Tamerlan Tsarnaev, left, accepts the trophy for winning the 2010 New England Golden Gloves Championship in Lowell from Dr. Joseph Downes.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, left, accepts the trophy for winning the 2010 New England Golden Gloves Championship in Lowell from Dr. Joseph Downes. (Photo courtesy of The Lowell Sun / Julia Malakie)
Saturday April 20, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- A Williams College professor, an expert on terrorism and national security, said the nationality of the two brothers suspected in the deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon should cause the U.S. government to take notice.

Suspects Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a getaway attempt from police, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, the subject of an intense manhunt by law enforcement authorities on Friday, are ethnic Chechens, though it was unclear where in Russia's Northern Caucasus region they were born.

The republic of Chechnya has been engaged in a long and violent struggle to gain independence from Russia. But this is the first time a terrorist act involving Chechens has occurred in the United States.

"Chechens are a tough bunch of people," said Robert Jackall, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Williams. "They've been through a lot of turmoil and agony in the last couple of decades.

"If they turn their hostility toward us rather than Russia, then we're in a lot of trouble," he continued.

The struggle between Russia and Chechnya includes two brutal wars in the 1990s. Chechnya gained partial independence from Russia during the first conflict -- the Taliban was one of the few governments to recognize the republic's freedom, but the Russians suppressed it in the second war. Chechen insurgents have also been involved in two high profile terrorist attacks: at a school in a neighboring Russian republic in 2004 and a bombing in the Moscow subway system in 2010.

During World War II, Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin suppressed a Chechen revolt when the Nazis invaded the country, then moved the entire Chechen population to Siberia and Kazakhstan in 1944. The Soviets didn't allow the Chechens to return to their homeland until 1957.

How Chechens will regard the United States after the events of this week depends on the attitude of those who already live here, Jackall said.

"We're talking about a different way of thinking, a different way of public order, religion and nationality," Jackall said. "It's a profoundly different world view from the one we embrace. It could make a big difference in this country."

According to Slate.com., Chechens are a predominately Muslim group with their own language. Following the conclusion of the second Chechen war, their insurgency against the Russians became a more nationalistic battle with Islamic overtones.

As of Friday afternoon, authorities had yet to find a connection between the Tsarnaevs and any organized terrorist groups. But Jackall said based on postings discovered on Facebook, Dzokhar appeared to confuse independence with Islamic nationalism.

"The younger lad was obviously caught up in some kind of fantasy," Jackall said. "Look at the entries on his [web] page. There's this combination of longing to be out from under the yoke of a foreign power that finds its way into Islam."

According to Jackall, the entries Dzokhar Tsarnaev posted on Russia's version of Facebook express sentiments that are prevalent among the inhabitants of other countries in the Middle East, a situation he says the U.S. government tends to overlook.

"What we're caught up in here is a twilight war that has no end in sight, and isn't helped by the intense politicization in the United States on both sides, and our unwillingness to look directly at the problem of Islamist terrorism," Jackall said.

As an example, Jackall said the government characterized the 2009 killing of 13 people at the Ford Hood Army Base in Texas as "workplace violence." This occurred despite the fact that the accused murderer, Army Major Nidal Hasan, gave public speeches to his fellow soldiers about what was wrong with the United States.

"We're ignoring the roots of the problem," Jackall said, "and we do that at our own peril."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6224.