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Russia Under Attack By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, September 09, 2004

Last week, Arabian Islamist extremists in the Caucuses committed atrocities against Russian  children in Beslan in the hopes of building an Islamist regime in Chechnya. With the notable exception of Fox News, however, most of the West's mainstream press has ignored the strong ties that the Chechen terrorists have with al Qaeda.

The Alternative Press, for example, in its "detailed" report of the Beslan incident, which was picked up by the Washington Times, makes no mention of the Chechen rebels and al Qaeda at all. A Reuters report on the same day, run by the New York Times, actually ridicules Russian President Putin's statement that recent terror attacks were perpetrated by international terrorists despite the fact the ten Arabs among the attackers support his contention that al Qaeda terrorists were deeply involved in the Chechen conflict. Reuters quotes Russian liberal politician Boris Nemtsov, who says, "The official claim that international terrorism is behind the Beslan tragedy is a trick designed to divert responsibility away from the Kremlin."

Nemtsov, however, is wrong. Russia is under assault by Islamic terrorists. In the course of a week, two Russian civilian airplanes were blown out of the sky, leaving 90 people dead; a car bomb near a Moscow subway station killed another ten; and Islamist terrorists took hundreds of hostages in a North Ossetia school, mostly children, killing more than three hundred. 
It appears that the Chechen conflict, far from remaining a localized affair, is becoming an open wound in Russia’s flank, a cultural, ethnic and religious clash with no end in sight and with increasingly international ramifications; in other words, a Russian “Palestine.”

There are two aspects common to these attacks. First, based on the limited intelligence available, none of the terrorist assaults was a strictly “Chechen” operation. Indeed, the plane and subway bombings were claimed by the “Islambouli Brigades,” an al Qaeda-associated group, previously known for attacks in Pakistan. It is named after Khaled al-Islambouli, an Egyptian army lieutenant and member of the Islamic Group now led by Ayman al Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s second in command. Zawahiri was the main author of the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and whose brother, Mohammed, is still an al Qaeda operative.  


Links between Chechen rebels and international Islamic terrorism, including al Qaeda, are not new. Indeed, ever since the first Chechen war (1992-96), Islamists from all over the Middle East have gone to Chechnyia 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, at least initially, have attracted Saudi and other Gulf money, weapons and volunteers.


It was one of those volunteers, 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. Furthermore, a number of European Muslims from France and Britain, 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 US in 2001 in that country.


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 undertaken by outside “mercenaries.” What is not arguable anymore is the fact that, at the very least, the most effective, violent and well trained elements in Chechnya are indeed Islamists, by now part and parcel of the Al Qaeda nebula, and that their methods, including suicide bombings of civilians and the use of women for such attacks, are imports from the Middle East.


Second, the perpetrators of those attacks were Chechen women, the so-called "black widows", specially trained for suicide operations, who had committed such acts before. Involvement of women in suicide terrorist attacks is becoming more and more common - and not just in 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, 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[and] that 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, women are then allowed to violate Islamic teachings, “avoid wearing the veil, and be without a male escort.”  [1]


The Russian response to these developments has been, so far, a mixture of denial, incompetence, contradictory policies, and naiveté. Repeatedly, Moscow has either denied that there is a war in Chechnya, or that the conflict involves a significant portion of the Chechen population. Instead the Russian government claims that it is all about foreign, Wahhabi terrorism, incited by outsiders. That is why Moscow has repeatedly organized meaningless “elections” in Chechnya, the latest on August 29, when it is patently clear that, as long as it does not control the territory of Chechnya no elections could conceivably be legitimate.


In military terms, after four years into the recent round of violence, the Russian military still cannot even seal the borders of Chechnya. The fact that Chechnya-based terrorists could repeatedly strike deep into Russia proper and that the recent school attack took place in North Ossetia, historically the most consistently pro-Russian of all Caucasian regions, only underscores this fact.


Nor has Russia's policy of dividing and blackmailing the southern Caucasus states of Georgia and Azerbaijan helped in dealing with Chechnya. Indeed, what is the incentive for Georgia, which borders Chechnya, to help the Russians seal the border, when Moscow openly arms and encourages separatists in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Or why should nearby Azerbaijan stop arms shipments to Chechnya when Moscow encouraged Armenia to annex a third of  Azeri territory?


The Chechen conflict has clearly become one of those open wounds in international politics. It is clear that, unless some drastic reforms make the Russian military efficient and Moscow’s politicians get their act together, there is not going to be any “victory” soon. On the other hand, the increasingly Islamist Chechen leadership and its persistent use of indiscriminate terrorism and close ties to international terrorist networks make the possibility of a Chechen state a frightening, if remote, prospect. Indeed, even before their infiltration by Islamists, during their brief independence (1996 - 1999), the Chechens had demonstrated a complete inability to operate as a serious country. They transformed "Ishkeria" into a black hole of criminal gangs, mass smuggling and trans-border violence with matters becoming worse, not better, since then.


Moreover, the Chechnya conflict has also begun to produce international terrorists itself. According to France's anti-terrorist judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière, in 2003 a chemical attack in Paris by a network of Islamists trained in Georgia's Pankissi Gorge area was prevented at the last moment. The attack’s authors were the oldest son of a radical imam from the Lyons area, trained in Afghanistan in 2001, and his brother and imitator, Murad, a Guantanamo detainee, captured in Afghanistan and now in a French jail.


The Chechen analogy with the Palestinians is tempting: a people decidedly unwilling to accept foreign occupation and totally unprepared for responsible self-government. Western, especially European emotional sympathy for the Chechens, should be reassessed in light of these developments, just as the Palestinian “cause” is now being reassessed in light of Hamas’ atrocities and the popular support they have in Gaza and the West Bank.


Perhaps, unlikely as it may seem, even the New York Times would finally bring itself to call those who murder hostage school children terrorists and not “guerrillas” or “armed insurgents.” [2]


[1] Clara Beyler, Female Suicide Bombers , An Update, at http://www.ict.org.il/.


[2] STEVEN LEE MYERS, “ Hostage Crisis Unfolds in Russia as Guerrillas Seize School, “ New York Times, September 1, 2004.

Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

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