Somalia’s Sufis Battle Salafists for Control of Central Somalia

Andrew McGregor

February 6, 2009

Battle wagons belonging to Ahlu Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a, a Somali Sufi-oriented religious group, burst into the town of Dhusa Mareb (headquarters of the Galgudud region of Central Somalia) on January 29, 2009, driving out a large force of fighters from the Salafist al-Shabaab movement (Shabelle Media Network, January 29). Al-Shabaab returned at night to lob mortar shells at the town’s hospital and residential districts, provoking a major outcry at the group’s tactics (Shabelle Media Network, January 30).

Ahlu SunnahAhlu Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a Militia (Horseed Media)

In Somalia, al-Shabaab has recently engaged in the destruction of tombs belonging to venerated Sufi “saints.” In early December 2008, al-Shabaab destroyed the tombs of several Sufi shaykhs in Kismayo, together with an unused Roman Catholic church. An al-Shabaab spokesman, Shaykh Hassan Yakub, declared, “We destroyed graves where people used to worship dead people” (Garowe Online, December 9, 2008). On December 26, al-Shabaab members (reportedly including a number of foreign fighters) repeated this act in the Jilib district of Middle Juba region, where they demolished the tombs of Shaykh Nur Hussein and his two sons: “We believe people were worshiping the dead… so we destroyed the graves” (Garowe Online, December 26, 2008).

In Sufi-dominated Islamic societies like Somalia it is customary for the graves or tombs of noted Sufi shaykhs to become shrines and even places of pilgrimage for members of the Sufi orders. Salafists like those in the leadership of al-Shabaab condemn this practice as un-Islamic. Since the Salafist followers of Saudi religious reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab vandalized the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina and destroyed the tomb of his daughter Fatimah in 1803-04, the spread of Salafism in the Muslim world has often been accompanied by similar acts of desecration.

By pursuing the demolition of sacred sites, al-Shabaab has succeeded in alienating a large number of Somali Islamists who continue to practice Sufism rather than follow the Salafist trend of al-Shabaab. The militants’ efforts were roundly denounced by Shaykh Abdulkadir Somow, a spokesman for Ahlu Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a, and within days the Sufi movement mobilized a group of fighters and joined battle against al-Shabaab just as the latter was on the verge of finalizing their conquest of the country (Garowe Online, December 7, 2008).

A spokesman for Ahlu Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a claimed that the group had killed over 50 al-Shabaab fighters and seized a large quantity of military equipment in the fight for Dhusa Mareb. Dozens of young al-Shabaab fighters had been captured: “We are holding over 50 very young youths who have clearly been misguided. We are going to de-brainwash them, cultivate them in Islam. We advise Somali parents whose son is missing to contact us” (, January 31). The religious organization is battling al-Shabaab in the nearby Guri-El district of Galgudud and has also taken the town of Abudwaq (Somaliweyn, January 29., January 10).


This article first appeared in the February 6, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

Local Islamist Movement Massacred in Chad after Threatening Holy War

 Andrew McGregor

 July 16, 2008

An alleged rising led by an Islamic preacher in the oil-rich southern region of Chad was repressed with great loss of life by government forces in the first days of July. The incident in the town of Kouno came in response to calls for an international jihad from Ahmat Ismail Bichara, a fiery 28-year-old religious leader, and the destruction of most of the town by his followers.

Chari RiverThe Chari River

Kouno lies over 300 km (190 miles) southeast of the capital of N’Djamena, on the Chari River near Sarh (formerly Fort Archambault), the capital of Chad’s Moyen-Chari province. The main ethnic group in the region is the non-Muslim Sara, most of whom follow traditional animist religions. A small minority of Sara became Christians during the French colonial era. Kouno was the site of a major battle between French colonial forces and the freebooting Muslim army of Rabih al-Zubayr in 1899. Today Kouno lies in the midst of Chad’s newly productive southern oil fields. Most of Chad’s Muslims live in the north and east of the country as well as the capital near the western border, but small communities of Muslims can be found throughout the south, where they generally live in harmony with the non-Muslim majority in the region.

Ahmat Mamahat Bachir, Chad’s Minister of the Interior, described the preacher and his followers as “terrorists” and “extremists,” adding that Bichara was a “typical suicide guru” (al-Jazeera, July 2; AFP, July 2). Bichara issued a manifesto declaring his jihad on June 3, calling on local Muslims to join a campaign against “Christians and atheists” that would extend as far as Denmark, where cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad were published in 2006 (TchadActuel, July 3). The confrontation came after Bichara rejected the advice of envoys from Chad’s Higher Council of Islamic Affairs.

After Bichara’s followers went on a rampage in Kouno, destroying four churches, 158 homes, a medical clinic and a police station, government forces decided to respond in force. The preacher, who took down the Chadian flag over the local administration building and replaced it with a banner proclaiming “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet,” refused all efforts to negotiate with security services, claiming he was an emissary from God. The government assault apparently began as Bichara’s followers were listening to what was described as an inflammatory sermon. Other accounts suggest that Bichara’s people attacked the security forces, which used firearms only after tear gas failed to disperse the would-be jihadis (AFP, July 2).

Independent accounts of the fighting are not available, but Chad’s security minister described Bichara’s followers as “intoxicated by indescribable extremism… almost mad” as they “threw themselves” against the fire of security forces in the belief they were immune to bullets (Reuters, July 2). The “clubs, poisoned arrows and swords” used by Bichara’s followers proved to be of little avail against the gunfire of government troops, nor did the amulets that were supposed to provide protection from bullets save those who were hit. The use of such amulets in the region goes back to the very first encounters with firearms—despite a distinctly poor track record in deflecting lead they continue to find a place around the necks of local fighters. The number of dead was given variously as somewhere between 66 and 72, with over 50 seriously wounded. Four security men were killed and four wounded in two days of fighting.

Bichara survived the government assault only to be captured by security forces and removed to N’Djamena with seven of his lieutenants. Brought by authorities to a press conference, the small and bearded shaykh appeared “tranquil and detached,” according to an AFP correspondent. Bichara informed the gathering he received his inspiration from the Quran, which demands: “All Muslims must make holy war” (AFP, July 2).

Ahmat Ismail Bichara was born in the village of Mongo in the Guéra region of Chad, just north of the Moyen-Chari district where the young religious leader settled in 2005 after attending various Quranic schools. Bichara opened a Quranic school four kilometers from Kouno, where he gradually developed a following that built a thatch-roofed mosque and village around his school. In the new community women were veiled and kept separate from the men, customs unknown in Chad’s traditional Islamic practice (TchadActuel, July 3). Bichara was fond of delivering sermons urging holy war in the face of the impending end of the world, declaring his determination to restore justice and combat the corruption of the Islamic faith.

Justice Minister Jean Alingyué promised a judicial inquiry into the massacre would be opened, with a team of investigators sent to Kouno, before adding derisively that Bichara “thinks he speaks with the Prophet” (TchadActuel, July 2).

It is uncertain how much resonance Bichara’s brief holy war may have with the rest of Chad’s Muslim population, who are largely Sufis with little in common with the Salafist trend of al-Qaeda-style militancy. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, warriors from Chad’s north and east provided strong resistance to French and Italian efforts to overpower the regional dominance of the fiercely independent Sanussi order, which had created an Islamic Saharan confederacy from their bases in Cyrenaica and Fezzan. With the Sanussis a spent force after the First World War—when they took the side of the German and Ottoman Empires—many of Chad’s Muslims are today members of the North African Tijaniyya order of Sufis, which have a reputation for cooperation with government, even during the period of French occupation. The Tijaniyya are themselves often in theological conflict with other Sunnis, due to several unorthodox beliefs, including the claim that the order’s founder Ahmad al-Tijani (1737-1815) received a revelation from the Prophet that was not given to the Prophet’s Companions first.

Despite the Quixotic nature of Bichara’s poorly-armed jihad on Denmark, the suggestion that government corruption may have played a part in inspiring the brief insurrection is significant. Reaction to corruption was a prime factor in the support provided to Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi (“the Expected One”) in his successful 1880s revolt in neighboring Sudan against its Turko-Circassian rulers. It is reported that Bichara claimed he was invested with “divine power” and was the true Mahdi (TchadActuel, July 3). Bichara appears to have attempted to combine intrusive Salafist religious practices with a more traditional Sufi-based tradition of political opposition that is usually centered on a religious figure, in this case Bichara with his reported claim to be the Mahdi.

The knowledge that Chad’s petro-wealth is failing to penetrate further than the ruling faction provides fertile ground for the growth of militant preachers using the same apocalyptic language employed by Bichara and the earlier Sudanese Mahdi. Chad’s armed opposition is currently dominated by Zaghawa-led militants who promise little more than a newer version of President Idriss Déby’s Zaghawa-dominated government. This does not, however, represent the extent of Chadian dissatisfaction with the national government, rated internationally as one of the world’s most corrupt. In the current international and economic environment it is possible that Islam may provide a rallying point for the vast majority of Chad’s Muslims who have little access to power or revenues from the oil industry. The Interior Minister’s claim that “Chad is a secular state, one and indivisible,” may be put to the test.

This article first appeared in the July 16, 2008 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

The Shaykh Said Revolt and Ankara’s Return to the Past in its Struggle with the Kurds

By Andrew McGregor

February 7, 2008

After the recent admission by some of Turkey’s leading former military commanders that the military option was not the best or only way of resolving Turkey’s Kurdish problem, it is now becoming clear that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is taking a new direction—looking for a solution in Islam. Ottoman nostalgia is an important element in the AKP’s approach, which hearkens back to a time when Turks and Kurds were united under Islam and the caliphate. In turning to Islam, the AKP is entering into a three-way struggle to mobilize Kurdish Islam for political ends following years of insurgency and terrorism led by the radical secular nationalists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Revising their approach, the PKK is now beginning to vie for the support of southeastern Turkey’s conservative Kurdish community. This support is also sought for other purposes by more shadowy groups like the Turkish Hezbollah and even Turkey’s far-right “deep state” extremists.

Elections Approach

With the entry of the Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) into mainstream Turkish politics, there was initially some speculation that this would mark the beginning of a political solution to the Kurdish problem. In practice, the AKP has decided not so much to pull the Kurdish DTP into Turkish politics as to eliminate it through legal and political means. The AKP envisions becoming the representative party of a new Islamic Kurdistan, creating social ties through charitable Islamic NGOs that will eventually lead to the development of a new political power-base for the AKP in southeastern Turkey. With regional elections approaching next year, the AKP is determined to increase the surprising strength the party showed in the region during the last elections.

AKP rule has benefited the Kurdish middle class through investment initiatives while the Gülen movement and other NGOs have stepped in to provide assistance to the lower classes of Kurdish society. The DTP accuses the AKP and other Islamic organizations of using charity to wean Kurdish voters from the DTP (Today’s Zaman, December 31, 2007). With the DTP still tightly tied to imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s continuing series of terrorist bombings is alienating Kurdish voters who might otherwise support the DTP.

In a recent interview with two aides of PKK military leader Murat Karayılan, the PKK officials admit that the AKP’s popular stand on removing the ban on Islamic headscarves for women poses a serious threat to Kurdish support for the PKK and DTP. PKK enthusiasm for an armed solution to the conflict appears to be waning (Sabah, February 5). A boost in social welfare in southeastern Turkey is directed at the poorer classes of Kurds who have traditionally supplied the manpower for local insurgencies.

  1. Shaykh SaidShaykh Said

The Shaykh Said Revolt of 1925

In the early post-war days of the Turkish Republic, Kurdish nationalists quickly realized they did not have the necessary support to mobilize the masses as part of their aim of achieving independence for Kurdistan. A number of present and former military officers formed the secret Azadi (Freedom) group with the intent of providing military support for a revolt to be led by religious figures capable of rousing such mass support, but the organization was broken up by Turkish security forces in 1924.

The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres had promised the creation of a new Kurdish state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, but Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s rejection of the treaty brought the nationalist project to an abrupt halt. The conservative and largely rural Kurds opposed Mustafa Kemal’s secular reforms and the abolition of the sultanate and caliphate in the early 1920s. The caliphate was the strongest bond between the Turkish and Kurdish communities in Turkey and its elimination was deeply opposed by the Kurds, who had turned out in great numbers in response to the Sultan/Caliph’s call for jihad during the First World War. As traditional religious schools were replaced by modern Western-style academies, Kurdish anger grew and both nationalists and religious leaders saw an opportunity.

The eventual rebellion, led by the Kurdish Sufi, Shaykh Said Piran, lasted only a brief two months in 1925, but marked a turning point in Kurdish-Turkish relations. This peasants’ revolt was centered in the mountains north of Diyarbakır. Only Sunni Kurds participated—the Alevi Kurds, who practice a mix of Shi’ism and Bektashi Sufism, initially favored the secular reforms as a means of freeing themselves from periodic repression by the Sunni majority. Said was sympathetic to the aims of the nationalists, but these views were not shared by his fellow shaykhs. Naqshabandi Sufi shaykhs provided the core leadership of the revolt. Though many of these had military experience during WWI, the military skills of the imprisoned Azadi veterans were still sorely missed. A Qadiri Sufi, Shaykh Mahmud, had already tried and failed to lead a rebellion only a short time earlier and a revolt by the Alevi Kurds—the Koçkiri Rebellion—had been suppressed in 1920.

Shaykh Said roused the rural population by maintaining that Islam was under attack, urging the restoration of the caliphate while using the language of martyrdom and jihad. Columns of peasants marched into towns carrying green flags and Qurans, meeting little opposition from the mostly Kurdish gendarmerie. Small detachments of regular infantry and cavalry were swept aside, with a number of artillery pieces falling into Kurdish hands. The rebellion reached its crest when 10,000 rebels besieged the walled city of Diyarbakır. Unable to take the city from its resolute commander, Mursel Pasha, the rebels began to realize the intervention of their revered shaykhs was not going to be enough to topple the Turkish state.

The inevitable government counter-offensive began in late March, with attacking planes of the Turkish Air Force driving panicked Kurds into the mountains, where they were destroyed by Turkish infantry. Shaykh Said and 47 others were executed in September 1925.

Shaykh Said KurdsKurdish Warriors

Following the rebellion, all Sufi orders in Turkey were abolished by order of Atatürk, with many of the Kurdish Naqshabandi shaykhs crossing into the Kurdish region of Syria, where their descendants remain active today. The dervish orders were abolished because of their ability to organize clandestine political networks. The authority of the shaykhs allowed them to cross tribal lines in their organizing efforts. Sufi meeting halls which had once been a refuge from police surveillance were permanently shut down after the revolt.

New powers were assumed by the state in the wake of the rebellion, setting back Turkey’s democratic development. Existing restrictions on the expression of Kurdish culture and language were invigorated and expanded. Kurdish identity was denied in favor of ethno/cultural assimilation. Rebellions continued under this regime, including one led by Shaykh Said’s brother, Shaykh Abdurrahman, in 1927.

Gülen Movement

At the heart of the AKP’s Islamic offensive in southeastern Turkey is the enigmatic figure of Fethullah Gülen, whose self-named Islamic movement is generally regarded as an offshoot of Naqshabandi Sufism. Despite being charged with conspiring against the Turkish republic in 1999—and eventually acquitted in 2006—Gülen has used the generous donations of his followers to build an international network of Islamic schools and NGOs. Though he has been a resident of the United States since 1999, Gülen is believed to have close ties to the highest echelons of the ruling AKP, many of whom also have connections to the Naqshabandi Sufis.

Gülen is a follower of the teachings of Kurdish philosopher and religious scholar Said al-Nursi (1876-1960), formerly known as Said al-Kurdi. As a Naqshabandi Sufi in the 1920s he declined to participate in Shaykh Said’s rebellion on the grounds that the Turkish nation had been at the service of Islam for 1,000 years. Although al-Nursi preached Islamic unity regardless of national borders, there have been efforts recently from Kurdish opponents of Gülen to emphasize al-Nursi’s Kurdish identity over Gülen’s alleged “pan-Turkism” (, January 20).

Today Gülenists, some of whom fly in from Istanbul, distribute food to the poor, manage schools and provide much-needed medical services in southeastern Turkey. Since 1994 the Gülen movement has even opened eight schools in Kurdish northern Iraq where their opponents have accused them of spreading “Turkish racist ideology.” The schools are nevertheless very popular with the families of Kurdish bureaucrats and politicians (Turkish Daily News, December 26, 2007). Other Islamic NGOs are active in southeastern Turkey, including Mustazaf-Dar, believed to have ties to the Turkish Hezbollah (Today’s Zaman, December 31, 2007).

Kurdish Islam and the “Deep State”

There also appears to have been interest in Kurdish Islam from a more nefarious source, the Turkish “deep state” apparatus known as Ergenekon, members of which were recently rounded up by Turkish security forces (see Terrorism Monitor, February 7). Ergenekon grew out of NATO’s Operation Gladio, a secret Cold War formation of military and security personnel designed to offer prolonged resistance in the event of being overrun by Soviet forces. In Turkey the Gladio operation survived the Cold War by establishing deep roots in various political, military, security and criminal organizations. At the same time, the group began to assume guardianship of an ideal and rigidly Kemalist Turkish nation.

Following the arrests in late January there were reports that Ergenekon had held talks with the PKK and Dev-Sol (the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front) in Germany and had even started organizing a Kurdish Islamist terrorist group as part of their plan to spread chaos in Turkey prior to a military coup scheduled for 2009 (Yeni Safak, February 2; Istanbul Star, January 28). Another report claimed that the gang had recruited members of the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons—a PKK offshoot—to blow up a bridge near the headquarters of the Turkish air force and navy (Hürriyet, January 29). The fourth stage of Ergenekon’s plan to create conditions designed to enable a military coup is also said to have called for the creation of sham terrorist groups whose activities would spark conflict between Turks and Kurds (Zaman, January 28).

The Turkish Hezbollah

A January 25 report in the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet claimed that some of the Ergenekon agents were formerly active members of Turkish Hezbollah. For some years now rumors have circulated in Turkey charging that Turkish Hezbollah was the creation of the Gendarmerie Intelligence Group Command (JITEM), a secret and officially denied agency formerly led by prime Ergenekon suspect, retired Brigadier General Veli Küçük.

The Hezbollah were recently described as “predominantly and passionately Kurdish and can be seen as virtually the linear descendants of the participants in the failed Shaykh Said revolt of 1925…” [1]. While ostensibly seeking the establishment of an Islamic state, the Turkish Hezbollah has actually had more in common with Turkey’s right-wing extremists than with other Islamist movements. Its membership is largely Kurdish but in general the organization has few ties to the community. The movement was engaged for years in a brutal and bloody struggle with the PKK with little interference from authorities. Hezbollah denounces the PKK as anti-Muslim Marxist-Leninists who collaborate with anti-Turkish Armenians.

In January 2000, Turkish police rounded up 2,000 Hezbollah members and killed its leader, Hüseyin Velioglu. After evidence emerged of the movement’s predilection for brutal murders and torture, the group became popularly known as Hizbul Vaset (The Party of Slaughter). Though much diminished in strength, Hezbollah operatives still pose a serious threat to security, particularly through ties to organizations like Ergenekon.


The failure of religious-led revolts—of which the Shaykh Said rebellion was but the largest—caused the later Kurdish nationalists to look for new revolutionary models, eventually finding one in secular Marxism. The PKK turned its back on the example of these early “reactionary” tribal and religious leaders in favor of pursuing an independent socialist state free of the tribalism that constantly foiled all attempts to unify the Kurdish people in a single nation. The PKK has nevertheless had to adjust to the Islamic renewal in their home region, moderating their once-strident Marxism through the founding of the Kurdish Prayer Leaders’ Association. The PKK now professes respect for all Kurdish religious practices, including Shi’ism, Yezidism and Zoroastrianism (Today’s Zaman, December 31, 2007).

The Naqshabandi movement is active once more in southeastern Turkey, with a lodge in the city of Adıyaman and frequent visits from the shaykhs of the Naqshabandi lodges in Kurdish Syria. The Sufi movements still display remarkable organizational skill; in Iraq this has been applied to a military anti-occupation campaign (see Terrorism Focus, January 8; Terrorism Monitor, January 24).

Instead of driving the Kurds away with secularism as they did in the 1920s, the new approach of the AKP now tries to entice the Kurds away from secularism with Islam. If language and ethnicity are insurmountable barriers, then Islam will be the bridge between communities. In combination with a robust military campaign by the Turkish armed forces against PKK bases in northern Iraq, Turkey’s Islamic initiatives in its Kurdish regions are sapping strength from a radical form of secular Kurdish nationalism that appears to be on the defensive and without allies. The problem is whether the military phase of Ankara’s campaign will ultimately prove counterproductive if Turkish Kurds begin to rally around the PKK simply because they are fellow Kurds (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, January 28). Turkey’s strong secular establishment is also certain to express their opposition to the growing “Islamification” of southeastern Turkey.


1. Emrullah Uslu: “From Local Hizbollah to Global Terror: Militant Islam in Turkey,” Middle East Policy 14(1), Spring 2007

Islam, Jamaats and Implications for the North Caucasus – Part One

Andrew McGregor

June 2, 2006

In the last few years, Russian security forces have inflicted considerable damage on Chechen resistance forces, most notably with the elimination of Chechnya’s president, the late Aslan Maskhadov. Like hitting a pool of burning oil with a hammer, however, their military blows have sent the fires of insurgency across the North Caucasus. These flames are now nurtured by the evolution of a new resistance structure, the military jamaat.

North Caucasus Map 1The traditional jamaat is not a new social structure in the Caucasus. Its roots can be found in the early jamaats of Dagestan at the time of Islamization. The jamaats were tribal-based communal organizations with political and economic roles. In time, the jamaats also assumed a defensive military role and commonly merged into more powerful confederations when the external threat was severe.

Today, in its simplest terms, a jamaat is a local community of Muslims, organized at an often basic level to share spiritual pursuits. Jamaats may be found from Wisconsin to Wessex, and in general have little to do with radical Islam. There are others, however, like Egypt’s notorious Gama’a al-Islamiyya that have been responsible for acts of terrorism carried out in pursuit of an Islamic state. In the North Caucasus, the modern jamaat movement has been growing for nearly 20 years, producing both peaceful and militant varieties of the organization. In the last few years, however, there has been a tendency for North Caucasian jamaats to form the basis for military resistance to the administrative and security structures of the Russian Federation. Not all militants are members of a jamaat, but these organizations have taken the lead in the fighting against Russian federal forces outside of Chechnya.

Origins of the Caucasian Jamaats

In South Russia’s present cauldron of religious, political and ethnic conflict, many jamaats have developed an Islamist political agenda. Their concerns, like their origins, tend to be local in nature. Land claims, mosque closings, moral laxity, political corruption, police brutality and other local problems dominate their public statements. Rarely is there mention of other theaters of the war on terrorism, or references to the so-called “global jihad.”

The involvement of the jamaats in the fight against Moscow appears to have been part of a plan conceived by Aslan Maskhadov not long after the expulsion of his forces from Grozny in 2000. As a veteran Soviet officer, Maskhadov understood the strategic need to broaden military resistance beyond the confines of Chechnya. Shortly before his death in 2005, Maskhadov declared that, by his orders, “additional sectors were established [early in the conflict]: Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Dagestan, etc. Amirs of these fronts were appointed, and they are all subordinate to the military leadership of the Chechen resistance” (RFE/RL, March 7, 2005). Despite their many differences, the agent of Maskhadov’s efforts to expand the conflict was warlord Shamil Basayev.

Are the Jamaats Wahhabist?

Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, who is himself a Muslim, has described the entire North Caucasus as a “breeding ground for Wahhabism,” a very loaded term in Russian political discourse (Interfax, September 21, 2004). Can the jamaats actually be described as Wahhabist? Their adopted brand of Islam is Salafist in nature, drawing on the example of the model community established by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. In this way, they earn themselves the deprecating name of “Wahhabists” from Russian authorities (the term is borrowed from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist movement, the most severe example of Salafi beliefs).

The Wahhabis were, and are, a puritan-style Islamic revivalist movement started in 18th century Arabia to eliminate the religious innovations that had attached themselves to Islamic worship since the days of Muhammad. The Wahhabist movement has used their alliance with Saudi Arabia’s ruling family to spread their version of Islam internationally. Roaming Arab preachers made some inroads in the Caucasus in the early 1990s, but members of the generation that now provides the young membership of the jamaats are to a large degree discovering Salafi Islam on their own initiative.

The Salafists of the jamaats, like the Wahhabis of Arabia, reject the veneration of saints, requests for their intercession or pilgrimages to their tombs. These are all cornerstones of Sufi worship, which has until recently dominated Caucasian Islam. In some places, a war of words has erupted between the leaders of official state-sponsored Islam and the independent jamaats. Fairly typical is a recent condemnation of the official imams of Dagestan by the local Sharia Jamaat. The jamaat denounced official Islam as nothing more than “ancestor worship,” closer to Buddhism than Islam as it involves the veneration of “tombs, amulets and sacred monks.” These conflicts have impeded the growth of Salafism in Sufi religious communities, and the jamaats’ insistence on the rule of Sharia law alienates the still overwhelmingly secular population of the North Caucasus republics.

Of course, in Russia “Wahhabi” now refers to nearly all Muslims acting outside of official Islam, with the added association since 2001 of somehow being linked to al-Qaeda. It appears that none of the active jamaats have expressed any solidarity with Osama bin Laden’s group, though they do cooperate with the diminishing number of Arab mujahideen still active in the Caucasus. Since the September 11 attacks, when all “Chechen bandits” became “international terrorists,” Russian security services have maintained that the Chechen resistance is directed and funded by bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. The Chechen conflict, far from being directed by al-Qaeda, seems to have barely registered with bin Laden and his associates. Russian security forces have spent so long dealing with the elusive threat of al-Qaeda and the pursuit of terrorist non-entities like Achimez Gochiyayev that they have failed to notice the growth of a more concrete threat to the Federation’s stability. The jamaats enjoy a flexibility and insularity that have allowed their proliferation without much interference from the police.

Strategic Advantage of the Jamaat Organization

Islam in the Caucasus survived the long period of Soviet rule by decentralizing. Kremlin-directed official Islam sought to create rigid hierarchies and careful documentation of observant Muslims and their activities. Unofficial Islam went in the opposite direction. The Caucasus region’s leading order of Sufis, the Naqshbandi Brotherhood, continued to thrive by rejecting a traditional Sufi hierarchy of hereditary leadership. Naqshbandi spiritual leaders were chosen largely by consensus (with some exceptions), so that their arrest or demise did not threaten the continued existence of the lodge. Generally small in numbers (40 or less), their strong local base, reinforced by ethnic, clan and family ties, usually defied all Soviet attempts at infiltration. The other leading Sufi brotherhood, the Qadiris, maintained a hierarchal system that exposed their leaders to targeting by Soviet police.

It is important to recognize that the Soviet-era Naqshbandi Sufi lodges were not intended to wage any kind of military resistance. They do, however, provide a proven method of organizing locally while avoiding the attention of authorities. The jamaats are similar to the Sufi lodges in many ways, even if they represent conservative rather than popular forms of Islam. They rely almost exclusively on local membership and leaders. In most cases the jamaats are created spontaneously, fulfilling the spiritual needs of those returning to the Islamic fold. Official Islam, stained by corruption and pro-Kremlin subservience, has failed in its attempts to rein in the Islamic revival. It is the energy of the underground jamaats that Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev has devoted the last few years to harnessing.

Both Dagestan’s Sharia Jamaat and Kabardino-Balkaria’s Yarmuk Jamaat have made attempts to broaden their ethnic membership from the original core group. The Salafist interpretation of Islam practiced by the jamaats is open to a broader membership than the old Sufi lodges. The Yarmuk Jamaat made a statement explicitly rejecting any attempts to represent the jamaat as a “monoethnic organization” (, February 4, 2003). Russian converts to Islam have also joined the jamaats, and a few of these converts have been involved in combat actions. According to pro-Russian Chechen militia leader Sulim Yamadayev, these individuals have found their way to the jamaats from Krasnodar, Volgogrod, Stavropol and the Astrakhan Oblast.

This article first appeared in the June 2, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor