Global Insights: North Caucasus Fertile Ground for Extremism Long Before Boston Bombing

The significance of the ethnicity of the two Boston Marathon bombers is still unclear, as are the reasons for the Tsarnaev brothers’ transformation into Islamist terrorists, but the latest evidence seems to suggest that the elder brother’s trip last year to the North Caucasus played a key role. Many of the family’s friends and relatives still live in the North Caucasus, which includes the republics of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. The region has been a hotbed of radicalism and militarism for at least a century.

The North Caucasus became radicalized after Czarist Russia conquered the previously independent Muslim peoplesin the 19th century and forcibly incorporated them into the Russian Empire. The Soviet government subsequently repressed all genuine forms of religious expression in the region, creating an ideological void that Islamists exploited following the Soviet Union's collapse. Difficult social, economic and political conditions further encouraged the turn to radical Islam, as many North Caucasus residents embraced radical Muslim messages as a convincing explanation for their personal problems as well as the underlying malaise plaguing their communities.

One of the first steps the Bolsheviks took after seizing power in 1917 was to attack the country’s religious establishments and urge foreign communists to do the same in their countries. This hostility toward religion in the Soviet republics reached its height under Stalin, who antagonized the region’s Muslims when he deported significant numbers of Chechens to Siberia and Kazakhstan during World War II, accusing them of collaborating with the Nazi invaders. Most did not return until 1957. The Soviet Union further alienated the world’s Muslims when Moscow made the disastrous decision to try to impose its secular policies in neighboring Afghanistan. Islamic militants from throughout the Muslim world joined the resistance to the Soviet occupation. Many of these fighters eventually joined al-Qaida and the Taliban, who seized power in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

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