Before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, few Americans had heard about the division between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam, and even fewer could tell the difference between them. That promptly changed with al-Qaeda and the war in Iraq.
Regardless of what motivated the two young Chechen brothers to allegedly carry out the deadly Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, Americans will now have to delve into the long and murky history of the Russian-Chechen conflict. It has its roots in the 19th century struggle against Russian domination of the Caucasus and in Joseph Stalin’s decision after World War II to uproot the entire Chechen nation from their native land and deport them to Central Asia. Tens of thousands died en route and in the inhospitable steppes where they were unceremoniously dumped without food or shelter.
The latest chapter of the conflict was inaugurated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Chechnya demanded independence, and Russia fought two wars to keep it in the Russian Federation. The wars were exceptionally brutal, with both sides committing war crimes, kidnapping, murdering and displacing civilians and engaging in acts of undisguised banditry.
Chechnya remains part of Russia, but only nominally. To defeat the separatists, Russia gave a free hand in the republic to Ramzan Kadyrov, a former field commander of the Chechen rebels who switched sides and went over to the Russians. Kadyrov is loyal to the Kremlin but rules Chechnya with a mailed fist. Russia pours billions of dollars into Chechnya but has no say in what goes on there. Nor does anyone else. Kadyrov’s opponents have wound up dead in places like Vienna, Moscow and the United Arab Emirates.
Meanwhile, a low-grade rebellion goes on, drawing on the discontent of ordinary Chechens, brutalized by Kadyrov and his henchmen, creating an enduring refugee problem and a large global diaspora. The rebellion has become more radical, often embracing violent forms of Islam and spreading to other parts of the Caucasus.