, Salem, MA

April 20, 2013

SSU prof: Chechen ties may not indicate terrorism

By Bethany Bray

---- — SALEM — The events that have unfolded in the last 48 hours have left the public with more questions than answers. For many, the question at the top of the list is motive.

What could cause someone to plant bombs in a crowd of happy, cheering people at Boston’s premier sporting event?

An act of premeditated violence against civilians or noncombatants is terrorism, said Richard Levy, a political science professor at Salem State University. What remains unclear is whether the act was political terrorism.

Explosions at Monday’s Boston Marathon killed three and injured more than 100 people. On Thursday, authorities released the names of two suspects: Cambridge residents Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhozkar Tsarnaev.

The brothers, ages 26 and 19, are ethnic Chechens. It remained unclear yesterday if the duo have lived in Chechnya, an embattled region of Southern Russia, or the neighboring area. Both have lived in the U.S. for a number of years and attended local schools.

“What brought them to this is incredibly hard to speculate on,” said Levy. “Whether being Chechen has anything to do with it isn’t even clear. ... If (the suspects) were to have a political grudge, the Chechen movement has always been focused on the Russians, not the U.S. How that would transform is really unclear.”

Levy has taught a course titled “International Terrorism and Political Violence” at SSU for 19 years. He discussed the Marathon explosions — and whether they fit the definition of terrorism — with his students this week.

“Some of them were incredibly angry, not inappropriately,” Levy said of his students. “(But) very few of them said they would change their behavior because of this. ... It has struck a lot of the students very seriously. It’s taken it away from an abstract topic.”

If the Tsarnaev brothers are connected to the Boston Marathon explosions, it remains unclear whether the act was politically motivated. The difference between simple terrorism and political terrorism, Levy said, is a goal of “creating fear to change political behavior.”

“What they’ve done is clearly terrorism, but it’s unclear at this point that it’s political terrorism,” Levy said. “In the absence of an articulated desire for political change, it’s either not political terrorism or not very well done political terrorism.”

Chechnya has been in an “extremely violent struggle” with Russia for decades. Chechens have committed political terrorism against Russia, and vice-versa, he said.

“International Terrorism and Political Violence” is a class for upperclassmen at SSU. It’s mostly taken by political science, criminal justice, social work, peace and justice, philosophy and psychology majors, said Levy.

Bethany Bray can be reached at and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.