It wasn’t long after reports revealed the prime suspects of the Boston Marathon bombing and the Watertown shootout as two ethnic Chechens, Tamerlan and Jokhar Tsarnaev, that tales of heroism in the press were displaced by the familiar frenzy of terrorism hysteria. From absurd notions that immigration reform should be scotched because the Tsarnaev brothers were both naturalized Americans to the bizarre eagerness to profile America’s Muslim minority, the overreaching flip side to the courage and humanity shown by ordinary Americans in Massachusetts and Texas is on keen display.
Unfortunately, this hysteria has not been limited to the realm of domestic public policy. There has been at least one call already that one of the lessons of this tragedy is that we should write blank checks to authoritarian regimes in the name of counterterrorism. Writing for The National Interest, Jacob Heilbrunn makes the dubious claim that, somehow, the bombings might have been avoided if only Washington had been less critical of the Kremlin’s flagrant and systemic abuse of human rights in the region. “Nothing illustrates the hollowness, the grandstanding of American foreign policy better than the fact that America has antagonized the one country that might have been able to help avert the blasts in Boston,” Heilbrunn says, referencing the “Magnitsky list.”
There are, to be sure, areas in which United States and Russia certainly have common interests, intelligence sharing among them. But the premise that recent terrorism in Boston was directly or indirectly allowed by Washington’s sanctioning of a gaggle of Russian human rights violators is wholly unconvincing. Just as unbelievable is the idea floated in Heilbrunn’s article that Moscow somehow appreciably “gets” a region in which pro-Moscow forces regularly commit atrocities in an attempt to quell a raging Islamist insurgency. In reality, the harsh milieu of the North Caucasus—and especially its radicalization—could just as easily be understood as a product of Putinism itself.
“It is a mistake to see Chechnya and the North Caucasus as a local front in a global war,” notes Miriam Lanskoy of the National Endowment of Democracy, who coauthored The Chechen Struggle: Independence Won and Lost. “Even though the religious radicals have gained the upper hand within the resistance, nationalism remains very strong. Most acts of terrorism related to the North Caucasus have obvious domestic causes grounded in local abuses and grievances and have no known international links.”
Although terrorism and radicalism are real and present dangers throughout the North Caucasus, fundamentalist Islam is not an immutable part of the regional character. In fact, while Chechnya’s ethno-national wars of independence in the 1990s ended with its devastation and Russian suzerainty, it was the brutality of the Russian occupation—and the brutality of Russia’s local proxies—that has helped incubate an Islamist insurgency that now ensnares much of the historically Sufi Islam-practicing region. Radicalization is a more recent phenomenon, fully congealing only earlier in the new century as Saudi-exported Salafism found fertile ground among a population devastated by years of war and abuse with few genuine outlets for dissent.
This isn’t to say that North Caucasus terrorism should be ignored, but the region’s bloody context bears consideration. While temporarily overlooking human rights abuses in friendly strongman regimes in exchange for counterterrorism assistance may seem sensible, the practical results can be disastrous. Besides fomenting anti-Western sentimentinmovements thattend to be overwhelmingly local or regional, “counterterrorism” action is often used as a cover by autocratic states to suppress everything from secular resistance movements to internal dissent. Indeed, Akhmed Zakayev, the leader of the moderate Chechen government-in-exile, calls the bombings a “gift to the Kremlin and Putin.”
At the height of the Global War on Terror, giving free rein to dictators across the Caucasus, the Middle East, and Central Asia proved something of a Faustian bargain. In many of cases, it only had the effect of realizing a self-fulfilling prophecy: choking off the freedom to dissent in the name of counterterrorism only laid the ground for more fundamentalist ideologies to take root. In turn, local resistance movements made bargains of their own: they increasingly obtained support from radical Islamists for money, men, and materiel for the small price of adopting hardline ideologies. In Syria, embattled ruler Bashar al-Assad’s claims tying the domestic insurgency to radical Islam began as a way to justify a campaign of brutal repression. Outgunned and largely isolated against Assad’s Iran-backed forces, Syrian rebels have welcomed the supplies and support of radical Islamist patrons.
Policymakers shouldn’t rush to write blank checks to autocrats seeking a free hand in the name of counterterrorism. In the North Caucasus, cooperation on legitimate security issues shouldn’t require Washington to surrender its position on human rights. If the bombing suspects are in fact products of the North Caucasus’s restive socio-political landscape, it is less likely because of an overabundance of Western attention to Russian repression in the region and far more likely because of a deficit. Russia, which is in a race against time to pacify the North Caucasus before the 2014 Winter Olympics (hosted on the site of a Moscow-perpetrated genocide against the native Circassian peoples), may be looking to use the Boston bombing as an opportunity to launch a fresh crackdown after the apparent failure of its corruption-riddled “economic development” approach. As the United States moves from the initial shock of the Boston incidents and into the policy phase, Washington should be wary of anti-democratic states looking to hide repression behind a screen of “counterterrorism cooperation.”
Though the Boston terrorists’ personal (but not necessarily organizational) links to the North Caucasus appear increasingly certain, the United States and the West should not fall prey to counterproductive, albeit emotionally satisfying, calls to subordinate their fragile moral leadership on democracy and human rights to the elusive promise of “help.” Ignoring state repression should not be a prerequisite for counterterrorism cooperation. By all means, U.S. officials should work with counterparts in Moscow on a tactical level; the 2004 Beslan school massacre is proof enough that terrorism is a common threat. But the United States should not refrain from highlighting the human rights abuses and anti-democratic impulses that have lubricated the North Caucasus’s slide from nationalist separatism to Islamist radicalism.