Boston Marathon bombing: Why did they do it?


A makeshift memorial forms on the Boston Marathon route on April 18, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.


Don Emmert

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — The lockdown is over, the suspect is in custody, and Boston’s week-long nightmare is drawing to a close. But with the capture of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Watertown last night, after a 23-hour manhunt that paralyzed the city, the focus of the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing will shift inexorably from “who” to “why.”

President Barack Obama sounded a note of caution in this regard in his address to the nation following Tsarnaev’s arrest Friday night:

“In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there's a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions,” said the president.

“But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it's important that we do this right…. That's why we take care not to rush to judgment — not about the motivations of these individuals; certainly not about entire groups of people.”

But the small army of experts and pundits who have been relentlessly plumbing the history of the two brothers will undoubtedly forge on.

What might have prompted Dzhokhar, from nearly all reports a normal Americanized kid with scores of loyal friends, to plant a deadly explosive device at an iconic event in his adopted city?

Was it pressure from his older brother, Tamerlan, a 26-year-old with a troubled personal history, disrupted educational plans, and dreams of Olympic glory?

Tamerlan died Thursday night — perhaps from police bullets, perhaps from his own explosive devices, or perhaps from being run over by his own brother, as Dzhokhar sought to escape.

The fact that the pair were ethnically Chechen may turn out to be completely irrelevant to their motivation, if, in fact, it is finally determined that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were responsible for Monday’s bombing.

But it has been the major piece of information cited by experts and commentators struggling to make sense of an attack that defies rational explanation.

According to several reports, Dzhokhar himself was born in Kyrgyzstan. But as his page on the Russian equivalent of Facebook suggests, Dzhokhar identified closely with his Chechen heritage. 

Chechnya, at least officially, does not return the favor.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, an indefatigable proponent of social media, took to cyberspace with a vengeance to distance himself and his country from the brothers.

“We don’t know the Tsarnaevs, they did not live in Chechnya,” he wrote on Twitter. Besides, he added, “every resident of the Caucasus knows that Tsarnaev is an Ossetian name.”

Chechnya had become the world’s whipping boy, said Kadyrov.

“Everything that happens in the world, including tsunamis, are blamed on the Chechens,” he wrote. “Terrorism has no nationality. Now they’ll kill the second one and say that Kadyrov planned to blow up the White House.”

The Tsarnaevs might be innocent, he insisted, and even if they are not, “They grew up in the United States.”

Kadyrov maintained that the US intelligence services were responsible for the attack — a version of events that was echoed by the boys’ parents, in interviews from Dagestan, where they are now living.

Chechnya is an autonomous republic in the North Caucasus region of Russia, which has fought two brutal, bloody wars in an attempt to gain full independence. The breakaway republic is largely Muslim, and has lived in uneasy association with Orthodox Russia for centuries.

As investigators sift through the brothers’ history, combing Facebook and Twitter for hints of the coming carnage, they will doubtless turn to Moscow for help. Putin has already volunteered to assist the investigation in any way he can.

But the surface camaraderie almost certainly masks a certain schadenfreude.

Russia is still smarting from the “Magnitsky Act,” which brands 18 Russian officials as human rights violators and bars them from the United States.

Against this backdrop, one can imagine the Kremlin cackling at Washington’s discomfort as it attempts to unravel the motivation of these “Chechen terrorists.”

Moscow has had a long and rich history of violent brushes with Chechnya. Over the past 20 years it has endured numerous terrorist attacks ascribed to Chechen separatists.

The Russian capital has seen two metro bombings, in 1996 and 2010, an airport blast in 2011, and the siege of a Moscow theater in 2002. Chechen and Ingush militants took over a school in Beslan in 2004, which resulted in the deaths of more than 330 people.

The most devastating attack came in 1999, with a string of apartment house bombings that left close to 300 dead. The blasts were blamed on Chechen terrorists, although more and more evidence is emerging that the Russian intelligence services may have been complicit.

The prime minister at the time was a ruthless and ambitious man by the name of Vladimir Putin, who had served for years in the KGB; he would soon become President of the Russian Federation.

According to the conspiracy theorists, Putin wanted to drum up popular support for a second round of war with Chechnya, and instigated the bombings to mobilize the public. He also needed to destabilize the country so he could more easily take control.

If that was the goal, it worked: Chechens were almost universally despised in the more Slavic parts of Russia, where the term “person of Caucasian nationality” became an epithet more often spat than spoken.

This is the milieu from which the Tsarnaevs are said to have emerged.

Russia, at least, has already decided the motivation and the scope of the Boston Marathon bombing: it is nothing less than a manifestation of global jihad, which the United States has, in a sense, brought on itself.

Dmitry Babich, political analyst for the Voice of Russia, the government’s radio mouthpiece, delivered the verdict in a blistering piece on Friday:

“Well … indeed it’s a surprise for many people that these two men happened to be out of North Caucasus,” said Babich. “But I think it’s not very surprising … actually, the Russian government has warned a lot about the kind of refugees, about the kind of immigrants that the US and Western European countries are ready to accept.”

The Tsarnaevs received asylum in the United States in the early 2000s, according to Ruslan Tsarni, uncle to Dzhokhar and Tamerlan.

The US government grants asylum to people who cannot or will not return to their homeland due to a “well-founded fear of persecution.”

This, according to Babich, is a mistake.

“A lot of (these refugees) didn’t change their convictions,” he said. “A lot of them are die-hard Islamists … I can easily imagine that a lot of them consider both Russia and the US parts of the same western decadent civilization. In this situation they can wage their jihad not necessarily in a place like Syria or Iraq, but also in the US.”

The United States does not realize the danger it is in, he added.

“Obviously, this Islamist activity in the North Caucasus is not only a threat to Russia. It’s also a threat to the US. It’s also a threat to Europe, but somehow the Western countries just refuse to recognize it.”

Dzhokhar’s Russian Facebook account contains videos with a distinctly jihadist tinge, including one called “For those with a heart,” purporting to show the repression of Muslims in Syria.

The investigation may very well focus on international links, despite the fairly amateurish, if deadly, bombs that the brothers are suspected of planting on Monday.

But as investigators start down the long and bumpy road to any ultimate resolution of the issues of accountability and motivation in the Boston marathon bombings, only one thing is certain: there are many more questions than answers, and any rush to judgment is likely to be counterproductive.