Center for Strategic Communication

In the aftermath of last week’s Boston Marathon bombing, many are focused on what motivated this violent act of terrorism, putting the spot light on the lives of the suspected bombers – Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Given the suspects cultural and familial ties to the Russian North Caucasus, a region Ayman al-Zawahiri has identified as one of al-Qaeda’s three primary battle fronts, many are questioning whether the attack was a part of an international terrorist plot. Recent discoveries such as Tamerlan’s 2012 trip to Dagestan and his social media links to jihadist propaganda have only reinforced this theory.

Currently, there are no conclusive links between the attack and the Jihadi terrorist movement in the North Caucasus.  However, some background on the latter may help add some context.

ethnicMapThe North Caucasus has a long history of violent insurgency. The first instance goes back to the late 18th century, when local ethnic groups waged gazavat –or jihad– against the Russian empire. More recently, the struggle for Chechen independence engulfed the region in bloody conflict throughout the 1990’s.  During this period, radical Salafi extremism gained a foothold through the import of international terrorists and efforts of Islamist charity organizations.

This foreign influence helped to transform a nationalist movement into a terrorist network motivated by radical extremist ideology. Today, the Caucasus Emirate (CE), the regional umbrella terrorist organization, subscribes to the same violent brand of Salafism as al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

Since the CE’s establishment in 2007, its insurgents have been involved in over 2,200 violent incidents causing approximately 5,000 casualties. The network actively seeks to increase its influence beyond the North Caucasus, not only deeper into Russia, but also abroad.

In 2012, Azerbaijani security forces prevented a plot organized by the CE that included blowing up the Baku Eurovision Song Contest. The CE also participates in jihadi campaigns abroad through cadre transfers. Although these connections are often difficult to confirm, occasional videos posted by foreign Islamist groups reference the CE or show its affiliates. Such videos and other uncorroborated reports have placed North Caucasus fighters in Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria.

Since 2010, at least 13 suspected terrorists from the North Caucasus have been arrested throughout Europe – charged with various terrorist plots and CE funding activities. Though these suspects were from the region, they were not all explicitly linked to the CE.

One of the principle connections for the CE to the global jihadi movement is via its affiliated websites, which disseminate extremist ideology and provide a platform for Salafi theological discourse. The sites also provide information on other jihadi movements and guidance on how to be a terrorist – detailing everything from what clothes to buy to how to build explosives.

In response to the Boston attack, the Dagestani sector (DV) of the CE released a statement to distance itself from the Tsarnaev brothers: The CE is ‘not fighting with the United States. We are at war with Russia.’ While the CE may not have been directly involved in the attack, there are many problems with the validity of this statement. First, it was not signed by the DV emir – allowing room for deniability or retraction. Second, it attempts to justify this claim by referencing a 2012 statement by the CE emir banning the targeting of civilians – even though such targeting remains prevalent. Third, the notion that the CE is not at war with the US is contradictory to its ideology.  In the CE’s founding declaration, the United States was listed as its enemy (though, later replaced with ‘everyone who wages war against Islam and Muslims’). After being criticized for the statement on its website, the DV responded: ‘America is undisputedly the current leader of the infidel war against Muslims … without a doubt all countries of infidels are enemies for us’.

While the CE is ideologically opposed to the US, its operational capacity has not demonstrated an ability to carry out an attack on American soil to date. Almost all plots that involved suspected CE affiliates in Europe allegedly also involved either al-Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Taiba, both of which are better funded and have a proven international reach.

At this juncture, one can only speculate that the Tsarnaevs are linked to the CE. However, it is very likely that the CE had, at least, an indirect influence on their actions.