Article appeared on GEES:
The connection between interna-tional terrorism and the “movement for independence” in Chechnya is substantial and explicit, but all too often ignored in the West. The popular assumption is that Chech-nya is a distant problem that need not be addressed by anyone outside Russia.
Unfortunately, the evidence sug-gests otherwise. Islamic extremists and their terror-tactics have been a central factor in the Caucasus more than a decade ago. From Iraq to Af-ghanistan, London to Moscow, Is-lamic terrorists have firmly imbed-ded Chechnya into the global web of terror networks.
A sparsely reported but highly sig-nificant development in the war against Islamic extremism in the Caucasus occurred on October 13 in the Russian republic of Astemirov-Balkaria. There, approximately 100 terrorists led by Wahhabi adherent Anzor Astemirov killed at least twenty-four police officers and civil-ians, though the Russian daily Kommersant reported the actual casualty count was higher than the official count. Chechens and a sig-nificant group of Arabs took part in the assault, and news reports sug-gested that radical Chechen leader Shamil Basayev may have been di-rectly involved in the operation.
Leon Aron, the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, believes that foreign Is-lamic militants have fueled much of the violence in the Caucasus and “hijacked Chechnya’s struggle for independence.” There is much to support this claim as many Islamic fundamentalists who have a history of international terrorism have be-come involved in the Chechen con-flict. Osama bin Laden’s chief lieu-tenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, at-tempted to establish a base for Is-lamic terrorists in Chechnya in 1996.
By 1999, it was estimated that at least 100 Al Qaeda members joined up with Chechens in the Caucasus. In addition, Shamil Basayev is be-lieved to have trained in Afghani-stan in 1994. Basayev has claimed responsibility for – among other horrendous acts of terror – the Beslan school hostage situation that claimed the lives of 330, including women and young children.
This process of Chechen “Islamiza-tion” began in the mid 1990s as sig-nificant numbers of Arab fighters joined the fight of Muslims in Chechnya seeking to gain inde-pendence from the Russian Federa-tion. At that time, moderate Sufi Islam, long dominant in Chechnya, began to give way to Wahhabism. Money coming from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Af-ghanistan was paid to those who converted to Wahhabism and those who recruited others to join the mili-tant sect. As one Chechen convert explained: “I liked it that Arabs want to go on making war until they liberate the whole world of the [in-fidels]” and holy war should con-tinue “until all the Christians are converted to Islam.”
The influx of Arabs and Islamic fundamentalists soon changed the face of the conflict in Chechnya. The Middle East Quarterly accurately noted last summer that “A close ex-amination of the evolution of the Chechen movement indicates that Islamists and followers of Al-Qaeda have increasingly sought to co-opt the Chechen movement as their own.”
American and Russian intelligence services have found evidence sug-gesting that many of the same groups and individuals that fi-nanced al-Qaeda also provided support for Chechen leaders, such as the Saudi-born Ibn al-Khattab. Iran and Saudi Arabia are also be-lieved to have provided funding for Basayev and his followers. The ex-planation for this generosity is un-ambiguous: this diverse group of fanatics is united under the common goal of establishing an Islamic state in the Caucasus.
The events on the ground continue to suggest that the forces attempting to establish an Islamic state from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea are relatively weak. However, as the United States and our Iraqi allies crush the hopes of the Islamists in Iraq who seek to create a new ca-liphate, their efforts will soon focus elsewhere – as is already evident with recent terror attacks in Jordan, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. An ex-tremely likely target will be Chech-nya and its neighboring republics.
Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Chechnya at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, stated recently that “The Chechen conflict is spilling into neighboring republics, escalating the process of destabilization” in the Caucasus and Central Asia. This poses an enormous threat to both the territorial integrity of Russia and the long-term interests of the United States in the region. The process has already started and is likely to pick up increasing steam as Islamists be-gin to lose hope in Iraq and Af-ghanistan. The second Chechen war began in 1999 with the invasion of Chechnya’s neighboring republic of Dagestan. This was an attempt to spread the conflict in hope of gener-ating a larger Islamic rising. Al-though Russian forces quickly drove the aggressors back to Chechnya, the Islamists have far from given up hope.
The Russian republic of Ingushetia has similarly experienced terror at the hands of the Chechens and their Islamist supporters. Repeated at-tempts to assassinate the pro-Moscow president of Ingushetia, Murat Zyazikov, have so far been unsuccessful. However, the em-ployed tactic of suicide car bomb-ings illustrates not only the same desired ends of the Chechens and their Islamist allies, but also the matching callous means. While the Islamists have failed to topple the Ingush leadership thus far, they did succeed in briefly taking the repub-lic’s capitol of Nazran in 2004. This operation was carried out by mili-tant followers of Shamil Basayev and concluded only after nearly 100 government officials and police offi-cers had been killed.
The influx of radical Islam and the expansionist nature of the aspira-tions of its followers have made it evident that Chechnya has trans-formed from a republic seeking in-dependence to one of the global cen-ters of Islamic jihad. Vladimir Putin described the danger of a widening conflict in a December 2003 televi-sion appearance: “they have com-pletely different goals – not the in-dependence of Chechnya, but the territorial separation of all territories of compact Muslim residence. It fol-lows that we should resist that, if we don’t want the collapse of our state. And if that happens, it will be worse here than in Yugoslavia.”
Unfortunately, Putin was not exag-gerating. London’s Sunday Express reported that British intelligence sources revealed that Chechen fighters were some of the last hold-outs in the battle at Tora Bora in Af-ghanistan. Chechens have also gone to Iraq to fight Americans and our allies. The same British intelligence source told the Sunday Express: “These are not just people dreaming of a homeland, they are key global terrorist figures.” The source added: “British forces in the Gulf during the initial phase of the fighting were finding Chechen bodies among the fanatics fighting along Saddam Hussein’s troops. A number of the foreign fighters confronting our troops in Basra have turned out to be Chechens.” Thus, Chechens are clearly gaining experience in guer-rilla warfare and terrorist operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and those that survive will bring their skills back to Chechnya.
However, to understand the scope of the events in Chechnya and its neighboring republics, one must also be acquainted with the global attempts to wreak havoc by the Chechens and their Islamist associ-ates not only in the Middle East and Central Asia, but in Western Europe as well. In 2002, Shamil Basayev engineered a plot to assassinate British Prime Minter Tony Blair at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Had it been successful, the attack would have killed several members of the killed several members of the Royal Family and certainly would have had just as great of a psychological impact on the people of Britain as the July 7 attacks. Terrorists from Chechnya and its neighbors have targeted Russian and Western inter-ests in Britain, France, Spain, and elsewhere.
Many of these plots originated in Georgia’s Shevardnadze Trail, a passage which runs through the eastern Georgia stretch known as the Pankisi Gorge and is described by former U.S. counterterrorism of-ficial Paul J. Murphy as a “lawless area that Georgia is unable to totally control and that has served as a conduit for financial and logistical support and fighter reinforcements into Chechnya since the early 1990’s.” The Pankisi Gorge has been the staging ground of alleged at-tempts to use ricin in London and bomb the Russian embassy in Paris. Chechens and members of al-Qaeda alike seek refuge and plot future attacks in Pankisi camps. Thus, it is clear that any attempt to combat terror in Chechnya and throughout the region will also have to attribute significant attention to the Pankisi Gorge.
The April 2004 expiration of the Georgia Train and Equip Program, a United States effort to assist the Georgian government in combating terrorism and to bring order to the Pankisi Gorge, signals a lack of re-solve on the part of the United States to alleviate the terrorist prob-lem in Chechnya and its surround-ing territories. This will have to change and the United States must re-dedicate itself – to a greater de-gree than previously displayed – to eliminating this problem. The up-coming November 27 Chechen presidential elections are certainly a positive step; however, without lim-iting the influence of foreign Islamists and subduing the radical-ized portions of the Chechen popu-lation, the new government is cer-tain to exert little control and may be just another artificial façade un-able to stem the tide of Islamic ex-tremism currently engulfing Chech-nya and its surrounding regions.
Robert T. McLean is a research intern at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.
“Q. Some Muslims are hoping for a peaceful solution to this conflict, and to give heed to Western proposals and conditions for a cease-fire. How do you see the solution to this conflict?”
“A. Islamic issues can only be solved by Islamic means, namely through abiding by Sharia (Divine Law) and not Western proposals or United Nations conditions. Any resolution through non-Islamic means places the future of Muslims in the hands of tyrants who will never accept the rise of an Islamic state.”
“Q. Several Islamic populations are fighting defensive wars against aggressors. Yet some of them raise the banners of nationalism that may incorporate elements of secularism, ethnic nationalism or religion. How would you describe the war in Chechnya?”
“A. The fighting in Chechnya is a Jihad for the sake of Allah, a Jihad that aims to ensure that the word of Allah is supreme in this land. We consider most of the commanders and fighters as Mujahideen whose intentions are sincere and devoted to Allah Most high.”
“Q. The Russian military machine is massive and incorporates large numbers of troops and sizeable quantities of modern arms, yet the Russians are being decisively beaten on a daily basis by a small group of Mujahideen What are your comments in this regard?”
“A. All of the Mujahideen’s victories are attributed solely to Allah Most High… The jihad in Chechnya should serve as an example to all Muslims throughout the world that any Muslim rights that are forcibly usurped, including land, cannot be restored except through force. Negotiations only serve to lose one’s rights and honour. Let us consider Palestine as an example. There are a small number of Jews occupying Palestine. The Arabs outnumber them and have larger military forces, however, instead of fighting for the sake of Allah like their brothers in Chechnya, the Arabs (nationalists and secularists) chose to negotiate with their enemy. This has resulted in the humiliation of the Arabs, and has failed to restore Arab rights and territories.”
“Q. The complete victory of the Mujahideen is now in sight. What will happen once the war is over. Will we witness a recurrence of the tragedies that took place in Afghanistan, Bosnia and other Muslim countries that freed themselves from the yoke of crusader invasions?”
“A. Allah Most High has promised that those who glorify and fight for Allah in times of war, and who establish His Sharia in times of peace, will always have victory bestowed upon them… The Mujahideen will strive to ensure that the Muslims of Chechnya will continue to be united, and that the light of Sharia dispels the evil of disunity. It is only through Allah that success is granted.”
“Q. Many Muslims around the world have expressed their support and sympathy for their brothers in Chechnya. Most Muslims continue to support the Mujahideen through supplication to Allah, and by spreading awareness about the jihad in Chechnya. Has this support had any impact in Chechnya, if so, please give us some examples?”
“A. The supplications of Muslims and their financial support has played an important role in the victories of the Mujahideen. This support has helped mitigate the difficulties faced by the Mujahideen who are lacking adequate supplies of food and medicine. We ask Allah to accept the support given to us by our brothers, and remind the Ummah that coming to the aid of Muslims who are oppressed is a sacred duty that Allah Most High has confirmed…”