Friday, April 19, 2013

Contextualizing Boston


Like all American citizens, my condolences, thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Boston and the neighboring towns. What happened is truly horrific. My aunt lives in Cambridge, one of my best friends from high school goes to Tufts, my former college roommate lives in Lynn and I have several friends from Newton. Stay safe. 

In light of the recent reports of the identity of the terrorists, Twitter is all of a sudden fileld with "experts" in Russia and Eurasian security issues. While I do not claim to be an expert, and there certainly are some well-informed folks out there, having spent the past four years studying security issues in Rusia and Eurasia (while devoting another year to this) and spending time in the region, I know quite a bit about security threats in the region and would like to take the opportunity to contextualize the events in Boston.

While we do not know a lot about the Tsarnaev brothers, based on newly-released information (which will likely change as the authorities learn more), the Tsarnaev brothers are ethnically Chechen who lived in Kazakhstan for some time before moving to the United States. 

First, we cannot assume we know the motives of the Tsarnaev brothers. We do not know whether or not they were affiliated with an Islamist organization -- do NOT assume that they are Islamists. There are non-Islamist terrorists. Plus, the attack was not typical of al-Qaeda attacks. If it was an al-Qaeda attack, the group would have claimed responsibility for the bombing within 24 hours of the attacks.

If these brothers have any affiliation with an Islamist movement, then they were probably acting in a manner similar to the lone Time Square bomber in 2010.  Based off of initial reports, it appears these men "did not understand Americans." While we do not have all of the details yet, bear in mind that the Tsarnaev brothers could have come to the U.S. with a world-view that was influenced by under-ground Islamist ideology given their world experiences. They may not have been members of the jihadist movement, but they could have been exposed to the radical interpretations of Islam growing up and this subsequently affected their interactions in the U.S. and how they viewed the U.S. culture.

We also do not know whether or not the Tsarnaev brothers were affiliated with an organized Chechen movement.

Second, for security officials who are intimately involved in Chechen, Russian, Central and South Asian affairs (the five stans + Afghanistan), asymmetrical attacks launched by Chechens on civilian targets are not necessarily surprising. Allow me to explain: Chechen rebels have launched civilian attacks since Imam Shamil lead the Chechen fighters against the Russian Imperial army in the 19th century. In recent years, given the two Chechen wars in the 1990s, Chechens staged a hostage crisis at the Moscow theatre in 2002. The Chechens were responsible for the Beslan school hostage crisis in 2004 and the Moscow subway bombings in 2010. Russian and Eurasian security officials were expecting an attack at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, not the 2013 Boston marathon. 

Also, Russia and Eurasia has a history of conflict in which civilians voluntarily mobilize, relocate and fight as part of an insurgency, as a lone terrorist attacker, or in some other way. Chechen, Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh soldiers all fought in the Soviet army during the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan 1979-1989. The 40th Turkestan Army was headquartered in Tashkent and was the primary military force on the ground in Afghanistan. Throughout the Soviet invasion, while other special units joined the 40th Army, Moscow still referred to the forces in Afghanistan in public rhetoric largely as "the 40th Army."Central Asian fighters were particularly skilled linguists and could communicate with their ethnic counterparts in Afghanistan. After all, northern Afghanistan contains substantial Uzbek, Tajik and Turkmen populations. Furthermore, many of these fighters fought in the Tajik civil war from 1992-1997 and many Central Asian-based terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) take refuge in FATA/Khyber-Pakhtunkwa in Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan. After the Najibullah regime was overthrown in 1992, many rebels from Chechnya and the other Central Asian states fought in the Afghan civil war that lasted until the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. 

The point of that history lesson is to say that while Eurasia is a part of the world that does not get a lot of attention from the mass media and other counter-terrorism folks, this is a region that has a history of individuals voluntarily taking part of armed conflict. It is important to not read into the Boston attacks as a "new" form of terrorism. And again, the Tsarnaev brothers could have been previously influenced by radical ideology but acting alone without formal affiliations with these groups. 

Third, let's take a minute to analyze how the attacks affect U.S. high-level political relations with the regimes of Russi and the Central Asian states. To be frank, the Boston attacks is an "I told you so" moment for Moscow. For a long time, Moscow has been warning the U.S. about the threat of Chechen rebels to their regime. The 9/11 attacks were also an "I told you so" moment for Moscow. From the Russian perspective, while NATO expansion remains a security threat, which is a Cold War hangover, the other major security threat is the southern border with the Central Asian republics. Dating back to the period of Russian colonialism of Turkestan (Central Asia) in the 19th century, through the Basmachi revolts that began around 1915/1916 (really accelerated when grain shipments on rail lines were cut off due to World War I), Moscow has always feared its southern border with the primarily Muslim inhabitants of Central Asia as a security threat. Moreover, the Russian regime depicts the Chechens as a violent group. In fact, the spillovers of violence to Ingushetia and Daghestan have only given the regime more region to fear the region. For background, please read the recent International Crisis Group report on the Northern Caucuses. When I lived in Vladimir, my Russian friends feared Chechen terrorists. This is a movement and demographic that is viewed by people in the region as violent and unstable.

In Uzbekistan,  President Islam Karimov warns that Islamist militant groups also threaten the regime. The Tashkent bombings in the late 1990s launched by the IMU is one example, while others in the regime will claim the Adijan events is another example (although what elapsed is not too clear and there is evidence to suggest the contrary). Karimov, like Putin, has manipulated the fear of radical Islam to institute a police state, through the arbitrary arrest and detainment of civilians. To further illustrate, I refer you to read the International Crisis Group's reports on Uzbekistan. What do I mean my cracking down on religious practice? There are numerous things -- such as regulating the the Kurans that can be printed and distributed, requiring all religious institutions to register (and re-register) with the state, requiring only state-purchased microphones to be used in Mosques. For more background, read Adeeb Khalid's book, "Islam After Communism." Not only in Uzbekistan, but in all of the neighboring Central Asian states have pursued laws to curtail the free practice of religion under the guise of eliminating extremism. 

Please let me be clear: I am not arguing that there are not terrorists or bad people in Central Asia and Russia. I am arguing, however, that the more that authoritarian regimes crack down on their populations, oppress human rights, frame innocent civilians as radical jihadists by planting drugs in their home and then arresting them afterwards, only to detain and torture them in prisons (all too common in Ferghana and Namangan), the more radical ideology thrives. Authoritarian clamp down only breeds more resentment and fuels the development of home-grown terrorism.

So for the region's regimes, the significance of the Boston attacks is the following: on the one hand, it is an opportunity for them to say "I told you so." And yes, terrorism is an issue in the region. On the other hand, the Boston attacks is absolutely humiliating for the regimes of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan (I've seen reports that the brothers lived in both places). Boston can be another excuse for authoritarian regimes to further clamp down on their people.

The U.S. must remain strategically engaged in Russia and Eurasia in a way that is not condescending towards the regimes, but is constructive. This is challenging and to date, U.S. diplomacy has not quite mastered the balance of strategic engagement with democratic development. However, Central Asia has remained that the U.S. DoD and DoS have repeatedly ignored and or devoted minimal attention. Yet, it has a violent history and the systemic sources of violence remain. 

I support the appraisal given by Under-Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake in his Congressional testimony in February 2013:

"The limited threat currently posed by Islamist militants to Central Asia, however, is no reason for complacency or retreat. The Central Asian states face a broad range of challenges that, as in many other societies, could fuel radicalism in the long run and threaten the security and interests of the United States and our allies. Addressing those challenges demands our continued vigilance and engagement in this region."

The DoD and DoS must now put their money where their mouth is, and actualize U.S. "continued vigilance and engagement" in the region.

Finally, in times of crisis, it is important to make decisions based on facts. Strategic policy decisions should not be made on the basis of tactical operations. Officials must gather all of the information and initiate an appropriate response based on facts, not  emotions.

Alas, these are my initial reactions to the reports on the identities of the Tsarnaev brothers and I hope this blog post helps to inform the public about security threats in the region. I will update the blog as more details are disclosed to the public. Until then, my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Boston. 

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