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Radical Islam fuels Chechen extremism

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 20. 2013 3:09AM
Ruslan Tsarni (center), uncle of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, speaks with police outside his home in Montgomery Village, Md., on Friday. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

A University of New Hampshire professor who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the role of identity in extremist politics studied the two Russian wars against Chechnya in an attempt to understand how the emotions associated with religion and ethnicity can be used to promote violence.

Her research suggests that the young Chechen brothers suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings were perfect targets for radical Muslims who flooded into Chechnya after the first war ended in 1996, and converted what had been a secular conflict into a religious war in 1999.

A fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam, known as the Wahabis, wanted to create an Islamic state, said Alynna Lyon, associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Director of Graduate Studies who has also published a paper on the role of extremist Islam in Chechnya.

"When the first war against the Russians wound down, lots of Wahabis came in from other Middle East nations and they came in for several reasons," she said. "One was to teach their version of Islam to Chechens, who had been isolated from it for 70 years under Soviet rule."

But many of them were also militant fighters who came in fresh from the battle in Afghanistan, anxious to continue the fight against what they saw as Russian infidels.

With years of war, the conditions were ripe for radicalizing a large portion of the population.

"I look at language and narratives," she said. "The language that leaders use and how that language changes through time. It becomes less and less tolerant, and filled with anger, hatred and religious symbols."

As the conflict became more religious and less secular, the extremists began to dominate.

"In war time, extremist religious ideologies tend to take on more meaning, and have more traction," said Lyon. "The Wahabis brought resources with them, like money. Partly because they come largely from Saudi Arabia, they have lots of resources, which was very helpful in their recruiting, particularly among young men."

In the age of the Internet, a young Chechen would not have to be on the ground in Cechnya to be exposed to such influences, she said.

"The older one of the two brothers could have been exposed to these types of ideologies in Cechnya, and then sought them out electronically later on," she said. "The Internet provides such access to people thousands of miles away, and we know young men are very susceptible."

If it is ultimately proven that the brothers were influenced by the Wahabi sect, largely by online contact, Lyon said it is important to keep the size of the sect in context.

"When we talk about radicalized Islamic ideologies, it's a very small population within Islam," she said. "Only about 10 percent of Muslims are fundamentalists, and only 1 percent of that 10 percent have a radical understanding of Islam."

According to Reuters, their uncle said the brothers came to the United States in the early 2000s and settled in the Cambridge, Mass., area.

"I'll say what I think is behind it - being losers," Ruslan Tsarni told reporters in suburban Washington. "Not being able to settle themselves and thereby hating everyone who did."

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