MOSCOW, Russia — As investigators patch together Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s final years, at least one matter seems clear: the suspected Boston bomber’s radicalization resembles that of many frustrated young Muslims in the volatile North Caucasus region of his ancestors, where life was largely secular under Soviet rule before descending into religious conflict.
While the 26-year-old Chechen’s turn toward Islamic extremism may have occurred before his 2012 trip to predominantly Muslim Dagestan, the alienation, resentment and, eventually, empowerment he may have experienced follows a narrative experts say has contributed to the flourishing in that region of Salafism, a strain of fundamental Islam that advocates Shariah law.
Salafism has grown in prominence in the North Caucasus over the past decade, amid disillusionment with local authorities. Its devotees, marked primarily by their long beards, have arisen — both in rural and urban areas — as an opposition force to Sufism, a more moderate strain of Islam that is sanctioned by local authorities.
“This is something that’s completely new,” said Mairbek Vatchagaev, a former Chechen official and an expert on the North Caucasus. “If earlier, adherents were mostly rural, uneducated villagers from the mountains, then today it’s the other way around: it has become the ideology of the elite and the intelligentsia.”
Salafism first took root in the late 1990s during the chaotic scramble in Chechnya to form a government after the rebels’ defeat of Russian forces in the first Chechen war. As the field commanders who helped win the war grew increasingly radicalized, thanks in part to the influence of Arab fighters, tensions mounted between them and moderates in separatist President Aslan Maskhadov’s fledgling government.
Vatchagaev, who served under Maskhadov, says the growing influence of radical Salafis, such as infamous warlord Shamil Basayev and chief ideologue Movladi Udugov, forced Maskhadov to incorporate them into his ruling coalition. That move, he added, “split” Chechen society and resonated particularly in neighboring Dagestan, the spiritual center of the Caucasus.
The invasion of Dagestan by Chechen militants in 1999 helped spark the second Chechen war, which resulted in a crushing Russian military response and the swift installation of a puppet government loyal to Moscow.
While the new Chechen government cracked down on fundamentalism, authorities in Dagestan increasingly promoted Sufism as a counterbalance, alienating the burgeoning Salafi movement, according to a study on Islam in the North Caucasus conducted late last year by the International Crisis Group.
These anti-fundamentalist campaigns led to the complex and often violent sectarian conflict — especially in Dagestan, but also in Chechnya and Ingushetia — that continues today. Young men frustrated by rampant corruption, broken local institutions, and the perceived collaboration between Sufis and local authorities have found themselves increasingly attracted to Salafi teachings that emphasize Islamic, not secular, law.
Those particularly disenfranchised, including those targeted by marauding security forces in recent years, often turn to the local Salafist insurgency led by Chechen warlord Doku Umarov and united under the jihadist Caucasus Emirate network.
According to Sergey Markedonov, an expert on Islamic violence in the Caucasus at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, the dearth of a hierarchy in Islam has also contributed to the struggle between Sufism and Salafism, opening the door for local extremists to attract their own followings.
In an era of globalization, open borders and the internet, he adds, local Salafi leaders who have studied abroad, typically in the Middle East, and who command a strong presence online have found currency among disillusioned and increasingly religious youths.
One such figure was the Siberian-born convert Said Buryatsky, who before his death in an anti-terrorism operation in 2010 was credited with attracting new cadres of young militants through his captivating video sermons denouncing the authorities and calling for Islamic rule.
“For potential radicals, it’s not necessary to stand hand-in-hand with guys from Al Qaeda,” Markedonov said. “If you have access to the internet and you’re able to read something from Doku Umarov or his associates, you could be radicalized.”
The role of local militant trainers has received renewed attention after recent reports claimed Tsarnaev may have associated with members of the Salafi extremist movement during his 2012 trip to Dagestan.
The liberal Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, known for its investigative journalism, reported last week that Tsarnaev had caught the attention of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) after he had hooked up with Mahmoud Mansur Nidal, an alleged Salafi recruiter for the insurgency. The paper cited anonymous sources in the security services.
Tsarnaev was also reportedly in contact with William Plotnikov, a 21-year-old Russian-Canadian boxer-turned-convert who traveled to Dagestan several years ago to study Islam — only to join the insurgency before being killed last summer by security forces during an anti-terrorism operation. Tsarnaev allegedly left Dagestan only days after Plotnikov’s death.
Whether local Salafi extremists actually helped indoctrinate Tsarnaev remains unknown and undocumented.
But the pieces of the Tsarnaev puzzle, however disparate, so far point to a life undone in recent years — a series of events that could have made him easy prey for enterprising Salafist recruiters. They included his failure to pursue his dream of a boxing career in the United States, as well as a reportedly stalled attempt to gain US citizenship.
Tsarnaev’s Chechen roots, meanwhile, may have provided the appropriate context to rediscover religion and, ultimately, extremism, according to Mark Galeotti, an expert on global terrorism at New York University.
“For a certain type of person in a certain cultural situation who’s looking for an answer, jihadists can provide it,” he said.