Three news items last week raised again the thorny question of how far the current insurgencies in the North Caucasus may be linked with a global Islamic extremist jihad.
- First of all, it emerged that two Chechens, Mohammed Adamov and Ahmad Avar, were amongst three suspected terrorists arrested in Spain, reportedly planning a bomb attack outside the country, inevitably. According to the authorities, one was an al-Qaeda cell leader and the other had been trained in insurgent camps in Afghanistan.
- Then the Bulgarians arrested another Chechen, Mohmad Gadamouri, as he entered the country who was on an Interpol arrest warrant as he was suspected of being part of a group that planned a terrorist attack in Ingushetia back in 2003.
- Finally, new reports suggested Chechens were fighting alongside rebel forces in Syria, even though Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov had previously denied that this was the case. (Though that raises the perplexing question of quite how he would know.)
The conflict in Chechnya has, after all, long since acquired a jihadist tone. The end of the 1990s and early 2000s saw the eclipse of Chechen nationalism and the rise of extremist Islam within the rebel movement, bringing with it foreign money and fighters on the one hand, intolerance and a willingness to target civilians on the other. In some ways this helps explain their decline: they spent much of their energies competing with the nationalists (some of whom eventually defected to the pro-government ‘Kadyrovtsy’) and lost most of their popular appeal.
Foreign warlords like Saudi-born Ibn al-Khattab and Abu Omar al-Saif are gone now (killed in 2002 and 2005, respectively) and al-Qaeda no longer has much in the way of money and support to offer. Last year, al-Qaeda representative Haled Yusef Muhammad al Emirat, known as Moganned, was killed in southern Chechnya, but it’s questionable quite how much real impact he had.
If anything, his main role was probably to reach out to the more active and successful jamaats or insurgent groups in the rest of the North Caucasus, especially Ingushetia, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. However, he had made markedly little progress. While much of the insurgency elsewhere in the North Caucasus uses an Islamic idiom, it is hardly sympathetic to al-Qaeda. Indeed, I remember speaking once to a former insurgent who fiercely accused al-Qaeda of “losing Chechnya to the Russians” by splitting the rebel movement and undermining former rebel president Aslan Maskhadov.
The sporadic terrorist attacks perpetrated by Chechens and others from the region do show the influence of the jihad, especially in their willingness to target civilians and reliance on suicide bombers (suicide attacks were never a part of the Chechen/North Caucasus way of war – just consider regional hero Imam Shamil, a Dagestani who eventually became a relatively honored prisoner-guest of the tsars, although I suspect that Doku Umarov would get rather less comfortable treatment today, and be a less gracious guest, at that).
However, this is more than anything else a legacy of former relations, an expression of the weakness of the existing Chechen insurgency and a reflection of the extent to which the al-Qaeda jihad has become an ideology rather than a movement, something spread through online fora and word of mouth.
Today’s Chechens – at least those Chechens still resident in the North Caucasus – are pretty isolated from the global tides of jihad. So we have to keep this in proportion. As of writing, the main source seems to be an AFP report of a group of 80 rebel fighters near Aleppo, which included “two or three Chechens” and a Gazeta.ru piece largely drawn from other sources. Does that really mean anything? Indeed, who is to say these are not Syrian nationals? Syria has a population of perhaps 20,000 ethnic Chechens, some of whom may well have joined the rebels; they are Sunnis, and as the civil war takes an increasingly ethno-religious character they have no reason to favor Assad’s Alawite regime.
Admittedly, al-Qaeda is definitely seeking to establish a presence in Syria, through its local movement, the Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant. This might be able to attract some Chechens to its colors. Indeed, its leader goes by the nom de guerre Abu Mohammad al-Golani, referring to the Golan Heights – which used to be one of the main home regions of Syria’s Chechens until they were evicted when Israel occupied them after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
However, this is all entirely speculative and circumstantial. We heard similar accounts of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where alarmist accounts of legions of bloodthirsty Chechen jihadists never turned out to be true. As Mairbek Vatchagaev has also written in the Jamestown Foundation Eurasian Daily Monitor, this is more about rumor and folk myth than anything else – it is striking how often the myth of the “evil Chechen” crops up these days in so many contexts.
For all that, though, it is necessary to inject one note of concern. The Chechen insurgency has been all but quelled, despite its ability to launch occasional small- and larger-scale attacks. That should not – suspiciously overwhelming election results for Putin and his bloc notwithstanding – be read to mean that all Chechens are happy with the status quo. Many are not, and as the prospect for any reform in their country recedes, then the danger remains that some, especially within the extensive Chechen diaspora, turn to violent radicalism. The problem with modern terrorism is that terrible attacks can only take a few people willing to die and possessing the tradecraft to make those deaths count. I suspect that one of the reasons for the Russian intelligence community’s apparent campaign of elimination aimed at Chechen terrorist organizers and fundraisers abroad is not just to prevent them facilitating operations in Chechnya itself, but also to shatter structures which could become the basis for terrorist activities elsewhere, presumably aimed at Russians and Russian interests. The coincidence of the Spanish and Bulgarian arrests are, I presume, just that. But they do remind us that a people denied hope and home can be very, very dangerous.