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Contextualizing Religious Profiling in Dagestan: Tsarnaev and the Kotrova Mosque


In the last 24 hours, several media agencies have reported that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had visited the Kotrova Mosque in Makhachkala. In Dagestan this mosque is known to be associated with radical Islam and Salafism. It was reported by the media that local sources, probably linked with the security services, have identified Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as a regular at the mosque in 2011 and 2012. According to these sources, the 26-year-old man was identified and put on a list of potential Salafists and supporters of the insurgency. Following this labeling as a potential threat for Dagestan's security, the Federal Security Service apparently tipped off the American government and the FBI about Tsarnaev's potential radicalization.

One has to take this analysis about Tsarnaev's radicalization and his potential to engage in the insurgency with certain caution. It is well known by many who lived or studied in the North Caucasus and particularly in Dagestan, that the local security services list all the individuals that attend radical mosques (Salafi), such as the Kotrova Mosque. In other words, this religious profiling seeks to identify any individuals with potential ties to radical Islam in order to control them more efficiently. These lists are used by local police forces to conduct crackdowns and brutal interrogations following insurgent or terrorist attacks in Dagestan. However, being placed on the list is not proof that anyone is or is close to being involved with insurgent groups. To the contrary, this religious profiling has been abused by local forces in order to harass radical Muslims in Dagestan. As radical Islam, vaguely defined as Wahhabism by local authorities, has been outlawed in Dagestan after the Chechen invasion in 1999 and any potential signs linked to radical Islam (clothes, long beard, and a trimmed mustache) were used as an excuse by local police to stop and interrogate ordinary Muslims.

While I was living in Dagestan, I was regularly stopped, controlled, and searched by police on the streets of Makhachkala simply because I had a beard which was seen as a sign of being a Salafist. Not to mention that these illiberal searches were conducted with a minimum level of courtesy. This religious profiling, which occurs on a daily basis, has pushed many Dagestanis to protest in the streets in 2011 and 2012. It is also identified by several academic studies as one of the main reasons why young people turn to insurgent groups in order to confront security forces in Dagestan.

In the case of Tsarnaev, if the only proof of his potential radicalization lies in the list produced by security services in Dagestan, one should be extremely cautious in considering this information as valid and truthful. In fact, one should probably ask if Tsarnaev's radicalization was not the product of witnessing police abuse in Dagestan. If the latter was true, it would be possible to postulate that Tsarnaev perceived the FBI and the American government as an extension of Muslim oppression as they were increasingly putting pressure on him through several interrogations and controls. This process of radicalization could be analyzed following two well known mechanisms: one of personal victimization and one of reaction against the oppression committed against Islam. Reinforced by videos about the atrocities committed by Russian forces in Chechnya, Tsarnaev could have associated these actions with the American presence in Afghanistan. The crucial question remains however, why would Tsarnaev choose to return to America in order to engage in his supposed jihad quest? Many answers are possible, such as the will to include his younger brother in the United States in his holy task, or simply to protect his relatives in Dagestan against the persecution and repression of the local government against the family of known terrorists. Indeed, having a member as part of the insurgency often means putting his entire family under imminent threats from the FSB and local police.

Tsarnaev's trajectory in terrorism should thus be seen in the political and security context of Dagestan. By contextualizing the events leading to his participation in the Boston bombings, one can better understand the reasons behind his radicalization and his choice to return to America and to engage in his apparent quest of jihad.

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