Jordan and Chechnya - An Unquestioned Relationship
By Murad Batal Shishani and Cerwyn Moore
Even though a series of events such as the Moscow theatre siege or the Beslan school siege have been used to link the Middle East with the ongoing violence in the North Caucasus, and with radical Islam, the relationship between specific countries such as Jordan with Chechnya, has as yet received little attention.
At the same time, while the broader region of the Middle East has been brought into focus by the death of well-known foreign fighters such as Ibn Khattab and Abu Walid, the role of groups based in the Arabian Peninsula remains obscure.
And, whereas a number of fighters from the Middle East have travelled to Chechnya, others, such as the Chechen ideologue Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, travelled in the opposite direction to Qatar. Subsequently, Yandarbiyev was killed there by Russian agents in 2004.
It is the intention of the analysis which follows to provide a preliminary consideration of the relationship between Jordan and Chechnya, offering insight into the continued violence in the North Caucasus.
Indeed, in order to understand this relationship, we must recognise the background histories which link the North Caucasus with the Middle East. First let us explore the military incursions in 1850s and the resultant diaspora, which continue to shape the politics of the North Caucasus.
Tsarism and Diaspora: the Historical Legacy
For hundreds of years Chechnya was a hotly contested geographical area located between the Russian and Ottoman empires (1). Hostilities between the Ottomans and Tsarist Russia continued throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries and culminated in the Russian military conquest of the region in 1859.
Throughout this turbulent period, “some Chechens fled to adjacent regions still under Ottoman control (Anatolia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan)” (2). At around the same time, political changes within Turkey, particularly the emergence of the Young Turks in the early 20th century, provided the context in which the Chechen diaspora would move deeper into the Ottoman Empire - including into parts of the present-day countries of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. One of the reasons Ottoman authorities encouraged Chechens to settle in these areas was so that they could serve as something of a bulwark against the encroachment of the Bedouin tribes of Arabia (3).
And so, in this period, the Chechen communities were also often used to protect the borders of the Ottoman empire. In this way, then, Chechen communities were incorporated into some Middle Eastern communities, through broader processes of inclusion and exclusion resulting from empire politics; and in this period, these processes served to limit the ability of diasporic groups to express their own cultural identity.
Thereafter, the geographical position of Chechnya continued to cause problems for the ethnic communities in the region. Elsewhere in Europe the emergence of ideologies such as Nazism and Communism would also have a bearing on the North Caucasus. Although the Stalinist purges of the Soviet Army in the 1930s was followed by war with Germany, this turbulent period of confrontation ended with Communist victory. And by 1944, the ruling Soviet authorities undertook a campaign of ethnic cleansing, relocating many ethnic groups such as the Chechens to Central Asia (4).
Accordingly, identifying the numbers of Chechens living in certain communities in the Middle East and the Caucasus is not easy: up-to-date and accurate figures are notoriously hard to gauge, but some research has indicated that “the number of Chechens in various countries breaks down approximately as follows: Turkey (100,000), Jordan (8,000), Egypt (5,000), Syria (4,000), and Iraq (2,500)” (5). In addition, significant numbers of Chechens live throughout the South Caucasus in Georgia, Azerbijan, Armenia and Russia.
But, we should approach this community and these population figures cautiously because Chechen groups outside of the North Caucasus have, in some cases, been assimilated into the socio-political systems in the states which host them. And from an ethnographic standpoint, ethnic communities located outside of the North Caucasus such as the Chechen diaspora are also labelled more generally as Circassian.
That said we can see that a substantial number of Chechens lived outside of the North Caucasus, linking small ethnic groups with Middle Eastern politics which would resurface as the Cold War came to an end.
In sum, we can see how imperial politics at least in part shaped Chechen identity prior to the emergence of Nazism and Communism at the start of the 20th century. Indeed, the historical legacy of Tsarism was to lead to a significant diasporic movement, culminating in small groups of Chechens being spread throughout Central Asia and the Middle East.
Perhaps significantly, however, the particular characteristics of Jordanian politics afforded the Chechen diasporic community a different experience from that of other Middle Eastern states; and it is to the role of Jordan which we shall now turn.
The Role of Jordan
Even though we have illustrated that a substantial Chechen diaspora exists throughout the Middle East, many other ethnic groups from the Caucasus also settled in the region as a result of policies of ‘ethnic cleansing’. As the commentator and journalist Anatol Lieven notes, the ‘Circassian peoples, together with a smaller number of Chechens, are today to be found all over Turkey and the Middle East’ (6).
Obviously it is not surprising to note that Turkey, with the largest Circassian and Chechen population outside of the North Caucasus, remains prominent in the ongoing struggle (7). However, even though states such as Turkey and certain individuals from organisations such as Egyptian Jihad create further layers linking Chechnya with the Middle East, this serves to gloss over the particular experience of Jordanian Chechens.
Of course, it does appear that certain Middle Eastern states – beyond those widely referenced in the ‘war on terror’ – have played important roles in the two Russo-Chechen campaigns of the 1990s (8). As if to emphasise this point, in the conclusion to his work, Anatol Lieven notes that Circassians and Chechens ‘play an important role in Jordan, where they comprise the royal guard and many of the senior ranks of the army (two Jordanian Chechens became the ‘foreign ministers’ of Dzhokhar Dudayev)’ (9).
Our point here, following Lieven, is relatively simple, that Jordan has played an important role assimilating the small Chechen diaspora into its society; but why?
Perhaps significantly, the more relaxed approach to politics, the Hashemite system of rule and the tribal structure of Jordanian society provides an important framework which did not force the Chechen community to conform to new socio-political forms of identity. In contrast, it allowed these ethnic groups to assimilate, in part, into pre-existing communities and culture. It has been argued that this has not been the case for other Chechen communities in Iraq or Syria.
In this way, many Chechen’s who live in Jordan have maintained a separate identity, retaining their own marriage customs, clothing, economic structures and traditional language. They also continue to champion important figures in both Jordanian and Chechen history and politics. Therefore, the experience of the Jordanian Chechens was very different from that of other Chechens in the Middle East. This was due, in part, to the belief in the Jordanian regime that Arab nationalism is not motivated by prejudice but instead, by a harmonious combination of Arabism and Islam (10).
Yet, as we have noted the Chechens who migrated to other Middle Eastern countries, especially in the period of Tsarism, often merged and assimilated into the larger societies and official political systems, which traditionally gave preference to home-grown nationalism. A case in point is the experience of Chechens in Turkey; they were faced with the Turanian influence, which was to become more acute when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk came to power after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (11). Therefore, the resurgence of national political Islam facilitated the assimilation of Chechens into Turkish society. The same analysis may also be applied to the role of Chechens in Syria and Iraq, under the two Ba’thist regimes.
So, the experience of the Chechen community in Jordan was very different from that of the ethnic groups in other Middle Eastern states precisely because ethnic communities in other Middle Eastern states were not able to preserve their cultural identity due to nationalist political agendas; whereas the experience of Chechens in Jordan was based on a recognition of difference, rather than an enforced social, political and cultural integration.
The different experience of ethnic groups in the Middle East can, therefore, be used to explain the significant role of Jordanian Chechens in the two Russo-Chechen campaigns in the 1990s. As we have noted it is clear that a substantial support network also existed in other countries such as Turkey, while Jordan played an increasingly important role.
With this in mind, we suggest that the Jordanians who participated in the two Chechen conflicts can be divided as follows: first, into limited numbers of Jordanian Arabs (when compared with other Arab volunteers from Gulf States) who travelled to Chechnya from Afghanistan with the likes of Ibn Khattab. And second, into groups of ethnic Chechens in Jordan, who were motivated by national causes, rather than religion. In the latter case, it is important to note that few if any Chechens were members of Islamist movements before travelling to Chechnya, even though a number did join radical groups such as Jamaat Islamayia whilst in the North Caucasus. In particular, this sheds light on the role of the alleged recruiter Fathi, indicating that he did not try to recruit Chechens from Jordan, but instead relied on his relations with foreign fighters in Afghanistan. This goes some way to indicate how radical Salafist ideas became increasingly influential, particularly after 1995, and how important figures played a role in polarizing the war-ravaged community of Chechnya.
A final point worth noting here is the role of Middle Eastern aid organisations in the two Russo-Chechen campaigns. In fact, a number of well-known aid organisations such as the International Islamic Relief Foundation and Islamic Relief Worldwide were founded in Middle Eastern states, and they offered financial support packages to refuges in, and after, the first Russo-Chechen campaign. It also emerges that some Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia alongside specific named financiers, played an increasingly important role in shaping post-Khasavyurt Chechnya through informal ties and through working closely with aid organisations. Furthermore, it was alleged that assistance was given to some radical groups through both informal and formal links to Middle Eastern benefactors. So much so, that Russia banned the work of many Middle Eastern aid organisations. But, unlike other Middle Eastern aid organisations based in the Persian Gulf, support networks and aid organisations in Jordan have not been banned by the Russian authorities. This indicates that Jordan and its Chechen diaspora have played a different role to that linked to Islamic radicalism in the Middle East.
Constantly reworked through a vast repertoire of political manoeuvres the ongoing violence in Chechnya has become a case of contemporary war that defies resolution. When approaching the continued violence in Chechnya, Jordan continues to provide an important role; not least because it allows us to identify how the conflicts have been influenced by the Middle East, but also because it helps to illuminate the differences between political statements made by those involved in the ‘war on terror’.
It is also clear that other states such as Saudi Arabia have provided the most well-known sources of support, using religion as a key motivating factor. However, Jordanian Chechens have supported the Chechen war effort in a number of different ways. And this support provides cause for a questioning of the claims that considerable numbers of Chechen fighters have been killed or captured in theatres outside of Chechnya: in Afghanistan, Warizistan or Falluja. Indeed, claims that significant numbers of Chechen fighters have been involved in the fighting in places such as Falluja, or more generally in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, have been largely discredited. By exploring the role of Jordan, it actually becomes clear that small numbers of ‘Arab Fighters’ have travelled in the opposite direction, from Afghanistan to Chechnya to fight against Russian forces. Of course, as if to underscore this point, we note that many of these fighters were not ethnic Chechens.
To conclude, as we have argued, discussions of Chechnya rarely explore how groups – outsides of those well-known radical individuals commonly associated with Middle Eastern states – approach the ongoing violence in Chechnya. Yet both Jordan and the North Caucasus diaspora in the Middle Eastern states continue to influence the politics of Chechnya (12). But, Chechens in Jordan, or for that matter in the Middle East, have been motivated by national causes and their involvement in the North Caucasus should, therefore, not be linked with claims made by some that they are importing and fuelling the ongoing violence. Within this context, as we have demonstrated, the ongoing violence in Chechnya cannot be understood without the recognising the role of Jordan.
Murad B. Al-Shishani is a Jordanian-Chechen writer. He has an MA degree in Political Science specializing in Islamic Movements in Chechnya. He is also author of the book The Islamic Movement in Chechnya and the Chechen-Russian Conflict 1990-2000, Amman, 2001 (in Arabic).
Cerwyn Moore is an academic. He has published widely in the areas of Chechen terrorism and suicide attacks.
(1) In particular, a survey by Anastasia Ganich, entitled ‘Circassian Diaspora in Jordan’, gives some idea about the role of Chechens in Jordan although more detailed ethnographic work is needed. See, Central Asia and The Caucasus, No.1 (19), 2003.
(2) Wasfi Kailani (2002) ‘Chechens in the Middle East: Between Original and Host Cultures’, Caspian Studies Program. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs: available at http://bcsia.ksg.harvard.edu/publication.cfm?ctype=event_reports&item_id=98 [10/09/05].
(4) Amongst others, see Robert Conquest, The Nation Killers: the Soviet Deportation of Nationalities (London: Macmillan, 1970).
(5) Kailani Op.cit.
(6) Anatol Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1998): 315.
(7) Notable examples of pro-Chechen terrorism have occurred in Turkey throughout the two wars. For instance, two airlines have been hijacked from Turkey by Chechen separatists – the first, allegedly by Shamil Basayev in 1991 and the second by Chechen rebels on the 15th March 2001. Other noteworthy examples include the Asayev ferry hijacking in 1996 and the 36 hour Swisshotel siege in Istanbul which occurred in 2001. Both the Swisshotel siege in 2001 and the Asayev ferry hijacking were led by Muhammed Tokcan, a pro-Chechen Turk. We explore this point, foreign fighters and their recruitment in more detail in a forthcoming article on Chechen terrorism.
(8) For the former, see Murad Al-Shishani and Cerwyn Moore (2005), Jamestown Foundation: Terrorism Monitor, ‘From Egyptian Islamic Jihad to Chechnya: A Portrait of Mahmoud Hinnawi’, Vol.3, Issue 13. Although a little outdated, on the latter point, one of the most useful explications of this complex interweaving of Chechen communities and Islam can be found in Galina Yemelianova’s book, Russia and Islam: A Historical Survey (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002).
(9) Lieven, Op.cit., 315.
(10) Muhammad Suleiman al-Dajani and Munthir Suleiman al-Dajani (in Arabic), Introduction to the Jordanian Political System, (Amman: Palmino Press, 1993): 264-265.
(11) Vanora Bennet, Crying Wolf: The Return of War to Chechnya, (London: Picador, 1993): 145.
(12) Murad Al-Shishani and Cerwyn Moore, op.cit.