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AEI Director Of Russian Studies, Dr. Leon Aron, On The Chechen Angle

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HH: Joined now by Dr. Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute. He is one of the experts on Russian studies in the United States. Dr. Aron, I know you’re wall to wall today with people asking you about Chechnya and the civil wars there. Why don’t you start by giving us your reaction to the news that Boston bombers were of Chechen descent, and carried the grievances of those wars here evidently.

LA: Well, I think the best way to start is to say that Chechnya has been brutally, brutally abused by Russia and the Soviet Union, and then post-Soviet Russia, for almost two centuries. The war to conquer Chechnya started in 1817, and continues for almost 50 years. In fact, one of the masterpieces of Russian literature, a short novella by Tolstoy called Hadji Murat, is about a Chechen warlord who participated in that struggle against Russia. They held out longer than any other people of the multi-national Soviet, I mean Russian empire. They’re immensely brave, immensely devoted to their motherland, and immensely devoted to Islam. And I think that’s where the root of, maybe, of the current problem. If you notice, the Tsarnaev family hailed from Kyrgyzstan, and you may ask why they’d be in the small central Asian republic several thousand miles away from their homeland.

HH: Yes.

LA: Well, that’s because in 1944, Stalin accused them of collaborating with the Nazis, and every man, woman, child, baby, were herded into cattle cars, and railed over for several days and nights, often without water or food, to central Asia, essentially to be slave laborers there. And 200,000 people died as a result of this operation, about half of all the Chechens. So that’s why this family ended up in Kyrgyzstan. They came very briefly to Chechnya, and then shortly thereafter, emigrated. But the story of the Chechen abuse, or the abuse of Chechnya, did not stop there, of course. There were two wars in the 1990s. In ’94-’95, the capitol of Chechnya, Grozny, looked like Stalingrad. It was essentially house to house, and there was very little left. The problem is that somewhere along the way, the very secular struggle for independent became, started to radicalize, and started to morph into something that was totally different. The initial struggle was led by Dzhokhar Dudayev, incidentally, the namesake of the younger brother. He was a general in Russian Air Force. He would not know Koran if you’d give it to him. But the problem is that it started to morph, and one of the warlords in 1999, Shamil Basayev, said it’s no longer about the territory, it’s about jihad. It often happens. It happens in other conflicts where a secular struggle suddenly morphs into a religious war. And I think that’s what happened.

HH: And that’s why, for example, the Armenian genocide, and the Armenian decampment to the West did not follow, Armenian violence on the West did not follow. Their anger with Turkey continued, but it didn’t metastasize into an anti-American jihad.

LA: That’s correct. Correct.

HH: And so how virulent, when did it become virulent, and do you expect this is the first of many incidents in the United States, or an aberration?

LA: Well, you know, I was asked where should we know look for some sort of clandestine Chechen operation. And the answer is now, but it’s actually a bad thing. You know, there’s a globalization of this militant fundamentalism. Yes, these kids were ethnic Chechens, and judging by the younger brother, Dzhokhar’s equivalent, the Russian equivalent of the Facebook page, he still considered Chechnya his spiritual motherland. And there’s some videos there that point to his kind of politicization. But they could have been ethnic anything, and it could have been not Boston but something else, and it didn’t have even to be the United States. Look, the perpetrators of 9/11 were all middle class or upper middle class students or graduate students or engineers living very happily in Hamburg. And incidentally, the way it happened, they went to, in 1999, the future perpetrators of 9/11 went to Afghanistan, specifically Kandahar, to train to do, what do you think? To fight in Chechnya. And there, they were told by the al Qaeda leadership that no, we have enough people in Chechnya. We have something else for you in mind. So there’s this sort of internationalization of this militant fundamentalism that sort of goes from country to country. It does not necessarily involve people who actually live anywhere near the actual conflicts with the United States. But somehow, and here I can’t help you, I cannot explain this leap, somehow this fervent belief, fervent religious belief, becomes this sort of murderous terrorist conviction that they perpetrate. And you know, you can only do so much with a historic background. I think it provides some clues. But you still need this logical leap, which…

HH: And then, Dr. Aron, and I’m talking with Dr. Leon Aron of AEI, and I hope I get you back week for, I know you’re just wall to wall with people asking for your expertise. We’re taking a holiday from history. After 9/11, we read The Looming Tower, we got smart, but now we seem to think if we just leave Afghanistan as we have left Iraq, it will leave us alone. We have a minute to the break. Is that a false assumption?

LA: I think so. I think so. They’re not killing us for what we do, but for what we are.

HH: And that is not, in your opinion, any time going to change soon? Is it going to accelerate soon?

LA: I don’t know if it’s going to accelerate, but I think it will be very difficult to change. You have to change the psychology of a lot of people.

HH: Dr. Aron, if I can keep you for three more minutes through the break, I would love to do that, because I want to ask you exactly what your advice to policy makers would be in the United States, given that it’s hard to reverse engineer a jihadist in place, and to predict it. It’s how I began the program with John Burns of the New York Times London chief talking about the same problem in London.

— – –

HH: Dr., when I went to break, I was asking you, when a drone goes down, we know the Chinese gather it up and reverse engineer it. Whenever they get their hands on it, they can reverse engineer it. Can we reverse engineer home gown terrorists, whether in London or in Boston, or Major Hasan, and figure out those conditions that lead to that leap that you were talking about in the last segment, that it’s hard to explain? Is there going to be a formula for us to watch from?

LA: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I’m afraid this is the price we pay for being an open, welcoming society, for a nation that believes in laws, and trusts people, that every now and then, we’ll have to pay this horrific price. I don’t know how you could get into the heads of the people that don’t even look troubled. I mean, look at the kids, you know, at Dzhokhar’s Facebook page. Look at his, look at what his schoolmates said, and the neighbors. He seems perfectly normal. These people lead almost schizophrenic, completely polar existence, and I don’t think there’s any way to track it. But you know, provided, I mean, except for like technical things, right?

HH: Right, right, right,

LA: You know, look for clues in emails, look for clues in here and there, but clearly, in this case, it failed.

HH: And so I’m curious given your scholarly interests and your stature in the field, how much time will you spend studying this case?

LA: Well, this particular case?

HH: Yes.

LA: As soon as it became clear, but the problem, the thing is I started writing about this, my longest paper was published in 2003 on Chechnya, so I kept an eye on it since then.

HH: And so, but these boys, these terrorists in Boston, will you put them on the shelf after you absorb their information? Or will you be mulling over their particular circumstances in search for a pattern, because pattern recognition is everything in terrorism prevention.

LA: I tell you, I would love to do it, but I don’t think my institute would let me. There is, there are all kinds of other things to do, and believe me, with Russia as my prime interest…

HH: Yeah.

LA: I have my plate full here.

HH: 45 seconds, is Chechnya pacified at this point?

LA: About 90%, but what happened is all those terrorist groups and cells moved into the neighboring north Caucasian republics such as Dagestan and Ingushetia, which are experiencing essentially a low grade jihad.

HH: And so the metastasis continues. Dr. Leon Aron from the American Enterprise Institute, thank you for spending time with us on such a busy day.

End of interview.


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