Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, killed during the Boston rampage last week, and his surviving brother Dzhokar Tsarnaev, 19, who is charged by federal authorities in the series of abominable crimes, are doubtless the first Chechens many Americans will ever have heard of. And the news coverage of the last week will have been their first introduction to Chechnya and the Muslims of the Caucasus.
Naturally, law enforcement will seek to establish whether the brothers had ties to radical Islamists abroad. Anyone familiar with the modern saga of Caucasian Muslims will know that the idea is not farfetched. The YouTube account of Tamerlan Tsarnaev disclosed that his favorite videos included a production titled “The Emergence of Prophecy: The Black Flags of Khorasan,” predicting a victorious jihad in Central Asia. That concept is a favorite of al Qaeda and more generally of Saudi-inspired Wahhabism.
Wahhabi interference has been catastrophic for the Chechens. Since the mid-1990s, Wahhabism has fragmented the Chechens and the other Caucasian Muslims, with the pretext of theological differences. When they became Muslims, the Chechens and their neighbors cleaved to spiritual Sufism, especially the Qadiri Sufi order. The Qadiris are fundamentalist in many of their attitudes. But they maintain esoteric practices that Wahhabis hate virulently—including honoring the Sufi metaphysical guides at their tombs. Wahhabis condemn graveyards and memorials as “idols” and accuse Sufis of “polytheism” for placing, supposedly on an equal level with God, their spiritual mentors.
In addition to the Khorasan video, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s YouTube gallery featured, at the top of his “Islam” playlist, a three-part diatribe, in Arabic with Russian subtitles, by a leading Saudi Wahhabi cleric, Abdul Hamid Al-Juhani. Al-Juhani denounced the Sufis and, in particular, a conservative Kuwaiti Sufi Koran reciter, Mishary Rashid Alafasy, who is popular in many Muslim countries, including Chechnya.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s YouTube page included a fourth video (in the Caucasian Avar language with Russian subtitles) attacking Sufis. The video list further proffered an extended Koranic citation selected to justify jihad (in Arabic, but subtitled in English) by Muhammad Al-Luhaidan, one of Saudi Arabia’s most notorious Wahhabi extremists. Al-Luhaidan was dismissed from his post as head of the country’s Supreme Judicial Council by Saudi King Abdullah in 2009. Al-Luhaidan had opined that Arab television broadcasters showing “immoral” programs during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan could be murdered legitimately. Al-Luhaidan is also known for inciting the destruction of Sufi shrines. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, moreover, tracked the website of the Kavkaz Center, which disseminates jihad propaganda, and upon Tsarnaev’s death produced a considerable volume of material attempting to exonerate him. Finally, the SITE Institute noted that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the pair, followed 104 Twitter accounts, including one maintained by “Ghuraba,” or “Strangers,” that recommended a lecture series by the late al Qaeda cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki.
Chechens and other Muslims in the Caucasus are ancient residents of their territory, and have accepted Islam for only about two centuries. Previously, they worshipped stones and other features of their environment. They lived—and in many cases still survive—in mountaintop settlements, isolated by their languages, which are exceptionally diverse and mostly unrelated to others. The Caucasian Muslims’ remoteness left them isolated from outside powers until the late 18th century, when tsarist Russia decided to consolidate control over an area on the frontier between it, Christian Georgia, and the Ottoman and Persian empires. The Caucasian Muslims had no political state.