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Were motives of Boston bombing suspects embedded in Chechen heritage – or not?

The suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were immigrants from a violent region of the Caucasus, but experts say disaffection with the US, rather than radical ideology, is the more likely motive.

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“These are not Chechen rebels, this is not a Chechen operation,” says Mark Ensalaco, a terrorism expert at the University of Dayton. “My hypothesis would be that these were lone wolves who may have been inspired by jihadist ideology, but who were acting more for psychological reasons and gravitated towards a radical ideology as they sought to overcome their disaffection [with their adopted land] by asserting a sense of identity.”

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The two brothers are thought to have come to the United States in 2002, by way of Turkey. They have relatives on the US East Coast, but their father lives in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan – one of the more radicalized regions of the Caucasus.

In one social media post, the older brother, Tamerlan, claims not to have “a single American friend” and says of Americans “I don’t understand them.” Yet the boxer who competed for New England in the 2010 National Golden Gloves competition is identified in a picture caption as dreaming of participating in the Olympics and preferring to “compete for the United States [rather] than for Russia.…Unless his native Chechnya becomes independent.”

While the younger brother was a naturalized US citizen, Tamerlan was a legal immigrant with a Green Card work permit.

Brookings’ Ms. Hill says the brothers may have ended up in Boston because the city has a sizable immigrant population from the Caucasus. But she adds that they were likely marked by a violent past.

“Their whole experience has been one of their people basically being persecuted, killed, maimed,” she theorizes. She says that Dagestan (where their father lives and where they seem to have spent some years) “has become one of the most radical places in Russia now, because there is just so much disaffection, both with the local government and with the central Russian government.”

Yet the picture emerging is more one of two brothers – perhaps where the older, more disaffected brother is influencing his younger sibling – who are lashing out as a means of asserting an identity, Dayton’s Mr. Ensalaco says.

“There is no evidence at this point that these young men received any type of foreign radical training, but there does seem to be strong evidence of a radicalization through social media and contact with radical websites,” he says, noting that Tamerlan appears to have visited sites including some affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Looking back over past decades, Ensalaco says there are famous cases of “lone wolf” terrorists who “latched on” to a cause or ideology as a pretext for carrying out their violent acts.

“I’d say these guys were identifying with this cause [jihadism] for psychological reasons,” he says, “but from what we’ve seen so far, any indoctrination they received came online” and may indeed have been one way – one or both men visiting websites but not necessarily contacting anyone at the other end.

“Their bombs weren’t very sophisticated, and they don’t seem to have had any escape plan,” Ensalaco says. “That doesn’t suggest any degree of training.”

Staff  writer Stacy Teicher Khadaroo contributed to this report.


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