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Moscow withdrew its forces after a two-year fight but Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, sent them back in 1999, this time crushing the independence movement and putting in place a hand-picked loyalist leader whose son now runs the region with an iron fist.
The two Chechen wars killed tens of thousands of civilians, mainly as a result of mass Russian bombardment of the capital Grozny and villages in the mountains. Hundreds of thousands of people were driven from their homes.
During and after the conflicts, Chechen fighters increasingly adopted Islamist rhetoric and the tactics of ever-deadlier and more brazen attacks in Russia, frequently targetting civilians in mass bombings and hostage takings.
In 2002 Chechen fighters seized a Moscow theatre. When Russian troops stormed it, 129 hostages and 41 Chechen guerrillas were killed.
The attacks culminated in the siege of a primary school in the town of Beslan outside Chechnya in 2004. They rigged the school with explosives and held children hostage. When Russian troops stormed the building, 331 hostages were killed, half of them children.
The attacks in Boston could bolster Putin, now president, who has long argued that Chechen separatists are nothing but terrorists and asked for the West’s support.
Today, the North Causasus region still faces violence from an insurgency led by an Islamist group, the Caucasus Emirate, led by a former Chechen independence guerrilla commander, Doku Umarov. Much of the violence is focused on Dagestan.
The Caucasus Emirate claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in January 2011 that killed 37 people and for suicide bombings on the Moscow subway that killed 40 people in 2010.
Security is an important issue for the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Sochi, a peaceful part of the North Caucasus hundreds of miles from Chechnya.
On his social media web page, Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev jokes about the reputation of people from the North Caucausus for conflict with the authorities: “A car goes by with a Chechen, a Dagestani and an Ingush inside. Question: who is driving?”
The answer: the police.