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Examining the Tsarnaev Brothers' Roots

With the apprehension of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, following a day-long manhunt and the death of second suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, the Boston bombing investigation has turned to their motives. As Dzhokhar remains sedated and unable to speak, authorities continue to probe the brothers' foreign origins and connections to Islamic extremism. At present, media coverage of the investigation centers on the suspects' Chechen roots. However, law enforcement is also actively pursuing connections to Russia's Dagestan region -- where the Tsarnaev family lived for a time, and where authorities say Tamerlan spent six months last year -- and Kyrgyzstan, where the family lived before then.

As the people of Boston mourn their dead and injured, questions arise as to whether the United States now faces a new terrorist threat from groups unrelated to al-Qaida and its associated forces. It is still premature to draw conclusions about the intent of the suspects based on their connection to either Chechnya or Kyrgyzstan. Indeed, Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov issued a statement disavowing any connection between the Chechen struggle and the Boston bombing. Law enforcement officials likewise believe the brothers were acting alone and may have self-radicalized in the United States.

Nevertheless, the political climates of the Russian North Caucasus and Kyrgyzstan implicate vital U.S. interests. In place of speculation, we should seek to understand the impact of these regions on national and global security. For detailed background information on the many complex issues we discuss here, we suggest reading our list of resourcesregarding these conflicts at Lawfare.

The North and South Caucasus comprise a geographic area dividing Europe from Asia. The North Caucasus includes areas of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and regions of Russia. Chechnya and Dagestan, both Russian regions of the North Caucasus, are the focus of investigations into the Tsnarnaev brothers' backgrounds. The two are ethnic Chechens; Tamerlan was born in the former Soviet Union, while Dzhokhar was born in Kyrgyzstan. The family moved from Kyrgyzstan in 2001 to Dagestan, which borders Chechnya. Kyrgyzstan is not located in part of the Caucasus, and lies thousands of miles to the east of Chechnya and Dagestan, across the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. According to reports, Dzhokhar held a Kyrgyz passport before becoming a U.S. citizen last year.

Chechnya, a republic of over a million people, has clashed with the Russian state for nearly two centuries. The region has seen enormous violence and instability since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in a struggle for independence from Russia. The bloody separatist movement includes two wars in 1994 and 1999, in which Russian troops killed tens of thousands of Chechens, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and leveled several towns and cities -- including the capital, Grozny. As a result, the Kremlin has been accused by the international community and human rights groups of using disproportionate force to quell the Chechen insurgency. The State Department has warned U.S. citizens against travelling to neighboring Dagestan, where violence has spilled over.

The Chechen independence movement has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks on Russian targets, most infamously when Chechen insurgents killed over 300 people in a school in Beslan, Russia in 2004. They are also credited with a 2010 Moscow subway bombing which killed 40 and a 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow's airport in 2011 which killed 37. These incidents, and smaller-scale attacks throughout Russia, have brought the Chechen-Russian conflict into the international spotlight.

Chechens are predominantly Muslim and separatist groups have embraced radical Islamic ideologies and groups in recent years, including al-Qaida. Much of the violence in Chechnya has been linked to Wahhabism, an extreme form of Islam. Chechnya has also become a training ground for global jihadis. Jihadi inspirational figure Ibn al-Khattab, a Saudi by birth, fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and went on to become a leader of the Arab Mujahideen in Chechnya. He is quoted in a British documentary as saying "This case is not just a Chechen matter but an Islamic matter, like Afghanistan." Killed in 2002, Khattab was declared by many as a martyr to the cause, and is featured in online recruitment videos viewed by self-radicalized U.S. citizens among thousands of others.

There is a growing internal divide among nationalist Chechens, who seek only independence, and those who welcome foreign fighters waging global violent jihad. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev listed his world view as "Islam," linked to Islamic websites and videos of Syrian fighters -- whom Chechen fighters have joined -- and called for Chechen independence. The United States has carefully monitored the Chechen conflict but remained largely uninvolved.

Kyrgyzstan faces a similar divide between moderate Muslims and increasingly extremist sects. Kyrgyzstan has been a vital strategic ally to the United States since September 11, 2001. The U.S. military maintains an airbase in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, which is a crucial hub for military operations in nearby Afghanistan. Despite significant concerns about the region's instability, Kyrgyzstan remains one of the most hospitable countries to western interests in Central Asia. The U.S. government has pumped billions of dollars in aid and resources, aimed at bolstering the Kyrgyz government, strengthening economic development, and improving human rights. The hope is that by supporting democratization, western governments can fight terrorism and curb weapons proliferation.

Despite aid efforts, national security experts have cited Kyrgyzstan as a source of growing concern. The large country has a minimal police presence and an increasingly radicalized fringe of Islamic extremists. In 2010, tensions between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz erupted in violence in the southern city of Osh, resulting in the deaths of nearly 500 ethnic Uzbeks. Human rights groups have called for investigations and sanctions for what they describe as ethnic cleansing. The country's southern Batken region is considered lawless and US diplomatic personnel are largely prohibited from the area. US authorities fear these unstable conditions are ripe for Kyrgyzstan to become the "next Afghanistan" -- a volatile combination of a radicalized population and ineffective governance.

The South is religiously conservative and increasingly practices Wahhabism. The North, including the capital city of Bishkek, is far more secular and it is not uncommon to see women wearing high heels and short skirts. Surprisingly, if there is indeed any connection with Kyrgyz extremists, the Tsarnaevs lived in the northern city of Tokmok, close to Bishkek. In recent years, wealthy Islamic countries -- allegedly Saudi Arabia -- have flooded the country with money to build mosques and madrasas staffed with practitioners of Wahhabism. Kyrgyz officials warn of the destabilizing and radicalizing effects of this influence as the north and south grow further apart.

What remains unclear is if the insurgency in Chechnya or the Kyrgyz radicalization made its way to Boston. And if so, why and how?

Susan Hennessey and Ritika Singh are contributors to the national security website, Lawfare. Susan Hennessey is a third-year student at Harvard Law School and Ritika Singh is a research assistant at the Brookings Institution.