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Unformatted text preview: The War Against Terrorism
and the Conflict in Chechnya:
A Case for Distinction
Svante E. Cornell More than any other conflict, Chechnya epitomizes the old saying that “one
man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Since the first Chechen war
began in 1994, the Russian government has portrayed the war as one against bandits and Islamic fundamentalists. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the
label changed—now Chechens are referred to simply as “terrorists.” Western states
have for the most part thus far refrained from accepting the Russian position at
face value, seeing the conflict primarily as an ethnic war. While recognizing
Russia’s territorial integrity, Western and Islamic states see the Chechen rebels as
more or less legitimate representatives of the Chechen people, considering that the
current Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, was elected in elections deemed free
and fair by international observers in 1997. Moreover, the international community has condemned the Russian military’s massive human rights violations in the
prosecution of the war. That said, during the course of the second war, which
began in October 1999 and rages to this day, there has been an increasing concern
with regard to the radicalization of parts of the Chechen resistance movement and
its links to extremist Islamic groups in the Middle East.
The attacks of September 11 introduced a new paradigm into world politics,
and Chechnya has since been one of the regions most affected by the increased focus
on terrorism. Indeed, it did not take long after 9/11 for the Russian government to
draw comparisons between the terrorist attacks on the United States and the situation in Chechnya. Only hours after the collapse of the World Trade Center, Russian
state television broadcast a statement by President Vladimir Putin expressing Dr. Svante E. Cornell is Deputy Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the Johns
Hopkins University-SAIS and Editor of the Institute’s publication, The Central AsiaCaucasus Analyst (http://www.cacianalyst.org). Dr. Cornell is also Research Director of the
Program for Contemporary Silk Road Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden. .: ⁄ solidarity with the American people. The very next caption showed Putin, several
months earlier, warning the world that it ought to cooperate with Moscow against
the common threat of “Islamic fundamentalism.” This marked the launch of a strategy aiming to capitalize on the tragic events in America by highlighting the alleged
parallels with the situation in Chechnya. “The Russian people understand the
American people better than anyone else, having experienced terrorism first-hand,”
President Putin declared the day after the attacks.1
The Kremlin’s pragmatic stance turned out to be the harbinger of a diplomatic campaign targeted at Western countries and intended to shore up legitimacy,
if not support, for the Russian army’s violent crackdown in Chechnya.2 Whereas
European countries and the United States
have kept a moderate but noticeable level of
How much truth is there
criticism against Russia’s massive human
rights violations in Chechnya, Russia has had
in the Russian claim that
Chechnya is a war against limited success in convincing Western
observers that it is not fighting the entire
Chechen people, but terrorists.3
The first achievement in Russia’s new
to the U.S. actions in
diplomatic campaign came with the stateAfghanistan?
ment of German Chancellor Gerhard
Schroeder during Putin’s state visit to Berlin
on September 25, 2002: “Regarding Chechnya, there will be and must be a more
differentiated evaluation in world opinion.”4 This remark was followed by U.S.
President George Bush’s statement, in which he demanded that Chechen forces
sever links to terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda.5 On the whole, the
September 11 attacks have presented Russia an opportunity to reshape its relations with Europe and the U.S. who need Russian intelligence and cooperation
in Afghanistan and in the overall prosecution of the “War on Terror.” A halt to
criticism on Chechnya has become the foremost price Russia has managed to
extract in return for its cooperation.
In this context, there are several questions regarding the Chechen war that
deserve further treatment. For instance, how much truth is there in the Russian
claim that Chechnya is a war against terrorism comparable to the U.S. actions in
Afghanistan? The answer to this question requires an analysis of the roots of the
Chechen conflict, the configuration of Chechen fighters, the Russian policies in
Chechnya, and the international context with regard to the War on Terrorism. : During the early nineteenth century the Chechens were part of the peoples
of the North Caucasus that adamantly refused to accept Russia’s occupation of .: ⁄ : the region. As the Circassian peoples to the west, Chechens and their neighbors
in Daghestan fought an unequal battle until the 1860s to escape Russian rule.6
Under the legendary Daghestani chieftain Shamil, the areas today forming southern Chechnya and Daghestan comprised an independent Islamic state, an
Imamate. Formed in 1824, it lasted until the Russian capture of Shamil in 1859.
Even after Chechnya’s incorporation into the Russian empire, the area was
never entirely pacified. Whenever Russia was experiencing difficult times either
on the home front or abroad, Chechens staged rebellions of varying length and
strength, such as during the Russian civil war of the 1920s.
In 1944, during the Second World War, Stalin accused the Chechens (and
several other peoples) of collaborating with the invading German forces and
ordered their wholesale deportation to Kazakhstan. During the entire ordeal, an
estimated quarter of the Chechen nation died of cold, hunger, and epidemics
such as typhoid.7 Chechens were allowed to return to their homeland in 1957,
but the overall price was too heavy: the rate of population growth was set back an
It is difficult to overstate the significance of the deportation in the collective memory of the Chechen people. Chechens see it as genocide, an attempt by
the Russians to physically exterminate the entire people.9 Most leaders of the
Chechen independence movement of the 1990s were either born or grew up in
exile in Kazakhstan. The deportation convinced many Chechens that there was
no way for them to live securely under Russian rule and to a certain degree
explains the refusal of the Chechens to surrender in the current war.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most constituent republics declared
their independence, as did two autonomous republics within the Russian
Federation: Chechnya and Tatarstan.
Tatarstan, encircled by Russia proper, negotiated with the Kremlin and in 1994 secured a The deportation convinced
wide autonomy. Chechen nationalist forces, many Chechens that there
on the other hand, were less compromising. was no way for them to live
General Dzhokhar Dudayev, who had seized
power from the former communist leader- securely under Russian rule.
ship in September 1991, was elected president of Chechnya in October and declared its independence soon thereafter.10
Russian President Boris Yeltsin made an abortive attempt to rein in Dudayev, but
the federal center had many other problems to tend to in the early 1990s, and it
was not until four years later that Yeltsin was ready to launch a military campaign
against the defiant Chechens. By 1994, Russia had strengthened as a state, and
Yeltsin had consolidated his power after physically silencing his parliamentary
opposition in October 1993.11 As a result of this confrontation, his government
became indebted to the military and security forces. Moreover, Chechnya’s de facto .: ⁄ independence and Dudayev’s anti-Russian rhetoric were foiling Russian plans of
asserting control over the south Caucasus states of Azerbaijan and Georgia and particularly over the westward export of the Caspian Sea oil resources. The only existing pipeline carrying oil from Azerbaijan to world markets passed through Grozny,
Chechnya’s capital, on its way to the Black Sea coast. With this in mind, Russia
feared that oil companies would be reluctant to send their oil through a republic led
by an erratic secessionist leader. Hence, for both internal and external reasons, the
Russian government looked to “solve” the problem of Chechnya. Personal enmity
between Dudayev and Yeltsin further made any serious negotiations futile.12 The Kremlin had hoped that the ragtag forces under Dudayev would disintegrate when the powerful Russian army rolled into the breakaway republic,
whereas, in fact, the Russian threat rallied erstwhile skeptics around Dudayev.
Aided by the dismal level of preparedness on
the part of Russian troops, Chechen forces
The worst shelling of
were able to resist the invasion. It took two
months of massive air and artillery bombing
Grozny, counted by the
for the federal army to capture Grozny—at
number of explosions per
the cost of thousands of own casualties, over
day, surpassed the shelling
20,000 civilian lives, a total destruction of
of Sarajevo in the early
the city, and displacement of hundreds of
thousands of people.
1990s by a factor of at
In August 1996, Chechen forces manleast 50.
aged to stage a counter-offensive and retake
three major cities, including Grozny, in three
days of fighting. Despite the fact that Dudayev was assassinated by the Russian forces
earlier in April, the first Chechen war ended in a total humiliation for the Kremlin.
According to estimates, the first war resulted in roughly 50,000 deaths,13
and, in comparison, cost the Russian army much more than the Soviet Union’s
war in Afghanistan. In 1984, the worst year of fighting in Afghanistan, almost
2,500 Soviet soldiers were killed. In Chechnya, Russian losses surpassed this
number within four months of the intervention. In another statistic, the worst
shelling of Grozny, counted by the number of explosions per day, surpassed the
shelling of Sarajevo in the early 1990s by a factor of at least 50.14 The destruction
of Grozny has since been widely compared to the battle of Stalingrad in the
Second World War.15
The Khasavyurt peace accords, signed in August 1996 and complemented
by a formal peace treaty in May 1997, granted Chechnya de facto independence,
but deferred the issue of its status until December 31, 2001. In the meantime, .: ⁄ : Chechnya was given an opportunity to build what in practice amounted to an
independent state. That, however, was not to be. Russia consistently prevented
Chechnya from seeking outside financial help, and while it committed funds to
the reconstruction of the war-ravaged republic, $100 million disappeared before
they even reached Chechnya. In a celebrated
statement, President Yeltsin publicly admitted that “only the devil” knew where the As the invasion failed to
money had gone.16
“liberate” Daghestan, it
Chechnya was also awash with young,
achieved the exact opposite,
unemployed war veterans with arsenals of
weapons and loyal to individual field com- serving as an invitation for
manders rather than to the central Chechen thousands of Russian troops
government. With the economic depression to gather near the Chechen
deepening, Maskhadov’s authority gradually
diminished, and the government became border.
unable to uphold law and order. Various
criminal groups engaged in smuggling and kidnapping. Most alarmingly, warlords
Shamil Basayev and the Jordanian-born Khattab began planning for the unification
of Chechnya with the neighboring republic of Daghestan. As Maskhadov was either
unwilling or unable to rein in these warlords, perhaps fearing a Chechen civil war,
Basayev and Khattab recruited hundreds of Daghestanis and other north
Caucasians, including Chechens, into what they termed an Islamic Brigade based in
southeastern Chechnya. The immediate roots of the present war date back to mid-1999. The
Kremlin had later claimed that the decision to re-invade Chechnya came in
response to Basayev and Khattab’s strike into Daghestan in August. Puzzlingly,
Russian military sources had informed U.S. officials of the Kremlin’s planned
action in Chechnya back in April.17 Further questions can be asked as to how
Khattab and Basayev thought to conquer Daghestan with a relatively small force
of no more than 2,000 fighters. They may have possessed intelligence that
Daghestan was ready for a full-scale rebellion against Russia. This assumption,
reportedly based on information fabricated by the Russian secret services in order
to lure the Chechens into another deadly ordeal, proved incorrect.18 As the two
warlords came to realize, Daghestanis generally sided with the Russian government, interpreting the events as the onslaught of militants belonging to an alien
and radical brand of Islam.
As the invasion failed to “liberate” Daghestan, it achieved the exact opposite, serving as an invitation for thousands of Russian troops to gather near the .: ⁄ Chechen border. In another interesting coincidence, the invasion also resulted in
the sacking of Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and his replacement by
the rather unknown head of the FSB
Vladimir Putin. Soon after Putin’s appointPutin seems to have learned ment, Russia was shaken by a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk
from his predecessor’s
and the deaths of several hundred people.
“mistakes” and has restricted As the Russian government and media readthe media’s access to the
ily blamed the explosions on “Chechen terrorists,” and anti-Chechen sentiment
reached a high in Russia, the stage was set
for a renewed conflict.
Riding on a high tide of popular support, Putin quickly sealed off Chechnya’s
borders with the rest of Russia and launched a military campaign, rapidly conquering the northern third of the republic. By summer 2001, the second war had surpassed the first one in terms of its duration, the number of both military and civilian
casualties, and indeed the human rights violations committed against the civilian
population. The humanitarian situation in Chechnya today defies description. As
Russian and international human rights organizations have documented, Russian
forces have amplified the use of concentration camps, such as the infamous
Chernokozovo camp outside Grozny.19 Moreover, there are documented instances
of Russian forces using vacuum bombs against Chechen villages, as well as more
conventional violations of the laws of war.20
While the Russian leadership has for over a year claimed that the war is
over and Chechnya is returning to normalcy, reality is far more gruesome. The
shooting down of several Russian military helicopters in the fall of 2002 serves as
one of many indications that the war is far from over. And the so-called “mopping up” operations, zachistki, executed by the Russian military and special forces
as they move into particular villages with the pretext of searching for Chechen
fighters, continue unabated as well. In the words of Human Rights Watch (HRW),
[Mopping up operations] are routinely the occasion for abuse, particularly
arbitrary detention and subsequent torture, ill-treatment, and “disappearances.” Soldiers also killed numerous civilians, both during and beyond the
context of sweep operations, in indiscriminate shootings. Masked soldiers
conducted numerous nightly raids, detaining men who subsequently “disappeared.”21 .: ⁄ : According to reports issued by human rights groups, as well as eyewitness
accounts by French journalist Anne Nivat in her book Chienne de Guerre and
Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya in her book A Dirty War, Russian forces
indiscriminately and arbitrarily select males aged 14 to 60, whom they either
beat, torture, kill, rape, sequester without formal accusations.22 If a Chechen male
is taken into custody, he often “disappears,” or is “killed while trying to escape.”
The more lucky ones are released upon the payment of large ransoms by relatives
to Russian commanding officers.23
In spite of a substantial and growing body of evidence of human rights violations, investigations and prosecutions number only a few, and so far not a single
perpetrator has been convicted. As of April 2001, 72 percent of investigations
into disappearances of civilians had been suspended. No one has been held
accountable for 130 civilian deaths perpetrated by the Russian military in the villages of Alkhan-Yurt, Saropromyslovski, and Aldy between December 1999 and
February 2001. Neither have the Russian authorities investigated a mass grave
discovered in February 2001 less than a mile from a main Russian military base
in Dachny, Chechnya. To the contrary, Russian authorities have tried to prevent,
delay, or harm the investigation. As Amnesty International reports,
Investigations into allegations of extrajudicial execution, torture, ill-treatment, and looting or destruction of private property are infrequent, inadequate and rarely lead to prosecutions. Despite compelling evidence from
the victim or witnesses as to the identity of the individual perpetrator or the
unit responsible, these investigations are often closed, due to the authorities apparent “inability” to locate the perpetrator. Russian authorities regularly use amnesty provisions to exculpate members of Russian forces
accused of less serious cases of assault against civilians.24 So far, only one high-profile case has led to the arrest and trial of a Russian
officer, Colonel Yuri Budanov, who is accused of having raped and brutally murdered a young Chechen woman. In spite of Budanov admitting to abducting the
woman, taking her to his office, killing her in anger, and ordering her to be
buried in the woods, the murder charge against him was dropped in June 2002,
with part of the explanation being that Budanov was a decorated military officer.
Psychiatrists of the Serbsky Institute of Psychiatry in Moscow had declared him
“temporarily insane” at the time of the murder, hence arguing that he could not
be held responsible for his actions.25 The Russian Constitutional Court has since
overturned the lower court’s ruling and ordered a re-trial, but so far this particular example serves as another proof that even in high-profile cases with overwhelming evidence the Russian judiciary fails to uphold justice with regard to
crimes committed against Chechen civilians. .: ⁄ While the level of destruction and suffering brought onto Chechnya in the
present war is comparable to the first conflict, they are different. On the federal
side, Vladimir Putin seems to have learned from his predecessor’s “mistakes” and
has restricted the media’s access to the conflict, and so far it has served Putin’s
political purposes well: whereas publicity
over Russia’s military losses in the first war
Arguably, it is an
eventually turned public opinion around,
support for the second war has remained
accomplishment of the
high despite the army’s heavier losses.
Russian secret services that
With respect to the Chechen side, two
have successfully split the
major differences must be noted. Firstly,
whereas in the first war the Chechen forces
were united under a single command, in the
present war they remain dispersed under the
influence of field commanders that seldom coordinate their efforts and are often at
odds with each other. Arguably, it is an accomplishment of the Russian secret services that have successfully split the Chechen resistance. Discord in their ranks may
also be one of the major reasons why a counter-offensive, similar to the one in
August 1996, has yet to occur.
Perhaps even more importantly, the very nature of the Chechen resistance
has changed to a large degree. The first war was wrapped in an almost exclusively
nationalist rhetoric. Very little mentioning was made of Islam, though Islamic
faith undoubtedly played a major role in the struggle against Russian rule. In the
second war, however, the Chechen resistance has acquired a much stronger
Islamic character. The use of Islamic vocabulary such as Jihad (Holy War) and
mujahideen (resistance fighters) has increased manifold, as has the active support
for the Chechen cause by radical Islamic groups in the Middle East.26 In many
ways, this change is natural: the suffering of the first war caused an increase in
religiosity both among civilians and fighters; moreover, since the use of Western
conceptual arguments of human rights, democracy, and self-determination
brought no support from the West, Islamic rhetoric remains the only option
available to Chechen rebels to attract the desperately needed foreign assistance.
Finally, the second war has had larger regional implications. Russia has
specifically used the conflict to blame the neighboring Georgia for sheltering
Chechen “terrorists” in the Pankisi gorge in the mountains of northern
Georgia, bordering Chechnya. Russian pressure on Georgia, involving cuts of
energy supplies and the imposition of a discriminatory visa regime, has grown
to such an extent that it now threatens Georgia’s internal stability and development.27 Russia has also threatened Georgia with military action, but has failed .: ⁄ : to provide evidence that Chechen fighters are indeed entering Chechnya from
the Georgian territory.
Overall, the increased religious rather than ethnic rhetoric poses a larger
threat for Russia, as it runs the risk of inciting anti-Russian and pan-Islamic sentiments in other republics of the North Caucasus. Whereas in 1994-1996 a few
north Caucasians fought alongside the Chechens, numerous young men from the
neighboring republics of Daghestan, Karachai-Cherkessia, and KabardinoBalkaria have now joined the war.28 - In view of the preceding, though incomplete, summary of the conflict, can
the war in Chechnya be considered an anti-terrorist operation? Moscow argues
that its military response was necessitated by Chechnya developing into a breeding ground for terrorism, as evidenced by the September 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk and the attack on Daghestan. In the aftermath
of 9/11, government officials on both sides
of the Atlantic have highlighted the link
Analysts have been led
between Chechen groups and Middle
Eastern extremists, directly implicating the to believe Basayev and
Chechens in several terrorist acts. In the Khattab were fooled by
most daring of them, in October 2002, a the FSB disinformation
group of about 50 Chechen fighters, led by
a radical Islamist commander, assaulted a campaign.
Moscow theater, taking over 700 people
hostage. Significantly, half of the hostage-takers, who demanded an end to the
war, were young Chechen women who had strapped explosives around their
bodies. After a long siege, the Russian special forces broke into the theater using
a lethal gas that killed over 120 hostages and some hostage-takers. The remaining rebels were shot point-blank.
In another alleged terrorist strike, on December 27, 2002, a truck packed
with explosives passed all security barriers and rammed into the government
building in Grozny, destroying the center of Russian power in the republic and
killing 46 people.29
Both of these incidents have fueled the Russian claims and in March 2003
moved the United States to add three Chechen groups to the State Department
list of terrorist organizations. And there is no doubt that the hostage taking in
Moscow constitutes a terrorist act. However, the course of events in mid-1999 is
confusing and often contradictory, as are some elements of the hostage taking.
The illogical character of Khattab and Basayev’s attack on Daghestan in
August 1999 has given birth to a variety of speculations. There being no plausi- .: ⁄ ble explanation as to how these experienced fighters expected to conquer
Daghestan with their small force, analysts have been led to believe they were
fooled by the FSB disinformation campaign into believing they would provide
the spark for a rebellion in Daghestan.30 Other observers have gone as far as to
allege that Basayev himself is on the Russian military intelligence’s payroll.31
While this theory is counterfactual given that Basayev’s forces are most heavily
involved in the military struggle against the Russian army, war reporters with
experience covering the conflict have said that the safest place in Chechnya is next
to Basayev: for whatever reason, be it his shady connections or his military genius,
Russian rockets never hit anywhere near his positions.32
The apartment bombings provide another mystery of 1999. In justifying his
decision to invade Chechnya, Putin had cited not only the events in Daghestan,
but also the apartment bombings. According to the Russian version of the story,
explosions were orchestrated by the Chechens. Yet, this allegation lacks credibility.
Russian officials have insisted that the bombs that exploded in the residential buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk were planted by Chechens in order
to terrorize the Russian population. Yet, only days after the blasts in Moscow, a
peculiar incident in the city of Ryazan, 60 miles south of the capital, forced the
Russian public to scrutinize the official story. Residents in yet another apartment
building noted a suspicious vehicle with tampered tags parked outside their
building and called the police. Police officers arriving on the scene searched the
building and discovered suspicious bags with what appeared to be sugar in the
basement. When a bomb squad performed a standard chemical test, the content
of the bags tested positive for Hexagen, the
same explosive that had caused the blasts in
If the Ryazan event was
Moscow and Volgodonsk. The police immediately arrested three persons on the site,
not a drill, it represents a
and all three flashed FSB identity cards.
plan by the FSB to blow
Within hours the FSB had taken conup a civilian apartment
trol of the investigation, and 48 hours later
building in a Russian city. government officials announced that the
event in Ryazan had simply been a drill to
test the alertness of Russian citizens.33
Naturally, this statement raised further questions. To most independent
observers, the story simply did not make sense. If it was a drill, why was a live
bomb with a detonator and a timer placed inside the building? Why was such a
drill instigated at all, considering that no similar exercise had ever been reported
in Russia previously?
The alternative explanation advanced by numerous analysts, including
independent publication Novaya Gazeta, is indeed sinister. If the Ryazan event was
not a drill, it represents a plan by the FSB to blow up a civilian apartment build- .: ⁄ : ing in a Russian city. And if the FSB is responsible for attempting to blow up a
building in Ryazan, it is logical to assume it may also be responsible for the detonated bombs in Moscow and Volgodonsk. This allegation is further strengthened
by the puzzling fact that within hours of the blasts, the authorities brought construction machines to clean up the rubble, thereby destroying all evidence that
could possibly have helped in the investigation.34
Lacking any evidence, the authorities have not been able to prove the
Chechen link to the blasts. In 2001, they indicted 26 people—all ethnic Russians
and Cherkess. Curiously, this and many other discrepancies have done little to force
the Kremlin to reconsider its course of action. In fact, the official response seems to
have followed a compelling logic. The blasts
in Moscow and Volgodonsk incited popular
anti-Chechen sentiments, and the public Activities of the Russian
opinion strongly supported the war. President forces and Chechen
Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on New Year’s separatist groups are deeply
Eve 2000, leaving power to representatives of
intertwined, as both sides
the secret services, personified by Vladimir
Putin, who then built his presidential cam- are involved in smuggling
paign on the promise to crush the Chechens. of and trade in arms,
The truth behind the events of drugs, bodies, and persons.
September 1999 may never be known, but
considerable circumstantial evidence suggests that the Russian secret services themselves planted the bombs to create a
wave of public outrage against the Chechens. In comparison, the hostage taking
of October 2002 represents a clearer case of Chechen rebels using terrorist tactics
to gain attention to their struggle. Yet, even here there are cracks in the marble.
First, the leader of the Chechen terrorist group, Movsar Barayev, had
allegedly disappeared from Chechnya two months prior to the attack on the theater.35 According to Russian military intelligence, the GRU, he had been arrested
by the Russian authorities. Furthermore, the mothers of two female terrorists told
French journalist Anne Nivat that their daughters had been arrested in late
September and taken to an unknown location.36 Neither Barayev nor the two
women had been seen after their detention in Chechnya until they appeared
almost magically in the Moscow theater. Related to this, it is puzzling how a fully
armed group of 50 Chechens could travel all the way to the Russian capital in
vehicles loaded with explosives, eluding numerous checkpoints along the road.
Finally, not a single explosive was detonated by the supposedly suicidal terrorists
during the siege by the Russian special forces. In fact, it seems that they simply
sat back watching the theater fill with smoke.
These puzzles and the fact that the Russian special forces did not detain a
single hostage taker for questioning, but shot even those who had already been .: ⁄ incapacitated by the deadly gas, have given rise to many rumors, the most obvious one being that the Russians had staged the attack in order to discredit the
cause of Chechen separatism. This theory is doubtful, given the loss of prestige
this would imply for Russia and for President Putin personally. That having been
said, Moscow is yet to clarify many details of the hostage-taking ordeal.
The confusion surrounding the invasion of Daghestan, the bombings in
Moscow and Volgodonsk, and the Moscow hostage taking suggests that the situation in Chechnya cannot be drawn in black and white. Activities of the Russian
forces and Chechen separatist groups are
deeply intertwined, as both sides are involved
The radicals have added
in smuggling of and trade in arms, drugs,
an international dimension bodies, and persons. Both sides are fragmented: on the Russian side, the military, the
to the Chechen conflict,
Interior Ministry, and the FSB all maintain
a dimension that damages
presence in Chechnya; on the Chechen side,
the Chechen cause.
power and authority are dispersed along a
whole continuum of different groupings that
range from the secular nationalist forces
under President Maskhadov to more criminal and/or extremist religious groups.
Typically, one Chechen group would fight, say, the FSB and the military but enjoy
“business” relations with the Interior Ministry troops (MVD); another would fight
the military and the MVD but deal with the FSB units.37
None of this, of course, denies the fact that some of the Chechen groups
have resorted to terrorist tactics and may have links to the global “Jihadi” movement. Indeed, the Chechen groups that have espoused the Wahhabi form of Islam
have attracted significant support from Islamic charities and underground organizations in the Middle East.38 This link was personified by Amir al-Khattab,39 who
led the invasion of Daghestan in 1999. A Saudi Arabian veteran of the Afghan war
against the Soviet Union, as well as the civil war in Tajikistan, flamboyant Khattab,
with his long hair, high-profile strikes, and skillful use of the media, can be termed
a kind of Che Guevara of the Islamic Jihad. Khattab and his forces had staged
some of the most daring and suicidal raids against Russian units before he was
finally poisoned under mysterious circumstances in May 2002.40
It is often said that Khattab was connected with Osama Bin Laden.41 While
such links are possible, the only proven ones date back to their common struggle
against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, when the CIA itself sponsored the
Islamic Jihad. Ultimately, whether or not Khattab and his successor, the more
reclusive Abu al Walid, another Saudi who joined the war in Chechnya via
Afghanistan and Bosnia-Hercegovina,42 have had links to al-Qaeda is of little
importance. What is important, however, is that similarly to the insurgency in
Kashmir in the 1990s, the radicals have added an international dimension to the .: ⁄ : Chechen conflict, a dimension that clashes with the traditional norms of
Chechen society, damages the Chechen cause, and complicates attempts to find
political solution to the conflict.
Chechen society is among the most conservative Islamic societies in the
former Soviet Union, but Chechnya’s brand of Islam is widely divergent from the
austere Salafi kind espoused by the radical groups, including the Wahhabis. Salafi
beliefs are strictly monotheist. They reject the veneration of “saints” or holy men,
as well as any local customs that are not derived from their interpretation of
Islam. In Chechnya, however, Islam has traditionally been of the Sufi variety,
based on a more esoteric, spiritual, and tolerant interpretation of the tenets of
Islam. Chechens have long managed to merge their pre-Islamic social customs, or
Adat, with Islamic identity, often giving precedence to Adat over Islamic Sharia
in cases when the two conflicted. Moreover, the underground Naqshbandiya and
Qadiriya Sufi orders, or brotherhoods, serve as cornerstones of Chechen Islam.
They had sustained much of the resistance to Czarist Russia and kept Chechen
society together during deportation. Chechen Islam gives importance to the veneration of saints and hence deeply contradicts the Orthodox Salafi beliefs that
Wahhabi groups are trying to impose on Chechen society. As a result, the
Wahhabi groups are widely despised by
Thanks to the financial resources Chechens have long
provided by Islamic charities from the Gulf managed to merge their
region, the Wahhabi groups that operate in
pre-Islamic social customs,
Chechnya enjoy access to sophisticated
weaponry and supplies and have been able or Adat, with Islamic
to gain influence at the expense of original identity, often giving
centers of Chechen resistance—the secular precedence to Adat over
and nationalist forces led by Maskhadov
Islamic Sharia in cases
and his allies. The Wahhabis have the support of a small minority of the Chechen when the two conflicted.
population and even form a relatively
minor part of the Chechen fighters. They
are the ones typically embarking on high-profile suicidal operations against the
Russian military. At the same time, the very use of such tactics ultimately damages the Chechen cause, part of which is gradually being hijacked by the radicals who are playing into Russia’s hands: the Chechen struggle for
self-determination is being increasingly depicted as an Islamic terrorist assault
against Russia and Europe. It is this myth that fuels Moscow’s insistence on
crushing the Chechen rebellion by force. .: ⁄ This argument does not hold up to closer scrutiny. The extremist-terrorist
dimension of the conflict in Chechnya is a distinctively alien phenomenon
grafted upon the Chechen struggle. It is a result of the war, and not, as Moscow
argues, its cause. Foreign Islamic radicals gained ground in Chechnya in the
midst of anarchy that followed the republic’s total destruction in the first war.
Even during the chaotic period of de facto Chechen independence in 1996-1999,
the radicals were isolated to a small area in southeastern Chechnya. And in 1999,
President Maskhadov warned Moscow of their possible intentions and asked the
Kremlin for help to combating them. He, of course, received no response.44
Moscow had opted to isolate and blackmail Maskhadov, linking the cause of
Chechen independence to radical Islam. In fact, however, it is the continuation
of the war that makes it possible for foreign radical groups to thrive in Chechnya.
And however minor their following may be at present, it is clearly on the rise.
This process, which can be termed as “Afghanization” of Chechnya, threatens to destroy the very fabric of Chechen society. Most civil wars shake the country and endanger lives of citizens during wartime. Yet, that does not necessarily
preclude the society from a successful recovery once hostilities cease. The economic and psychological effects of the war may be tremendous, but a basic economy, education, health care, and social
norms of behavior remain. In other words,
Moscow had opted to isolate the social capital of society remains in place.
Some conflicts, however, destroy the
and blackmail Maskhadov,
very foundations of society. Afghanistan is a
linking the cause of
prominent example. Twenty-three years of
war directly affected its entire population.
Out of roughly 20 million people who
to radical Islam.
resided in Afghanistan before the fighting
began, an approximate 1.5-2 million were
killed; a similar number was wounded or maimed; 6 million have become
refugees in other countries, and several million have been forced into internal displacement. Beyond this staggering human toll, Afghanistan’s entire infrastructure
suffered. Systems of communication, from roads to telephones, were destroyed;
the health care and academic institutions were wiped out. Economic livelihood
had been further undermined by the presence of 10 million landmines, while the
rule of law gave in to anarchy and lawlessness of the “Kalashnikov culture.”
The very emergence of the Taliban testified to the destruction of both traditional and modern social norms in Afghanistan. The tribal structures of authority were undermined through the war; the traditionally tolerant Afghan society
was invaded by alien, extremist ideas that gained dominance and culminated with .: ⁄ : the Taliban—a group originating in Afghan refugee communities in Iran and
Pakistan. These were young men who had never known peace; they grew up in
war and knew nothing but war. Whatever we think of the Taliban’s policies or
worldview, we cannot ignore the fact that their existence and way of thinking
were a direct product of the war that had devastated their families, their lives, and
put them in exile where they were taken
care of by extremist militias that inculcated
them with austere and violent-prone beliefs. The longer the war goes
The dire picture of Afghanistan on, the longer the Russian
painted above unfortunately applies to brutality continues, the
Chechnya in far too many ways. In terms of
more recruits the Islamic
the human toll of the war, a similar share of
Chechnya’s population has been killed—per- radicals will find among
haps over 100,000 people.45 As in the Chechens.
Afghanistan, over half of the Chechen population has been affected by death, injury, or
displacement. Likewise, the extreme brutality of the Russian military campaign in
Chechnya has destroyed the foundation of Chechen society. People are being killed,
maimed, abducted, tortured, and raped at will by the authorities that are supposed
to uphold law and order. The economy and infrastructure, including oil production,
have also been wiped out, exemplified by Grozny leveled to its very foundation. In
the countryside, agriculture is nonexistent; livestock has either died during the war
or been deliberately killed by Russian forces. A generation of Chechens is growing
up either in destroyed villages under the constant threat of zachistki, or in refugee
camps in Ingushetia. This generation, much like the Afghans in refugee camps outside Quetta or Peshawar, has no conceivable hope for a normal life in the future. As
Anna Politkovskaya puts it while retelling her encounter with one of the hostage
takers in Moscow in October 2002,
This is a certain generation of modern Chechens. Bakar is one of those who
has known nothing but a machinegun and the forest for the last decade,
and before that he’d only just finished school. And so, gradually, the forest
became the only life that is possible.46 The young generation of Chechens is already scarred beyond repair. Psychologists
have noted the difference between children who arrived in refugee camps in
Ingushetia at the beginning of the war in 1999 and those that came from
Chechnya during the war. They say that whereas “it was possible to protect the
first group from severe traumatic situations,” the second group tends “to be withdrawn, irritable, quick to take offence or aggressive.”47 A recent study conducted
by the World Health Organization concluded that 86 percent of the Chechen
population studied suffered from physical or emotional distress, while 31 percent .: ⁄ was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome.48 Whether or not these figures are accurate, the psychological consequences of the war on Chechnya’s adult
population, not to mention the children, are obvious. And among this generation
of Chechens, the percentage that will be attracted to radical Islamic beliefs will
almost certainly be considerably higher than among current fighters. The longer
the war goes on, the longer the Russian brutality continues, the more recruits the
Islamic radicals will find among the Chechens.
The Kremlin would argue that it must destroy the “terrorists” and restore
order precisely because Chechnya is becoming a hotbed of extremism. But for
over three years that Russia has been fighting this war, it is no closer to victory
than it was at the outset. And as long as Moscow does not win, it will continue
to lose. Chechens are able to resist Russian pressures, bomb the most secure
Russian strongholds in Grozny, and even stage terrorist acts in the Russian capital. As long as the war goes on, the spiral of violence will continue, and the
Chechen population will become increasingly radicalized. Around 20,000 children are born in Chechnya every year. If only one in 20 is attracted to Islamic
extremism, the number could grow to a thousand of new militants a year. The obvious conclusion of this analysis is that the war being fought in
Chechnya is not an anti-terrorist operation but a brutal assault against an entire
people. The indiscriminate bombings of Chechen villages, presence of non-conventional weapons such as vacuum bombs, the systematic use of concentration
camps, and the brutality of zachistki all point to the genocidal nature of this war.
And as it continues, it generates anarchy and chaos, which in turn breed criminals. The war allows Islamic extremists alien to Chechnya to find a base there and
to gradually influence a generation of Chechens that is growing up with no hope
for a future. It is Russia’s war in Chechnya—the so-called “anti-terrorist operation”—that creates this extremism and plants the seeds of terrorism.
Unfortunately, in the wake of 9/11, Russia has been able to capitalize on
the global anti-terrorist sentiment to minimize criticism and adverse consequences of its campaign in Chechnya. There may still be time, however, for the
West to make good on its statements that its anti-terrorist campaign is not an
anti-Muslim crusade. I 1 RTR (Russian State Television), September 12, 2001. See also Francesca Mereu, “U.S.: Russia Says Chechen
Conflict Aids ‘Understanding’ of U.S. Tragedy,” RFE/RL, September 14, 2001.
2 See Janusz Bugajski, “Beware of Putin Bearing Gifts,” Washington Times, October 10, 2001.
3 The record of Russian violations of the laws of war are amply documented by Human Rights Watch,
<http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/russia/chechnya/> (accessed April 9, 2003). .: ⁄ : 4 Roland Eggleston, “Germany: Schroeder Hints at Change in Opinion on Chechnya,” RFE/RL, September
5 See Roland Wattson and Vanora Bennett, “Bush Sides with Putin against Chechen Rebels,” The Times,
September 27, 2001.
6 Marie Bennigsen Broxup, ed., The North Caucasus Barrier (London: C. Hurst & Co., 1992); Carlotta Gall
and Thomas de Waal, Chechnya: A Small Victorious War (Basingstoke: Pan Books, 1997), 37-55; John
Dunlop, Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
7 Gall and de Waal, Chechnya, 56-75.
8 In 1926-1937, the Chechen population increased by 36 percent. In another 11-year period between 1959
and 1970, the growth figure was 46 percent. But in between these years, during the 20-year period from
1939 to 1959, the rate of population increase went down to 2.5 percent. See Robert Conquest, The Nation
Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities (London: MacMillan, 1970), 160.
9 Abdurahman Avtorkhanov, The Chechens and Ingush during the Soviet Period and its Antecedents,” in
Broxup, ed., The North Caucasus Barrier.
10 For detailed account of this period, see Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of
Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus (Richmond, UK: Curzon Press, 2001), 205-211; Dunlop, Russia
Confronts Chechnya, 85-124.
11 In early October 1993, forces loyal to President Boris Yeltsin clashed with the opposition protesting against
his earlier suspension of the Parliament. The opposition leaders, among them Supreme Soviet Chairman
Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice-President Aleksandr Rutskoi, surrendered after troops loyal to Yeltsin shelled
and captured the parliament building. Around 150 people were killed in two days of armed clashes in
12 See Gall and de Waal, Chechnya.
13 John B. Dunlop, “How Many Soldiers and Civilians Died During the Russo-Chechen War of 1994-96?”
Central Asian Survey 19 (3/4) (2000): 328-338.
14 Charles Blandy, “The Battle for Grozny,” Jane’s Intelligence Review 7 (2): 53-56.
15 Glen Howard, “Chechnya: Quo Vadis?” Presentation at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins
University-SAIS, May 12, 1999; Toronto Globe and Mail, January 29, 1997; Andreas Ruesch, “Grozny:
Memorial to Russian Destructiveness,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, June 2, 2000. Duan Schattle, “Joint MOUT
Mission Area Analysis and Mission Need Assessment” in Russell W. Glenn, The City’s Many Faces:
Proceedings of the Arroyo-MCWL-J8 UWG Urban Operations Conference, April 13-14, 1999 (Santa Monica,
CA: Rand, 2000), 264
16 Peter Ford, “Yeltsin Admits Aid Misses Chechnya,” Christian Science Monitor, August 19, 1997. Only $21
million of the $138 million committed eventually reached Chechnya.
17 Personal communication, Washington D.C., April 2000.
18 Personal interviews with Western intelligence sources in Washington, D.C., Istanbul, Brussels, 2001.
19 Human Rights Watch, The “Dirty War” in Chechnya: Forced Disappearances, Torture, and Summary Executions
(New York: Human Rights Watch, March 2001); RFE/RL, Interview with Andrei Babitsky, February 29,
2000; Patrik Lanning, “Missing Russian Reporters Heard ‘Screams of Torture,’” The Guardian, March 1,
2000; Omar Khanbiev, “Chechnya Today,” Lecture at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins
University-SAIS, June 2001.
20 John Sweeney, “Revealed: Russia’s Worst War Crime in Chechnya,” The Observer, March 5, 2000; “Russians
Urged to Stop ‘Vacuum’ Bombings,” BBC News Europe, February 15, 2000; Human Rights Watch,
“Backgrounder on Russian Fuel Air Explosives (‘Vacuum Bombs’),” February 2000.
21 Human Rights Watch, Memorandum to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on the Human
Rights Situation in Chechnya, New York, March 18, 2002.
22 Regarding occurrence of rape, see “Rape Allegations Surface in Chechnya,” Human Rights Watch Release,
January 20, 2000.
23 Human Rights Watch, Swept Under: Torture, Forced Disappearances, and Extrajudicial Killings During Sweep
Operations in Chechnya (New York: Human Rights Watch, February 2002); International Society for
Human Rights, Human Rights in Chechnya 2001: Growing Atrocities after the 11th September 2001
(Frankfurt: ISHR, 2002); Liz Fuller, “Is Russia Hell-Bent on War ‘to the Last Chechen’?” RFE/RL Newsline,
October 1, 2002.
24 Amnesty International, Failure to Protect or Punish: Human Rights Violations and Impunity in Chechnya,
Memorandum to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, January 2002.
25 Pravda, June 17, 2002; The Guardian, June 28, 2002. .: ⁄ 26 Yavus Akhmadov, Stephen R. Bowers, Marion T. Doss, Jr., and Yulii Kurnosov, Islam in the North Caucasus:
A People Divided (Harrisonburg, VA: WRNI, 2001); Dmitri Glinski-Vassiliev, “Islam in Russian Society and
Politics: Survival and Expansion,” PONARS Memo No. 198, May 2001.
27 Jaba Devdariani, “Georgia Fears Russia’s Anti-Terrorism Drive,” Eurasianet, October 1, 2001.
28 Brian Williams, “The Russo-Chechen War: A Threat to Stability in the Middle East and Eurasia?” Middle
East Policy 8 (1) (March 2001).
29 “Chechnya: Suicide Bombers Kill at Least 46 in Grozny,” RFE/RL, December 27, 2002.
30 Personal interviews with Western intelligence sources, Washington, D.C., Brussels, 2001.
31 Personal communication with Ilyas Akhmadov, Foreign Minister of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria,
Washington D.C., 2001.
32 See Anne Nivat, Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya (New York:
Public Affairs, 2001); Suzy Hansen, “Nothing Human Left,” Salon.com, July 10, 2001,
<http://www.salon.com/books/int/2001/07/10/nivat/index.html> (accessed April 9, 2003). One explanation is that Russia needs Basayev, Moscow’s number one enemy, to remain alive in order to help legitimize
33 For reports on the events in Ryazan, see Maura Reynolds, “Fears of Bombing Turn to Doubts for Some in
Russia,” Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2001; Jamie Dettmer, “Did Putin’s Agents Plant the Bombs?” Insight,
March 24, 2000; Yevgeniya Borisova, “Little Progress in Bomb Investigations,” St. Petersburg Times, March
17, 2001; John Sweeney, “The Fifth Bomb: Did Putin’s Secret Police Bomb Moscow in a Deadly Black
Operation,” The Observer, November 24, 2000.
34 “Does Buried Evidence Solve Blasts?” Moscow Times, September 21, 2001.
35 Anne Nivat, “Chechnya: Brutality and Indifference,” Crimesofwar.org, January 6, 2003, <http://www.crimesofwar.org/onnews/news-chechnya.html> (accessed April 9, 2003).
37 Personal interviews with Western and South Caucasian intelligence sources.
38 Brian Williams, “Unraveling the Links between the Middle East and Islamic Militants in Chechnya,”
Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, February 12, 2003.
39 Khattab’s real name is Samer bin Saleh bin Abdallah al-Sweleim.
40 Williams, “Unraveling the Links.”
41 “Obituary: Chechen Rebel Khattab,” BBC News Europe, April 26, 2002. Russian officials have made this
claim on countless occasions.
42 His real name is Abd al-Aziz al-Ghamidi. See Andrew McGregor, “Amir Abu al-Walid and the Future of the
Arab Jihad in Chechnya,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, February 26, 2003.
43 Nivat, Chienne de Guerre.
44 See Williams, “Unraveling the Links.”
45 The best account of the numbers of civilians killed in Chechnya is Dunlop, “How Many Soldiers and
Civilians Died during the Russo-Chechen War of 1994-1996?”
46 Anna Politkovskaya, “My Hours Inside the Moscow Theatre,” IWPR Caucasus Reporting Service, No. 153,
October 31, 2002.
47 Asiyat Vazaeyva, “The Mental Scars of Chechnya’s Children,” IWPR Caucasus Reporting Service, No. 165,
February 6, 2003.
48 Ibid. .: ⁄ ...
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