I didn't intend for this to be my first blog entry on Winds of Change since my return from DC, but I thought it might help to supplement Armed Liberal's earlier remarks on Chechnya and in particular the people who orchestrated the wave of terrorism that has killed upwards of 500 Russian civilians since last week.
This should in no way be seen as an endorsement of Russian policies in Chechnya, which have been worse than brutal - they're simply ineffective. I'll conclude with a link to a reputable organization that is seeking to raise money for the victims of this tragic act of barbarism.
A little background ...
First of all, claims that this has to do with the Russian military presence in Chechnya completely misunderstand the situation.
The problem with Chechnya, more or less, is that the Russians tried to surrender after their failure to bring the rebellious republic back into the fold in the first Chechen war and it didn't work. The country was taken over by a mixture of international terrorist organizations, Wahhabi theocrats, drug cartels, and other criminal organizations that subsided more or less on generous funding from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
This funding helped the Wahhabis to finalize control over the institutional infrastructure of the de facto independent state and led for calls for the imposition of sha'riah even though most Chechens (and Caucasus Muslims in general) are Sufis. The al-Qaeda presence in Chechnya was headed up by bin Laden's protege Amir ibn al-Khattab, a Saudi national who had previously assisted Islamic fighters in the Tajik Civil War and the Armenia-Azerbaijan War over Nagorno-Karabakh.
In 1999, Khattab and his "Islamic International Brigade" used Chechnya as a base from which to invade the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan (summarized here by GlobalSecurity) as part of a long-term al-Qaeda strategy to export the Chechen political culture to the rest of the Caucasus. That failed invasion of Dagestan marks the proper beginning of the current fighting in Chechnya.
Originally, the Chechen command structure was fairly solid and made up of both secular nationalists led by President Aslan Maskhadov and Wahhabi extremists led by Shamil Basayev, the former Chechen prime minister who serves as Khattab's superior, having fought alongside him in Nagorno-Karabakh and been yet another product of Afghanistan's terrorist training camp. However, since the fall of Grozny in 2002 the Chechen Wahhabi fighters under Basayev have increasingly been in ascendance and are set up along the following lines:
- United Forces of the Caucasian Mujahideen: The Russians refer to this group as the Supreme Military Majlis ul-Shura of the Mujahideen Forces of Caucasus, but this is the coordinating organization under which all of the Chechen Wahhabi groups operate that is headed up by Shamil Basayev. It also includes the Chechen sha'riah court, which provides theological rationales for activities such as that which we witnessed in Beslan.
- Islamic International Brigade (IIB): Commanded first by Khattab and then his late successor Abu Walid al-Ghamdi (a relative of 3 of the 9/11 hijackers), the IIB is also known as the "Arab brigade" or the al-Ansar Mujahideen due to the high percentage of Arab al-Qaeda fighters in its ranks. While other Chechen groups contain al-Qaeda members serving either as "officers" or in some kind of a military advisor capacity, the IIB is unquestionably the hub of the al-Qaeda presence in Chechnya.
- Special Purpose Islamic Regiment: (SPIR) Also known as the al-Jihad Fisi Sabiliah Special Islamic Regiment and formerly commanded by the late Ruslan Gelayev (killed in early 2004), SPIR engages primarily in guerrilla attacks against Russian forces as well as the execution of those Chechens deemed to be collaborators. Also contains a fair number of Turkish jihadis in its ranks.
- Riyadus Salikhin: This is a Romanization of the Russified form of Riyadh al-Saliheen or Garden of the Righteous, which I believe comes from Islamic descriptions of Paradise. This is basically the Chechen equivalent to the Tamil Tigers' Black Tigers suicide bombing squad and essentially performs the same duties for the Chechen Wahhabis. It first came into existence in June 2000 when two suicide bombers blew up a truck loaded with explosives at a checkpoint near a Russian OMON (Special Forces) unit at Alkhan-Yurt in Chechnya.
Suicide bombing, I should mention, is not an indigenous Chechen tradition but rather a Middle East import, although the Chechen sha'riah court has appropriated the concept of smertnitsi (the idea of virtuous warriors willing to sacrifice their own lives in defense of others) in its theological justifications. In most cases, members of Riyadus Salikhin are the widows of dead Chechen jihadis.
- Islamic Army of Dagestan: The name given to the Karamakhi-based Dagestanis recruited by Khattab that helped him to forment his 1999 invasion of Dagestan.
- Military Council Majlis al-Shura of Ingushetia: The name given to the Ingush Wahhabis who fought alongside the United Forces during the June 2004 raid into Ingushetia and led by Abu Kutayba, a Saudi national.
- Urus-Martan Front: A small Ingush group led by Akhmed Basnukayev that was fighting for greater autonomy in the Urus-Martan and Achkoi-Martan districts of Chechnya before it was absorbed into the framework of Basayev's United Forces.
Basayev's terror offensive ...
Since August 21, Russia has been subject to a wave of Chechen terrorist attacks masterminded by Basayev and bankrolled by al-Qaeda through the personage of an Arab national named Abu Omar al-Saif who serves as the network's paymaster in the Caucasus. While the European and Pakistani arrests of numerous mid-level al-Qaeda figures over the summer appear at least on the surface to have disrupted the network's plans for attacks inside Pakistan and hopefully the continental United States, no similar pattern of disruption appears to have occurred in Iraq or the Caucasus by virtue of the famed al-Qaeda decentralization.
Here's a basic chronology of Chechen attacks prior to Beslan:
- From August 21-22, upwards of 60 Russian and Chechen-backed troops were slaughtered in and around the Russian-controlled Chechen capital of Grozny. While Russian troops routinely die by the dozens inside Chechnya, these attacks utilized the same tactics that were first harnessed in the June 22 raid by hundreds of Chechen and Ingush jihadis into the Ingush capital Nazran as well as the nearby cities of Karabulak and Sleptsovsk. Over 100 Ingush were killed during that raid, including the republic's interior minister, and the 3 cities were more or less sacked by Basayev's fighters. I mention this because it indicates just how confident Basayev was feeling to have devoted such a large percentage of his forces to the raid. In contrast to the tactics employed by Sadr's Mahdi Army (which attempted to take and hold territory), Basayev's fighters took what they needed from the Russian armories and banks and left the town before Russian reinforcements could arrive.
- On August 24, we had the twin plane bombings apparently carried out by members of Riyadus Salikhin that killed 89.
- On August 31, a double suicide bombing in Moscow killed 10, also perpetrated by members of Riyadus Salikhin.
Why North Ossetia ...
Basayev's reasons for selecting North Ossetia in general and Beslan in particular are obvious to one familiar with the warped nature of al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers.
Unlike most of the North Caucasus, most North Ossetians are Eastern Orthodox Christians, so it "makes sense" to target them rather than say Russian Muslim schoolchildren in Ingushetia or Dagestan if you're a Wahhabi who subscribes to bin Laden's belief in a Huntingtonian-esque clash of civilizations. In addition to being majority Christian, North Ossetia was also one of the few regions of the North Caucasus that voluntarily joined the Russian Empire and its population formed a lot of the levies that were eventually used to subdue other Caucasus nations that refused to submit to the Tsar. As such, even the murder of innocent schoolchildren can be fit into a warped idea of "vengeance" for actions that their ancestors may have committed.
I should point out that regardless of what one thinks about Russian involvement in Chechnya, the people of Beslan had no power whatsoever to effect Russian policy in region. Basayev is an educated man who is quite familiar with the North Caucasus, so he must have known this when he was planning the attack. Things like this make his decision to target the innocent people of Beslan all that much more inexcuseable.
However, I should point out that Basayev's ambitions extend far beyond just Chechen independence, so everybody saying that a political solution to the Chechen war or Russian withdrawl from the region is going to solve the issue is going to be sorely disappointed. Here's Amir Ramzan, one of Basayev's flunkies, in an interview with the Chechen propaganda website Kavkaz Center from last year:
Q: From your words I can assume that you operate not only in Chechnya but all over the North Caucasus.
R: Yes, very much so. Not only we carry out raids to various areas in the Caucasus, but we also form local Jama’ats, militant sabotage groups locally. We are joined by a lot of Kabardinians, Dagestanis, Karachaevans, Ingushetians and even Ossetians (Muslims).
Q: That means that those in Russia who say that you want to create a caliphate in the Caucasus from sea to sea, are right?
R: Yes, it is so. Since they are unwilling to negotiate with us, then we’ll be doing what we can. And there is a lot we can do. Next year the war will seize the entire Caucasus from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. Apart from Ossetia and Ingushetia, this year another guerrilla war has already started in two areas of Dagestan bordering Chechnya. I swear by Allah, this is only the beginning. Russian authorities are well aware of this and this is why they are trying to organize formations of the local residents in the area who could resist us effectively. Similar process is taking place in Chechnya. But it will come to absolutely nothing. Having reached a certain level of confrontation inside Chechnya, Russia will sooner or later have to withdraw its troops beyond the Terek River, for instance. In that case we will need no more than two weeks to destroy all the pro-Russian puppet formations.
Note that his reference to negotiations refers to the establishment of a caliphate from the Black Sea to the Caspian, not to Russian withdrawl from Chechnya. So unless one wants Putin to consider placing millions of people in the hands of these madmen, there is really very little for him to negotiate with Basayev about. Maskhadov is another matter entirely and the Russians might do well to obtain a political settlement on that end, as he has indicated that he might well be open to such a thing.
Fred Pruitt also has some thoughts on what the Russians can learn on their end from what happened in Beslan and I think he hits the nail pretty well on the head.
Links to al-Qaeda ...
People keep asking me about this over on Regnum Crucis or via e-mail, so I'll be up-front: in my own opinion, the only difference between al-Qaeda and Basayev's Chechen Killer Korps is one of semantics, especially when one considers the prominence of people like bin Laden's protege Khattab or Abu Walid al-Ghamdi within the hierarchy of the Chechen forces loyal to Basayev. I've said as much before, but since there is a fair amount of quibbling that can be done in this regard I'll just stick to what is pretty much universally agreed upon by serious observers of the situation in Chechnya, including even some politicians:
- Khattab first met bin Laden during the Afghan War and later served as the leader of an al-Qaeda brigade sent to assist first the Tajik Islamists in the Tajik Civil War and later the Azeri military during the Armenia-Azerbaijan War during the early 1990s.
- Ties between al-Qaeda and a number of other Chechen leaders go at least as far back as the early 1990s.
- Basayev first met with Khattab while fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh and then traveled to Afghanistan to receive al-Qaeda training along with several hundred fellow Chechens.
- By August 1995, a large number of Basayev's followers were Afghan-trained Chechen or Arab fighters.
- Several hundred additional Chechens were trained in Afghanistan during the republic's period of de facto independence from Russia and former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev convinced Mullah Omar to recognize Chechnya as an independent state and allow it to set up offices in Kabul and Kandahar. A number of elite Chechen fighters were also made members of bin Laden's personal guard.
- Basayev and Khattab sent emissaries to Afghanistan in 1999, who met with bin Laden in Kandahar and returned with several hundred members of al-Qaeda's elite Brigade 055 as well as a large amount of cash to help bankroll the invasion of Dagestan. An additional $30,000,000 was later funnelled to Khattab from bin Laden through the International Islamic Relief Organization and Global Relief NGOs based in Georgia.
- As the fighting intensified in late 1999, bin Laden sent large amounts of money and weapons to Basayev, Khattab, and Arbi Barayev and appointed Abu Tariq to oversee the distribution of al-Qaeda funds in Chechnya. Abu Tariq was killed in December 2002 and succeeded by Abu Omar al-Saif, another Arab national.
- Al-Qaeda funding was used by Chechen commanders loyal to Basayev to recruit fighters from Georgia, Ingushetia, South Ossetia, Azerbaijan, and Dagestan.
- The last contingent of Chechen trainees arrived in Afghanistan in the spring of 2001 fought against the US-backed Northern Alliance at Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).
- After 9/11, Khattab sent a token force of Chechen and Arab fighters to Afghanistan to demonstrate his solidarity with bin Laden as well as recognition of him as the undisputed leader of the international Islamist movement.
- A number of key al-Qaeda commanders, including Saif al-Islam al-Masri and Abu Iyad, a member of the group's ruling council, sought sanctuary with Khattab following the fall of the Taliban.
- After Khattab's death in February 2002, al-Qaeda contacted its various NGO front organizations in the Gulf to urge an additional shipment of $2,000,000 to Khattab's successor Abu Walid al-Ghamdi.
- Al-Qaeda WMD chief Midhat Mursi has used the Chechen stronghold in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge as a base from which to train European al-Qaeda members in toxins and crude chemical weapons.
- Abu Omar al-Saif has called for attacks on US forces in Iraq and Abu Walid sent a force of Arab and Chechen fighters to Iraq in answer to Abu Musab Zarqawi's January 2004 request for assistance.
This does not include, of course, Russian reports that Abu Omar al-Saif bankrolled this most recent attack or that there were dead Arabs found among the bodies of the Beslan hostage-takers.
What can be done to help the victims?
As I said, the innocent people of Beslan had absolutely nothing to do with Russian policies in Chechnya and should not be held accountable for whatever differences one may have with the policies of the Russian government. MoscowHelp has been set up to assist the survivors of this tragedy and has already raised $95,206, or nearly double what the US government is donating.
UPDATE: The Telegraph has a pretty good primer on what Basayev's ambitions are that should help to make it clear why negotiations aren't going to end the fighting in the region.