When two Chechen brothers bombed the Boston marathon, they not only brought terror and tragedy to an American city, they focused national and global attention on the Chechen people. The danger is that the small Chechen diaspora around the world will become stigmatized as a result—something that might help alienate and radicalize yet more of them.
Chechens already have a formidable reputation as gangsters. No matter how violent and powerful Russian organized crime may be, since the late 1990s, Chechen gangs have even established a niche for themselves as the “racketeers’ racketeer,” forcing other gangs to pay them protection money. Their brand name is so formidable that they have even become a franchise of sorts, other gangs paying for the right to be able to use the magic phrase “we work with the Chechens.” As one Russian policeman told me, “Everyone knows that the Chechens will stop at nothing to bring down anyone who messes with them, so no one is willing to risk it.”
Abroad, Chechens have been less active and violent, but still evident. In Europe, where there are perhaps 130,000 Chechen refugees, they have been identified in organized crime rings from Bulgaria to Germany.
Chechens have also cropped in a range of jihadist warzones. In the 1990s, some were fighting in Afghanistan, where they again earned a reputation for being tough, smart and ruthless warriors. Now, Chechens both from the country’s own population and incomers are fighting for the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front in Syria.
However, in both cases the Chechens are undoubtedly also the victims of exaggeration and demonization. The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs concentrates on Chechens and other gangsters from the North Caucasus, while the country’s underworld is really dominated by Slavs. Likewise, many of the accounts of Chechen jihadist militants around the world have been overblown or downright wrong.
Now the danger is that Chechens will increasingly be characterized as a “problem people,” a source of terrorists. They have been associated with a number of major incidents in Russia, including the seizure of a school in Beslan and a theatre in Moscow, as well as bombings in Moscow’s metro and Domodedovo airport. For the Kremlin, eager to present its heavy-handed pacification campaign in the North Caucasus as part of a wider struggle against jihad, this has been a long-standing goal.
But with the arrest last year of two Chechen terror suspects in Spain and now the Tsarnaevs, there is a wider risk than ever that Chechen and terrorist become associated in the public mind. This could make it even harder for Chechens feeling persecution to get asylum in the United States and, in a vicious cycle, contribute to a sense of alienation within a community already struggling with a hyper-masculine tradition and the refugee experience, providing fertile soil for radicalization and extremism.