Victims and Terrorists
THE WEEKEND OF February 6 saw yet another deadly incident in Moscow, when an explosion in the subway killed at least 39 people. Predictably, Russian president Vladimir Putin blamed the bloodshed on "Chechens." Doubts abound, however, among ordinary Russians as well as journalists. Newspaper commentator Pavel Felgenhauer noted on February 10 that it was unclear whether the blast was a terrorist attack or an accident. Others have suggested the death toll was much higher.
It may well be that Chechens were involved in this dreadful event. Regardless, one must wonder how many people not particularly conversant with Russian history really know what the term "Chechen"--in many quarters, a synonym for "terrorist"-- means. Who, after all, are these people, and how did they acquire such a terrible reputation? How did all this bloodshed come about?
The Chechens are a people from the northern Caucasus, who number no more than one million but have their own language. They were nature-worshippers until the late 18th century, when they were converted to Islam. Their mountain culture is traditional, with a legacy of communal law based on strict rules for reprisal in personal conflicts. In 1813, tsarist Russia seized the region from the shah of Persia, but the Chechens and the other Muslim peoples of the Caucasus fiercely resisted Russian encroachment.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Russian liberals and revolutionaries acclaimed the Chechens as freedom fighters, but in 1944, Joseph Stalin--himself a Caucasian, from Georgia, who loathed the Chechens as Muslims and as enemies of empire--had half a million Chechens deported to Central Asia, for allegedly preparing to collaborate with the Germans.
A generation of Chechens grew up in Kazakhstan and Siberia. Unsurprisingly, they became an underclass, with a high percentage of criminals and convicts. In 1957, under Khrushchev's reforms, they were allowed to return to the Caucasus, but Chechen gangsterism loomed larger than ever in Russian lore.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Chechens demanded independence from the Russian Federation. A Russo-Chechen war began in 1994, and lasted for two years, ferocious on both sides. An uneasy peace, more like a truce, was effected by former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, and Russian troops withdrew in 1996.
But with the end of open war, a new element appeared in Chechnya: Saudi subjects who sought to restart the fighting as a means to promote the international spread of the strict Wahhabi cult. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Wahhabi missionaries appeared in Chechen communities.
The Chechens had a reputation as tough men unwilling to surrender to the Russians, and they were no more inclined to accept Saudi religious colonialism; the Chechens follow a spiritual, Sufi strand of Islam. The Wahhabi offensive was led by a Saudi named Samir Saleh Abdullah al-Suwailem, alias Khattab, an acolyte of al Qaeda. First came the attempt to impose the Wahhabi version of Islamic law in Chechen villages, then the recruitment of separate Wahhabi militias--distinct from the main Chechen forces and intent on restarting the war with the Russians.
They succeeded. In 1999, Wahhabis based in Chechnya--many of them Arabs rather than ethnic Chechens--invaded Daghestan, Chechnya's eastern neighbor, in an attempt to set up a fundamentalist enclave. Meanwhile, the Saudis established a "Joint Committee for the Relief of Kosovo and Chechnya," ostensibly to raise money to aid the victims of war, actually to support Khattab's recruitment efforts in Chechen refugee camps. The title of the committee was interesting; the Kosovars refused to allow itinerant Arabs to fight in the Kosovo Liberation Army, prompting some to head instead to the Caucasus, where Wahhabi agents welcomed them. Yeltsin ordered the Russian army back into Chechnya, and the nightmare resumed.
The events that followed were written in blood in Russia and in headlines across the globe. In 2000, Putin replaced Yeltsin as president, and pledged an investigation of the human rights crisis in Chechnya. But a cycle of suicide terror that continues today had already begun in 1999. The year 2002 saw the death of Khattab, as well as the seizure of a theater in Moscow by terrorists draped in Arabic-script banners (the Chechens use the Latin alphabet). The terrorists and 100 hostages perished when the Russians gassed the building. Khattab's place as the leader of Wahhabism in the stricken land was taken up by the ethnic Chechen Shamil Basayev.
Another ethnic Chechen Wahhabi was murdered only last week. Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev died February 13 when his car was blown up in Qatar. Yandarbiyev, president of the Chechen republic in 1996-97, was best known for his involvement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, where he established an unauthorized Chechen embassy. As a result, he was repudiated by mainstream Chechen leaders, who had no use for the Taliban.
Russia expert Leon Aron, of the American Enterprise Institute, cites opinion polls showing that most Russians would like to see the Chechens granted as much freedom as possible, to get rid of the problem; Russian mothers are sick of seeing their sons go off to an unwinnable war. Most Chechens, meanwhile, want their republic to remain within the Russian Federation, since independence would be economically burdensome. Last year Chechens voted in a Moscow-sponsored referendum on autonomy within the Russian Federation. Although the Wahhabis threatened to kill anyone who participated in the balloting, the majority of Chechens accepted (albeit in a vote whose legitimacy some Western experts questioned) a constitution that renounces full independence.
In January, Ahmad Kadyrov, installed as Chechen president under the new constitution, made the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, and was welcomed to Saudi Arabia by Crown Prince Abdullah. This followed Abdullah's own visit to Moscow in September 2003, for the signing of an oil agreement, and may indicate that some powerful Saudis now want the wound of Chechnya bandaged, if not healed. Terrorism in Chechnya, after all, only helps al Qaeda.
The new Russian-Saudi embrace has been denounced by informed westerners as a gross example of cynical manipulation at the expense of the Chechens. Official Saudi support for the Chechen constitution may incite the Wahhabis on the ground there to even more vicious attacks, in protest against an alleged betrayal. But if the princes in Riyadh were to seriously repudiate the Chechen Wahhabis--cutting the financial lifeline, and making the activities of the Wahhabi meddlers illegal--they might do a great deal more than Putin or even any authentic Chechen leader to end the horror inflicted on Russians and Chechens alike.