The radicalisation of the Chechen separatist movement: Myth or reality?
By Cerwyn Moore, special to Prague Watchdog
On December 9 2006, a young Mojahed, named only as Muhannad, assumed the leadership of the Arab Mujahideen in Chechnya. But does the presence of Muhannad, an Arab fighter, provide evidence of the radicalisation of what might be called the Chechen separatist movement, or does his presence in the separatist military council point towards complicated religious, social and Diaspora networks involved in the ongoing conflict in Chechnya?
The role of the Arab mujahideen in Chechnya
In November 2006, the Amir of the Arab mujahideen in Chechnya, Abu Hafs Al-Urdani, was killed in Dagestan. Prior to this, in April 2004, Abu Walid, the then leader of the Arab fighters in Chechnya was killed in a “special operation”. Abu Walid, a Saudi national, had taken over as Amir of the Arab fighters in Chechnya following the death of Ibn Khattab. Khattab himself had travelled to Chechnya with a handful of associates in 1995, having made the decision to take part in the conflict following a request by Sheik Fathi, a Jordanian Chechen militant who had travelled to the North Caucasus in the early 1990s.
Others, although not necessarily fighters, also travelled to the region around the same time as Khattab. Abu Omar al-Saif, Abu Bakr Aqida and Abu Tariq, were some of the Arab fighters and ideologues who arrived in the region after 1995. Like Abu Walid, al-Saif had been involved with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, under the tutelage of Abdullah Azzam. His vision of radical Islam was shaped by this experience. Reports suggest he was born in the Saudi town of Qassim, and after arriving in Chechnya in 1996, he quickly established contact with Sheikh Fathi, Khattab and Chechens sympathetic to his view of radical Islam. Abu Walid, Ibn Khattab and Abu Hafs were linked by their experience in the Tajik civil war. However they, alongside al-Saif, were also connected by their shared conceptualisation of a strand of Wahhabism that stemmed from their background in towns and tribal areas of Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
In total approximately eighty foreign fighters took part in hostilities in the first Russo-Chechen war, although these figures fluctuated as other conflicts in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Africa drew funds and jihadi volunteers. Rather than a source of radicalisation then, the role played by Arab volunteers up until the end of the first war was peripheral, focusing upon organising networks and undertaking small scale military operations. In fact, they played a minor role shaping the Islamic dimension of the first war.
Of course, the interwar years are crucial when considering the influx of Arab combatants to the North Caucasus. Under the guidance of Khattab, Sheikh Fathi and al-Saif, finances, fighters and a new doctrine of political Islam began to emerge. As a result, dozens if not hundreds of foreign fighters travelled to the region, often to train in camps, but also to develop their knowledge of radical Islam. Nevertheless, in the period between 1997 and 1999, the disassociation of the Qadiriyya tariqa from what may be called the moderate Chechen leadership linked to Aslan Maskhadov provided an important shift which created divisions within the ruling groups after 1997. Alongside this, confrontations occurred between Maskhadov, his allies, and a number of increasingly militant Chechen field commanders and ideologists such as Shamil Basayev, Movladi Udugov and Salman Raduyev.
Reports suggest that around 500-700 foreign fighters have been involved in both wars. While this points to a significant increase in foreign fighters in the period after 1996, in comparison with the figure of eighty in the first conflict, it should be remembered that a considerable number of these may actually come from the Chechen Diaspora community.
Moreover, a good number of these fighters arrived in the inter-war period, as Khattab, al-Saif and local Chechens aligned their radical beliefs with an emerging Salafi movement. It was in this period from 1996 that Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, Movladi Udugov and Shamil Basayev helped to shape the role of the Arab Mujahideen, recognising their importance as financiers, fighters and ideologues. Thus, rather than radicalisation, the presence of the Arab mujahideen, the way in which it was hosted by elements of the Chechen separatist movement, and its own increasing power illustrate a far more complicated picture – one that has shaped foreign influence and the Chechen separatist movement in a dynamic and changing way.
Russian responses to the threat of Arab fighters after 2001
The death of Abu Hafs in Khasavyurt in neighbouring Dagestan seems to indicate the success of pro-Kremlin forces in isolating and eliminating foreign fighters in so-called “special operations”. Nevertheless, Abu Hafs was but one in a succession of figures that pro-Kremlin forces had targeted and “liquidated” over the last five years.
By late 2000 Russian forces had started to bolster their military control of Chechnya, offering support to pro-Kremlin Chechen groups associated with the Qadiriyya tariqa. Amongst other things, the pro-Kremlin Chechen groups loyal to Akhmed Kadyrov were used to supply information on the networks through which foreign fighters travelled to the North Caucasus.
This process was, however, part of a long-term attempt to garner operational intelligence on foreign affiliates linked to Chechen separatists, while a more targeted campaign was initiated in 2001 to isolate and eliminate Arab fighters. By 2002 Russian forces had killed Khattab, and by 2003 they were focusing on the remaining command structure of the Arab mujahideen associated with Khattab. Russian forces targeted two Saudi nationals, Hakim al-Madani and Yaqoub al-Ghamidi. Throughout 2003 and 2004 pro-Kremlin Chechen groups and Russian special services continued their campaign dismantling the embedded logistical structure organised by Sheikh Fathi, Khattab and al-Saif, allegedly developing a long-term intelligence drive through links in Central Asia to break the Arab network of foreign fighters, financiers and ideologues.
At around the same time, Russian prosecutors banned groups and offshoots linked to Egyptian Islamic Jihad, such as the Islamic Jihad Group. In 2005, reports indicated that the capture of a computer belonging to Abu Quetiba was extremely useful in unlocking the relationship between remaining foreign fighters. Equally, by February 2005 the Kadyrovtsy had claimed responsibility for killing Abu Omar al-Kuwaiti, otherwise known as Abu Zaid. Like Abu Hafs, Abu Zaid was killed outside Chechnya proper, perhaps indicating that the Arab mujahideen had lost their ability to operate in Chechnya itself.
Evidently, therefore, Russian and pro-Kremlin Chechens have had considerable success targeting the Arab mujahideen, especially after 2001. Similarly, the events of 9/11 and the decision of some Chechen groups to align themselves with the Kremlin, further facilitated and legitimised the process of isolating foreign jihadis. Let me now turn to a related point by noting how returnees, or foreign fighters who have returned to their home countries, have influenced the representation of Chechnya within the global Jihadi movement linked to Al Qaeda.
Returnees and the representation of Chechnya
Nevertheless, another wave of jihadis did travel to Chechnya after 1999, and their role in a number of attacks attributed to al-Qaeda has done much to blur the role of Chechnya in the Salafi and Wahhabi movements. For example, at least two figures, Abdullaziz and Salaheddine Benyaich, also know as Abu Muhgen, had been members of Islamic Jihad in Dagestan. Their role appears to have been a subordinate one, taking its orders from Khattab’s units operating in the North Caucasus. Both Abdullaziz and Salaheddine Benyaich clearly played a peripheral role in Chechnya, arriving in the North Caucasus in the latter part of the second conflict; while they evoked a Salafi-Jihadist agenda, they had little real experience of shaping or radicalising the Chechen movement.
According to reports, Salaheddine was of Moroccan birth, but with naturalised French citizenship. These reports indicated that he was involved in the logistics for the Casablanca attacks in 2003, and played a role in the Madrid attacks in 2004. Such figures are better understood as “affiliates”, whose experience of fighting in Chechnya fostered links with other radical groups. In this way, a whole group of other fighters who may have travelled to Chechnya has played a role in shaping the image of Chechnya as a jihadi hotspot. Notable examples include former combatants such as Menad Benchellali, arrested in France in connection with Al-Qaida plots, Xavier Jaffo, also known as Masood al-Benin, who was killed in Chechnya in 2000, and members of the Hofsted group in Holland. Furthermore, according to some reports, one of the suicide bombers involved in the 2003 attacks on British Embassy in Turkey, Feridun Ugurlu, had fought in both Afghanistan and Chechnya.
At the same time, it appears that the consolidation of power by Ramzan Kadyrov may also have a long term impact on the region as a whole. While reports often claim that Kadyrov alone controls Chechnya, it is widely acknowledged that separate parts of the republic are controlled by other pro-Kremlin figures, including Sulim Yamadayev and Sayed-Magomed Kakiyev. Relations between these groups appear to have soured in recent months, indicating a power struggle of sorts within pro-Kremlin Chechen groups. Thus, the ability to maintain control of the republic, and indeed, to target and “liquidate” particular figures such as Maskhadov, Sadullayev and prominent foreign figures like Abu Hafs, may well have resulted from information-sharing across these groups, and even from competition between them.
The Diaspora community and Sufi networks
Since July 2006, it has often been repeated that the death of particular figures in the Chechen movement such as Aslan Maskhadov or even Shamil Basayev marked the beginning of the decline in the Chechen separatist movement. But the focus on Arab fighters only offers an explanation of a small dimension of the separatist movement. A far more important characteristic of the current separatist movement is its links to the Diaspora communities and to regional affiliates and the role of Sufi networks.
For instance, a significant Chechen Diaspora community exists not only in Jordan and Azerbaijan but also in Turkey, and of course, in Kazakhstan. One aforementioned example is that of the Jordanian-Chechen Diaspora group linked to Sheikh Fathi. While Sheik Fathi died in the latter part of 1997, another young Jordanian-Chechen, Abdurakhman, took the reins of the Islamic Jamaat movement in Chechnya. Therefore, those who are often labelled as Arab fighters may in fact be linked to Chechnya, not by radical groups, but instead by the Diaspora community.
The current command structure of the Chechen separatist movement incorporates regional affiliates, Arab representatives and seasoned Chechen fighters. But the command of the current separatist movement, under the leadership of Dokku Umarov, also highlights the diversity of Islam. Umarov took up the reins of the movement following the death of Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev in 2005. Sadullayev, a young radical Chechen ideologist, was closely tied to the radical Islamists in the movement, but acted as a key figure linking Basayev, Abu Hafs and younger members of the movement to other ethnic groups. By contrast, Umarov is a veteran fighter, and a Sufi. He has spent some time linking the movement to its earlier forms, as advocated by Sadullayev and, more generally, Maskhadov. Tellingly, this indicates that the movement is aligning itself on a regional anti-Russian “anti-colonial” platform, and has suggested that the attacks against Chechen “collaborators” are an important element of the ongoing struggle. He has also argued for attacks on targets across Russia, and has incorporated key figures from regional groups and the Diaspora community into the movement’s high command.
The acceptance of certain fighters into the hierarchy of the separatist movement, particularly those with significant sources of funding, is one marker. Again, though, a note of caution must be sounded, precisely because the movement, especially in more recent years, may not operate with a standard hierarchical command and control structure. Instead, the social, cultural and clan networks, alongside the role of particular warlords and jamaats associated with other ethnic groups (Ingush, Nogai, Dagestani), may be operating in a more informal way; posing the problem of a regional and asymmetrical threat.
Therefore, to claim insight into the radicalisation of the movement as being due, for example, to the role of Khattab, is to make two rather important mistakes; it fails to recognise the diversity in the movement or its presence as a network; nor does such an approach recognise that Khattab was but one of a number of foreign fighters who themselves may be linked to movements which have themselves become transformed over time.
Of course, time will tell if the death of Abu Hafs will have a direct impact on the Chechen separatist movement. It is clear, however, that the Russian policy of liquidating alleged representatives of Al Qaida cannot continue, simply because few figures remain who can be directly or even indirectly linked with Al Qaeda. Instead, a new generation of fighters, mainly drawing on the jamaat groups and regional networks, is now represented by a cell of foreign fighters, with Muhannad as its representative.
Clearly some elements of the Chechen movement have become radicalised. Nevertheless, the fracturing of Chechen resistance after 1996 and the exploitation of a power vacuum in Chechnya proper by a small number of Islamists throughout 1997, do not necessarily amount to radicalisation. Instead, the role of the Salafi-Jihadist movement and its involvement in Chechnya has become transformed, as key figures such as Abu Walid and Abu Hafs have been isolated and killed.
Equally, some elements of the movement retain dual interests in what some authors have described as “entrepreneurial violence”. That is to say, the interweaving of networks, clan affiliations and the restructuring of the movement after the death of Maskhadov, Sadullayev and Basayev is significant. At the same time, a detailed assessment of the support networks, the role of the Diaspora community, the importance of Sufi networks, the representation of Chechnya as shaped by returnees, and the repositioning of specific warlords in the movement as a whole, is telling.
In sum, it is misleading to suggest that the movement as a whole has become radicalised; rather, the promotion of a young mojahid, Muhannad, much like the promotion of Abdul Khalim Sadullayev, represents an inter-generational shift which may lead to further conflict across the North Caucasus.
Murad Batal al-Shishani and Cerwyn Moore (2005) ‘Jordan and Chechnya: An Unquestioned Relationship’, Prague Watchdog.
Murad Batal al-Shishani (2005) ‘Abu Hafs and the Future of Arab Fighters in Chechnya’, The Jamestown Foundation, Vol.3, Issue.7.
Paul Tumelty (2006) ‘The Rise and fall of Arab Fighters in Chechnya’, The Jamestown Foundation: Terrorism Monitor, Vol.4, Issue.2.
Cerwyn Moore and Paul Tumelty (2007) ‘Foreign Fighters: The Case of Chechnya’, Unpublished Research Manuscript.
Cerwyn Moore (2007) ‘Inter-Generational Change and the Integration of Regional Groups in the Chechen Resistance’, Central Asia Caucasus Analyst, Vol.9, No.9.
Yaacov Ro’I (2000) Islam in the Soviet Union: From World War II to Perestroika (Hurst & Co, London).
Julie Wilhelmsen (2005) ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Islamisation of the Chechen Separatist Movement.' Europe-Asia Studies 57 (January 2005), 35-59.
Anna Zelkina (2000) In Quest for God and Freedom: Sufi Responses to the Russian Advance in the North Caucasus (Hurst & Co, London).
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