MAKHACHKALA, Russia — The two brothers suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings have their ethnic roots in Chechnya, a part of the Caucasus Mountains that has spawned decades of violence — from separatist wars to suicide attacks, blood feuds and hostage sieges.
“They weren’t living here. They were living, studying and growing up in America,” Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said in an interview on Russian television. “They have been educated there, not here.”
The families of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the 26-year-old killed in a gun battle with police in Massachusetts overnight, and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar, left Chechnya long ago and moved to Central Asia, according to the Chechen government.
Before arriving in the United States a decade ago, the brothers lived briefly in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, a neighboring, violence-wracked Russian province where their father resides.
The conflict in Chechnya began in 1994 as a separatist war, but became an Islamic insurgency dedicated to forming an Islamic state in the Caucasus. Dagestan has since become the epicenter of the insurgency.
Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya in 1996 after the first Chechen war, leaving it de-facto independent and largely lawless, but then rolled back three years later following apartment building explosions in Moscow and other cities blamed on the rebels.
Kadyrov has Moscow’s carte blanche to stabilize Chechnya with his feared security services, which are accused of killings, torture and other rampant human rights abuses.
The Tsarnaev brothers lived in the region only briefly as children, but appeared to have maintained a strong Chechen identity. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s first name is the same as Chechnya’s first separatist president, who was killed in a Russian airstrike.
The suspects’ uncle, Ruslan Tsarni of Montgomery Village, Md., urged Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to turn himself in, saying: “He put a shame on our family, the Tsarnaev family. He put a shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity.”
In the interview on Russian TV, Kadyrov offered his condolences to the Boston Marathon victims, but placed the blame squarely on the United States.
He added on Instagram that “the roots of this evil are to be found in America,” but offered no explanation. He also criticized U.S. authorities for failing to capture the older brother alive.
Russia has relied on Kadyrov, a ruthless former rebel, to bring a degree of stability to Chechnya in recent years. But the Islamic insurgency has spread to neighboring provinces, with Dagestan — sandwiched between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea — now seeing the worst of the violence. Militants launch daily attacks against police and other authorities.
Militants from Chechnya and neighboring provinces have carried out a series of terrorist attacks in Russia, including a 2002 raid on a Moscow theater, in which 129 hostages died, most of them from the effects of narcotics gas that Russian special forces pumped into the building to incapacitate the attackers.
In 2004, militants from Chechnya took more than 1,000 people hostage at a school in Beslan, and the siege ended when gunfire erupted after explosions tore through the gym. More than half of the 330 people who died were children. There also have been numerous bombings in Moscow and other cities.
The Obama administration placed Chechen warlord Doku Umarov on a list of terrorist leaders after he claimed responsibility for 2010 suicide bombings on Moscow’s subway that killed 40 people and a 2009 train bombing that claimed 26 lives.
Russia faced strong international criticism for its indiscriminate use of force against civilians and other rights abuses in Chechnya. The two separatist wars killed an estimated 100,000 people, and Russian bombing reduced most of Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, and many other towns and villages to rubble, sending tens of thousands fleeing.
The federal forces suffered heavy casualties in the hands of lightly armed rebels, who relied on their centuries-old warrior culture and knowledge of rugged terrain to offset the Russian edge in firepower. The Chechens’ successes were reminiscent of their exploits in 19th-century battles against a czarist army that spent decades trying to conquer the Caucasus.
In recent years, militants in Chechnya, Dagestan and neighboring provinces have largely refrained from attacks outside the Caucasus.
Russian officials and experts have claimed that rebels in Chechnya had close links with al-Qaida. They say dozens of fighters from Arab countries trickled into Chechnya during the fighting there, while some Chechen militants have fought in Afghanistan.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Friday that the Russian leader had long warned the West about the dangers posed by the Chechen rebels.
“Back at the time when we had a war raging in the Caucasus, Putin repeatedly said that the terrorists shouldn’t be divided into ‘ours’ and ‘theirs,’ they mustn’t be played with, differentiated into categories,” Peskov said, according to Russian news agencies. It was an apparent reference to Western reluctance in the past to agree to the Kremlin branding rebels in Chechnya as terrorists.
The U.S. has long urged Russia’s government and separatist elements in Chechnya not aligned with al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations to seek a political settlement.
Washington provided aid to the area during the high points of fighting in the 1990s and in the early 2000s, and has demanded human rights accountability. But the U.S. always backed the territorial integrity of Russia, never endorsing the separatists’ desire for an independent state. And it has supported Russia’s right to root out terrorism in the region.
Dozens of Chechens have trained in Pakistan’s northwest frontier of Waziristan, but most have returned to Russia to fight.
Recently, however, the al-Qaida inspired group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan has made strides at recruiting European fighters for attacks against the West, according to Noman Benotman, a former jihadist fighter who now works for the London-based Quillium Foundation.
The TTP, which has supported attacks in response to U.S. drone strikes, was linked to the failed 2010 attack in New York City’s Times Square.
In recent years, people from Chechnya have faced charges in several European countries.
In 2011, a Danish court sentenced a Chechen-born man to 12 years in prison for preparing a letter bomb that exploded as he was assembling it in a Copenhagen hotel.
Last month, Spain’s Interior Ministry said French and Spanish police arrested three suspected Islamic extremists in an operation in and around Paris. A statement said the suspected activists were of Chechen origin and believed linked to a terror cell dismantled in August in southern Spain.
That same month, a Turk and two Russians of Chechen descent were arrested and jailed in Spain on charges of belonging to an unidentified terror organization and possession of explosives. They have since been released while investigations continue.
The U.S. security think tank Stratfor said Friday that if the Tsarnaev brothers had any link to al-Qaida, or one of its franchise groups, it would “likely be ideological rather than operational, although it is possible that the two have attended some type of basic militant training abroad.”
Stratfor added that the Boston bombings highlighted the fact that “the jihadist threat now predominantly stems from grassroots operatives who live in the West rather than teams of highly trained operatives sent to the United States from overseas, like the team that executed the 9/11 attacks.”
“There will always be plenty of soft targets in a free society, and it is incredibly easy to kill people, even for untrained operatives,” it said.