Chechen terrorism: An Update

The US and other Western countries had not been viewing the Chechen terrorists with the same seriousness as the Russians and have been dismissing Russian evidence of Chechens’ links with Al Qaeda.

By B.Raman

(March 31, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) The hasty return of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Moscow from his tour of Siberia speaks of the seriousness with which he views the two suicide bombings in the Moscow Metro on the morning of March 29,2010, for which responsibility is reportedto have been claimed by Doku Umarov, the Chechen terrorist leader, who heads an organization called the Martyrs' Battalion Riyadus-Salikhiyn.

Umarov initially called himself the President of the "Chechen Republic of Ichkeria" -- the term the separatists use for a Chechen territory independent of Russia. He assumed this position in 2006 after the then Chechen rebel leader Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev was killed in an encounter with the Russian security forces. The next year, he designated himself the Amir of the Caucasian Islamic Caliphate.

Umarov was born in April 1964 in the village of Kharsenoi in southern Chechnya. He graduated from the construction faculty of the Oil Institute in Grozny. He joined the anti-Russian movement in Chechnya in the 1990s and participated in both the Chechen wars in the 1990s. Till he took over the leadership of the movement in 2006, he was opposed to indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Since designating himself as the Amir, he has become as ruthless in killing people indiscriminately as his predecessors and other Chechen terrorists.

In a statement issued on August 21,2009, his organization had said that it would no longer confine its battle to the Caucasian region, but would attack Russia's industrial centers, factories and infrastructure. It added: "To carry out these tasks, groups have been created and sent to a host of Russian regions with the aim of carrying out industrial sabotage. The priority targets laid out for them are gas pipelines, oil pipelines, the destruction of electricity stations and high-voltage power lines, and sabotage at factories."

The Chechens had been warning from time to time since 1995 of their plans to attack strategic economic targets in Russian territory outside the Caucasian region, including nuclear power stations, but had never carried out their threats. Last year, they had claimed responsibility for an explosion in a Siberian hydel power station, but their claim was refuted by the Russian authorities. According to the Russians, it was an accident for which the Chechens claimed responsibility in order to create panic. The Chechens had repeatedly demonstrated a capability for attacking soft targets such as the Moscow Metro, inter-city trains, a Moscow theatre etc, but had not exhibited a capability for attacking hard targets outside the Caucasian region.

They have the habit of making exaggerated claims of their responsibility for terrorist actions. Their claims last year of having caused the derailment of a train from Moscow to St.Petersburg were refuted by Russian officials. They contended that Umarov’s group had the habit of projecting any accident of a spectacular nature as caused by it. It is often difficult to establish the authenticity of its claims.

The US and other Western countries had not been viewing the Chechen terrorists with the same seriousness as the Russians and have been dismissing Russian evidence of Chechens’ links with Al Qaeda and the role of Saudi money and Pakistani motivation and training in keeping the Chechen terrorism alive and active. American skepticism over Russian allegations of Chechen links with Al Qaeda is influenced by the fact that no Chechens were captured by the US forces in Afghanistan, there are no Chechen detenus in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba and the Chechens have never threatened Western nationals and interests despite their advocacy of the creation of a Caucasian Islamic Caliphate, which has been inspired by Osama Bin Laden’s objective of a global Islamic Caliphate.

Despite the US skepticism, it is a fact that during the first tenure of Nawaz Sharif as the Prime Minister (1990-93), the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, then headed by Lt.Gen.Javed Nasir, had taken an active interest in helping the Chechen terrorists through training and other assistance with the help of money provided by the Saudi intelligence and charity organizations. The ISI used the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) for this purpose.

It was during his tenure as the DG of the ISI that Lt.Gen.Nasir, in his capacity as Adviser to TJ, drew up plans for the revival of Islam in the Central Asian Republics (CARs), Chechnya and Dagestan in Russia and Xinjiang in China with the help of the TJ workers and funds from Saudi Arabia. A large number of Pakistani, Saudi and Jordanian workers of the TJ were sent on preaching and proselytising missions to these countries and recruits for clerical posts in these countries were brought to Pakistan for training in Islamic religious practices. Simultaneously, they were also given arms training in the camps of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM ), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They were also sent on proselytising missions to other countries with Pakistani TJ workers to expose them to Muslim communities in the rest of the Ummah. After his removal from the ISI in 1993 under US pressure, Lt.Gen.Nasir himself frequently went on preaching missions to these countries.

An idea of the tremendous headway made by the TJ under the guidance of Lt.Gen.Nasir and with Saudi money in promoting Wahabism in these countries could be had from the fact that whereas in 1991, when the USSR collapsed, there was not a single mosque in Chechnya and Dagestan, by 1999 every village had a mosque, allegedly constructed with Saudi money. The TJ also organised visits by selected Muslims from Chechnya and Dagestan to Saudi Arabia on Haj/Umra.

Many members of the so-called independent Chechen Cabinet when Boris Yeltsin was the Russian President had been trained in Pakistan by the TJ and, during their annual vacation, used to go on preaching missions for the TJ in Chechnya itself as well as in Dagestan and the CARs.

In the last week of June,1995, the Interfax news agency of Moscow had quoted Arkady Volski, the Russian peace negotiator for Chechnya, as claiming that after an incident of kidnapping of 1,500 hostages in the South Russian town of Budennovsk in early June, Shamyl Basayev, the Chechen terrorist leader, had escaped to Pakistan where he had been given asylum. In a statement issued at Moscow on June 27,1995, Tanvir Ahmad Khan, the then Pakistani Ambassador to Russia, had described the claim as false and warned that such allegations would damage Russia's relations with Pakistan.

The Russian authorities refuted the statement of the Pakistani Ambassador and alleged that Basayev had been living in Pakistan since 1991 when he had fled there after his involvement in the hijacking of a Russian plane to Turkey and that from Pakistan he had periodically been visiting Chechnya to organise terrorist incidents. In July,1995, Sergei Stepashin, who was in charge of counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya, and Gen. Nikol Ayev, chief of the Russian Border Security Service, alleged in separate statements that Basayev was amongst a group of Chechen terrorists trained in Pakistani camps.

Another Chechen terrorist leader reportedly trained in the camps of the HUM in Pakistan and Afghanistan was Salman Raduyev, who led a group of Chechen extremists on a raid into the Dagestan town of Kizlyar in January,1996, and took 2,000 Russian hostages. After this incident, then President Yeltsin alleged that the raiding party under Raduyev included Pakistani mercenaries.

The Russian press thereafter carried a number of reports emanating from official sources in Moscow that the extremist elements behind the Islamic revolt in Chechnya had been trained in Pakistan. Strongly refuting these reports, the Pakistani Foreign Office said: " These reports do not serve to promote good ties between Pakistan and Russia which we desire. We hope Russia will also reciprocate our wishes. "

In a statement on January 17,1996, the Pakistani Foreign Office strongly denied Russian allegations that Pakistani mercenaries were helping Chechen rebels indulging in acts of terrorism in Dagestan.

In a statement on January 13, 1998, the Russian Foreign Office described as inadmissible a statement of Zafarul Haq, Pakistan's Minister For Religious Affairs, expressing Pakistan's support for "the noble cause of the Chechen Muslims". He reportedly made this statement while welcoming a delegation of Chechen separatist leaders in his office in Islamabad.

In November, 1998, a high level delegation of the so-called independent Government of Chechnya led by Abdul Wahid Ibrahim in charge of Central Asian and Afghan Affairs in the Chechen Foreign Office, visited Afghanistan for the first time and reached an agreement on the establishment of formal relations between the Taliban-led Government of Kabul and the so-called independent Government of Chechnya.

During the same month, the Russian authorities expelled from the Bashkortostan region a delegation of six preachers of the TJ for making anti-Moscow statements during their preachings. A statement of the Federal Security Service said that their statements were "aimed at fuelling ethnic and religious hostility and offending the dignity of other religious groups." The preachers were to go to Chechnya and Dagestan in January, 1999, but their visas were cancelled and they were expelled.

After the outbreak of terrorist incidents in Dagestan from August 7,1999, the Russian authorities were repeatedly alleging that the incidents were organised by a raiding party of about 2,000 Chechens from Chechnya jointly led by Basayev and a former Colonel of the Jordanian Army called Khattab, that the Chechens were assisted by a multi-national group of 200 foreign mercenaries led by a Pakistani called Abu Abdulla Jafar, who was in charge of a training camp in Chechnya, that before the raids the raiders participated in a special prayer service in Chechnya conducted by three Pakistani Wahabi preachers called Sheikh Abdul Azim, Junaid Bagadadi and Abdul Omar and that Abdul Omar also read out to the raiders a fatwa received from a group of Saudi muftis calling upon them to establish an Islamic state in Dagestan.

Following a denial of these allegations by Mansur Alam, the then Pakistani Ambassador, who wrote a letter on the subject to "Izvestia", the paper quoted Gen.Vladimir Rushailo, the Russian Interior Minister, as saying that "mercenaries from a number of foreign countries, above all Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE, have been taking part in the fighting in Dagestan" and that the Russian security services had concrete information about the involvement of the secret services of some Muslim countries in the Dagestan violence.

"Izvestia" also identified Abu Abdulla Jafar as a Pashtun who had been residing in Chechnya for some years and running a training camp at a place called Serzhenyurt. The paper also alleged that the activities of the mercenaries in Chechnya and Dagestan were being funded by Osama bin Laden.

After the Taliban Government in Kabul formally recognized the so-called independent Chechen Government in November 1998, many Chechens from Chechnya went to Afghanistan and joined a group of members of the Chechen diaspora from Jordan, Turkey and other countries who were assisting the Taliban in its fight against the Northern Alliance of Ahmed Shah Masood. These Chechens---indigenous Chechens from Chechnya as well as Arabs of Chechen origin from the diaspora who were called Arab Chechens---- crossed over into the North Waziristan area of Pakistan along with bin Laden and his followers in 2001-02 and started working as instructors in the training camps of different terrorist organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ), which is a Pakistani Punjabi organization etc.

While no definitive estimate of the number of Chechens operating from sanctuaries in Pakistani territory were available, the Pakistani media periodically carried reports of their presence and activities. It was the Chechen instructors, who motivated the Pashtuns of Pakistan to take to suicide terrorism. Chechen instructors assisted Qari Hussain Mehsud of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in training suicide bombers.

The Pakistani media reported on November 19,2008, that three tribal elders, who had escaped from Taliban captivity in the Bajaur Agency, had claimed the presence of a large number of foreigners in the Taliban ranks, including Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Sudanese.

On May 22,2009, the Bloomberg news agency reported as follows: “ Pakistani authorities said fighters from Uzbekistan and Chechnya are among foreign forces helping the Taliban battle the army in the northwestern Swat Valley. “There is no doubt that some Uzbeks, Chechens and people of other nationalities were found involved with their designs to create an insurgency in Swat,” Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told reporters yesterday in the capital, Islamabad, according to the official Associated Press of Pakistan.”

It was reported by sections of the Iranian media on October 4,2009, that Pakistan`s intelligence agencies’` preliminary investigation had revealed that `Uzbeks, Chechens and Afghans` were among Al Qaeda suspects held during the army operation in the South Waziristan Agency.The detainees also included an Algerian and some Arabic-speaking nationals, the daily “Dawn” reported.

Since 1995, an unestimated number of Arabs have been fighting along with the Chechens in the Caucasian region. The more prominent amongst them were Ibn Khattab, Mohammad bin Abdullah al-Seif and Abu al-Walid, all Saudi nationals, and Abu Hafs al Hurdani, a Jordanian. On September 18, 2002, the Caspian Studies Program had organized a seminar at the Kennedy School of Government in the Harvard University on the Chechen diaspora. Wasfi Kailani, an anthropologist at the University of Yarmouk, who was the main speaker, said that much of the foreign presence in and funding for the Chechen conflict had come from Saudi Arabia. Kailani added that Saudi militants had come to Chechnya to participate in what they saw as a jihad and Saudi missionaries had come to the region to teach Wahhabi Salafism to ex-communists who were embracing Islam after decades of Communist rule in the Soviet Union. He also said that diaspora Chechens were supporting the Chechen movement through a variety of means such as volunteering to fight in Chechnya, running web sites to propagate the Chechen cause etc. According to him, several members of the Taliban and a number of "Arab Afghans" went from Afghanistan to Chechnya in order to join the fight against Russian forces, viewing this as part of their Islamic obligation.

Western skepticism about the Russian evidence regarding the links of the Chechen terrorists with Al Qaeda has been coming in the way of strong action against the Chechen terrorists operating from Pakistani sanctuaries with Saudi money. This skepticism can be compared to the US skepticism over Indian evidence regarding the international dimensions of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) and its links with Al Qaeda. Only after the LET killed six US nationals in Mumbai during its sea-borne terrorist strikes in the last week of November,2008, did the Americans start admitting that the LET had become as dangerous as Al Qaeda. The Chechen terrorists have till now not targeted US nationals and interests. Hence, the US skepticism continues. This is a short-sighted approach and will weaken the war against global jihadi terrorism. The LET did not target Americans till November,2008. That did not make it any the less dangerous as a terrorist organization. The Chechen terrorists are as ruthless and dangerous as the LET or any other associate of Al Qaeda. The world has to be concerned over their activities before it becomes too late.

( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )