July 14, 2006
Michael Radu is a Senior Fellow of the FPRI and co-chairman of its Center on Terrorism, Counterterrorism, and Homeland Security. He is the author of Dilemmas of Democracy and Dictatorship (Transaction, 2006). This essay is based on one published by Front Page Magazine on July 14, 2006.
On July 11, the Chechen website KavkazCenter.org reported that the previous day Shamil Basayev had been “martyred” by the Russians. While Basayev portrayed himself as a Chechen nationalist hero, now the focus was Islamist: the report used his Islamic name, saying that “Abdallah Shamil Abu-Idris became a Shaheed [martyr] insha Allah.” Basayev was in many ways a perfect example of the power and spread of Islamist ideology and terrorism, and their ability to increasingly subsume causes which otherwise, at least initially, have nothing to do with it.
Endowed with good military skills, absolutely ruthless and adept at manipulating the Chechens’ traditional clan and ethnic solidarity for his own purposes, Basayev managed to radically change the world’s perception of the Chechen cause, from that of a small nation resisting victimization by Russian imperialism into another outpost of the global jihad. In the process, he also significantly modified the very nature of Islam in Chechnya and Northern Caucasus, from a traditional mix of syncretism and Sufism into one strongly influenced by Wahhabism and Salafism—especially among the youth. With Wahhabism came expansionism.
In 1999 Basayev, together with Samir ibn al-Suwaylim, a.k.a. Khatab, a Saudi Afghan war veteran who headed an Al Qaeda contingent known as the al-Ansar Mujahidin (after the original Medinan supporters of Mohammed) and a clone of Bin Laden (wealthy, fanatical, committed), led an attack on neighboring Dagestan, in the Russian Federation. This started the second Chechen war, ended Chechen de facto independence, and ultimately the tragic division of the Chechen people. Considering that at the time Chechnya was practically independent, the attack amounted to a unilateral declaration of war against Russia, with all that followed: a new Russian invasion, the rise of Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and the changing image of the Chechens’ war from a David opposing Russia’s Goliath to just another outpost of Islamist terrorism.
Who was Basayev, and why did he represent such a threat to Russia? What made him a hero for so many, inside and outside Chechnya?
Shamil Basayev—his first name, a common one in Chechnya, was that of the national hero, Imam Shamil, a Dagestani Avar who led a protracted resistance against Russia in the 19th century—was born in 1965 in the village of Dyshne-Vedeno. As a young man he was more adept at playing soccer than at studying. Failing to gain admission to Moscow State University, he instead entered the Moscow Institute of Land-Use Engineering, from which he was expelled in 1988 for poor grades. Afterwards he tried his hand at trade, only to sink deeply into debt. He took refuge in the study of Islam, which suggests that his later extreme radicalization went further than sheer opportunism, although it was that as well. Widely described as personally charming and always ready with a joke, he found his vocation in the confusing period of Soviet collapse and the beginning of Chechnya’s conflict with Russia that paralleled it.
In August 1991, during the failed coup that signaled the end of the Soviet Union, he claimed to have been in Moscow, cheering Boris Yeltsin, convinced, he later said, that a communist victory would have been the end of Chechen chances for independence. Then he joined the independence struggle, from the beginning specializing in what would become his favorite method: terrorism. In September 1991 he hijacked an Aeroflot domestic flight to Ankara—a first in post-Soviet Russia, and negotiated an exchange of the 170 passengers for his safe return to Chechnya. Thus from the start, terrorism came first, under the auspices of nationalism, and Islam second, a default position for whatever criminal activity with political purposes happens to be convenient.
All of that made him an influential person in the chaotic Chechnya of the early 1990s, so much that in December 1997, Aslan Maskhadov, the then elected president of the “republic,” appointed Basayev, the second runner in that presidential election, as prime minister, placing him in charge of cabinet meetings, agriculture, and the economy. It was a chance, completely missed by the Chechen people, to create a state, rather than what they did create: a black hole of criminality and chaos, with Basayev playing a major role. Indeed, he proved to be far more interested in power than democracy or administration. He quit after only a few months to set up a “Majlis-Ul Shura” (People’s Council), inexplicably given an Arabic, not Chechen, name. This amounted to a group of warlords, some foreign, with a global Islamist, rather than nationalist, agenda.
To the extent Basayev had a coherent ideology, it combined every figure with which his limited education had acquainted him, from Che Guevara to FDR, with a typical, visceral Chechen hatred of Russia. This did not prevent him from participating as a commander, alongside and supported by Moscow, in the Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, which in the early 1990s defeated the decaying Christian Georgian regime and created the still extant (and totally controlled by Russia) “independent” Abkhazia. This episode already presaged two of Basayev’s major tactics and strategies, which led to both his fame and his doom: tactically, his willingness to forge alliance with any Muslim (or even non-Muslim) in support of the goal of expanding the Chechen struggle to a Caucasus-wide one, in the name of Islam and anti-Russian hatred; and strategically, fomenting a regional, pan-Caucasian rebellion against Russian rule.
Thus, the Abkhaz of Georgia are nominally Muslim (albeit they are first and foremost pro-Russian), and Basayev fought alongside them against Christian Georgians, even if it meant accepting Russian help; the Confederation did not go far, but Basayev, with the help of his Islamic-world supporters—volunteers, commanders and funds—did develop a regional strategy in recent years. That, more than his direct responsibility for a number of spectacular terrorist attacks, made him a major threat to Moscow.
Indeed, even before instigating the second Chechen war in 1999, Basayev and his outside jihadist associates sought to transform what started as a Chechen war of independence into an Islamic war of Northern Caucasian secession from Russia, a conflict encompassing the entire chain of small, impoverished, and ethnically mixed autonomous republics between the Black and Caspian seas: Adygeya, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Orthodox Ossetia aside, all of these have Muslim majorities or significant and nominally autonomous minorities, often sharply divided along ethnic lines. Basayev and his Wahhabi sponsors and colleagues followed up on their fateful aggression against Dagestan in 1999, with attacks throughout the region: in North Ossetia, including the infamous Beslan school takeover of September 2004 (over 300 dead, mostly children); a brief takeover of Nazran, Ingushetia’s capital, in June 2004; and attacks in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino Balkaria, in October 2005.
How far Basayev succeeded in implementing his regional Islamist/jihadist strategy in arguable. His group did attract, radicalize or re-Islamize significant numbers of members and supporters without whom his raids throughout North Caucasus would have been impossible and forced Russia to impose repeated leadership changes in those areas and to increase its military presence throughout at enormously growing costs. It has to be admitted that Basayev, more than anyone else, put Chechnya on the Islamist global map and attracted the repeated attention of Osama bin Laden and his group.
Thus was Khatab attracted to Chechnya, and other Arabs also played an important leadership role. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of Europe-based Muslims found Chechnya a conveniently close area to engage in jihad. As one case in point, Xavier Djaffo, a.k.a. Massoud al-Benin, born in 1971 in Bordeaux to a French father and Beninois mother, a high-school buddy of Zacarias Moussaoui, converted to Islam in London in 1993 under the latter’s influence and was “martyred” by the Russians in April 2000 in Grozny. It was part of a standard pattern, to be repeated in Kashmir, Mindanao, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Somalia, increasingly Palestine and Europe. One may call this the globalization of Islamism, or the umma on the offensive.
Basayev openly admitted that he was a terrorist, with the caveat that so were the Russians (indeed, he lost most of his family to Russian brutality and indiscriminate reprisals) and proved it from the start. His general intention—misguided, as it turned out—was to impress on the Russian people the cost of the war in Chechnya by atrocities in Russia proper and thus have them press the government to stop it. Nothing new in this: Bin Laden and his imitators in North Africa or Bali, Europe and New York, all pursued the same idea. The problem was—and Basayev, a former Soviet citizen partially educated in then USSR, should have known better—that unlike many Europeans (and Americans) in the wake of the terrorist attacks starting with 9/11, the overwhelming majority of Russians, both elites and the man in the street, did not become distracted by endless analyses of their own historical mistakes or guilt but instead demanded revenge and supported Putin, who promised it.
The complete list of Basayev’s terrorism outside and within Chechnya is long, including the June 1995 hostage taking in Budyonnovsk’s hospital (1,000 hostages, 100 fatalities), the 1999 bombings of Moscow apartments (300 dead), the Moscow theater hostage-taking in October 2002 (129 hostages killed in a combination of Chechen terrorism and Russian incompetence), the quasi-simultaneous suicide bombings of two domestic civilian flights in August 2004 (90 dead), as well as various other suicide bombings inside Russia and assassinations (such as that of Akhmad Kadyrov, formerly the mufti of Chechnya and a Wahhabi enemy, father of present Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov), and especially the mass murder in Beslan in 2004. This not only gave the Chechen cause dubious moral validity in Europe and the United States, but gave Putin popular legitimacy and support to pursue a bloody policy of scorched earth in Chechnya.
Notwithstanding Chechen pro-independence propaganda and European emotional sympathies, it appears that Moscow’s intelligence has deeply penetrated a declining Chechen armed opposition, whose supporters were tired out by Basayev’s murderous and divisive campaign against non-Wahhabi Chechen leaders such as Ramzan Kadyrov and the general feeling of defeat. That explains the recent chain of Russian successes in eliminating one Chechen resistance leader after another: the official one, elected president in 1996, Aslan Maskhadov, in 2005, after his would-be successor ZemlijÃ¡n Yandarbiev was murdered in Qatar in 2004; their supposed successor Abdul-Halim Saidulayev last June, and now Basayev himself—not to mention foreign jihadists, such as Khatab, taken care by the Russians in March 2002.
What effect will Basayev’s death have on the Chechen independence cause, and are there any lessons to be learned from his career and methods? Within Chechnya and his intended pan-(Northern) Caucasian, regional Islamist awakening, Basayev’s death means the loss of a symbol, a recruitment tool, and an incipient idea. In Chechnya, it appears that the now authoritarian leader, Prime Minister Kadyrov, himself a product of both Chechen traditional clan revenge (his father’s death) and Sufi Islamic customs (as opposed to imported Wahhabism) could be the symbol of a return to normalcy for the exhausted population. Second, many Russian and outside observers believe that Basayev’s death, given his extraordinary symbolic importance and unique tactical and strategic talents, means an acceleration of the decline in Chechnya’s ability and willingness to fight. After all, with so many leaders killed, there are physical limits to how far a people of less than 1 million can fight the 140 million strong Russia, especially with Russia’s resources now harnessed by a strong leader, as they were not in 1999. If so, Basayev’s death means that Islamism in general, and micro-nationalism combined with it in particular, could indeed be defeated. The common wisdom notions that “there is no military solution” to such problems is clearly challenged—perhaps a lesson to the Israelis and others.
When President Bush congratulated Putin on Basayev’s death, he only made a partial point—one missed by many in Moscow: America and Russia do cooperate on Islamist terrorism, but that does not mean they are allies, friends, or engaged in a common global struggle. The very fact that a Basayev, a self-defined terrorist, attracted so many Europe-based (or born) Muslims, as well as Saudi/Gulf and Jordanian (among others) helpers and volunteers, also suggests that any local cause could easily be hijacked by global jihadism, whether in Grozny, New York, London, or Kashmir. For we are in a global war. More than anything, through his spectacular terror actions, Basayev left behind the fact that one individual can transform a small Muslim nation’s legitimate fight for freedom into part and parcel of the totalitarian, global Islamist war against civilization, at the price of destroying his own people and its dreams.
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