When the Chechen roots of Boston bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became public, it threw me back in time to the end of September 2002 when I delved into Chechnya’s links to al-Qaeda’s global jihad.
I was in a small cubicle on the 6th floor of the North Tower of CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. For nearly a week, I had spent 16 to 18 hours a day wading through 251 videotapes from Osama bin Laden’s personal collection. Afraid they’d be mistaken as members of al-Qaeda, the Afghans who found the tapes buried them again until after the arrival of US troops. Then they dug them up and gave them to CNN’s Nic Robertson and Mark Phillips.
One by one, I shook the sand out of each tape, placed it in the deck and watched the video roll, taking notes I still have today. The video was graphic, at times horrifying and extremely alarming. CNN’s investigative producer in charge of the tapes, Henry Schuster, asked me to go through all of them to look for faces and places from Southeast Asia. I watched everything closely, aware we were seeing this before governments and security agencies.
Personally alarming for me was tape 106 on the al-Qaeda registry: it contained my report on Pope John Paul II’s 1995 visit to the Philippines. It was chilling to know Osama bin Laden watched the way his plots played out on media, perhaps laughing at the naiveté of journalists.
All this came rushing back when I heard "Chechnya" because that conflict appeared numerous times in bin Laden’s tape collection. Looking back at my notes, I found at least 11 tapes which focused extensively on Chechnya. Tape 135 shows Arab fighters in Chechnya ambushing a Russian convoy - suggesting the cameraman was shooting from the perspective of the Chechen fighters. Several tapes focused on the activities of a key leader, Ibn al-Khattab, who personally met with bin Laden.
Khattab is killed
Chechnya is a predominantly Muslim region in the North Caucasus where insurgents have been fighting for independence since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1994, the first Chechen war began, leading to 2 years of violence as Moscow responded with unbridled brutality.
In 1999, President Vladimir Putin increased Russia’s military presence in Chechnya, triggering the second Chechen war. Moscow says Khattab played a key role in leading Islamic militants in Chechnya’s neighboring region of Dagestan, right around the time the Tsarnaev family moved there.
Like Khattab, other Chechen fighters travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan to join the global jihad. Chechen militants trained at camps run by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and Chechen warlords have been added to the US list of terrorist suspects.
Khattab was killed in 2002, but in 2011, the UN included Doku Umarov, leader of the Caucasus Emirate, to the list of individuals associated with al-Qaeda.
The Boston Marathon bombing is the first time Chechnya has been linked to a terrorist attack in the United States. The reality is Chechen insurgents have largely kept their focus on Moscow, despite the links to and inspiration from al-Qaeda.
There are conflicting reports about where the two brothers were born. Kygryz media, quoting local police, suggest both were born in Kyrgyzstan, but family members said the younger brother, Dzokhar, was born in Dagestan. It seems they never lived in Chechnya but maintained close ties to its culture.
The 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev was born in 1986. A decade ago, the Tsarnaev family emigrated to the Boston area. Tamerlan may be named after one of history’s most ferocious warlords, a devout Muslim who called himself “the sword of Islam.” Tamerlan seemed to feel disconnected from American life. “I don’t have a single American friend,” he told a photographer. “I don’t understand them.