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Tamerlan Tsarnaev in Dagestan and Chechnya: Why and How?

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As early information emerged from various media sources, it quickly became clear that what we were witnessing with the Tsarnaev brothers was a case of home-grown terrorism carried out by first-generation immigrants who were poorly integrated into the American society. The older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, displayed precise characteristics and pathways associated with previous terrorists involved in al Qaeda plots in Western Europe and North America. Tamerlan, like many al Qaeda terrorists, had a secular education, was married and had a child, and had a relatively stable economic situation. Separated from his immediate family, with the exception of his younger brother, Tamerlan most likely felt that he did not fully belong to the American society, and was turning to (radical) Islam in order to find the answers to his problems. Thus far, the pathway exhibited has been extremely similar to previous cases of home-grown terrorism in the Western world. As many authors have underlined, it is rather difficult to identify future potential terrorist acts at the beginning stages of the radicalization process. What is puzzling and remains unknown is how and why Tamerlan decided to turn to Islam, and then to terrorist activities. His radicalization seems to mainly be an individual phenomenon, possibly reinforced by an individual at a local Mosque, which might have culminated in his trip to the Northern Caucasus in 2012.

Tamerlan, 26, travelled to Russia in order to meet his family in the Republic of Dagestan in 2011 and 2012. It is precisely at this moment in time where his story starts to become somewhat nebulous. How did he travel to Russia? Did he register himself in Dagestan, as required by Russian laws? Why did the Federal Security Service (FSB) let him enter the country if he was suspected of seeking to join insurgent movements? If he was under surveillance and met with radical Salafists in Makhachkala, why did the Russian government let him leave for the United States? How was he allowed to travel freely from Dagestan, a republic torn-apart by a growing level of Islamic and criminal violence?

The two latter questions are crucial in understanding the trajectory and the pathways towards terrorism and in linking Tamerlan to the Boston bombings. After spending almost six months in Dagestan and Chechnya for my doctoral field research, I can decisively say that Dagestan is not an easily accessible republic. The police and security service were omnipresent, controlling and searching me on a daily basis in the streets of Makhachkala. I had to answer a series of questions due to my foreign passport and "business" visa. In a period of more than five months, Tamerlan would have encountered the same daily control if he travelled with a foreign passport (American or Central Asian). Once again, one could question if the FSB suspected him of being a tenant of Salafist ideology, why would he be allowed to stay in the region for such a long period of time? Why did they tell the FBI that they suspected the young man of seeking an insurgent group to join, but did not offer any incriminating elements upon his return to the United States?

Tamerlan did not seem to have a direct link with the insurgency as the leader of the North Caucasus insurgency, the Caucasus Emirate, and the leader of the Dagestan branch of the insurgency all refute their participation or association with the alleged Boston bombers. These organizations usually have the habit to claim responsibility for any acts of terrorism or insurgent attacks committed by North Caucasian people. This rapid dismissal of their participation can lead us to believe that we are witnessing what is mainly the result of a personal radicalization process without any links to a larger terrorist organization.

Media and academics have emphasized that Tamerlan could have gone to an Islamic training camp in Dagestan or in the Chechen mountains in order to learn how to prepare for the Boston bombing. This claim remains unverified and has not been substantiated with any proof. The type of bomb and the strategies put forward by the two young men also denote that they did not necessitate an Islamic camp in order to gain the required knowledge in constructing such a bomb.

I personally attempted to track members of the insurgency in the North Caucasus in order to conduct interviews for my doctoral dissertation. In my experience, the situation in the North Caucasus seems quite different from the Pakistan/Afghanistan border as training camps remain a scarcity and are not easily accessible to foreigners. If the goal of Tamerlan's trip was to receive military training that focused on explosives and terrorism, Syria or other conflict zones would have been a better option. In the case of Dagestan, foreign fighters accessing the region usually do so in order to fight alongside the insurgency rather than to receive military training and to go elsewhere; a perfect example of this would be William Plotnikov, a Canadian killed in a gun battle in Dagestan in 2012.

Based on his status as a first-generation immigrant, Tamerlan's radicalization process might have started somewhere around 2009; however, his trip to the North Caucasus remains obscure. One should not be too quick to conclude that Tamerlan sought training from contacts within the insurgency. At the same time, Makhachkala remains a center of several Salafi Mosques and Islamic networks. Furthermore, the local government continues to violently repress radical Islamist followers. Tamerlan's trip to Dagestan and Chechnya could have simply acted as triggering factors, as it did for many other young and educated Muslims in Dagestan, such as Yasin Rasulov and Abuzagir Mantaev.