MOSCOW — The page on the Russian social networking site VKontakte features two images of a 19-year-old man, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who’s suspected of involvement in the Boston bomb attacks. One is a self-portrait, in black and white, that casts him as proud and ambitious. The other shows the young man hugging a male friend at a kitchen table, looking for all the world like two happy, ordinary teen-agers.
The biographical information is sparse: Born on July, 22. Not married. Languages: Russian, English, and Noxiyn mott (Chechen). Education: School Number One in the city of Makhachkala, 1999-2001, Cambridge and Latin School 2011, Boston. Religion: Islam. The most important goal in life: career and money.
The young man was a resident of Boston, but he inhabited an entirely different world online. On his page he links to several Russian-language sites frequented by radical young Muslims. His interests: “Everything about Chechnya,” “Chechens,” Mosques, and “Islam”— as well as something called “the Corporation of Evil,” which describes itself as “a magazine of sarcasm to mock your friends.”
The participants in the groups, who seem to consist primarily of ultraconservative Salafis from around Russia, discuss the issues that Muslims face there every day, ranging from the lack of mosques in cities in Siberia or European Russia to the human rights abuses that have taken place in regions of the country where Islam is prominent. Even though he had lived in Boston for more than a decade, the younger Tsarnaev was still an active participant in the Russian Muslim community. But does that really explain why Dzhokhar and his older brother Tamerlan (who was killed during a police shootout on Friday) might have wanted to destroy the lives of people in Boston?
“There could be several reasons for Muslims to hold a grudge against America,”Gulnara Rustamova, a human rights advocate for Salafi Muslims in Dagestan, told me. “Americans kill Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq. That could be the motive for these young men.”
The family of the two Tsarnaev brothers appears to have lived for a while in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan (a place that became home to many Chechens after Stalin deported them from their home republic in 1944). Later the family moved back to the North Caucasus, settling in Dagestan, a republic with a population of about three million that borders on Chechnya. The family emigrated from there to the United States in 2002.
Not long ago Dagestan was still a relatively peaceful place. But that began to change after Chechen guerrillas fought two disastrous wars for their independence from Russia — the first from 1994 to 1996, the second starting in 1999. In the end, Russia used its military might to tamp down the rebellion, above all by persuading some powerful Chechen clans to switch to their side. But the Kremlin’s indiscriminate use of artillery, airpower and punitive raids ensured that the appearance of stability remained superficial. In reality the insurgency in Chechnya not only continued, but soon spread to other parts of the North Caucasus that are home to large Muslim populations. The number of attacks, bombings, and counterinsurgency operations in Dagestan in particular has steadily risen over the years.