Maine experts on Chechnya consider political fallout from Boston attack, say direct ties to Chechen rebels unlikely

Posted April 19, 2013, at 1:49 p.m.
Last modified April 19, 2013, at 3:59 p.m.

A University of Southern Maine faculty member who has helped organize humanitarian assistance programs for the war-torn Caucasus region, where police believe the Boston Marathon bombers originated, was among Mainers to say Americans should be careful not to generalize about the Russian region’s people because of the reported ties.

Dr. Barry Rodrigue, an associate professor at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn college, has worked with students on humanitarian aid projects for the North Caucasus region in Russia, according to his biography posted on the university’s website.

Police have identified brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev as prime suspects in the Monday terror attack perpetrated near the finish line of the world-famous Boston Marathon. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, believed to be in his mid-20s, was reportedly killed Thursday night during a shootout with police in the nearby town of Watertown, Mass., while agents continue to search the metropolitan area for Dzhokhar, 19, who has been described as “armed and dangerous.”

Reuters news service reported that the brothers, who lived recently in Cambridge, Mass., are believed to originally be from the southern Russian republic of Chechnya.

Chechnya, in the war-torn Caucasus region of land between the Caspian and Black seas, had been the scene of violent conflict for nearly two decades as the largely Sunni Muslim population has clashed over sovereignty with the larger Russian government.

The Council on Foreign Relations has reportedly identified the tumultuous landscape as a breeding ground for separatist Islamic militants, who have been credited with a series of terrorist bombings over the years in Russia. Although the Tsarnaev brothers’ motives in Monday’s attack are not known, Reuters reported that two law enforcement sources cited a “Chechen connection” to the Boston explosions.

Michael S. Smith, an attorney with the Portland law firm Preti Flaherty and a local expert on the Chechen conflicts, said that although separatists resented Americans for not intervening on their behalf during their war with Russia, the marathon bombs were set years too late to be a direct part of that insurgency.

“The idea that this attack would have [been plotted] in Chechnya would not have been completely implausible 10 or 15 years ago, but it’s very unlikely now,” Smith told the BDN Friday afternoon. “There’s a history of horrific terrorist attacks perpetrated by Chechens, some of the worst the world has ever seen, including a siege on an elementary school that killed hundreds of children. But that all happened in Russia. There’s really no history of that violence spilling over against Westerners.”

Smith said the suspects are too young to have likely played any role in the Chechen rebellion personally.

“My first reaction was that they probably are young men, who like numerous other would-be terrorists, were Muslims, became more devout, and probably ended up getting wrapped up in websites and propaganda,” he said. “It’s much more likely that these two guys are reflective of the lone wolf trends of people inspired by these [terrorist] groups than actually parts of [those groups].”

Smith and University of Maine Political Science Professor Dr. James Warhola, an expert on the Chechen conflicts, both said they doubt the Boston incident would serve to draw the United States into playing a more active role in whatever simmering discord remains between the Russians and Chechen separatists.

“The time has really passed where [the Chechen insurgency] would be a relevant issue for the U.S. and Russian governments,” Smith said.

“I’m sure that it’s gotten Moscow’s attention that the kids who allegedly committed these acts were of Chechen origins,” said Warhola Friday afternoon. “But I haven’t seen any evidence that this was some politically motivated statement about Chechen independence.”

Warhola said it’s still too early to speculate about the alleged bombers’ motivations for the attack.

“Why these Chechens would do that here in the United States, whether there was a political statement behind it or they were just hooligans who happen to be Chechens, I don’t know,” he said. “It may have been just a random act of mayhem and violence. It’s hard to imagine there isn’t some political dimension to it, but from what I understand, these were just young kids.”

Despite the possible ties between the region and the perpetrators of the terror attack at the marathon, USM’s Rodrigue, who is in Japan on a brief sabbatical, urged Americans to keep open minds about the people from the Caucasus area.

In an email to the BDN, Rodrigue cautioned “folks not to draw hasty conclusions on distant and tenuous connections.”

“It’s like saying all Americans are bad because of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison,” he wrote. “It doesn’t lessen the tragedy, but cautions against stereotyping.”

In December, Rodrigue’s American-Caucasus Work Group helped organized a tour of Maine by a small Chechen contingent including a journalist, government official and humanitarian leader.

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