Let’s be clear: We don’t know anything. Not really, not yet.
The two men who prepared, placed and detonated the pressure-cooker bombs during the Boston Marathon this past Monday, and then engaged in a shoot-out with police while trying to escape yesterday were brothers, Tamerlan (26) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (19). Ethnic Chechens who were born in the Russian Federation, they left the Caucasus as refugees during the Chechen civil war in the mid-90s for Central Asia (either Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan, accounts differ), then moving to Dagestan briefly (where their father now lives) before immigrating to the United States in 2001.
Chechnya, as you will certainly hear a lot in the near future, has a long history of terrorism, dating back to the 19th century. (I plan to write about this soon.) This is true. But it isn’t necessarily relevant.
Chechen terrorism has been almost exclusively preoccupied with the Russian context. During the last fifteen years, Chechens have engaged in relatively frequent attacks against Russian civilian targets (most notably the Beslan school siege in 2004*). Yet these attacks were motivated by the violent Chechen separatist movement and were part of the resistance against an often-brutal occupation by the Russian army. These attacks have lessened in recent years, due to a number of factors, including more stability within Chechnya and (not unrelated) merciless crackdowns by Moscow against suspected militants. If the Tsarnaev brothers carried out their attack as part of a Chechen militant group, it would be one of the very first, if not the first, attacks to occur outside the borders of the Russian Federation. More importantly, it would mark a significant and unprecedented turning point in the history of Chechen terrorism for such a group to strike in the United States.
But we don’t know yet why they bombed the marathon. The fact that they tried to rob a convenience store and then steal a getaway car would suggest that they were not part of a larger group, or at the very least one that is not well-funded. Any grand claims about Chechen militants or the rise of a new jihadist threat are woefully premature.
It cannot be said enough: we don’t know anything about these men or why they did what they allegedly did. Any speculation about their motivations, ideologies, mindsets, preparation or influences is just that—speculation. They could be members of a jihadi sleeper cell or (more likely) two violent, disturbed young men who just happen to be Muslims. While I may think it’s the latter, that belief is probably based on hope; it has no more factual grounding than claims of the former.
I’ll have more to say in the near future, but for now the takeaway is this: We don’t know anything.
Updated, 11:24pm: Apparently they didn’t rob a convenience store, but were in a store that was later robbed. Obviously information is still coming in now that Dzhokhar has been captured, and all the more reason to hold off on wild theories and warnings of impending doom. (Which unfortunately hasn’t stopped this guy.)
*C.J. Chivers’ Esquire piece on Beslan is fantastic.