Editor’s Note: Irakli originally sent us this essay right after the Boston Marathon Bombing. Unfortunately, it fell at a time when we were between issues. That we are running it now as part of Issue Nine is perhaps more important. The media fixation on Chechnya and the Caucasus region has certainly diminished in the months following the events in Boston even if the problems in the region remain. The incident’s disappearance from the media cycle and policy debate are telling of our current political climate. One cannot tell a simple narrative about Chechnya or the struggles of people who live in and/or flee zones of conflict. Yet the story of the Tsarnayev brothers is the very reason we must confront the complexities of these experiences and not look away when the story becomes too difficult to tell or does not fit our policy objectives.
A Brief History of Deprivation and Structural Violence in the Caucasus
Today, Chechnya and Dagestan represent one of the most tragic cases in the Global South even though located in northern country. Russia is a northern country in all senses – it has a very harsh climate in winter and perhaps more importantly, it has been a member of the G8 industrial countries club for the past 20 years. It became part of the Neoliberal world after Perestroika and Russian capitalists are some of the richest people in the entire world today.
The Northern Caucasus was annexed by Russia in 18th century by force. The mostly Muslim populated areas that lie north of the Greater Caucasus Range were incorporated into Russia in an effort to enlarge the Empire’s reach to the waters of the Indian Ocean. People who resisted the occupation were expelled to Turkey, Bulgaria and the Middle East.
The region is located between the Azov Sea and Caspian Sea on the northern slope of Caucasus Major mountain range. It is very diverse area, where many languages are spoken and different religions practiced, including Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Caucasian Neopaganism, etc… Worship in pagan religions remain very strong to this day in the North Caucasus revealing much about its autonomous culture. Various Christian and Muslim occupations did manage to change the faith(s) of the majority, but there are still sizable minorities that have preserved their pre-Christian faith. While in the Krasnodar and Stavropol Regions, as well as, North Ossetia-Alania, Adygea republics, Christianity is the majority religion, Sunni Muslim faith is predominant in autonomous republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia.
Russian occupation was met with predictable resistance by North Caucasians and Muslims. These populations sought to be allied with Ottoman Empire, not the Russian Orthodoxy. Chechen leader Sheikh al-Mansur led the first, among many to follow, campaigns against Russian rule. In 1794 he was defeated by Russian Imperial forces under Catherine the Great and died in prison. To this day he remains a national hero for the Chechen people.
Chechnya has been fighting for its independence from the Russian Empire for centuries, not just the past 19 years. There have been long struggles for independence under different Sheikhs, most notably under Imam Shamil in 1834-1859. Shamil, who was ethnic Avar, found Chechens had not fully adopted the new religions; a majority of Chechen and Ingush were still loyal to their traditional Vainakh religion. Islam was politicized and mainly used to organize against the threat of Russian encroachment. It became a unifying force after the Sheikh Mansur rebellions in the 1780s and 1790s, and even during Imam Shamil’s time in the mid-19th century. Chechens were still not especially religious even if engaged in a rebellions organized around religious identity. Their ethnic identity was much stronger than their religious. Paganism remained strong in Chechnya up until recent centuries. Shamil found he was distrusted by Chechens even though they shared his contempt for the Russian Empire.
Caucasian Albania located in Southern Dagestan became a center for Islamic studies for the Muslim states of Lezghia, Lakia and others. Dagestan has many different ethnic groups and speaks many different languages. Today, this location finds itself drawn into the fierce intra-religious contest between traditional Sufi Muslims and the new Wahhabi Salafist forces, which are heavily influenced and funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States.
In the 20th century, Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin deported the majority of Chechens and Ingush from their homeland. He suspected Chechens would back the German invasion against Russia given their history of resistance. Only during the de-Stalinization process started by Nikita Khruschev were they allowed to return back to their land.
The Recent Chechen Wars with Russia
Dzokhar was the name of the first Chechen president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, whose name is pronounced in English as Jokhar. It is the same name as young Dzokhar Tsarnayev, the man who along with his brother Tamelan, was responsible for the bombings in Boston in 2013. Dudayev was a secular politician; he did not have fundamentalist ideas. His goal was independence for his country. Dudayev was a decorated general in the Soviet Army. His people loved him as a great patriot who returned to his country after years of distinguished service to help lead its independence movement. Dudayev declared independence for Chechnya from the Russian Federation in the early 1990s. Yet then president Boris Yeltsin refused to recognize the declaration. In 1994, Yeltsin began a war that continues to this day, although most of the Chechen independence fighters have been killed or exiled.
The figure of Dudayev is the reason why many children born in 1990s were called Dzokhar. His name was greatly respected in these years. He was against terrorism, a military man who fought with honor and a sense of ethics. The Russians could not defeat him for 2 years. Yet in the end, he was killed in April 1996 by laser-guided missiles while using a satellite phone. Much like today’s drone attacks, this was a technological genocide of the South by the North. The plane approaches, fires, and leaves many people dead in its aftermath, few Islamic leaders amongst them.
Other secular leaders were also killed and starting in 1997 Wahhabi Fundamentalists funded by Saudi money started to dominate Chechnya. Sufi Islam was attacked by Wahhabis. Some of the military commanders, like Shamil Basayev, became fundamentalist warriors viewing the struggle as primarily religious. Fundamentalist groups brought with them new tactics and started to organize terrorist attacks against the civilian population in Russia. A major shift from Dudayev’s military code of ethics. Emir Khattab from Saudi Arabia became one of the leaders of the militant fundamentalists and was responsible for carrying out a number of attacks. After his death he was succeeded by fellow Saudi Abu al-Walid and others.
Fundamentalism was not a factor before and during first presidencies of Chechen Republic of Ichkeria Jokhar (Dzokhar Dudayev) and Aslan Maskhadov (3rd President of Chechnya 1997-2005). Its emergence was largely foreign in origin and sold with mostly Saudi funding. Secular leaders like Aslan Maskhadov and Akhmed Zakayev would become increasingly isolated and marginalized. The second president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev (1996-1997) was heavily influenced by Islamists after his rift with Maskhadov in 1998, in which he fled to Qatar. From there he traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and started to raise funds in Arab states for the Islamic cause rather than Chechen independence. Together with Emir Khattab, Yandarbiyev claimed to be an accomplice of Bin Laden. He was killed 2004 in Qatar by Russian special services. But after the beginning of the second Chechen war it became obvious that the leaders needed to find allies and they were found in fundamentalist Gulf States and in Afghanistan. Bin Laden was still in Afghanistan when Yandarbiyev traveled there. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was based in Pakistan. The links between Chechen Islamist leaders and Al Qaida were established.
It is important to recognize that most of these Saudi Wahhabis were trained to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan by the West. Like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, these fighters were raised by the Western powers to repel the Soviets, but turned against the West after the demise of the Soviet Empire. The West needed the fundamentalists to wage their war against Communism, but never considered the blowback that would follow should the Cold War end.
During the second Chechen war the Wahhabis increased their influence in the region beyond Chechnya. The neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan also proved susceptible to the message and money of Wahhabism. Fundamentalists started to fight traditional North Caucasian Sufi Imams and push them out of their Mosques.
Maskhadov died in 2005 and the 4th President of Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Abdul-Halim Sadulayev was already a spiritual leader. He was Imam by profession – even though many credit him personally for being peaceful – the trend was obvious. The secular state gave way to religious unity. Sadulayev became first Chechen leader to unify all Caucasian Islamic rebel forces against Kremlin. At the first stage this was called Caucasian Front. Sadulayev was killed by the Russians on June 17, 2006 and Doku (Dokka) Umarov succeeded him as the 5th and last president of Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Shortly after assuming power on June 17, 2006 he was proclaimed to be “Russia’s Osama Bin Laden”. He made it clear that his actions would not be limited to the internal borders of Chechcnya.
By the time of the second war, the European, secular idea of “Nation-State” was already totally discredited in North Caucasus. It no longer served as a unifying factor given that the goal seemed to represent a situation and mindset that had changed due to the wars and outside influence. Umarov started to think about trans-national unity – and the unifying factor became political Islam. Secular religion suffered a defeat in North Caucasus – and there are many reasons: corruption, nepotism, direct violence, incompetence of Russian secular authorities. This is not an isolated trend; secular ideas are in crisis around the world and this has been clear for the past 30 years. We have witnessed many real or attempted ‘Spiritual Revolutions’ as Michel Foucault would put it. When people are upset about the moral state of liberal elites, they resort to fundamentalism. Doku Umarov abolished the Chechen ‘Nation-State’ on October 7, 2007 and declared himself an Emir of Imarat Kavkaz or Caucasus Emirate.
In his video declaration in 2007, Dokka (Doku) Umarov said that the North Caucasian rebels,
“are an indivisible part of the Mulism Umma. I am unhappy with the position of those Muslims who call enemies only those infidels who attack them directly. At the same time, such Muslims look for support and sympathy from other infidels, forgetting the fact that all infidels are one nation. Today our brothers are fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somali, Palestine. Our enemy is not only Russia, but also America, England, and Israel; all those who conduct war against Islam and Muslims. They are all our enemies, because they are enemies of Allah.”
This declaration speaks for itself. The Caucasian war has moved from Chechnya to Dagestan and other North Caucasus republics. The fighting now is concentrated around religious superiority. Wahhabi ideologues and fighters are attacking traditional North Caucasian Sufi Islam and its Mosques. Russian imperial subjects are also targets in this struggle. But everyone else is also an enemy for Caucasian Emirate, who is not Muslim and possibly who is not Wahhabi. Their relationship with Shia Muslims is also a problem.
In May, 2009 as a head of supra-national unity, Dokka Umarov established his Majlis al Shura, a military government body ruled by Sharia laws. It includes all the regions of North Caucasus. The military branch of Caucasus Emirate is called Caucasian Front. The Supreme Sharia Court is a highest judicial branch Caucasus Emirate and the court is currently headed by Ali Abu Muhammad al-Dagestani. Considering that Imam Shamil was Avar, one of the Dagestani tribesmen, it is easy to understand that the center of gravity for this Jihad moved slowly towards Dagestan. This is where most of the terrorist acts happen now and where the highest concentration of Wahhabi extremists is.
To understand the origins of Caucasian Terrorism we need to look at underlying causes of violence in the North Caucasus and see what happened there and what caused the radicalization of this secular national-independence movement.
Did Russian Politics Contribute to Radicalization of Chechens?
The Russian military incursion in Chechnya was a major factor in radicalizing Chechens. For the Yeltsin government, the first Chechen war was a disaster and caused severe damage to Chechnya. Yet the second Chechen war worse and the military brutality of the Russian forces further radicalized the secular independence movement. Further, Russian military intelligence was responsible for raising at least one of the fundamentalist leaders of Chechen uprising, Shamil Basyev. It is widely rumored that Basayev was heavily supported by Russian forces when his Chechen unit was fighting in Abkhazia in 1992-93 while he was fighting Georgian forces. During this period (1990s) the Russian military was very disorganized. When one branch was fighting Chechens another was selling arms to them. Additionally, different Russian ‘business people’ were providing arms to separatist fighters during 1st and 2nd wars. Boris Berezovksy is mentioned most among them.
According to sources, “although there are no accurate figures for the number of Chechen militants killed, various estimates put the number at about 3,000 to over 15,000 deaths. Various figures estimate the number of civilian deaths at between 30,000 and 100,000 killed and possibly over 200,000 injured, while more than 500,000 people were displaced from Chechnya.” The First Chechen war has alienated many young people from secular causes and created a large distaste for Yeltsin’s version of democracy. Democracy became associated with engagement in corrupt wars where everyone sells arms to each other and the only supreme value is money – an American Dollar. Economic deprivation in the region was also blamed on democracy. Yeltsin’s regime was widely criticized even in Russia for the lack of economic opportunities for people and this also spilled into Chechnya, where the economic problems were coupled with the horrible forms of direct violence. The peace treaty signed in 1997 did not deal with underlying causes of violence, particularly the structural issues. Chechens received more political autonomy, but their economic situation remained dire.
After the first Chechen war the radicalization of Chechen youth played into the hands of radical paramilitary commanders such as Shamil Basayev and Saudi-born Ibn al-Khattab, who was at the same time commander of the Caucasian Mujahideen. These fighters were indoctrinated into Wahhabi philosophy and by 1998 there was already significant growth of fundamentalist militias. These militias started to penetrate the territories of other regions, like Dagestan, Krasnodar and Stavropol regions. The 1999 invasion of Dagestan became a trigger for the next war.
The bombings of Moscow apartment buildings coupled with incursions into Dagestani by Basayev and al-Khattab became the official reason for starting a second Chechen war; a war that turned into an all-Caucasian war since it spilled well beyond the territories of Chechnya. The fundamentalist army under the command of Basyaev and Khattab had at least 2,000 Chechen, Dagestani, Arab and other international mujahideen and Wahhabi militants. Yeltsin’s then prime minister Vladimir Putin, decided a counterattack was necessary to deal with the situation. Yeltsin would soon resign and hand over his powers to Putin.
The losses were high on both sides. The Russian Defense Ministry reported that as least 1,500 hundred separatist fighters were killed during the siege of Grosny. According to pro-Moscow government sources, 160,000 combatants and non-combatants died or have gone missing in two wars, including 30,000 – 40,000 Chechens and about 100,000 Russians. While Chechen side reported that at least 200,000 ethnic Chechens were killed by Russians. According to the Russian human rights group Memorial in 2007, up to 25,000 civilians have died or disappeared since 1999. Amnesty International reports that 25,000 civilians have been killed since 1999 and another 5,000 went missing. Russian-Chechen Friendship Society puts the death toll in the two wars between 150,000 to 200,000. In 2003 the United Nations called Chechen capital Grozny the most destroyed city on Earth.
It is not difficult to imagine that these wars would produced extreme hatred and resentment within the Chechen society. This feeling was shared not just by ethnic Chechens, but by the majority of Muslim Caucasians. These two military campaigns by Russia created optimal conditions for Wahhabi extremists to recruit more followers and money. North Caucasian Wahhabis were quite successful in attracting funds from Gulf States as well as other Sunni Muslim communities. Because of the Russian “infidel’ aggression, the war was undoubtedly considered a ‘Jihad’ among most of the Muslim nations. In fact, well-known 9/11 implementers first went to Chechnya to fight a ‘Holy War’ against Russia, but were denied access to Chechnya by the Georgian border guards. They were eventually recruited by Bin Laden himself. The links between Chechen rebels and Wahhabi affiliates of ‘Al Qaida’ increased every year and in the end this led to the abolition of Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in favor of Caucasus Emirate, which is a strictly religious unity of different North Caucasian ethnicities.
Besides the heavy casualties inflicted by Russian military forces, the state had long engaged in forms of cultural imperialism, specifically the imposition of secular ideology . First, the ideas of Marxism-Leninism, which were brought there by force starting 1921. And after the end of Cold War, we witnessed imposition of ‘liberal-democratic’ capitalism with many ‘losers’ and few ‘winners’. This concept was alien to Muslim (as well as other) communities in the North Caucasus. Their concept of ‘Umma” was not close to the ‘nation-statism’ and was even more foreign to Western principle of competition and the fight ‘of all against all’. These concepts that Russians advocated as part of ‘civilizing’ North Caucasus were met with protest and oftentimes resentment.
What was the role of the West?
It is common knowledge that after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US and other Western countries openly supported the Mujahideen in their struggle against Soviets. However, this struggle took on sharply ideological colors, since the West needed anti-secular ideas to contradict Soviet propaganda of ‘Heaven of the Earth.” The unintended result of this ideological struggle was the West of giving tacit support to the fundamentalist opposition to counter Soviet propaganda, the consequences of which are clearly visible today.
Prior to Soviet invasion in Afghanistan the West brought many Islamic scholars and students to study in its educational system and indoctrinate them in the advantages of liberal-democratic system over ‘Atheist, Soviet totalitarianism’. In some cases it worked, but in others it did not. For the founders of modern Islamic radicalism like Sayyid Qutb, Western liberalism was as bad as Soviet Atheism. Qutb and his followers were quickly able to note materialism, the abuses of individual freedoms, social injustice, economic inequality, racism, brutal sports like boxing and football, superficial conversations and friendships, ‘animal-like’ mixing of sexes, etc. That the fundamentalists did not side with Soviets did not indicate that the ideological battle was a success for the West within the Islamic Countries. Michel Foucault’s characterized this third ideology after the events in Iran as ‘Spiritual Revolution.’
At the beginning of Soviet war in Afghanistan Zbigniev Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor and ardent opponent of Soviet Communism, formulated the policy that would guide United States and Western Europe in their new approach to containment. For the first time the West started to provide covert military assistance to resistance fighters in addition to the supporting ideological assaults. The ideological struggle was formally led by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States that were officially propagating their own Wahhabi brand of Islam. After Carter, the “Reagan Doctrine’ with the help of conservative Heritage Foundation continued to support the Wahhabi branch of Islam in its fight with the ‘infidel Soviets’.
In the post-Soviet era, the West held found itself in a bind. On the one hand it supported its ally in Russia, Boris Yeltsin, in the fight against separatism to build a democratic capitalism in his country. On the other hand there were the old allies from the war in Afghanistan – between CIA and Mujahideen. Ibn al-Khattab was one of those who fought both wars (Afghanistan and Caucasus) and there were many other Arab fighters who participated in both “Jihads’ against Russians. It became more and more difficult to dissociate completely with former allies. As we have seen, some of them turned violently against the West – ones like Bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but there were others who continued to collaborate with the West, especially where anti-Russian propaganda was concerned.
Possible Funding Sources of Caucasian Jihad
It is a known fact that the late Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky was helping Chechen rebels since the 1990s. Pankisi George in neighboring Georgia was considered a safe havens for Chechen fighters up until 2002, when Georgian troops with the leadership of Irakli Alasania have cleared the area from militants. But funding from Gulf States kept coming. Among one of the main funders of Caucasus Emirate informed sources in intelligence community name Sheikh Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan from Abu Dhabi. Also, US State Department believes the Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade (IIPB) is one of the main funders for Islamic militants in the Caucasus. All these funders are also Al Qaida-related. Majority of funding goes to Chechnya either through central Asian Republics through Caspian Sea and Via Dagestan or through Turkey and Georgia via Akhaltsikhe and Pankisi George. Although it is not clear how operational Pankisi George was through last 10 years.
The Press and the Representation of Allied and Enemy Terrorist Groups
The Western press has been quite selective about addressing the issue of Caucasian Terror. While big terrorist acts are reported in major newspapers, they are not treated to the same spin as the demonstrated toward Arab Terrorists or Iranian funded “Hezbollah”. Anti-Russian terrorists fell under a different category, they were classified as fighters. They were not glorified as the Afghan mujahideen was, but they were not portrayed as villains either. It was more or less neutral position that the Western Press took towards North Caucasus terrorists, even though State Department listed Caucasus Emirate as a dangerous terrorist organization. This ambivalence was evident after the Boston Bombing as the West struggled to understand the link between terrorism and the Caucasus region.
It could be asserted that anti-Russian Chechens were not considered ‘enemy terrorists” before Boston attack. Even though it was widely known fact that Bin Laden often relied on Chechen fighters in most fierce battles with Americans. One of the legends talks about Chechen fighters helping Bin Laden escape American encirclement at Tora-Bora at Afghani-Pakistani border in 2001, where they defeated well-trained American marines trying to capture the leader of Al-Qaida. Still, the spin in America media did not portray Chechens or North Caucasians as “enemy combatants.” April 2013 changed this perception and the Brothers Tsarnayev brought the same kind of feeling to the US that Russians have developed toward North Caucasians for almost 20 years.
Reviewing the Underlying Causes of Caucasian Terrorism
One of the underlying causes of Caucasian Terrorism is structural and cultural violence that North and South Caucasians went through last 200+ years as part of Russian Empire. The North Caucasus remained especially poor and backward compared to major metropolitan areas of the Russian Empire. Economic deprivation is also one of the factors that has affected Russian relationship with North Caucasus and has remained unresolved. Cultural imperialism never achieved hegemony in the region – the language of secular republic, whether Soviet or Neoliberal Russian Federation was entirely alien and the concept of UMMA became much more influential and attractive in response. Inhabitants of the region were forced to choose between bourgeois individualism or support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of those who emigrated to the West did not feel fulfilled and either returned home or re-immigrated to other Muslim countries, like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. Western lifestyle did not prove to be attractive to most of the residents of North Caucasus. Many of them share Qutb’s criticism of the materialist West.
Just like Afghan Mujahideen, North Caucasian fighters fought against Soviet materialism and then turned against Western materialism. This seems to indicate something about the role of ontological basic human needs. The need for bonding as well as the need for sacred meaning could have been determinants in this case. At the same time it should not be forgotten that the basic human need for respect and recognition was also not satisfied within the North Caucasus. This is something that they share with South Caucasians too. Caucasians do not appreciate Russian attitude toward them as second class citizens and being called ‘black behinds’. These derogatory statements exacerbate the feelings in North Caucasian community that Russians do not care about their well being.
What could remedy this situation?
The world now realizes that Caucasian Terrorism is a potent threat to entire planet – not just to this small region between the Black and Caspian Seas. Yet what to do about the threat of global terrorism remains incredibly complicated. Perhaps a short term solution is for international community is to be vigilant about the threat coming from North Caucasus. The West needs to monitor activities in North Caucasus closer and collaborate with Russian federation on these issues more closely. But this is only a short term strategy and one with its own complicated relational problems between the West and Russia. A longer term approach must focus on development. A comprehensive development strategy needs to be elaborated together with Russians on the issues of Northern Caucasus. Only comprehensive development strategy coupled with ‘living secular ideology’ can salvage the situation, yet addressing ideology remains extremely complicated and difficult.