The connection between international 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 Chechnya is a distant problem that need not be addressed by anyone outside Russia.
Unfortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise. Islamic extremists and their terror-tactics have been a central factor in the Caucasus more than a decade ago. From Iraq to Afghanistan, London to Moscow, Islamic terrorists have firmly imbedded Chechnya into the global web of terror networks.
A sparsely reported but highly significant 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 civilians, though the Russian daily Kommersant reported the actual casualty count was higher than the official count. Chechens and a significant group of Arabs took part in the assault, and news reports suggested that radical Chechen leader Shamil Basayev may have been directly involved in the operation.
Leon Aron, the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, believes that foreign Islamic 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 become involved in the Chechen conflict. Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, attempted to establish a base for Islamic 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 believed to have trained in Afghanistan 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 “Islamization” began in the mid 1990s as significant numbers of Arab fighters joined the fight of Muslims in Chechnya seeking to gain independence from the Russian Federation. 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 Afghanistan was paid to those who converted to Wahhabism and those who recruited others to join the militant 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 [infidels]” and holy war should continue “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 examination 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 suggesting that many of the same groups and individuals that financed al-Qaeda also provided support for Chechen leaders, such as the Saudi-born Ibn al-Khattab. Iran and Saudi Arabia are also believed to have provided funding for Basayev and his followers. The explanation for this generosity is unambiguous: 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 caliphate, their efforts will soon focus elsewhere - as is already evident with recent terror attacks in Jordan, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. An extremely likely target will be Chechnya 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 begin to lose hope in Iraq and Afghanistan. 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 generating a larger Islamic rising. Although 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 attempts to assassinate the pro-Moscow president of Ingushetia, Murat Zyazikov, have so far been unsuccessful. However, the employed tactic of suicide car bombings 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 republic’s capitol of Nazran in 2004. This operation was carried out by militant followers of Shamil Basayev and concluded only after nearly 100 government officials and police officers had been killed.
The influx of radical Islam and the expansionist nature of the aspirations of its followers have made it evident that Chechnya has transformed from a republic seeking independence to one of the global centers of Islamic jihad. Vladimir Putin described the danger of a widening conflict in a December 2003 television appearance: “they have completely different goals – not the independence of Chechnya, but the territorial separation of all territories of compact Muslim residence. It follows 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 exaggerating. London’s Sunday Express reported that British intelligence sources revealed that Chechen fighters were some of the last holdouts in the battle at Tora Bora in Afghanistan. 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 guerrilla 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 associates 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 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 interests 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 official 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 attempts 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 resolve on the part of the United States to alleviate the terrorist problem in Chechnya and its surrounding territories. This will have to change and the United States must re-dedicate itself – to a greater degree than previously displayed – to eliminating this problem. The upcoming November 27 Chechen presidential elections are certainly a positive step; however, without limiting the influence of foreign Islamists and subduing the radicalized portions of the Chechen population, the new government is certain to exert little control and may be just another artificial façade unable to stem the tide of Islamic extremism currently engulfing Chechnya and its surrounding regions.
Robert T. McLean is a research intern at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.
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