The Arab Connection to Chechen Conflict

An Arab influence continues to transform secessionist efforts in Chechnya into a drive for an Islamic state. Islam, long part of the region’s identity, however, was not the impetus for nationalistic movement to separate from Russia, underway since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Al Qaeda has funded Chechen rebels and also trained many in Afghanistan, and the Russian government has taken advantage of such connections, labeling all major opposition movements as an Islamic threat. Yet Russia has 20 million Muslims. So Russian President Vladimir Putin has also tried to mend estranged relations with the government of Saudi Arabia, relying on such diplomacy to combat any notion that his government has an anti-Islamic agenda. Author and researcher Faryal Leghari urges the international community to expect Russia to fulfill its political commitment of extending power to the Chechens. Delaying fair elections or the withdrawal of Russian troops could give Islamic extremists more momentum in a volatile part of the world. – YaleGlobal

The Arab Connection to Chechen Conflict

Faryal Leghari
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Certain dramatic developments in Chechnya have given rise to a perception that radical Islamist organisations have steered the secessionist movement toward creating an Islamic imamat in North Eastern Caucasus, similar to the Taleban regime in Afghanistan. Chechnya today stands at the intersection of radicalism and nationalism. Al Qaeda has funded the effort and also trained several hundred Chechens in Afghanistan

Islam has always been an integral part of its national identity but was not the impetus behind the nationalist movement that started after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. The politicisation and radicalisation of Islam was a complex process that opened a Pandora's box with serious threats of the conflict morphing into an ethno religious war conflagrating the entire region. An obdurate refusal to change the policies by the Russian leadership has led to the current quagmire. The political stalemate remains with militant Islam threatening any chance of autonomy that the movement may try to achieve.

In this backdrop, it is crucial to understand the nature of the Arab involvement in the Chechen movement as it was alleged to have contributed significantly to changing the resistance from a nationalist movement into one characterised by religious radicalism.

Beslan, the theatre siege in Moscow, plane hijackings and various incidents of suicide bombings are a chilling reminder of the festering conflict in Chechnya which confirm two things: first, Moscow's ineptitude in winning the war against Chechen secessionism; and second, the acerbic reaction of the Chechens to the use of force by the Russians. Russian President Vladimir Putin's declaration to "bang the hell out of these bandits" has led to a worsening of the situation. However, the conflict in Chechnya is not one to be crushed militarily. According to General Aleksander Lebed, Russia is not "fighting terrorists and bandits, but a people".

In 2003, the US State Department designated three Chechen groups affiliated with Shamil Basaev as terrorists, and alleged that they had received millions of dollars from Al Qaeda. Thus, the Chechen resistance movement became forcefully identified with terrorism. The change in the nature of the conflict during the period between the two Chechen wars was a result of deepening religious awareness, reaction to Moscow's harsh policies and atrocities committed by Russian forces, as well as infiltration of foreign radical Islamic militants and their influence on the Chechen command.

Following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a number of people rallied to defend their fellow Muslims. Later, following the call of Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, transnational Islamic brigades were set up to defend frontline Muslim communities around the world. The International Islamic brigade, which took part in the first Chechen war in 1994, was set up by Habib Abdur Rehman Khattab, a Saudi by birth. As a teenager, Khattab had fought in Afghanistan alongside Osama bin Laden. Fighting in Tajikistan, Khattab gained a reputation for being a brilliant commander before moving to Chechnya as the head of the mujahideen where he was appointed commander of the operations under Basaev. Bin Laden maintained a close ideological, technological and financial relationship with Khattab. Later, Khattab married a Dagestani woman and lived in Chechnya till his death at the hands of the Russian intelligence in 2002.

Several hundred Chechens were trained in Al Qaeda's Afghan camps and provided with weapons. The Al Qaeda-influenced Al-Ansar mujahideen were considered the fiercest and most organised of the three major groups fighting the Russians in Chechnya. Most of the Chechen suicide attacks — an unknown tactic in this part of the world — were initiated by them.

Ultimately, Khattab's influence with Basaev extended to creating divisions among the top Chechen command that led President Maskhadov to implement an Islamic government and set up Sharia courts. Maskhadov's failure to create law and order, curb high crime rate and control radical commanders, however, led to a loss of credibility in Moscow. His assassination in March 2005 at the hands of the Russian secret service was hailed as a victory by the federal government, who lost a chance to pursue a political process in Chechnya with a key Chechen leader who enjoyed considerable influence amongst the people.

The exact number of foreign mercenaries fighting in Chechnya is unknown, but up to 300 Arabs reportedly took part in the war, according to Russian intelligence sources. The growth of this group's power in Chechnya played a key part in precipitating the second war by an armed incursion into Dagestan in 1999. In their isolated position, the Chechens chose to tap into the resources offered by the Islamic organisations and networks in the Middle East and Asia. The Arab involvement played right into the hands of the Russian leadership. Moscow interpreted all major opposition movements as an Islamic threat and found it useful to implicate external sources for indigenous problems.

In this context, Russia's recent attempts at being considered part of the Muslim world through membership to the OIC is part of a strategy to mend estranged relations with Saudi Arabia. With 20 million Muslims in Russia, Putin attempted to play the Islamic card when he addressed the OIC summit in Kuala Lumpur in Oct 2003. Moscow also sought to reverse perception amongst the Islamic world that it was pursuing anti-Islamic policies especially in North Caucasus. Russia's repeated accusations about Saudi Arabia funding militants and terrorist groups operating in Chechnya, saw a sudden change following Crown Prince Abdullah's visit to Russia in Sept 2003, with Putin lauding Saudi Arabia's role in the war against terrorism and contending that both countries shared similar concerns on terrorism.

Adding to the tension was the assassination of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Doha in Feb 2004, which strained Qatar-Russia relations. Doha had repeatedly turned down Moscow's requests to extradite Yandarbiyev on Al Qaeda links. Besides being implicated in the Moscow theatre crisis, he was more importantly the link for sourcing finance to Chechen militants in the Gulf. Following the assassination, the Russian first secretary in Qatar was evicted and two Russian intelligence agents linked to the assassination were put on trial. The issue was put to rest only after an understanding was reached between the Russian and Qatari leaders, whereby the accused were returned to Moscow.

In light of the current stalemate following a majority of Chechens rejecting the outcome of "pre-determined" elections held in November 2005, the international community has a responsibility of addressing the crisis. Moscow must be pressured to fulfill its political commitment of giving power to Chechens through a complete withdrawal of its troops and fair elections. Isolating Chechnya and relegating the responsibility to Russia to deal as it deems fit is tantamount to a crime against humanity.

Faryal Leghari is an assistant researcher at the Gulf Research Centre, Dubai.

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