Chechnya, a Connecticut-sized republic that is part of the Russian federation, has been a hotbed of Islamic extremism since its failed war for independence in the 1990s destroyed the capital Grozny and most of the country’s infrastructure.
U.S. intelligence officials said if the two Boston Marathon bombers are linked to Chechnya-area terrorists, it would mark the first time the Russian conflict has spread to U.S. targets.
Chechens, inspired by an ideology which has evolved from nationalistic fervor into transnational Islamic extremism, have staged dozens of terror attacks in Russia since the war began in 1994.
Over the last decade, the separatist insurgency in Chechnya has taken on an increasingly jihadist tone, with fighters traveling to Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas to join other extremist groups, and staging terrorist attacks like the one in a theater in Moscow in October 2002, in which 700 hostages were taken.
One hundred and thirty of them were killed when Russian special forces flooded the theater with narcotic gas.
Chechen separatists were also behind a 2004 hostage-taking at a school in Beslan, Russia, that killed more than 330 teachers and pupils, and bombings in Moscow and other cities.
In 2010, a Chechen refugee — a one legged amateur boxer — was implicated in an Islamic extremist plot last to blow up a newspaper in Denmark.
Regional specialist Matthew Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called Chechnya an “open sore” on Russia’s southern border — an area known as the North Caucasus. The strategically vital area borders the formerly Soviet-ruled republics of Georgia and Azerbijan.
The whole region is a complex patchwork of ethnic and linguistic groups which are majorities in one area, minorities in another.
In 1991, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a Chechen politician and former Soviet air force general, overthrew the local communist government, staged elections for the presidency, which he won, and then unilaterally declared Chechnya’s independence from Russia.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Mr. Dudayev pursued “aggressively nationalistic, anti-Russian policies.” After three years, the Russian military began backing armed groups seeking to overthrow him.
On Dec. 11, 1994, Russian troops invaded Chechnya, taking the capital Grozny after a four-month long artillery campaign that reduced much of the city to rubble.
Chechenya’s largely Muslim population continued to resist the Russian occupation for several years — mounting a nationalist guerrilla campaign and even staging elections after Mr. Dudayev was killed in 1996. Former guerrilla leader Aslan Maskhadov was elected president and signed a provisional peace treaty in May 1997, leaving Chechnya’s eventual status undetermined.
Russia invaded again in late 1999 after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin blamed Chechen secessionists for bombings that killed scores of civilians in Russia, although there was no definitive evidence of Chechen involvement.
The Britannica says the wars in 1990s killed up to 100,000 people in Chechnya and displaced more than 400,000. Of the region’s almost 1.3 million residents, ethnic Chechens make up about 95 percent, according to Russian government statistics. The rest are a combination of ethnic Russians and other North Caucuses ethnic groups.