How Anti-American Are Most Chechens?

Not very.
chechen-villagers.jpg
Dzhanar-Aliev Magomed-Ali poses with his bicycle in front of his house in the Chechen settlement of Urus-Martan on January 20, 2007. (Reuters)

It's becoming increasingly clear that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older Boston bombing suspect, acquired fundamentalist beliefs at some point in 2008 or 2009, potentially while on a visit to Russia. Some reports have noted that he became unusually close to an Islamic convert named "Misha," who reportedly enthralled him with hours-long lectures on what it means to be a good Muslim, even convincing Tamerlan to stop composing music because "music is not really supported in Islam."

The fact remains, though, that the Tsarnaevs' target was not in Russia, the arch-nemesis of the Chechens, but in the United States, half a world away from Misha and in a country that had offered the brothers college opportunities and wrestling championships.

Which raises the question: Just how anti-American are the Chechens?

Not very. I spoke with three different Chechnya experts who vehemently denied that the people of the Northern Caucasus harbor anti-American views on a widespread basis. However, some of the Islamist groups that emerged amid repeated Russian invasions in Chechnya eventually aligned themselves with the broader jihadist cause of radicals in neighboring countries -- and it seems like the older Tsarnaev brother began admiring some especially bad apples.

But these splinter-group extremists don't just hate Americans, they hate anyone who doesn't agree with them.

"The Caucasian Mujahedeen are not fighting with the United States of America," the group said in a statement after the bombings. "We are at war with Russia, which is responsible not only for the occupation of the Caucasus, but also for heinous crimes against Muslims."

For the most part, "Chechens are Westernized, secularized, and Sovietized," said Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, where the younger suspect was enrolled. "There is a minority among the rebels that subscribe to the global view of jihad. But overall Chechens are very pro-American and pro-Western. They admire George Washington."

For centuries, Chechens have had one sworn enemy: The Russians directly to the north of them, who swallowed up their territory in the 1850s and clung to it despite their efforts to break away. More than 17,000 people died when Russia attacked Chechnya after it declared independence in 1991. A second war in 1999 took at least 25,000 more civilian lives, and the ensuing unrest lasted for years. In 2003, a Boston Globe reporter described it as "a place of total lawlessness, where men with guns rule and human life carries little value ... One Grozny resident [said], 'We don't know if we'll be alive tomorrow or even five minutes from now.'" The original Djohar Dudayev, a former Chechen president and Dzhokar Tsarnaev's possible namesake, was killed by a Russian air strike while talking on the phone with Russians who had tricked him and then trailed his phone signal.

During and after the Second Chechen War, many of the rebel fighters in the area became increasingly radicalized, and some of them adopted the hard-liner philosophy of a jihad against infidels.

But that jihad, Williams says, is locally, not internationally, focused.

Chechen radicals have, over the years, cut deals with foreign fighters who were willing to give them money and weapons, said Muriel A. Atkin, a Russian history expert at George Washington University, and some of those outsiders "did include anti-Americanism as part of their agenda." But anti-Americanism among the typical Chechen? "I'm skeptical," she said.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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