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Motive in Boston bombings: Look to tribal code of honor

The Tsarnaev brothers, suspects in the Boston bombings, are ethnic Chechens, stemming from a tribal society in which a code of honor and revenge plays a major role. As questions turn to motive, this code may be far more relevant than the brothers' views of Islam.

By Akbar Ahmed / April 22, 2013

In this image taken from a video, Patimat Suleimanova, the aunt of Boston bomb suspects, speaks to The Associated Press in her home in the Russian city of Makhachkala, in Dagestan, April 22. Ms. Suleimanova says Tamerlan Tsarnaev struggled to find himself while trying to reconnect with his Chechen identity: He 'seemed to be more American' than Chechen and 'didn't fit into the Islamic world.'

Patimat Suleimanova/AP Television/AP Photo

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With one suspect in the Boston bombings dead and the other in the hospital, investigators are now focusing on motive. Why should two young immigrants who had been given a home in the United States attack the iconic Boston marathon? Were they motivated by a specific interpretation of Islam pushing them to acts of violence? Or was it the geopolitical machinations of al Qaeda or some other terror group seeking to continue their violent struggle against the US? 
 
These important questions are being explored, but I suggest they will yield little. An additional line of inquiry needs to be pursued that looks at the tribal background of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a shootout with police Friday, and his younger brother Dzhokhar. Both of them are ethnic Chechens, stemming from a tribal society in which a code of honor and revenge plays a significant role.

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Consider this: The strike at Boston is, in all probability, the first terrorist attack in the United States in which the issues of tribalism and homegrown terrorism merged. True, 18 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 had Yemeni tribal backgrounds. But they planned their attack from abroad. In contrast, other terrorists, such as Maj. Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, were homegrown but did not have tribal backgrounds.

As an anthropologist, I’ve studied 40 remote tribal societies around the world, including in the Russian Republic of Chechnya, as part of my recent book, “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam.” Relations between the central government and tribal societies on the periphery range from indifference to outright hostility. The fiercely independent communities on the periphery feel the center is too inclined to use superior force to exploit their natural resources for its own purpose, threatens their customs, culture, and language, and pursues a policy of settling new immigrants in their lands in order to convert the local population into a minority.   

While there can be no defense or justification for the alleged actions of the two suspects, without an understanding of their cultural or historical context it will be difficult to make sense of their motivation. 

The Chechen people in the Caucasus region of Russia are a Muslim tribal people who have resisted Russian colonization of their lands for centuries. Like other tribal societies I studied, the Chechen are guided by a code of honor, in their case called nokhchalla. The code emphasizes courage, hospitality, revenge, and the protection of women. Each member of the tribe is linked to another and descended from a common ancestor. While Islam is part of their identity, it is Chechen tribal identity which defines them. 

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