends, he was often abusive, calling her a “prostitute” and hurling furniture at her. This too is unfortunately common in the culture: Tamerlan’s naturalization was held up when he faced charges for slapping his girlfriend; his father, in an interview with The New York Times, wondered aloud at the strangeness of this country, where “you can’t touch a woman.”

But unlike a black widow, and unlike Zubeidat and Maret, when her husband was accused of blowing up the Boston Marathon and then died in a shoot-out with police, Russell, the American, did not pick up arms, verbal or physical, to avenge her man. She walked away. His violent attack on the state did not bond her to him; rather, it seemed to rip her out of his orbit, to shame and terrify her where, had Tamerlan been a radical in Dagestan, it may have brought her a certain grief-tinged honor. Instead, Russell issued statements in which she expressed her ignorance of the plot—the DNA was found not to be hers—as well as her shock and her family’s grief for the victims of the bombing. Most tellingly, she declined to claim Tamerlan’s body. Instead, it was claimed by his sisters, who though Americanized and horrified by Tamerlan’s act, said they would give their brother a proper Muslim burial.

The Tsarnaev Women Tell Chechnya’s Story [TNR]

We Told You So: How Russia responded to the Boston bombings

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

Shortly after Barack Obama finished his press conference after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s dramatic apprehension last night, a Russian newspaper reported that the president did not mention the “Russian footprint” in his address. There was almost a note of relief in the report, which came after a day spent by Russian and Chechen officials (though Chechen officials are also Russian officials) batting that footprint away from their doorstep, or denying that one even exists. “We don’t know the Tsarnaevs,” Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, said. “They never lived in Chechnya, they lived and studied in America.” In this, Kadyrov found himself in strange company, with people among the liberal opposition who also wondered what Russian footprint anyone was even talking about. “Chechnya?” one Russian journalist told me. “They’re Americans, they’ve been in America since childhood!”

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said that the Russian president had been appraised of the situation as it unfolded, struck a slightly different note, however, and it was one of “we told you so.” “Putin has repeatedly said there is no such thing as our terrorists and somebody else’s,” Peskov said. “One must not differentiate between them, deal with some and condemn others. They all deserve the same approach, the same rejection.” This was a reference to America’s vocal defense of the Chechen separatists in the 1990s, as well as to the rebels in Libya and Syria—where fighters from the North Caucasus often turn up. To Putin, the Taliban and the Chechen separatists, the Salafis and Wahabis, Hamas and the Free Syrian Army are all one. It is why he can be friendly both with Bibi Netanyahu and with Bashar al-Assad: He feels their pain, he fights their fight at home. In fact, his presidency was baptized by the fire of domestic terrorism and war against an Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus. His subjects and his capital have been attacked many times, most recently in March 2010, when two young women from Dagestan blew themselves up in the Moscow metro during the morning rush hour.

Putin has spoken gruffly and scatalogically about terrorists, and he has no patience for them. “We will pursue the terrorists everywhere,” he said back in 1999, when he was just a pale and unassuming former KGB officer beginning the Second Chechen War. “If they’re in the airport, we’ll get them in the airport. That means, you’ll have to excuse me, if we find them in the toilet, we’ll whack them in the outhouse.” One Russian political analyst said, “Russia has long warned the Americans that flirting with various separatist and terrorist organizations of the North Caucasus would not lead to anything good.”

The we-told-you-so resonated with Russians, albeit in different ways. A graphic that went viral on the Russian-language internet showed that now infamous black-and-white photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with the following text, printed in big block letters: “Welcome! Sochi 2014.” Russia is hosting the Winter Olympics next year in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which is perilously close to the still smoldering Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus. (The decision to have the Olympics there was, at the time, criticized for this lack of foresight.) Others, among them the nationalist guerilla new-media entity known as Sputnik & Pogrom sent out this graphic into the Internet ether. “Enjoy the freedom fighters, America,” it says. “Chechens are no rebels, Chechens are terrorists.” (Sputnik & Pogrom later released a more helpful graphic, to set Chechens—“Mostly Muslim, gave the world [terrorist Shamil] Basaev and Tsarnaev”—apart from Russians—“Mostly Christian or atheist, gave the world Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.” “Know the difference,” it declares.)

There has, however, been a lot of interest both in the suspect’s family—the Russian press was the first to track down Antsor Tsarnaev, the father—and in the Hollywood-style chase, even on the state-controlled channels. The crowds in Boston cheering their police force made for an especially odd piece of theater. Russians look with suspicion on their law enforcement agencies—deservedly so—and they usually deal with Chechens in a way that doesn’t resemble a classic action flick. The Russians usually storm the place in a take-no-prisoners way, intentionally and unintentionally kill a bunch of people, and retire back to their mysterious caverns, leaving the public to ponder what the hell just happened.

But as much as Russians have distanced themselves from the attack, or have scolded the politically correct Americans for dealing with the bad guys with kid gloves, this has been an odd moment of bonding for the two countries at a time when Russian-American relations are at yet another low point. I never thought I’d agree with Alexei Pushkov on something—he is the foaming-at-the-mouth anti-American head of the Duma’s foreign policy committee and a frequent and virulent commenter on state TV—but I do now. In a statement, he said that he sees no reason for the Russians and Americans to fight over the Tsarnaev brothers. “American citizens are members of Al Qaeda, they fight in Pakistan, they fight in Afghanistan against NATO and against other Americans,” he said. “And therefore, if some citizens of Russia—and we still have to clear up if they’re citizens of Russia, or not—participate in some kind of global terrorist activity, I don’t see any reason for this to cause a crisis of [Russian-American] political ties.”

What he means is, Russians don’t see terrorists as having national identities, really. Their only identity is terrorist, their only allegiance—terror. “The U.S. actively supported Al Qaeda in the struggle against the USSR, and then bin Laden began to kill Americans; it supported terrorists in Libya, and then they killed the American ambassador; it supported Chechen separatism, and now these terrorists are beginning to blow up Americans,” Sergei Markov, another loyalist hawk, pointed out. “I will not be surprised if these terrorists arrived in the U.S. on the basis of some program of assistance to Chechen political refugees ‘from Russian repression.’” The Russians feel that they know this like no one else in the world, and terrorism is a real and smarting wound in Putin’s worldview. This is why Putin was the first foreign leader to call Bush on 9/11, and why he offered, in the wake of the Boston bombing on Monday, to aid Obama in the investigation. It’s also probably why the two got on the phone last night, and why Putin’s spokesman said the countries’ intelligence services will be in touch. Putin understands the terror of terrorism, he feels Obama’s pain. After all, his own presidency was born of it.

We Told You So: How Russia responded to the Boston bombings [TNR]

The Boston Bombing Suspects Were Reared by Both Chechnya and America

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Friday morning, America woke up to Chechnya. Two Chechen brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, had become suspects in Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings, gunned down an MIT cop, and, in the ensuing chase, turned Boston into an eerily quiet war zone. Suddenly, everyone needed a primer on Chechnya, on the wars there, on its connections to Al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army—despite the fact that we don’t know whether their alleged acts were motivated by ideology. “Now everyone, they play with the word Chechen,” their uncle Ruslan Tsarni fumed at the press scrum outside his Maryland home. “They put a shame on the entire ethnicity.”

But the Tsarnaev story—at least as I see it now—is not about Chechnya. Or, rather, it is only about Chechnya insofar as it is a story about the wanderings of the Chechen people writ very, very small.

The Chechens are an ethnic group from the mountains of the North Caucasus, a small neck of land between the Black and Caspian Seas. When the Imperial Russian army invaded at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia’s writers began to romanticize the place, a land of severe mountains, full of quiet, dark-eyed maidens and proud, ruthless warriors against Russian conquest. Tolstoy, who was once stationed in the region, wrote about their eternal struggle against the Russians in Hadji Murat, as did Pushkin, who went there in exile, in Prisoner of the Caucasus. They describe a society that fetishizes masculine honor and violence, skill with one’s horse and one’s sword. The fact that the region now produces international wrestling and martial arts stars is not a coincidence, nor is the fact that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was as devout a boxer as he was Muslim and that Dzhokhar, 19, was an all-star wrestler in high school. Nor is it a coincidence that they faced off against the authorities, and that Tamerlan died in a hail of bullets.

Russian orientalism ended, however, when a guy from Chechnya’s next-door neighbor, Georgia, came to power in 1928: Joseph Djugashvili, or, as we know him, Stalin, knew how to end the aspirations for independence among the Caucasian Muslims like the Chechens and the Ingush. As elsewhere, he drew the boundaries of the local republics in a way that would make separation along ethnic lines a nightmare, and he imported a lot of ethnic Russians. When Nazi Germany invaded, local nationalists sensed an opportunity to wrest their independence from the Soviets. After the Germans retreated and Stalin crushed the insurrection, in 1944, he shipped the entire Chechen population to the barren steppe of Kazakhstan, where as many as half of them died. (The European parliament recently labeled this a genocide.)

The fact that Dzhokhar was born in Central Asia, in nearby Kyrgyzstan, is ironic and deeply significant, as is the fact that he shares a name with Dzhokhar Dudayev, who unilaterally declared Chechnya’s independence in 1991, and, when the First Chechen War broke out with Russia, in 1994, declared jihad against the Russian Federation. That war ended in a truce in 1996, and Chechnya, now de facto independent, became a wild and violent place. Ethnic Russians fled or were pushed out, and many Chechens escaped north, to neighboring Dagestan, which is where Dzhokhar is said to have attended the first grade, in 1999-2000. Around that time, in 1999, Chechnya invaded Dagestan, plunging the region back into war, and it is shortly thereafter that the Tsarnaevs moved to Boston, in either 2002 or 2004. It is why their uncle Ruslan told a local reporter this morning that “they got their start as refugees, as refugees from war.”

In the U.S., they seemed to have lived a hard life. Their father was a mechanic who struggled to make ends meet, doing repair work here and there for $10 an hour. Then he is said to have been diagnosed with brain cancer and had to go to Germany for treatment, though he is now, apparently, in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, where he is besieged with television cameras.

If Dzhokhar seems to have been a relatively well-adjusted kid, the elder, Tamerlan—who is named for a Muslim Mongol warrior—clearly had more trouble. Their uncle, incensed at his “loser” nephews, was outraged that they were ungrateful to this country “that gave everyone a chance,” and speculated that they were driven by “hatred of those who were able to settle themselves.” In the now infamous and currently blocked photo essay on Tamerlan, he speaks of his Chechen background and flaunts shoes that any person who’s ever been to Russia will tell you are kavkaz shoes: They are the trademark footwear of men from the North Caucasus who are trying to be posh. And so, Tamerlan tells the photographer, “I’m dressed European style.”

Tellingly, Tamerlan also says he has no American friends. It is a statement that the media jumped on, but the second half of that statement is the more illuminating one: “I don’t understand them.” This is not surprising. I moved to America from Russia when I was 7, spent my entire conscious life and education here, am fully assimilated and consider myself American, and I often don’t understand Americans. It’s no wonder that Tamerlan couldn’t make sense of them either. Based on what’s known of when the Tsarnaevs came to the U.S., he was either 15 or 17. Immigration is hard at any age, but it is especially difficult when you are a teenager, when your mind and body is changing and you are struggling to come to grips with who you are. For Tamerlan, national identity was thrown into the heady mix, and he seems to have stuck with the one he knew his whole life: Muslim Chechen. The fact that history has made that definition an uneasy one cannot be irrelevant.

If the YouTube channel that is said to be Tamerlan’s really is his, you can see him fervently clinging to this torn identity: It is full of Islam and Russian rap, which makes sense given the Soviet policy of Russifying Chechnya. In fact, Chechnya is still part of Russia and Russian, as well as Chechen, is its official language. Dzhokhar, who was either 9 or 11 when the family moved, may have been more assimilated than Tamerlan, but if that VKontakte page is his, it too is telling: VKontakte is the homegrown Russian rip-off of Facebook. The mere fact that he had a page on an exclusively Russian social network shows that the assimilation was not a complete one. Because emigrating at 11, or even 9, is hard, too. (The most revealing image of Dzhokhar is not the one of him hugging an African-American friend at his high school graduation, but the one of him sitting at a kitchen table with his arm around a guy his age who appears to be of Central Asian descent. In front of them is a dish plov, a Central Asian dish of rice and meat, and a bottle of Ranch dressing.)

In the end, this is not a story about Chechnya or radical Islam or the insurgency in the North Caucasus. Ramzan Kadyrov, the usually insane president of Chechnya, says that the Boston bombing was not a Chechen act of terror, that these boys were reared and forged in America. He was probably right. But that’s not to say the men—whatever their alleged motive—had nothing to do with Chechnya. They were reared by both Chechnya and America, forged in the joining of the two through the painful, disorienting process of emigration, of accepting and being accepted by a new society, or not.

The Boston Bombing Suspects Were Reared by Both Chechnya and America [TNR]