BBG Watch Commentary

Andrei Babitsky
Andrei Babitsky

Fired Radio Liberty Russian journalists delivered some of the best in depth analysis of the links between the Boston bombings, violent jihadism and Chechnya. Known as Radio Liberty in Exile, journalists fired last year by the former management of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) turned to their still employed RFE/RL colleague and supporter Andrei Babitsky, a famous former Chechnya war correspondent, to offer his analysis on their Novaya Svoboda (New Liberty) website. Radio Liberty in Exile also spoke with Dr. Mikhail Berg, a Russian scholar and writer living in the Boston area and with a former Soviet-era dissident Pavel Litvinov.

In his video interview with Radio Liberty in Exile, Babitsky described the terror bombings in Boston as a jihadist attack on American civilization.

Jihadists, according to Babitsky, believe that other civilizations and other people do not have the right to exist and their extermination is therefore justified.

Babitsky said that while the Boston suspects were of Chechen origin with links to Russia and Daghestan, the origins of the terrorist crime in Boston are rooted in the jihadist ideology which has an international appeal among certain groups of people.

Babitsky pointed out that jihadism is very similar to 20th century’s totalitarian ideologies of communism and fascism which also stipulated that certain people and groups do not have the right to exist and can be liquidated. Babitsky described jihadism is an international ideology whose supporters can be found in any country.

These radicals openly advocate the destruction of Christian and other civilizations. Babitsky warned that this will not be the last such attack. Americans have to be vigilant, he added.

Link to Andrei Babitsky video (in Russian).


Babitsky also told Radio Liberty in Exile that “after Chechen jihadist activity in Russia has been reduced and they are being squeezed, apparently, there is an increase of their activity abroad – in Syria, where the Chechens really fight now, and in the United States.”

The Radio Liberty in Exile website is called Novaya Svoboda (New Liberty). Using Google Hangout, fired Radio Liberty journalists have also conducted an exclusive video interview with Russian writer Mikhail Berg who lives in the Boston area. Dr. Berg is an independent scholar at the Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

Unlike Babitsky who focused more on religious extremism and jihadism, Dr. Berg observed that according to media reports the Boston bombings suspects hated America. He noted that hatred toward America has become the ideology of the Russian government of President Putin. That hatred toward America is also being promoted in the North Caucasus region, Dr. Berg said.

Link to Dr. Mikhail Berg video (in Russian).

Pavel Litvinov, a Russian writer, human rights activist and former Soviet-era dissident who now lives in the United States, told Radio Liberty in Exile that the first media reports focused on the two suspects being foreigners, but then it became obvious that they have lived in the United States for quite some time. Litvinov said that he agrees with the view that America needs to take responsibility for what they have become, but he also noted that U.S. media reported on their links to Russia and the exile of their family to Kyrgyzstan.

Link to Pavel Litvinov video (in Russian).

Radio Liberty video interviews were conducted by Vladimir Abarbanell, a highly respected journalist who before his dismissal from RFE/RL was in charge of the Radio Liberty regional correspondent network he had helped to establish. Before joining RFE/RL, he was a private radio station owner and president of the Independent Broadcasters Association in Russia. Like all Radio Liberty in Exile journalists, he works as a volunteer with no pay.

Good analysis was also available on the RFE/RL English-language news website, thanks to recent reforms instituted by new acting RFE/RL president Kevin Klose, but not on the Russian Service website because well-known analysts and media experts no longer want to be associated with it after the firing of Radio Liberty journalists.

The RFE/RL English-language news website, however, has already been largely transformed and from its recent tabloid media format to its original focus on serious journalism.

RFE/RL Central Newsroom Director Jeremy Bransten interviewed Aslan Doukaev, director of RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service, for some insight into the two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and their ancestral homeland.

RFE/RL: You mentioned earlier that in transit to the United States, the Tsarnaevs spent some time in Daghestan, although they were ethnic Chechens. Daghestan has recently become the focus of much of the violence in the North Caucasus. Can you give us a picture of what has been happening in that republic over the past 15-20 years?

Doukaev: It all began in 1994, when the so-called first Chechen War began in neighboring Chechnya. Chechnya over the past 19 years has suffered two serious conflicts. It left behind devastation and destruction and a lot of people were killed. But that conflict was not contained to Chechnya only. It gradually spread to neighboring territories: Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and in particular, to Daghestan.

Daghestan is the biggest Russian republic in the North Caucasus. It’s the size of Scotland, it’s multiethnic and it has become these days the epicenter of instability in the south of Russia. While Chechnya is increasingly peaceful and stable — more or less — Daghestan seems to be descending into chaos. Every day we get reports about clashes, attacks, bombings, kidnappings. So Daghestan has a become a focal point of the insurgency in the North Caucasus.

RFE/RL: And is it fair to say that the mood in society has become increasingly radicalized?

Doukaev: We can say with certainty that Daghestan today is probably the most radicalized Russian republic. The so-called Salafis, the Wahhabis, they openly organize their meetings. The insurgency enjoys a certain amount of support from the population. There are various reasons why that’s happening. We may talk a lot about the corruption, the economic situation, the police brutality etc…. The fact is that today Daghestan is the most unstable, the most violent, the most radicalized territory in the whole of the Russian Federation.

RFE/RL: Now of course these two young men were living in the United States, though it seems their families retained strong links to the North Caucasus. What do we know about the North Caucasus diaspora in the United States? Are ethnic Chechens the most numerous?

Doukaev: We don’t know much about the diaspora. It’s not very big. There were several waves of immigration. The first wave was after World War II, and this diaspora lives in New Jersey, mostly. I hear that there are small communities in various parts of the United States, in Portland, Oregon, in Boston — by the way. But by and large, the Chechen community in the United States is very small and it’s not really well organized. There are scattered communities in various parts of the States. I don’t think they were in any way part of those communities, part of those diasporas. They had a kind of isolated existence in Massachusetts, mostly.

The interview shows that Kevin Klose, RFE/RL’s new acting president recently selected by BBG members, is slowly returning the U.S. taxpayer-supported institution to its former high journalistic standards after a period of unprecedented upheaval and losses of audience and reputation.

The full interview with Aslan Doukaev, director of RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service, can be seen here: “Interview: More About Tsarnaev Brothers And Their Ancestral Homeland,” RFE/RL, April 20, 2012.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty radio broadcasts in Chechen, Avar and Circassian, some of the main local languages in the North Caucasus region, were facing elimination last year due to decisions made by officials of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB)–the bureaucratic arm of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency that manages all U.S. civilian news broadcasts for audiences abroad. IBB officials, working with the former management of RFE/RL, almost succeeded in carrying out these cuts. Fortunately, they were blocked by strong opposition in Congress to these proposals.

The Russian-language RFE/RL website, still under the control of the Russian Service director Masha Gessen, offered little expert analysis, as it is being boycotted by most well-known Russian experts who are unhappy with Gessen, her editorial policies and the firing of dozens of experienced Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow last year.

Andrei Babitsky, like many other RFE/RL journalists still working at the station’s headquarters in Prague, hopes for the return of the fired journalists and does not want to work with the current Russian Service director.

Babitsky published a powerful open letter welcoming the resignation of the former RFE/RL president Steven Korn who made decisions to cut broadcasts and fire journalists. Korn defended these decisions as necessary for digital transition, but Radio Liberty in Exile is proving that they were and are digital media experts in addition to being excellent journalists in every other respect.

Nearly all leading opposition leaders in Russia and human rights activists support the fired journalists and demand their return to Radio Liberty. These journalists have shown with their in-depth analytical coverage of the Boston bombings that Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty needs them. Their return is especially urgent since Russia’s President Putin continues to suppress free media while the Kremlin-controlled state media channels continue to promote the ideology of anti-Americanism that may inspire future terrorists in Chechnya, Daghestan and other regions of the Russian Federation where jihadists may be looking for recruits.

Either the Broadcasting Board of Governors or Congress should also make sure that managers and officials who wanted to end U.S. radio broadcasts to Chechnya and to lay off journalists who are experts on the North Caucasus region should no longer hold any decision-making positions within U.S. international broadcasting. The new RFE/RL leadership must do the same with managers responsible for causing the boycott of Radio Liberty and its loss of audience and reputation in Russia.

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