Region that shaped Tsarnaev more volatile

Source: CNN
Source: CNN

(RNN) - After the attack on the Boston Marathon a year ago, many Americans wondered what had motivated two brothers with roots in a remote region in southwest Russia to commit such a horrific act of violence against innocent people.

A political scientist at a Pennsylvania university believes that extremist fighters in the Caucasus aspire to create an Islamic state with a rule similar to the Taliban's reign in Afghanistan that held sway prior to America's military intervention following 9/11.

Lisa Baglione, Ph.D., who is the chair and professor of political science at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, is also an expert on the Caucasus region of Russia where Islamic radicalism meets the heavy hand of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That part of the world came under scrutiny after the deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. The political environment in the region of southwest Russia is a cauldron of extremism and ethnic infighting that is a breeding ground for terrorists, Baglione said.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers who carried out the Boston attack, had spent several months in the Dagestan territory of the Caucasus before the bombing. Many scholars have pointed to that time as a turning point for the man who would lead his younger brother to allegedly bring terror to one of New England's most iconic events. Dagestan is home to the Caucasus Emirate, the umbrella group for Islamic fighters in the Caucasus. The region derives its name from the huge mountain range that stretches from the Black Sea eastward to the Caspian Sea.

"One year after the Boston Marathon bombings ... the potential for terrorism still emanates from Dagestan," Baglione said. "The world was on notice during the Sochi Olympics, worried about the Caucasus Emirate, the Islamic fighters with roots in Dagestan. Some researchers and reporters have linked the Tsarnaevs' actions as self-motivated terrorism to impress the group."

Islamic fighters take charge in Caucasus

The Emirate movement has grown out of two wars Russia has fought in Chechnya. The first was largely against Chechen separatists before the conflict morphed into a Russian fight against Islamic fundamentalist forces, Baglione said. Following the second more successful military operation by Russia, Putin in 2007 handed over the job of maintaining law and order to strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. But not before Chechen Jihadists fled to Dagestan from Chechnya to set up shop.

"Chechen Jihadists are in Dagestan hiding and plotting to form an Islamic state similar to the Taliban's," Baglione said. "That is a problem for Russia and the world."

Kadyrov has been Putin's answer to the problem in Chechnya.

"Chechnya became calm by comparison after Kadyrov took over," Baglione said. "Because of the violence the government uses. The leader [Kadyrov] is very brutal. He has his own private military and a number of journalists have been killed, and people disappear."

Dagestan is ethnically diverse with more than 30 different nationalities, Baglione said, adding that she is puzzled why Putin has not appointed a forceful leader to take charge there. She said the large number of ethnic groups may be hindering Putin from selecting a strong leader.

Putin has his own war against terror

Russia is feeling the pain from the Islamic militant dream to set up a giant Islamic state that would adjoin Iran and Turkey on the south. In 2012 there were eight suicide bombings in the region. In 2013 that number jumped to 54, including a late 2013 suicide bombing at a train station in Volgograd that killed more than a dozen. The next day a trolley bus was the target of a similar attack that claimed the lives of at least 14 people, again in Volgograd, which is located hundreds of miles north of the Caucasus.

The bombings set off fears of more bloodshed, this time at the Olympics, which took place only 400 miles from Volgograd, previously named Stalingrad. But weeks before the Games, Russia took out one of the leaders of the movement, Chechen warlord Doku Umarov. However, the structure of terrorist networks that give birth to terror is not always centrally directed, Baglione said.

"The way terrorist movements work is that they are not so much as direct orders to conduct an act, but there is a sense you should hurt people and Westerners," she said.

The Tsarnaev brothers did just that year ago, and forever changed how Americans view and prepare for major sporting events. The monthly attacks at the southern fringes of the Russian Federation do not receive the same level of attention in the West.

The Caucasus is a poor region but important to Putin because of its natural resources, Baglione said. The Russian leader has used economics, especially gas supplies, as an effective weapon against nearby eastern European neighbors as well as the West.

The south region of the Russian Federation is made up of several republics with varying degrees of autonomy. Boris Yeltsin, Putin's predecessor, had difficulty ruling it, and the situation has been the same for Putin. But its oil and gas reserves make it worth the fight, Baglione said. Oil and gas fields are scattered throughout the region, and important energy pipelines crisscross the Caucasus.

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