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Interview: North Caucasus Insurgency Was Possible Influence On Boston Suspects

Chechen insurgent leader Doku Umarov
Chechen insurgent leader Doku Umarov
Investigators are looking into possible ties between Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Chechen brothers suspected of staging the Boston Marathon bombings, and Islamist insurgents in the North Caucasus. The region’s biggest militant group, the Caucasus Emirate -- classified by Washington as a terrorist organization -- has denied involvement in the bombing. But in an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg, journalist and respected North Caucasus expert Ivan Sukhov says the suspects nonetheless may have been influenced by Islamic rebels in the volatile Russian region.

RFE/RL: The Caucasus Emirate is the best-known Islamist insurgent group in the North Caucasus. How many such groups are active in the region and do they act in coordination with each other?

Ivan Sukhov:
There are several dozens of them. In theory, they all operate under the umbrella brand of the Caucasus Emirate, but this does not mean they are part and parcel of a whole. They are quite autonomous. They are not a homogenous structure like the Chechen separatist team once was. It is rather an idea uniting a large number of militant groups as well as loners.

RFE/RL: The Tsarnaev brothers made several references to the North Caucasus insurgency on their social-media accounts. Do you think there is a connection between radical Islamists in their home region and the Boston bombings?

Sukhov: I think they are probably loners inspired by the "soft power" of this North Caucasus underground movement. I doubt they were ever in direct contact with any North Caucasus militant commander. I think they simply sympathized with the North Caucasus insurgency, followed it on the Internet, and at some point decided that the time had come to act.

BACKGROUND: Analyst Liz Fuller's 2010 overview of websites linked with the North Caucasus insurgency

RFE/RL: When Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov announced the creation of the Caucasus Emirate in 2007, he threatened to launch attacks on foreign states, namely Britain and the United States. Umarov has since retracted those threats. In principle, what could North Caucasus militants potentially gain from staging an attack like the one in Boston?

Ivan Sukhov
Ivan Sukhov
Sukhov: This date marked the moment when the North Caucasus separatist movement went from fighting in the 1990s and the early 2000s for Chechnya’s independence from Russia to being a religious movement. From this moment on, the rebel leaders have officially regarded their motives as religious.

Umarov talked about the United States and Britain because he was starting to position himself as part of the global jihadist movement. Few people noticed this, although the head of the [separatist] Chechen government-in-exile, Akhmed Zakayev, tried to bring it to the West’s attention.

RFE/RL: Umarov has voiced solidarity with Al-Qaeda. Are there any links, other than ideological, between North Caucasus militants and Al-Qaeda?

Links with the Middle East and the global jihad exist. There were some good journalistic investigations in the early 2000s that demonstrated such links. The global jihad is very real, and its ties to the North Caucasus are also real. But this connection should not be overplayed to explain the situation in the North Caucasus. The roots of the problem are local.

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