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Does the Chechen Connection Matter?

Does the Chechen background of the accused Boston Marathon bombers have any practical relevance to American foreign or domestic policy in the wake of the attacks? The attempts to answer that question have produced a wave of stories over the past week. It is natural–and rational–to want to understand the motive behind an act of violence such as this. Motive, second only to means, is knowledge that usually has practical implications: if we know why the perpetrators did what they did, perhaps we can stop this from happening again. Unfortunately, in this case, Chechnya and the wider Caucasus conflict are unlikely to provide much direction.

As Jonathan noted on Friday, some opponents of comprehensive immigration reform are using the Boston bombing to call attention to the dangers of amnesty. But today Rand Paul entered the fray by asking why Chechens were able to immigrate at all. In a letter to Harry Reid, Paul writes: “Why did the current system allow two individuals to immigrate to the United States from the Chechen Republic in Russia, an area known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, who then committed acts of terrorism? Were there any safeguards? Could this have been prevented? Does the immigration reform before us address this?”

I think it’s safe to say no immigration reform proposal–and certainly no such proposal that could pass Congress–would seek to prohibit residents of Chechnya by definition from resettling in the United States, and for good reason. Additionally, the Tsarnaev boys came here as youth, so it’s highly unlikely they raised, or should have raised, any red flags.

But Paul did touch on another element of the Caucasus: it is the home of an influential recruiting, training, and communications center for a major jihadist group, the Caucasus Emirate. But the Emirate denied responsibility for the Boston attacks: “The Command of the Province of Dagestan indicates in this regard that the Caucasian Mujahideen are not fighting against the United States of America. We are at war with Russia, which is not only responsible for the occupation of the Caucasus, but also for heinous crimes against Muslims,” it stated.

That statement was carefully calibrated and is a fairly accurate portrait of where you might find Chechen or Dagestani Islamist terrorists–and where you probably won’t. Boston falls into the latter category. The Caucasus Emirate, led by Doku Umarov, has no compunction about employing brutal methods in its struggle, but the Emirate is not at war with the United States. That doesn’t mean Americans will never be the target of Chechen attacks; terrorists from the Caucasus have shown up outside Russian territory, but there doesn’t seem to have been any major Chechen presence in Afghanistan, and there is considerable doubt as to whether there has been any Chechen presence fighting the allies in Afghanistan at all.

The Syrian civil war is a more likely place to spot a Chechen militant, and indeed the Caucasus Emirate apparently admitted to the death of Rustam Gelayev in Syria in August. Gelayev was the son of Ruslan Gelayev, a Chechen commander killed in the Caucasus in 2004. Though the Emirate won’t expend serious time, energy, manpower, or money fighting so far from home, fighting in Syria does give them the ability to hit the hated Putin regime from another angle.

Will the Tsarnaevs’ Chechen connection lead to more anti-terror cooperation between the U.S. and Russia? Unlikely. Just as the Emirate tends to carry out operations of which it will brag, rather than deny, so the Russian authorities like to pretend the Caucasus Islamists don’t exist in order to minimize the perception of danger and to sell the line that Putin has pacified the conflict and brought true stability to Russia. Whatever cooperation between the U.S. and Russia was already taking place probably won’t be affected much one way or the other by the Boston bombing, especially with the impending American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

What about the area of diplomacy? Here some, including Amy Knight of the New York Review of Books, are concerned. As Knight phrases it:

Will the US government now turn a blind eye to Russia’s increasingly brutal crackdown on its own democratic opposition because of overriding concerns about national security, just as it did after 9/11? Will the Kremlin wager that it can get away with its hard-line approach now that, as a result of the Boston attacks, the Obama Administration needs its help in counter-terrorism efforts?

This is an interesting question for the president of the United States in the parallel universe from which Knight apparently filed her story, in which the Obama administration has not already ignored Putin’s crackdown on protesters and other human rights abuses in order to obtain some mythical national security cooperation. But as anyone who has followed the administration’s failed “reset” efforts knows, for the Obama administration to stop caring about Russian human rights abuses, it would have to start caring about those abuses in the first place.

If the Tsarnaev brothers were radicalized, that appears to have taken place here in the U.S. The Tsarnaevs’ background in the Caucasus is interesting biographical material, but it does not seem poised to provide many answers, nor nudge American policy, foreign or domestic, in a new direction.