Troubled North Caucasus region still scene of conflict

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The Caucasus. (Photo: Wikipedia)

(CNN) — Conflict has racked the North Caucasus region for almost two decades.

The troubled region includes the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, as well as Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia.

Chechen rebels started out fighting for independence from Moscow in the 1990s, but in recent years, the violence has been aimed more at imposing Islamist rule and asserting their authority in the area.

The Chechen population of about 1 million is mostly made up of Sunni Muslims, who maintain a distinctly different cultural and linguistic identity from Russian Orthodox Christians.

The standard of living in the southwestern republic in the Caucasus Mountains is poor, compared with the rest of Russia. Unemployment is rampant, infrastructure is poor and infant mortality is high.

Tens of thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands of Chechens displaced in the course of years of fighting with Russian military and security forces.

Russian forces essentially regained control of Chechnya in 2000, following a long siege of the capital, Grozny. Since then, violence in Chechnya has ebbed, particularly following the death of Islamist militant Shamil Basayev in July 2006, in neighboring Ingushetia.

Chechen militants have, however, been involved in a series of terror attacks in Russia and the surrounding North Caucasus region in recent years, particularly in Dagestan and Ingushetia.

Aiding their efforts, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, has been an influx of foreign Islamist militants ready to fight for the cause.

“Chechnya’s long and violent guerrilla war has attracted a small number of Islamist militants from outside of Chechnya — some of whom are Arab fighters with possible links to al-Qaeda,” the think tank’s website said.

Chechen rebel attacks

Chechen separatists have claimed a number of high-profile terror attacks in Russia and the North Caucasus region but have not been involved in strikes on the United States.

In perhaps the most horrific attack, they took over a school in Beslan in the North Ossetia region in 2004. When the siege ended, more than 330 people had died — half of them children.

A Chechen rebel leader took responsibility for deadly bombings that rocked two subway stations in central Moscow in March 2010.

In addition, Chechen rebels held 700 audience members hostage in a Moscow theater in 2002. A Russian effort to free them resulted in the deaths of 120 hostages.

Chechen rebels were also accused of downing two Russian airplanes in 2004.

It’s not clear if the Boston Marathon bombing suspects — who sources described as brothers from the Russian Caucasus who moved to Kazakhstan before coming to the United States several years ago — were radicalized as a result of their apparent Chechen ties.

But the question is bound to arise.

A spokesman for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said the brothers had not been connected with the Chechen region for many years, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

“According to preliminary information, coming from the relevant agencies, the Tsarnaev family moved many years ago out of Chechnya to another Russian region,” spokesman Alvi Kamirov is quoted by Interfax as saying.

“After that they lived for some time in Kazakhstan and from there went to the U.S. where the family members received a residence permit. Therefore the individuals concerned did not live as adults in Chechnya.”

An official in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan told CNN the brothers were Kyrgyz passport holders and used those passports when applying for green cards in the United States.

U.S. officials told CNN that now that the suspects have been identified, agencies are going back through all relevant data — such as intelligence reports, intercepts, jihadist websites and passport records — to see whether there is any information about the suspects and if there are potential links to international or domestic terrorist groups.

Islamist groups

Ties between Chechens and other Islamist militant groups will probably come under closer scrutiny as a result of events in Boston.

Former U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted Friday: “If the two #Boston suspects were from #Chechnya, the next question is who sent them (if anyone) and beyond killing people, what agenda?”

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “Russian authorities, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have repeatedly stressed the involvement of international terrorists and bin Laden associates in Chechnya — in part, experts say, to generate Western sympathy for Russia’s military campaign against the Chechen rebels.”

The think tank points out that Zacarias Moussaoui, who was convicted for his role in the September 11 attacks, “was reported by the Wall Street Journal to be formerly ‘a recruiter for al-Qaeda-backed rebels in Chechnya.’

“Chechen militants reportedly fought alongside al-Qaeda and Taliban forces against the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance in late 2001. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan was one of the only governments to recognize Chechen independence,” the Council on Foreign Relations said.

Chechens have also reportedly been among rebel fighters in Syria.

‘Deadliest conflicts’

An International Crisis Group report published in October 2012 warned of the scope for more violence in the North Caucasus region.

“Europe’s deadliest conflicts are in Russia’s North Caucasus region, and the killing is unlikely to end soon,” it said. “The state has fought back against attacks, first claimed by Chechen separatists, now the work of jihad-inspired insurgents that have hit Moscow, other major cities and many Caucasus communities.

“But its security-focused counter-insurgency strategy is insufficient to address the multiple causes of a conflict fed by ethnic, religious, political and economic grievances that need comprehensive, flexible policy responses.”

The report warns that the recent revival of national movements could lead to increasing tensions in the future.

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