On July 11, the Chechen website KavkazCenter.org reported that the previous day “the vice-president of CRI [“Chechen Republic of Ichkeria”], the Military Amir of Mujahideen of Caucasus, Abdallah Shamil Abu-Idris became a Shaheed [“martyr”] insha Allah.” Much better known by his real name, Shamil Basayev, the individual in question was in many ways a perfect example of the power and spread of Islamist ideology and terrorism, and its ability to subsume causes that initially have nothing to do with it.
Endowed with military skills and 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 Chechnya from a small nation resisting victimization by Russian imperialism into another outpost of the global jihad. In the process, Basayev 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 Wahabism and Salafism, especially among the youth.
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 Muhammad) and a clone of Bin Laden, led an attack on neighboring Dagestan in the Russian Federation. Considering that at the time Chechnya was practically independent, that attack amounted to a unilateral declaration of war against Russia and set in motion an extraordinary chain of catastrophic events: the beginning of the second Chechen war, the end of Chechen de facto independence, the rise of Vladimir Putin in Moscow and, ultimately, the tragic division of the Chechen people.
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?
Named in honor of a Chechen national hero, Imam Shamil, a Dagestani Avar who led a protracted resistance against Russia in the 19th century, Shamil Basayev 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. Terrorism came first under the auspices of nationalism, and second as Islam, a default position for whatever criminal activity with political purposes happened to be convenient.
This background made Basayev an influential person in the chaotic Chechnya of the early 1990s. So much so 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. Instead, they created 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, he 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 Georgian regime and created the still extant (and totally controlled by Russia) “independent” Abkhazia – a small but important slice of Georgia’s Black Sea littoral.
That already suggested two of Basayev’s major tactical and strategic approaches, which led to both his fame and his doom: tactically, his willingness to forge an alliance with any Muslim (or even non-Muslim) in support of the strategic goal of expanding the Chechen struggle to a Caucasus-wide one in the name of Islam and anti-Russian hatred, and, strategically, 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.
Even before the beginning of 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: From West to East 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, even if often sharply divided along ethnic lines. That led Basayev and his Wahhabi sponsors and colleagues not only to the fateful aggression against Dagestan in 1999, but also to more recent attacks throughout the region: in North Ossetia, including the infamous Beslan school takeover of September 2004 (over 300 dead, mostly children), and also a brief takeover of Nazran, Ingushetia’s capital, in June 2004 and the October 2005 attacks in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino Balkaria.
How far Basayev succeeded in implementing his regional Islamist/jihadist strategy is arguable. What is clear is that his forces did attract, radicalize or re-Islamize significant numbers of members and supporters. This allowed him to launch raids throughout North Caucasus and forced Russia to impose repeated leadership changes in those areas and to increase, at enormously growing costs, its military presence in the region. More than anyone else, Basayev put Chechnya on the Islamist’s map.
Beyond capturing the attention of Osama bin Laden, Basayev attracted the Saudi Khatab to Chechnya, as well as other Arabs who played an important leadership role. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of Europe-based Muslims found Chechnya a conveniently close area to engage in jihad. A case in point is 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, Palestine and Europe. The umma was on the offensive.
Basayev openly admitted that he was a terrorist, with the caveat that the Russians were just as guilty. The charge was not entirely without merit: Basayev had lost most of his family to Russian brutality and indiscriminate reprisals. Consequently his general intention--misguided, as it turned out—was to impress on the Russian people the cost of the war in Chechnya by committing atrocities in Russia proper. It is a familiar terrorist tactic. Bin Laden and his imitators in North Africa or Bali, Europe and New York, all pursued the same idea. The problem--and Basayev, a former Soviet citizen partially educated in then USSR, should have recognized it--was 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.
Thus. Basayev’s terrorism outside and inside Chechnya — a long list 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 of (mostly) children in Beslan (September 2004) — not only made the Chechen cause of 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 and its tired popular supporters, most likely as a result of Basayev’s murderous and divisive campaign against non-Wahabbi Chechen leaders such as Ramzan Kadyrov and of a 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 Zemliján 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, terminated by the Russians in March 2002.
Leaving aside the question of whether Basayev’s death was a Russian intelligence success (doubtful but possible) or an accident, what is its impact 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 and recruitment tool. Within Chechnya, it appears that the current authoritarian leader, Prime Minister Kadyrov, himself a product of both Chechen traditional clan revenge and customary Sufi Islamic customs (as opposed to imported Wahabism), could be the symbol of a return to the normalcy desired by an exhausted population.
Second, many Russian and outside observers believe that given his extraordinary symbolic importance and unique tactical and strategic talents, Basayev’s death means a further decline in Chechens’ ability and willingness to fight. After all, when more and more often leaders are being killed, there are physical limits to how far a people of less than 1 million can fight the 140-million strong Russia, especially as the latter’s resources are now better harnessed by one strong leader. If so, Basayev’s death means that Islamism, especially when combined with nationalism, can indeed be defeated. The common wisdom notions that “there is no military solution” to such problems is clearly challenged.
When President Bush congratulated Putin on Basayev’s death, he made a point missed by many in Moscow: America and Russia do cooperate on Islamist terrorism, but that does not mean they are allies, or are engaged in a common global struggle. The very fact that Basayev, a self-defined terrorist, attracted so many Europe-based (or born) Muslims, as well as Saudi/Gulf and Jordanian volunteers, also suggests that any local cause could easily be hijacked by global jihadism, whether in Grozny, New York, London, or Kashmir.
Finally, Basayev’s death reminds us that one individual can transform a small Muslim nation’s legitimate fight for freedom into part and parcel of the global Islamist war against civilization, just as long as he is willing to pay the price of destroying his own people and their dreams.
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