Chechen jihadis.

The characteristics of the Second Chechen War were the important role played by radical Islamists and their use of terrorism.  Shamil Basayev and Ibn al-Khatab were important figures.

Shamil Salmanovich Basayev (1965–2006) was born in a Chechen mountain village.  He did a couple of years in the Red Army, but not in a combat unit.[1]  Then he worked on a collective farm; he tried to get into law school, but didn’t make the cut; he studied engineering, but flunked out; and then he sold computers in Moscow.  Basically, a slacker who ought to be recognizable to many young Americans: slept all day, played video games all night.  Then, in November 1991, Chechnya declared its independence from Russia.  Basayev and some friends hijacked a Soviet airliner and took it to Turkey to publicize the cause of Chechen freedom.  Then he became a soldier of Islam, or at least of the Muslim areas of the old Soviet Union that were trying to break away.  He fought in Nagorno-Karabakh (1992), Abkhazia (1992-1993), and then in the First Chechen War (December 1994-August 1996).  The war went badly for the Chechens until Basayev seized a hospital in southern Russia and the 1600 people inside it.  He wanted the Russians to stop attacking Chechnya.  He didn’t exactly get what he wanted, but he did force a pause in Russian attacks, and he did get away, and he did get a lot of publicity.  Which was nice.

Basayev found a kindred spirit in Samir Saleh Abdullah Al-Suwailem (1969–2002), more commonly known as Emir Khatab, or Ibn al-Katab.  Khatab was born in Saudi Arabia.  He left at age 18 to join the last stages of the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.  He was in Afghanistan from 1989 to 1994, although with interruptions.  Here he met Osama bin Laden.  Along the way he lost a chunk of his right hand while handling an IED.[2]  In 1992, he may have fought in Nagorno-Karabakh.  He fought in the Tajikistan civil war from 1993 to 1995.  In 1995 and 1996 he fought in the First Chechen War.

After the end of the war, Basayev tried politics, but his career fizzled out, while Khattab became a warlord in the ruined Chechen republic.  Peace did not agree with them so well as did war.  In 1998, Basayev and Khatab organized the Islamic International Brigade.  Most of its members were from neighboring Dagestan, with a smattering of Arabs and Turks and a few Chechens.  In August 1999 Basayev and Khatab triggered the Second Chechen War when they raided into Dagestan.  Then the jihadis organized a number of terrorist bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities.  When the Russians counter-attacked into Chechnya in 1999, Basayev and Khatab led the guerrilla war fought in the Chechen mountains.

Eventually, the Russkies got fed up with trying to kill Khattab by ordinary means.  Khattab was a good son: he regularly corresponded with his mother in Saudi Arabia, using a courier named Ibragim Alauri.  The Russian intelligence service tracked down Alauri and “turned him.”  In March 2002, Alauri arrived in Chechnya with letters to Khattab.  He met with Russian intelligence officers.  They sprayed the letters from his mother with sarin, a fast-acting poison, then sent Alauri on his way.  Khatab died on the night of 19-20 March 2002 from touching the letters.[3]

When the war went badly for the Chechens, Basayev organized acts of large-scale terrorism: the seizure of a Moscow theater, and “Black Widow” suicide bombings by women in burkas from 2002 through 2004.  In July 2006 he was killed in the explosion of a land-mine.

[1] The Red Army didn’t train Chechens to be fighters.  1.) Why bother?  It’s in their blood.  2.) You’re just storing up trouble for later.

[2] A “Khatabka” is a Russian and Chechen slang term for a home-made hand grenade.

[3] Alauri was killed in April 2002 in Baku by agents sent by Shamil Basayev.

Chechnya.

Chechnya is a little place in the North Caucasus mountains.  Russia is to the North, Turkey is to the Southwest, and Iran is to the Southeast.  A lot of the country is mountains.

In the 15th Century, faced with pressure from the Christian Russians, the pagan Chechens converted to Sunni Islam to win the support of the Muslim Ottoman Turkish empire.  However, the Chechens weren’t very good Muslims.  Paganism remained powerful until early in the 1800s and Chechen Islam absorbed a bunch of pagan practices: mosques were built near streams and Allah was often referred to as Deila, the head god of the pagan Chechens.  Furthermore, Muslim religious-based law conflicted with traditional law and people didn’t always think that “sharia” was better.  Even today, Chechen Muslims like and continue to use alcohol and tobacco.

After that, Chechnya remained independent—backward as all get-out, but independent—until the end of the 18th Century.  At the start of the 19th Century the Russkies started pressing again while the Ottoman Empire crumbled.  From 1834 to 1859 an imam (Muslim cleric) named Shamil led a guerrilla war against the Russians.  The Russkies won, but the whole region of the North Caucasus saw repeated rebellions for the rest of the century.  The whole region tried to set up an independent country after the Russian Revolution (1917-1921), with the grandson of the Imam Shamil among the leaders.  That didn’t work: the Reds got control of the place by 1922 and Shamil’s grandson ended up in Germany.  The Soviets promised the Caucasus peoples autonomy, but soon reneged on that promise.  Discontent bubbled until a new insurgency broke out from 1940 to 1944.  The Soviets defeated this rebellion, then deported all 500,000 Chechens to Central Asia.  Perhaps 120,000 of them died in the process.  After the death of Stalin in 1953, the survivors were allowed to return.

Chastened by this hard experience, the Chechens kept their heads down until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990.  Then the Chechens again declared their independence.  Their leader at the time was Dzhokhar Dudayev.  The Russians, under Boris Yeltsin, declined to accept Chechen succession.  If the Chechens bailed out, then lots of other people would bail out.  Two years of incredibly brutal and devastating war followed.  Chechens won their independence, but the price was extremely high.  The war had wrecked much of the country.  Hundreds of thousands of refugees had been driven out of the country.  The guerrillas who had fought the war had become radicalized as exponents of “jihad” and had a hard time returning to civilian life, such as it was.  The country collapsed into chaos, with kidnappings for ransom becoming the only growth industry.  (About 1,300 people were kidnapped for ransom in four years.  Mostly, they got out alive, if not all in one piece.[1])

Worse followed.  In 1999, rebel bands attacked into the neighboring Soviet Union; and a series of bombings of Russian apartment buildings killed about 300 civilians.[2]  This set off the Second Chechen War.  This time the Russkies beat up on the Chechens and re-gained control of the country—sort of.  It also set off a civil war between “opportunist”/Sufi Muslim Chechens who supported the Russians and Wahhabist jihadis who fought them.  The Kadyrov family, father and son, led the Sufi faction.  In 2004 the jihadis killed the father–Akhmad Kadyrov.  In 2007, the son—Ramzan Kadyrov—became President of the Chechen Republic.  This guerrilla war continued until 2009.  Kadyrov takes a dim view of Wahhabism, and of jihadis.

[1] Clip from “Proof of Life.”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2aKHsTOoq0

[2] The Russians blamed these on Chechen terrorists, but a lot of people think the Russian secret service did them as a justification for war.  So, when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s dad said that some secret service had framed his kids for the Boston Marathon bombing, , that’s where he was coming from.