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Discussion Point: From the Caucasus to Boston and Beyond


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It will almost surely be borne out that Dzhokhar and especially Tamerlan Tsarnaev -- the alleged perpetrators of the deadly Boston Marathon terrorist attack -- were inspired though perhaps not recruited by global jihadists. Either way, the Tsarnaevs' tale offers several lessons about the complex nature of the global jihadi revolutionary movement both in Russia and around the world.

Not Chechnya, But the Caucasus Emirate Jihad

First, we need to purge 'Chechen' rebels and the 'Chechen fight for independence' from our lexicon in connection with the Boston, the Caucasus, and terrorism. The Tsarnaevs were surely influenced by their Chechen heritage and the violence in the North Caucasus. The elder brother Tamerlan traveled to Russia for six months beginning in January 2012 and went to Chechnya. However, media have focused less on his travel to Russia's Republic of Dagestan at the time and the brothers' half-Dagestani Avar ethnicity. Avars are the largest ethnic group in the republic, plagued for nearly a decade by growing jihadism.

Upon returning home, Tamerlan and then Dzhokhar began posting to their YouTube and Russian 'VKontakte' (In Contact) social media pages some radical Islamist and jihadist videos taken from websites of an organization that many have never heard of. My 2007 book Russia's Islamic Threat had documented the 'jihadization' of the 'Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya' (ChRI), its abandonment of the Chechen nationalist cause, its emergence as a global jihadi threat, and the real possibility that mujahedin in the region would provide recruits for the global jihadi revolutionary alliance led at the time by Al Qa'ida (AQ).

Five months after publication, ChRI 'president' Dokku Umarov abolished the ChRI and its 'taghut' or man-made laws and institutions and declared himself amir 'Abu Usman' of an explicitly-stated Sharia-based jihadist 'Caucasus Emirate' (CE). Umarov claimed CE sovereignty over the entire North Caucasus and all 'Muslim lands' across Russia and the former USSR and declared jihad against the US, Great Britain, Israel and all countries fighting Muslims anywhere in the world.

Since 2007 Umarov and CE ideologists have stated repeatedly that the organization is part of the global jihadi revolutionary alliance and supports AQ and other jihadi groups. CE websites now publish jihadi literature alone, including that of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anwar Al-Awlaki, and hundreds of others. Published fatawa justify the use of weapons of mass destruction to kill "millions" of Americans, and translated issues of AQ's journal Inspire and articles like 'How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom' instruct prospective mujahedin how to build IEDs from pressure cookers as the Tsarnaevs did.

In September 2009, Jordan's Sheikh Abu Muhammad Asem al-Maqdisi, whom the United States Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) designated "the most influential living Jihadi Theorist," endorsed the CE as a jihadist organization and urged Muslims to support it "so the Emirate becomes the door to Eastern Europe." Since 2007 the CE has carried out or otherwise been involved in some 2,000 insurgent and terrorist attacks and other violent incidents in Russia, including 47 sophisticated suicide bombings.

Since spring 2010, the CE jihad's center of gravity has been Dagestan, where the CE's 'Dagestan Vilaiyat' (DV) has carried out two-thirds of all CE attacks. Despite these various indications of the globalization of the CE's worldview and their shift to Dagestan, many still omit the Caucasus as a global jihadist front while others refer only to Chechens or Chechnya. The CE emerged at a time when the global jihad was becoming more of a 'network of networks' propagandizing Muslims through the Internet to create their own jihadi 'start-ups'. Thus, the CE in part consists of start-up jamaats that joined the sectors and fronts comprising the CE's four main vilaiyats, the amirs of which are appointed or at least confirmed by amir Umarov.

In this way, the CE and the overall global jihadi alliance are as horizontal as they are vertical, consisting of allied, intertwined and sometimes competing jihadi leaders, groups and networks -- from single-person lone wolves in Boston to the hit-and run ambush style of the CE to small-scale insurgent armies of mujahedin able to hold territory in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and Syria. Whereas the CE coalesced at a macro-level as an extant network of networks to form a new front in the global jihad, the Tsarnaevs emerged on the micro-level as a self-made start-up inspired by higher-order networks like the CE.

The Tsarnaevs' Dagestani, ethnic Avar heritage along with the DV's high profile in CE and the Caucasus probably attracted the brothers to CE propaganda as much if not more than their Chechen heritage did. The younger Dzhokhar's 'VKontakte' page notes he went to school in Dagestan. Tamerlan's YouTube page carries Islamist and jihadi propaganda videos. US officials report he deleted postings taken from the DV's websites. One posting which remains on the page is of the DV's amir in its Rabbanikala Sector, 'Abu Dujan' Gajimurad Dolgatov, who was killed in late December along with six other mujahedin in a shootout in Dagestan.

An uncorroborated British Daily Mail article reports that six months ago Russian intelligence informed the FBI that Tamerlan met with Abu Dujan six times in a radical Salafi Mosque in Makhachkala. A video eulogy to Abu Dujan made by unidentified "Arabs" is currently featured on the DV's website vdagestan.com. Tamerlan's travels to Dagestan, the DV's prominence in Dagestan and the CE, the brothers' CE- and DV-tied social media articulations, and the CE's ubiquity on the Internet for people from the region all strongly suggest the Tsarnaev brothers, in particular Tamerlan, were at least inspired, if not recruited by the CE.

CE Ops Go Global The DV high command has denied having "combat operations in the United States" or connections to the Tsarnaevs, claiming to be fighting only Russia and adhering to amir Umarov's January 2012 ban on targeting civilians. The DV's denial of a direct connection to the Tsarnaevs could be genuine, but does not negate the likelihood of the CE's theo-ideological influence on them. The denial also could be false, intended to disinform the authorities here and abroad or to escape the retribution of amir Umarov because of possible leadership competition and tensions between the DV and the CE's Chechens.

Indeed, the DV's claims that the CE is fighting Russia alone and that the DV adheres to Umarov's ban on civilians are clearly false. This claim contradicts years of statements by CE amir Umarov and other CE ideologists to the contrary.

The qadi of the CE's Shariah Court put it most explicitly and succinctly in 2011: "We (the CE) are doing everything within our power to help build the Caliphate."

Since 2010, CE operatives have been involved in several plots outside Russia: the November 2010 'Shariah4Belgium' cell involving Chechens, Moroccans, Belgians and Dutch recruiting fighters and raising funds for the CE and planning attacks on NATO targets; the April 2011 DV-tied cell uncovered in the Czech Republic also raising funds and fighters for the CE and planning attacks in a country unnamed in press or Czeck police reports; and the foiled spring 2012 DV plot organized with Azerbaijani jihadists to carry out a series of Mumbai-style attacks against civilians at the Eurovision music festival and elsewhere in Baku and the southern Caucasus country neighboring Dagestan.

This plot violated Umarov's supposed ban on targeting civilians. Other plots demonstrate the way the CE can influence and perhaps recruit North Caucasians for the global cause. In August 2012 Spanish and French police uncovered a plot to target a mall on British Gibraltar and/or other targets using hang-gliders or toy planes during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.

Two Chechens, Eldar Magomedov (alias Ahmad Avar, suggesting a Dagestani-tie) and Mohamed Ankari Adamov, and a Turk were arrested on terrorism charges. Spanish authorities described Magomedov as AQ's top operative in Europe referencing US and Russian intelligence. Like the Tsarnaevs, Magomedov and Adamov surely were inspired if not dispatched to AQ by CE.

The Syrian civil war is witnessing an influx of North Caucasian fighters, many of whom likely fought for the CE; all of whom are certainly inspired by it. Umar al-Shishani, a Chechen from Chechnya, is the amir of the thousand-strong 'Jeish Mukhajirin va Ansar' brigade, a major force within the jihadi wing of the Syrian rebels fighting Bashir Assad's regime. It is no coincidence that Dzhokhar's 'VKontakte' page linked to videos that are prevalent on CE websites on Assad's war atrocities in Syria.

Security Implications

Putting aside the fact that the CE has likely just inspired if not recruited and deployed two jihadists to attack the U.S. homeland, the CE represents an emerging national and international security challenge. The CE's DV pledged in 2011 to attack the February 2014 Olympic games to be held in Russia's North Caucasus resort city of Sochi, and the CE's Circassian network is motivated to carry out an attack there given that it is the site of a Russians massacre of Circassians that in part culminated the Imperial conquest of the region in the 1860s.

The CE DV's Eurovision plot and occasional incursions into Azerbaijan pose a potential threat to the Tbilisi-Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline bringing oil from the Caspian region to Europe. The CE's forays into Europe and alleged plans to attack NATO targets pose an obvious threat.

The prominent role of North Caucasus mujahedin within the jihadi wing of the Syrian revolution could avail the CE access to weapons or materials of mass destruction, which could be used against targets in Russia and/or the West. The global jihad-CE-Tsarnaev connection represents the kind of inter-linked cascade of networked influence and social movements that now defines the global jihad. These often self-replicating networks of networks produce jihadi insurgencies, terrorist groups, organizationally autonomous start-up cells, and lone wolves and will do so for some time to come. Forget Chechnya. They are jihadists who think, tweet, and act locally and globally, from Beslan to Boston and beyond. Shouldn't we?

Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D. Senior Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C. Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program, Monterey, California Analyst/Consultant, www.russiaotherpointsofview.com ghahn@miis.edu

Dr. Hahn is author of the well-received books Russia's Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007) and Russia's Revolution From Above, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002) and numerous articles in academic journals and other English and Russian language media. He has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. Dr. Hahn writes and edits the bimonthly 'Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report' at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. archived at http://csis.org/programs/russia-and-eurasia-program/islam-islamism-and-politics-eurasia-report and www.miis.edu/academics/faculty/ghahn/report.