Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Russia’s Problem: the Chechens or Islamic Terrorists?

Russia’s Problem: the Chechens or Islamic Terrorists?

Russia is under assault by Islamic terrorists. On August 24, two Russian airliners were blown up, leaving 90 people dead. A week later, a car bomb near a Moscow subway station killed another ten people, and the next day, September 1, Islamist terrorists took hundreds of hostages in a North Ossetia school, including many children. At this writing, scores of people are reported to have died. Far from remaining a localized affair, the Chechen conflict is becoming an open wound in Russia’s flank, a cultural, ethnic, and religious clash with no end in sight and with growing international ramifications.

Two common aspects to these attacks deserve highlighting: their Middle Eastern roots and their being carried out by women. Based on the limited intelligence available, none of these attacks was a strictly Chechen operation. The Islambouli Brigades, an Al Qaeda-associated group previously known for attacks in Pakistan, has taken credit for the plane and subway bombings. The Brigades is named for Egyptian army lieutenant Khaled al-Islambouli, the main author of the assassination of President Anwar Sadat (for which he was executed). Islambouli, whose brother Mohammed is an Al Qaeda operative, was a member of the Egyptian Islamic Group, led by Ayman al Zawahiri, now Bin Laden’s second in command.

The link between Chechen rebels and international terrorism, including al Qaeda, is not new. Indeed, ever since the first Chechen war (1992-96), Islamists from all over the Middle East and beyond have gone to Chechnya to fight the Russian infidel. While it is true that Chechen Islam was traditionally rather syncretic and mostly under the influence of Sufi brotherhoods, some warlords, most prominently Shamil Basayev, have been attracted to Wahhabism— and by Saudi and other Gulf money, weapons, and volunteers. It was one of those volunteers, Bin Saleh al-Suwailem, Samir, a.k.a. Khatab— a Saudi whose life and career strongly resembled Bin Laden’s— who, together with Basayev, invaded the Russian province of Daghestan in 1999, thus provoking the present Chechen war. A number of European Muslims, from France and the UK, have also joined the Chechens, while the self-proclaimed Chechen Islamic Republic was only recognized by the Taliban. Chechens were trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and fought against the United States in that country in 2001.

The extent to which Russian brutality and clumsiness have radicalized many Chechens could be debated, as could Moscow’s often exaggerated claim that all Chechen resistance is Wahhabi and attributable to non-Chechen mercenaries. What is not arguable is the fact that the most effective, violent, and well-trained elements in Chechnya are indeed Islamists, part and parcel of the Al Qaeda nebula, whose methods are imports from the Middle East.

The perpetrators of those attacks were Chechen women, the so-called Black Widows, who are specially trained for suicide operations and have committed such acts in the past. The involvement of women in suicide terrorist attacks is becoming more and more common both in and beyond Russia, where they began in 2002. Indeed, the two suicide bombers who killed three policemen and a child in Tashkent on March 29, 2004, were women. One of them, Dilnoza Khalmuradova, was 19 years old.

One may wonder how the use of women suicide bombers is consistent with Islamic views of the role of women. In May 2003, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is dean of Islamic Studies at the University of Qatar, a regular Al Jazeera contributor, and perhaps the most influential Sunni cleric today, managed to find a way: “The act [of suicide terrorism] is a form of martyrdom for the cause of Allah … A woman should go out for jihad even without the permission of her husband.” Qaradawi notes that terror groups could benefit because women “may do what is impossible for men to do.” Hence, these women are allowed to violate Islamic teachings, “avoid wearing the veil, and be without a male escort.” (Cited in Clara Beyler, “Female Suicide Bombers: An Update,”

The Russian response to these developments has been, so far, a mixture of denial, incompetence, contradictory policies, and naivete. Moscow has repeatedly denied either that there is a war in Chechnya or that the conflict involves a significant portion of the Chechen population, instead claiming that it is all about Wahhabi terrorism incited by outsiders. It has organized several meaningless “elections” in Chechnya, the latest on August 29, notwithstanding that as long as it does not control the territory, no elections in Chechnya could conceivably be legitimate. In military terms, four years into the recent round of violence, the Russian military still cannot even seal the borders of Chechnya— a small state, even if its terrain is difficult. The fact that Chechnya-based terrorists could repeatedly strike into Russia proper, including Moscow, and that the recent mass kidnapping took place in North Ossetia, historically the most pro-Russian (and the only Orthodox) of all the northern Caucasian regions, only underscores this fact.

Nor has Russia’s policy of blackmailing the southern Caucasus states of Georgia and Azerbaijan in an effort to elicit their help in dealing with Chechnya been successful. Indeed, what is the incentive for Georgia, which borders Chechnya, to help the Russians seal the border, with Moscow openly arming and encouraging separatists in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Or why should nearby Azerbaijan stop arms shipments to Chechnya, if Moscow is encouraging Armenia to annex a third of the Azeri territory?

So far, Moscow’s response to the school kidnapping has been to convene a meeting of the UN Security Council. What exactly Moscow intends by this— to have blue helmets replace the Russian troops in the Caucasus mountains? to ask the UN declare the Chechen resistance a terrorist organization?— is not clear.

That said, the Chechen conflict has clearly become an open-ended problem in international politics. Unless some drastic— and improbable— reforms make the Russian military become efficient and the government pulls itself together, Moscow will have no “victory” any time soon. At the same time, the increasingly Islamist Chechen leadership, with its persistent use of terrorism and its close ties to international terrorist networks, makes the possibility of a Chechen state a frightening, if remote, prospect. Indeed, even before Chechnya was infiltrated by Islamists, during the country’s brief independence (1996-99), the Chechens had demonstrated a complete inability to operate as an independent state. Chechnya (or “Ishkeria) became a black hole of criminal gangs, smuggling, and crossborder violence— and matters have only gotten worse since.

The Chechnya conflict has itself begun to spawn international terrorists. According to France’s antiterrorist judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, the authors of a planned 2003 chemical attack in Paris that was prevented at the last moment were a network of Islamists trained in Georgia’s Pankissi Gorge area. Their leader was one Menad ben Chellali, the oldest son of a radical imam from near Lyons who had trained in Afghanistan in 2001. Menad’s brother and imitator, Murad, was captured in Afghanistan, detained in Guantanamo, and is now in a French jail.

Western sympathy for the Chechens should be reassessed in light of these developments. Perhaps, unlikely as it may seem, even the New York Times will bring itself to label as terrorists (rather than “guerrillas” or “armed insurgents”) those who take school children hostages and murder their fathers. (See “Hostage Crisis Unfolds in Russia as Guerrillas Seize School,” New York Times, September 1, 2004.) The understandable initial sympathy for the Chechens — a people treated atrociously by Russia and the Soviet Union — should not excuse what is done in their name today.