Vladimir Putin's press secretary gave a reaction to the claim that two men believed to be behind the Boston Marathon bombing, were ethnic Chechens:
« Russia doesn't distinguish between its own terrorists and others - you can't mess around with them, they all deserve to be rejected. »
And, in a sense, this is true : more than 10 years, the Putin government has sought to portray Russia's Chechen problem as the same as the US' Al-Qaeda. During the Bush-era, Putin pushed the idea that the Chechen war was simply part of the global War on Terror. Its often said that this kept the US largely silent as Chechnya was flattened.
But the Chechen conflict is not this. It began as a war of independence in the 1990s and this remains the main cause for the continuing violence in the country and neighbouring parts of Russia.
The problem is, that the conflict has become more « Islamised » since it began. The scale of the violence, the killing of almost all the original, secular, independence leaders and the arrival of international Islamist brigades in Chechnya just before and during the second war, has had an effect.
Chechnya did become similar to Afghanistan as a proving ground for a small number of aspiring jihadists from around the world. The terrorism that has plagued Russia since 2000 has also usually had a strong Islamic element. The notorious Beslan school attack in 2006 and the Nord-Ost disaster were both conducted by a self-described jihadist. Suicide bombings have been the preferred method of attack.
The connection between fundamentalist Islam and Chechen terrorism isn't clear cut- the terrorist attacks that Russia faces are not so much the product of an Islamic ideology, but of the devastation its government wreaked on the Chechen republic for a decade. The Kremlin's narrative of the Chechen conflict as primarily a war between Islamic extremism and « civilised order » is not true.
The importance (let alone dominance) of jihadist fighters in Chechnya has been exaggerated. Rumours- usually attributed to the Russian state- that Chechens have been fighting alongside the Taliban have been consistently disproven, including by US scholars. Reports stating that the US army has encountered Chechen in Afghanistan have been proven to be wilfully mistaken.
The question is now, how will US public opinion look at a conflict and a country they have barely heard of. Most importantly, what might American outrage prompt the Russian government to do ? Already today, there is worrying commentary coming out of the States, some of the Tweets below are characteristic of one reaction.
"Boston Bomber born in Kyrgystan and grew up in Chechyna; a predominately Muslim nation known for Violence and Bombings"— Gasper Stare (@GSTARE11) April 19, 2013
Notice to Geography enthusiasts: Chechyna is not the same as Czech Republic. I repeat Chechyna is not the same as the Czech Republic.— Casey Luken (@CRLuken) April 19, 2013
The US media's scramble to find out more about Chechnya and to link its conflict to the US likewise potentially risky. It's unlikely these two men's cultural backgrounds as Chechen had no impact on what they decided to do in Boston this week, but how important Chechnya is to the story is still unclear. Russia's official reaction has been cautious so far, it's worth watching for Putin's personal response when it comes. Chechens' nervousness about being tied to the attacks are already being reported.
For the time-being we don't know why the Tsarnaevs chose to bomb the United States. But regardless of the reasons, the worry is, the Tsarnaevs may just have done in a day what the Kremlin has been trying to do for almost 20 years- painted all Chechens as terrorists.