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Opinion

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.

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Nokhchalla, Islam, and traditional tribal life have been hammered by Russia over the last century. The two Boston terrorist suspects  were from the Tsarnaev clan of the village of Chiri-Yurt in Chechnya. The Tsarnaev clan was, like so many other Chechens, forcibly moved to Kyrgyzstan by Stalin in the 1940s and lived in Tokmok near the Kazakh border. Most of the clan returned to Chiri-Yurt in the late 1960s. Yet three decades later, the people of Chiri-Yurt would find themselves embroiled in a savage war following Chechnya’s declaration of independence from Russia. 

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In 2000, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who would later be assassinated, asked a village leader in Chiri-Yurt what the villagers wanted, as recounted in her book “A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya.” He responded, "People are in such despair...What did people dream of in the concentration camps?...Each village today is a concentration camp." 

The suspects’ family fled the wars in Chechnya to Kyrgyzstan, and the youngest brother was born in Tokmok in 1993. From there they reportedly moved to Chechnya, then to Dagestan, and finally immigrated to the United States.

The two suspects arrived in the US as refugees about a decade ago, one still a boy, the other, a teenager. They had fresh memories of disruption, and emerged from a region in which Chechnya had witnessed genocide in the 1990s. By the end of the decade, the slaughter had resulted in the deaths of about 10 percent of the entire Chechen population and the displacement of one-third.

The scale of the killing and its brutality caused a distinct mutation of nokhchalla, emphasizing revenge and resulting in the tragic assaults by Chechen terrorists on the Beslan School, the Moscow Theater, and the Moscow metro. The same phenomenon can be seen among suicide bombers in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, by Al Shabab in Somalia, and by Boko Haram in West Africa. These groups say explicitly:  Our aim is to cause pain to your loved ones so you know what we suffer. 
 
Arriving in America, the Tsarnaev family found themselves suspended between two worlds, disconnected from their old home and not quite fitting into their new one. Their own words reflect the isolation, pain, and anger they felt feeling rejected by both the broader American community and the Muslim community. The older brother complained of having no American friends. On his Twitter feed, the younger brother spoke of Muslims in the mosque asking him questions about his Muslim status and when he had converted to Islam. As an ethnic Chechen, he would have found that offensive. 

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