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

Andrew McGregor

June 15, 2006

Many of the military leaders of the North Caucasian jamaats were trained by warlord Ruslan Gelayev in the Pankisi Gorge before he led his guerrilla forces back into Ingushetia and Chechnya in the fall of 2002. Gelayev, like Shamil Basayev, was a graduate of the pan-Caucasian movement and commanded fighters from the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic (KBR) and the Karachai–Cherkessian Republic (KCR) in the 1999 raids on Dagestan. A young fighter named Muslim Atayev emerged as the leader of approximately 30 Kabardino-Balkarians in Gelayev’s command. Shortly after participating in the battle of Galashki in Ingushetia, Atayev was detailed to lead his men back into the KBR to set up a resistance group. Based in the mountains, this group evolved into the Yarmuk Jamaat. The name of the jamaat reflects its military intent, referring to the Yarmuk River near the Golan Heights where an outnumbered army of Muslims inflicted a decisive defeat on the forces of the Byzantine Empire in 636 AD.

Muslim AtayevYarmuk Jamaat Founder Muslim Atayev

The Yarmuk Jamaat armed itself through an attack on the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) headquarters in December 2004. Atayev justified the attack (in which four Kabardin policemen were killed) by accusing the Drug Control Service of being the main distributor for narcotics in the region (Kavkaz Center, December 15, 2004). Basayev visited Atayev in Baksan where future operations were planned. Atayev was eventually killed in a Nalchik gun battle in January 2005.

Shamil Basayev also has deep roots in the pan-Caucasian movement, particularly with his involvement in the military activities of the Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus in the early 1990s. His raids on Dagestan in 1999 also had a strong pan-Caucasian element, with many of the fighters under his command originating from North Caucasus republics other than Chechnya. It is these contacts that Basayev has exploited successfully in building a centralized command for the region’s disparate resistance groups. Aslan Maskhadov’s successor as president, Sheikh Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, appears to share Basayev’s sentiments, calling for the liberation and unification of the entire Caucasus. Recently, he went so far as to offer Chechnya’s complete support to Georgia’s struggle with what Sadulayev termed “Russia’s terrorist activity and imperial ambitions” (Chechenpress, May 15, 2005).

The Caucasian Jamaats in Action

Russian authorities still claim that the 1999 bombings of Moscow apartment blocks were carried out by a KCR jamaat under the direction of the late Arab mujahideen commander Ibn al-Khattab. In recent years, urban shootouts with members of the KCR’s Jamaat No. 3 have become common. The organization has been accused by security services of directing suicide bombers in Moscow.

In the last two years, the jamaats have engaged in urban warfare in cities across the Caucasus. This fighting is usually of two types, the first being planned actions by insurgents designed to eliminate selected targets and seize arms for further operations. The second arises when federal intelligence or police discover the presence of jamaat members in urban safe houses. In these cases, a crisis typically develops when the insurgents refuse to surrender. Long gun battles have followed in most cases that have exposed a tendency by state security forces to use maximum force, often with mixed results. The inevitable security sweeps and abductions that follow do little to reassure residents of the North Caucasus that Moscow can be called upon to protect the local population.

North Caucasus Map 2Jamaats are active elsewhere besides the KBR. In Ingushetia, the local Sharia Jamaat has been active in bombings and attacks on security forces as well as participating in the Basayev-led raid on the Ingushetian city of Nazran in June 2002. In Dagestan, another Sharia Jamaat is engaged in a violent struggle with the republic’s Interior Ministry forces that threatens to rival the conflict in Chechnya. According to Sadulayev, these jamaats, as well as others in the Adygea, Stavropol and Krasnodar regions, pledged their allegiance to him after the death of Aslan Maskhadov (Gazeta Wyborcza, September 9, 2005). Sadulayev himself was amir of the Argun military jamaat before the current Chechen war erupted.

The Raid on Nalchik

The Nalchik raid of October 2005 differed from the previous year’s raid in Nazran in that it was directed and carried out almost exclusively by local militants, rather than by Chechen fighters who needed to be transported to Nazran and back to safe bases in Chechnya. Even Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that there were no “outside gunmen” present at Nalchik (Pravda.ru, October 16, 2005). The KBR’s minister of culture noted that the militants did not belong to any one ethnic group, suggesting that the attacks were not just an eruption of Balkar dissatisfaction. The raid demonstrated how independent jamaats could mobilize in the “Caucasus Front” envisioned by Aslan Maskhadov, and now pursued by his successor, Sadulayev. KBR President Arsen Kanokov noted that low income and unemployment had “created the soil for religious extremists and other destructive forces to conduct an ideological war against us” (AP, October 14, 2005).

Yet, while the militants were mostly local, their commanders were not. A look at the operational command demonstrates how the Chechen-style command structure works in action. Basayev carried out what he describes as “general operative management.” By accepted rules, the amir responsible for the sector in which the action is to take place assumes operational command (Kavkaz Center, October 15, 2005). In this case, it was Anzor Astemirov (also known as Amir Seifulla). The amirs of other sectors were each given responsibilities under Astemirov’s command. One of those killed in the assault on Nalchik’s FSB headquarters was Ilyas Gorchkhanov, the leader of the Ingush Jamaat. The amirs of Ossetia and Krasnodar regions were also wounded.

After the raid, Astemirov correctly pointed out that despite months of preparation, no one in the local population betrayed the militants. For his part, Russian Presidential Representative Dimitri Kozak was vocal in his criticism of the lack of intelligence available on the Yarmuk Jamaat. In fact, Russia’s advance knowledge of the raid came from the interrogation of a captured militant, Anzor Zhagurazov, who revealed plans for a large-scale attack on Nalchik five days before it happened. A cache of a half ton of explosives was discovered based on his information, and several hundred members of the Russian special forces were sent to Nalchik. Despite this, the militants carried out an assault on government and military targets that lasted several hours and reaped large quantities of captured weapons; at least 40 militants were killed. The attack on Nalchik appears to have been planned to coincide with a similar attack in Dagestan that was prevented by the death of several of its main planners in a Russian operation.

Battlel of UhudBattle of Uhud

Astemirov compared the raid to the Battle of Uhud, fought in 625 AD by the Muslims of Medina against the Meccans (Kavkaz Center, January 10). The Muslim army of Muhammad suffered a setback that day due to their overconfidence, but eventually regrouped to emerge triumphant. Astemirov also suggested that the anti-Russian jihad must be fought on the home ground of all the Muslims of the North Caucasus.

The militarization of the jamaat movement may yet provide Sadulayev with the power base he needs to assume the role of Imam of the Caucasus. The job of centralizing control will be difficult, and will ultimately expose members of the network. The Chechen leadership, however, realizes that the Kremlin has succeeded in closing Chechnya to the outside world. The conflict with Russia has settled into a war of attrition, which the Chechens cannot possibly win. Without spreading the conflict, their best hope is for a withdrawal of Russian forces, allowing for a civil war with the pro-Moscow forces of Ramzan Kadyrov. A full blown fratricidal struggle would reduce the fighting strength of Chechnya to insignificance, a solution to the “Chechen Problem” that might prove satisfactory in Moscow.

Recent political developments in the Caucasus have reminded many residents of the troubled history of the region’s relations with Russia. As memories surface of the Circassian exodus and Stalin’s deportations, the limited benefits of Russian rule threaten to be overwhelmed by history. Imam Shamyl’s 19th century rebellion is undergoing a revival in popularity. In current conditions, the attraction of a revived Imamate under the direction of Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev may be great enough to make young militants forget that Shamyl’s three decades of rebellion ended in the utter devastation of his followers in Dagestan and Chechnya (as Vladimir Putin has lately taken to reminding citizens of the North Caucasus).

Conclusion

While it is difficult to envision the jamaats as a military threat to the Russian Federation, it may prove impossible for the Kremlin to deal effectively with five insurgencies at once, or to address international questions as to why Russian rule in the region has spun out of control. Bombings and other attacks have spread right into the Stavropol and Krasnodar regions of the Russian Republic, indicating an ever-widening scope of operations for anti-Russian militants.

The Islamic combat jamaat in the North Caucasus is more than a religious phenomenon. Economic and territorial issues are also important factors in the recruitment of young fighters, who otherwise find themselves unemployed and disenfranchised. Last November, President Putin’s envoy, Dimitri Kozak, warned that the proliferation of what he describes as “Islamic Sharia enclaves” in remote areas of the Caucasus would soon immerse the entire region in conflict. This result was inevitable if military measures were taken without addressing state corruption and other social and economic problems. In these conditions, the revival of the dormant pan-Caucasus movement has found a rallying point in Salafist Islam, but one rooted in local tradition with local leaders. Russia’s pre-emptive counter-terrorism policy and repression of Islamic activities outside the realm of state-approved Islamic structures continues to feed the insurgency. The emergence of the “military jamaat” threatens to stretch Russian resources to the limit and turn the North Caucasus into a minefield of anti-Russian resistance.

This article first appeared in the June 15, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

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” (Utro.ru, 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

“The Chechen Network” on Trial: Terrorist Prosecutions in Paris

Andrew McGregor

May 4, 2006

Modern France has a long history of dealing with terrorists, whether the bomb-throwing anarchists of the late 19th century or the more sophisticated Corsicans, Basques and Islamists of the late 20th century. As the republic enters the 21st century, it finds itself grappling with an Islamist threat that reflects the nation’s changing demographics. Five to six million residents of France are now Muslim—a full 10 percent of the population. Aside from a substantial number of Muslim West Africans, most French Muslims hail from former French provinces in North Africa. Algeria is home to many of France’s most radical Islamists, a country that has endured fifteen years of terrorist attacks, kidnappings, massacres and civil strife.

chechen network 1Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière (Le Monde)

French authorities have adopted an aggressive campaign to pre-empt terrorist strikes. Expanded counter-terrorism measures have been matched with wide-scale roundups of French Muslims, who may now be held for six days without charges and up to four years without trial. Although nearly all France’s terrorism suspects are French-born or North African in origin, the republic’s leading investigator of terrorist cases suggests that the most dangerous threat to France and Europe comes from an elusive and mysterious source: “the Chechen Network.”

Terrorists on Trial

Twenty-seven North Africans were brought to trial in Paris on March 20, 2006, on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks on the Eiffel Tower and numerous other targets. Investigators allege that Russian institutions in France were also targeted by the Islamist militants as retaliation for the destruction of the Chechen terrorist unit at Moscow’s Nord-Ost Theater in October 2002. The actual charge against the defendants is “criminal conspiracy in relation to a terrorist network,” which carries a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment on conviction. Several of the suspects are alleged to have served in the small corps of international mujahideen in Chechnya. Many appear to be former members of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) or GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), militant Algerian Islamist organizations responsible for numerous atrocities. A French security service, La Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, uncovered the so-called “Chechen Network” while investigating Islamist efforts to recruit French nationals for the fighting in Chechnya. Mass arrests of North Africans followed in the Paris suburbs of Courneuve and Romainville in December 2002.

The man behind the prosecutions is Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière. In France, judges may act as investigators, with those suspects recommended for prosecution sent before other judges for trial. Judge Bruguière began work in terrorism investigations in 1991, and is now responsible for the coordination of all judicial aspects in France’s battle against terrorism. Bruguière and others have aggressively used the generous powers provided to them by the new anti-terrorism legislation to cast wide nets in the Muslim community, collecting large numbers of suspects. Many of the accused have been acquitted after lengthy periods of detention.

The Case of Said Arif

Said Arif, 41, is a former officer in the Algerian army and one of the defendants in the “Chechen Network” case. After deserting the army he traveled to Afghanistan, where he is said to have attended al-Qaeda training camps. Mr. Arif and several other suspects are accused of taking additional training in the production of chemical and biological weapons in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, allegedly under the tutelage of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi when the career criminal was still being described as a bio-chemical weapons expert (al-Zarqawi is now leader of the al-Qaeda faction in Iraq). No evidence has been presented to substantiate the existence of such training facilities, and even the presence of al-Zarqawi in the Pankisi Gorge remains open to question. There was undoubtedly training available in the creation of more conventional explosive devices while Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev rebuilt his guerilla force in the Gorge in 2001-2002. Some 200 foreign mujahideen were present in Gelayev’s camps. Many were Turkish nationals, while the Arab contingent included a number of Algerians. It is these individuals that the prosecution charges with returning to France to carry out acts of terrorism.

chechen network 2Said Arif (Le Point)

Already suspected of involvement in the December 2000 plot to bomb the Strasbourg Christmas market, Arif escaped the December 2002 roundup of al-Qaeda suspects accused of preparing chemical attacks in France. In May 2003, Arif and his wife (a Swedish national) moved with their children to Syria. Two months later Arif was picked up on the street by Syrian intelligence services. His family was first detained then deported to Sweden. Arif alleges he was tortured in Syria before being extradited to Paris in June 2004. The procedure was unusual, in that Syria has no extradition treaty with France. The extradition may have been the result of a personal visit to Syria by Judge Bruguière.

France allowed members of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) to question the suspects before trial, as part of a joint investigation between Russian and French security services. Mr. Arif has also attracted the attention of the Spanish secret services. Arif is said to have revealed to Spanish investigators a plan to carry out a chemical attack on the US naval base in Rota, Spain (Spanish Herald, May 4, 2005). Arif’s lawyer has called for the rejection of any evidence based on testimony elicited from his client under torture in Syria. A verdict in the trial is expected on May 12.

The ‘Chechen Threat’

The term “Chechen” figures in almost every reference to the current case. Judge Bruguière and others speak of “the Chechen Network,” while their detractors refer to it as “the Chechen Trace.” Judge Bruguière claims that Chechnya serves as the main training base for Islamist militants, having replaced Afghanistan in this regard. Bruguière describes the “Caucasian problem” as “a true international problem because the majority of the Chechen cause has been hijacked by al-Qaeda” (AP, December 9, 2004). According to the judge, Chechnya serves as “an aircraft carrier” for Islamists “to continue the fight against the West” (CNN, May 13, 2003). At times Bruguière ascribes to the Chechen rebels powers worthy of a James Bond villain; in 2004 he told the New Yorker magazine that Chechens were training Islamists how to hijack satellites, enabling them to shut down communications, power grids and Western defense networks (New Yorker, August 2, 2004).

Judge Bruguière’s emphasis on the Chechen aspect of the current trial has filtered down to the media. An Associated Press headline announced “Chechen Rebel Trial Opens in Paris” (March 21, 2006), even though not a single Chechen is among the accused. Olivier Dupuis, an outspoken member of the European Parliament, has questioned Judge Bruguière’s continued use of the term “Chechen network” in a case involving only EU citizens. The MP asks whether such “false information” might be “responsible for the growth among EU citizens of feelings of racial hatred, intolerance or even violence towards Chechen refugees living in member countries.”

Conclusion

There is no question that France faces a serious terrorism threat from North African extremists, but Judge Bruguière’s persistent obsession with Chechnya as an exporter of terrorism to Europe remains difficult to explain. Europe is now awash with Chechen refugees, yet none have been convicted of terrorist plots against their hosts. The Pankisi Gorge came under the control of US-trained Georgian security forces in October 2002. The Chechen separatist leadership is intent on expanding its rebellion to the rest of the Russian North Caucasus, but otherwise has expressed more interest in joining Europe than destroying it. Arab participation in the Chechen war is also at a low ebb, with jihadists from France and elsewhere being drawn to the far more accessible conflict in Iraq.

Short of new evidence being introduced at the trial, the actual Chechen content of France’s “Chechen Network” appears to be nil. A recent French security review described the greatest threats to national security as coming from young, alienated Muslim youth and converts to radical forms of Islam such as Lionel Dumont, a former French Catholic who became one of Europe’s most wanted terrorists before being sentenced to 30 years in prison by a French court in December 2005. With Algeria’s ruthless militants now identifying France as their main enemy, the continuing focus on a shadowy Chechen threat would appear to be a dangerous distraction for French security.

This article first appeared in the May 4, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Chechnya Weekly

Radical Ukrainian Nationalism and the War in Chechnya

Andrew McGregor

North Caucasus Analysis

March 30, 2006

On March 18 Russia’s Prosecutor General announced the launch of a criminal case involving the participation of a number of Ukraine’s leading radical nationalists as mercenaries in the war in Chechnya. All those charged, including leading ultra-nationalists Dimitro Korchinski and the late Anatoli Lupinos, were members of the Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian People’s Self Defense Organization (UNA-UNSO). The UNA-UNSO members are alleged to have fought alongside Chechen forces during combat actions in 2000-2001. The Russian Security Service (FSB) is running an ongoing investigation in Chechnya (Itar-Tass, March 18; Interfax, March 18).

UNA-UNSO 1UNA-UNSO Fighters in the Field

 The UNA-UNSO

The UNA-UNSO has its origins in the turbulent days of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The UNSO was created as a paramilitary “patriotic” organization intended to defend the nationalist ideals of the UNA and oppose “anti-Ukrainian separatist movements,” especially in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine (both home to a large ethnic Russian population). UNSO street fighters quickly gained attention by military-style marches and attacks on pro-Russian political meetings throughout Ukraine.

The movement’s literature often refers to the Middle Ages, when Kiev rather than Moscow was the cultural and political centre of the Slavic world. The power base of the UNA-UNSO is in western Ukraine, the traditional home of anti-Russian nationalism that took its most virulent form in the formation of a Ukrainian SS division that fought Soviet troops in World War II. In public rallies UNSO members don black uniforms under their banner of a black cross on a red field.

Although UNSO members were sent to Lithuania and Moldova’s Transnistria region in the early 1990s, significant UNSO military operations began with the dispatch of a small group of fighters to Abkhazia to defend Georgian sovereignty in the summer of 1993. Under the command of ex-Soviet officer Valery Bobrovich, UNSO’s “Argo” squad of roughly 150 men found themselves in the thick of the fighting. Russian and Ukrainian security forces declared that UNSO members were acting as mercenaries.

As war clouds gathered over Chechnya in 1994, UNA-UNSO leaders Anatoli Lupinos and Dimitro Korchinski began to lead Ukrainian delegations to Grozny to meet with Chechen leaders. This was followed in 1995 by the arrival of UNSO fighters organized as the “Viking Brigade” under the command of Aleksandr Muzychko, though their numbers (about 200 men) never approached brigade size. Besides fighting in the battle for Grozny some UNSO members (veterans of the Soviet Army) were employed as instructors. Their contribution to the struggle for independence (including 10 KIAs) was acknowledged with the issue of Chechen decorations after the war. While the Ukrainian government claimed that it opposed the participation of Ukrainian nationals in Russia’s “internal affair” it proved unable or unwilling to prevent it.

UNA-UNSO 2UNA-UNSO Rally

 UNSO members have also been active in the anti-Lukashenko opposition movement in Belarus, participating in demonstrations and riots. In 2000-2001 the UNA-UNSO was prominent in opposition to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who was under suspicion of ordering the death of a leading Ukrainian journalist.

The UNA’s political program appears to an outsider to be full of contradictions. Despite close ties to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and a general view that Muslims (“the Turks”) are an anti-Slavic threat, the movement supports Chechnya’s Islamic resistance. While supporting the separatist Chechens, the UNA strongly opposes any sign of separatist sentiment amongst Ukraine’s Crimean Tatars. Despite the UNA’s participation in Ukrainian elections, the party maintains an anti-democratic stance, agitating instead for direct presidential rule. Like many populist-based movements, UNA-UNSO aims are often dependent upon the political winds or even the composition of a speaker’s audience.

Ukrainians in the Current Chechen Conflict

According to Russian charges, UNA-UNSO members were active in Chechnya’s Kurchaloi, Vedeno and Nozhai-Yurt districts during 1999-2000. The official UNA position was that the movement would not take part in military operations during this second war, but would assist the separatist government by creating Chechen information centers. Pressure was much stronger this time from the Ukrainian government to keep Ukrainians out of the conflict, and the Foreign Ministry promised that any would-be volunteers would be arrested. Korchinski confirmed the presence of UNSO members in Chechnya at a Kiev rally in March 2000, but complained that the cost of transporting more volunteers had become prohibitive (Itar-Tass, March 24, 2000). As recently as March 2005, Ramzan Kadyrov (leader of Chechnya’s pro-Russian government) denounced the continued presence of Ukrainian “mercenaries” in Chechnya, but did not provide any details (Strana.ru, March 28, 2005).

In December 2001, Russian Communist Duma deputy Viktor Ilyukhin alleged that Ukraine’s nationalist groups were helping Osama bin Laden organize on Ukrainian territory while the Ukraine government supplied Chechen rebels with weapons and other military equipment (Interfax, December 10, 2001). No evidence was presented to substantiate these claims. At the same time, the trial of flamboyant but inept Chechen warlord Salman Raduev heard evidence that 20 Ukrainian nationalists were active participants in the warlord’s terrorist activities in 1997-98 (RIA Novosti, November 30, 2001).

Less credible were reports from Russian military sources regarding Ukrainian women fighting in the Chechen front line. Soon after the second Chechen war began in 1999 Russian accounts began to provide details of a Ukrainian unit of ski-borne women athletes/snipers fighting on the Chechen side. Known as “the White Tights,” these elusive fighters were at other times described as Latvians or Estonians. This bit of battlefield mythology was a survival from the 1994-1996 Chechen war.

In November 2002 the UNA-UNSO organized rallies at three Russian consulates in the Ukraine to protest the storming of Moscow’s Nord-Est theater where Chechen militants had organized a mass hostage taking. During the crisis UNA-UNSO made a public appeal to the militants to release the Ukrainian nationals, reminding them of UNSO support in the first Chechen war. The appeal was ignored and a number of Ukrainian hostages were killed when Russian special forces used gas to immobilize the militants.

 Conclusion

UNA-UNSO might be best characterized as an influential fringe movement. Its high visibility belies its limited numbers, with a membership of roughly 8,000, of which only a fraction are involved in UNSO paramilitary activities. Under its present leader Andrei Shkil, the UNA-UNSO continues with a provocative political agenda. Efforts to make inroads in the Ukrainian armed forces have been largely unsuccessful. In late 2004 the movement’s leaders issued an appeal to Ukrainian troops serving in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition to “‘turn your bayonets against U.S. troops and join the rebels” (UPI, November 12, 2004). The movement is frequently accused of pursuing anti-Semitic and fascist ideologies.

The timing of the Russian charges, which are unlikely to result in the extradition of Korchinski or his associates, is probably related to the elections in Ukraine, where the UNA-UNSO forms part of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s bloc of political support. Tymoshenko is also a populist politician, and has cited inclusiveness as the reason for including radical nationalist organizations in her coalition, despite heavy criticism.

The Kremlin is disturbed by Tymoshenko’s promise to renegotiate the natural gas deal made with Russia last January. If the charges were an attempt to embarrass Tymoshenko through renewing the controversy over her ties to UNA-UNSO, they appear to have had little effect. Tymoshenko’s party appears to have emerged from the elections stronger than ever. As for Russia’s charges of mercenary activities in the ultra-nationalist movement, the Ukrainian government has repeatedly declined to investigate on the grounds that such charges are too difficult to substantiate. Dimitro Korchinski now leads his own nationalist party, Bratstvo (Brotherhood), and remains well-connected in Ukraine’s political establishment. As Tymoshenko appears ready to translate last week’s election results into a coalition government, it seems unlikely that the Ukrainian government’s remarkable toleration of UNA-UNSO activities will change anytime soon.

Distant Relations: Hamas and the Mujahideen of Chechnya

Andrew McGregor

February 23, 2006

In a bold attempt to reassert Russian influence in the Middle East, Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued an invitation for leaders of the Palestinian Hamas movement to visit Moscow in early March. The meetings will mark a break with the rest of the “Quartet” of Middle-East peace negotiators (the United States, the United Nations and the European Union), who, together with Israel, are calling for Hamas to refute its declared intention of destroying Israel. Further alarming Israel, the head of the Russian General Staff mentioned the possibility of arms sales to Hamas, although Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov soon added that such sales would be made only with Israeli approval. The Soviet Union had a strong tradition of supporting left-wing Palestinian independence movements, and Putin’s latest gambit appears to be part of Russia’s continuing attempt to reclaim an influential role in parts of the Islamic world.

Hamas - ChechnyaIsrael’s “Evidence” of Hamas-Chechen Collaboration

Russia’s relationship with Hamas involves policy contradictions for both parties. Hamas has given verbal support to Islamist movements throughout the world. On the other hand, the Kremlin has consistently warned of a vast Islamist conspiracy to create a new Caliphate since the second Russian-Chechen war began in 1999. After 9/11 Moscow began to complain of al-Qaeda infiltration in the North Caucasus, and has characterized the Chechen resistance as a group of Osama bin Laden-influenced radical Islamists. Israel was thus taken by surprise by Putin’s invitation to the Hamas Islamists, and has responded with an effort to convince the Kremlin that Hamas is closely tied to the Chechen mujahideen.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry is adamant that the Hamas visit will be used to persuade the Palestinian Islamists to reform their mandate with regard to the existence of Israel. In response to Israeli charges that the meetings contradict Russia’s condemnation of “Wahhabism” (the Russian government’s term for Islamism) Russian diplomats point to their record in Chechnya as proof that Moscow does not support Islamism or the terrorist methods of groups like Hamas.

Partners in Jihad? The Evidence

A pamphlet issued by Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) alleging common cause between Hamas and the Chechen independence movement is being widely distributed by the Israeli government through its foreign missions. Directed specifically at the Kremlin, the pamphlet relies on material first posted to the Center’s website in September 2004.

This material gained little attention when it was first posted, for reasons that seem rather clear. Rather than establishing proof of collaboration between Hamas and the Chechens, the “evidence” consists solely of computer graphics found on discs seized in raids on Hamas-related facilities. The digitized “posters” contained on the CDs include images of Shaykh Yassin, Osama bin Laden, Shamyl Basayev and the late Saudi mujahid, Ibn al-Khattab. The only other evidence is a confiscated copy of a CD called “Russian Hell in the Year 2000,” a graphic account of early mujahideen activities early in the latest Russian-Chechen war that has been available for order from the internet for the past six years.

The Mujahideen and the Intifada

The Chechen resistance has generally had little to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in their public statements, save for a brief period in 2000. As the second Palestinian intifada broke out in the Fall of 2000, Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev (then leader of the Mujahideen Military Command Council – MMCC) turned his attention to the holy city of Jerusalem. Apparently incensed by Israel’s repression of the revolt, Basayev announced that 150 mujahideen were ready to depart from Chechnya to launch a jihad in Palestine if transport through neighboring Muslim countries could be obtained (Qoqaz.com, October 11, 2000). An accompanying statement issued by the MMCC pointed out that the Russian Army also “had Jews in military ranks both as soldiers and engineers” (Qoqaz.com, October 11, 2000). It was further decided to deliver $1,000 to the family of each of the Palestinian “martyrs” (Kavkaz.com, October 17, 2000; There is no record of any such payment being made.) Another statement from the MMCC on international Muslim reaction to the outbreak of the intifada seemed to reflect Chechen dissatisfaction with the Islamic world’s lack of material support for their own cause:

Palestine is surrounded by Muslim countries who lavishly spend billions on their military. They have the latest generation armored fighting vehicles and state-of-the-art fighter jets but not one bullet have they fired in defense of the Muslims (Azzam Publications, October 9, 2000).

Much of the language used in the current Israeli appeal to Moscow is oddly similar to that used by the Kremlin after hearing of Basayev’s intentions. At the time Russian government representatives spoke of an international conspiracy of Islamists that threatened the entire “democratic” world. Basayev continued to insist that his offer was sincere and feasible, though the entire mission seemed quite improbable:

The Shari’a requires us to assist those Muslims who are struggling to free the sacred places of Islam—the city of al-Quds [Jerusalem] and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Those belong to all Muslims, regardless of their nation or ethnic group. It is a clear duty of all Muslims to help the Palestinians (Kavkaz.com, October 19, 2000).

Ultimately, Russian military pressure vanquished Basayev’s dreams of a Chechen-led liberation of Jerusalem, and neither mujahideen nor money left Chechnya.

Conclusion

It is difficult to draw evidence of a sinister conspiracy from a graphic artist’s juxtaposition of images of Hamas, al-Qaeda and Chechen leaders on a handful of posters. They may reveal a certain sympathy among some Palestinians for the Chechen insurgency, but they are not proof of collaboration. Of the many Arabs who have passed through the ranks of the Chechen mujahideen, few have been Palestinian. Young Palestinians seeking jihad do not need to travel. Arab financial aid to the Chechen struggle has always been centered in the wealthy Gulf States rather than impoverished Palestine.

The ITIC document declares that Hamas supports a “radical jihad agenda” in Russia. The reality is that Palestine has done little to aid the Chechen cause while the Chechens themselves have proven justifiably wary of groups such as Hamas, which appear ready to abandon the international aspects of jihad when their own interests are at stake. In the end the Chechens are remote non-Arab Muslims whose cause will never resonate with Palestinians in the same way as the ongoing insurgency in Iraq (a neighbor and a traditional center of Sunni Islam and Arab culture).

In mid-February of this year, another Hamas delegation made an official visit to Ankara, the capital of Israel’s strategic ally, Turkey. In like fashion to the Russian controversy, outraged Israeli politicians pointed to a Turkish double standard by asking what Ankara’s reaction would be if Israel invited a delegation of Kurdish separatists to Jerusalem. Turkish officials claim that the talks were also intended to move Hamas’ position on Israel closer to that suggested by the “Quartet” while urging Israel to recognize the results of the Palestinian election “and move away from violence” (Zaman, February 18, 2006).

Like raising the issue of the Kurdish “PKK terrorists” with Ankara, the recycled evidence of the ITIC is clearly designed to embarrass the Kremlin. In this sense it may be successful, but it cannot be taken as serious evidence of “terrorist cooperation” between Hamas and Chechnya’s mujahideen.

This article first appeared in North Caucasus Analysis 7(8), February 23 2006

Crescent under the Cross: Shamyl Basayev’s Orthodox Enemy

Andrew McGregor

January 26, 2006

There is little left of the Orthodox Church establishment in Chechnya. Most of Chechnya’s ethnic Russian Christian minority fled in the early 1990s during the creation of Dzhokar Dudayev’s independent Chechen state. The onset of war in 1994 found only the aged and the impoverished remaining of Grozny’s Orthodox population, most of whom suffered greatly in the Russian bombing raids. Grozny’s Church of the Archangel Mikhail, once a symbol of Orthodoxy’s triumph in the Caucasus, is slowly being restored after its destruction by the Russian military in 1995. Reduced to a shell, its congregation consists today of a few hundred aged and hungry pensioners.

Crescent 1Church of the Archangel Mikhail (Grozny)

Yet Chechen warlord Shamyl Basayev announced the intention of the “Majlis of the Caucasian Front” to eliminate the “extremist activities” of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Caucasus until the end of the war. In an interview conducted January 9, 2006, Basayev described the church’s leaders as ‘satanists” and accused its clergy of being eager tools of Russian intelligence services (Kavkaz Center, January 9, 2006). The Orthodox Church is finished in Chechnya, but its continuing support for military action in the republic and its efforts at converting Muslims elsewhere in the Caucasus have brought it into conflict with the leadership of the Chechen insurgency.

The Church Militant

The very emblem of the Orthodox Church, a cross surmounting an Islamic crescent, is a reminder to Russian Muslims that they are a people of conquest, brought into the Russian empire by the force of a united religious and political regime. The renewal of close ties between the church and the post-Soviet Kremlin alarms many Muslims and has been a source of discontent with Muslim conscripts of the Russian army. The leader of the Orthodox Church is Patriarch Alexy II “of Moscow and All Russia,” who has been vocal in his support of the war against “international terrorism” in Chechnya. The Church’s support of the Kremlin has also come with calls for state assistance in restraining the activities of foreign missionaries and the growing threat of “un-Russian” evangelical Protestantism to the Orthodox establishment.

Crescent 2The Orthodox Cross

In scenes reminiscent of Tsarist times, long-bearded Russian chaplains hold field services for Russian soldiers, exhorting them to victory over the Muslims before entering battle. Elaborate ceremonies are held in Moscow in which the Patriarch and his bishops confer religious medals to Russian officers for their work in Chechnya. A year into the present Chechen war the Patriarch presented Russian President Vladimir Putin with an icon of Russia’s 13th century hero, Alexander Nevsky, with the hope that the Orthodox saint would become the protector of the President. Alexy speaks of the “unification of the state and the church, the unity (that was) forcibly interrupted by the tragic events of the twentieth century” (Prime-Tass, August 1, 2003).

Russia’s leading political figures can be found as speakers at Orthodox congresses, praising the growing integration of church and government. The Church is especially close to the foreign ministry of Igor Ivanov and supports the reintegration of independent Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan and their large Orthodox populations into the Russian Federation. Ethnic Chechens in Kazakhstan have angrily accused the Orthodox Church there (which is under the control of the Moscow Patriarch) of recruiting ethnic Russians to fight in Chechnya.

A certain amount of Orthodox support for the Chechen war has its origins in the chaotic inter-war period of 1996 to 1999, when Orthodox clergy were frequent victims of violence or kidnapping gangs. Orthodox priests were at the time accused of running a tax-free tobacco and alcohol racket in Chechnya. Russia claims that the Chechen representative in London, Akhmad Zakaev, was involved in the kidnapping and murder of Orthodox clergy, although a British court did not find the accusations credible (particularly after one of his alleged victims was produced alive).

Martyrs of an Orthodox Crusade?

In 2004 the Church bowed to popular pressure and outspoken members of its own clergy by canonizing a young Russian soldier killed in Chechnya. The new saint was Yevgeny Rodionov, a 19-year-old Russian foot-soldier who was captured and beheaded by Ruslan Khaikharov in May 1996. The soldier’s mother, like so many others, went to Chechnya to search for her son’s remains. According to her, she had several meetings with Khaikharov, who revealed that he had killed Rodionov because he refused to convert to Islam. With Khaikharov killed in a Chechen feud soon after, the story remained uncorroborated (and there are many details that make little sense), but this did not prevent the soldier’s grave in Russia from becoming a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox believers. When the church hierarchy declined to canonize the young “martyr,” it came under immense popular pressure from its membership, many of whom claimed that miracles were commonly worked at Rodionov’s grave or that his icons secreted myrrh. There are now several other ‘soldier-martyrs” being considered for canonization.

Basayev has warned in the past that he considered Russian Orthodox churches (with the “defeated Islamic crescent under their crosses”) as legitimate targets of his Riyadus Salihiin Brigade of Martyrs. Two years ago Basayev identified the church’s leadership as members of Russia’s two principal intelligence agencies, the FSB (former KGB) and the GRU (military intelligence), and accused them of taking an active part in “the genocide of the Chechen people” (Kavkaz Center, April, 2004). In Russia itself, accusations of Church collaboration with the KGB date back to Soviet times and are a major factor in the growth of alternative forms of Christianity within Russia.

Since the Beslan massacre the Bishop of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz has been active in encouraging the conversion of North Ossetian Muslims to the Orthodox faith. Basayev must take some responsibility for this as the orchestrator of the terrorist attack that brought repression of those who practice both official and unofficial Islam in North Ossetia (where Orthodox Christians form the majority). Fear of retaliation for the Beslan crime has led to acceptance of the Bishop’s message by Muslims whose adherence to the faith is not as strong as fear for themselves and their families.

Conclusion

Despite the threats, Basayev has not yet targeted establishments of the Orthodox Russian church and is unlikely to do so as long as he adheres to a focus on military rather than terrorist activities currently promoted by the Chechen rebel leadership. Tied to his remarks in the same interview about a renewed Imamate in the North Caucasus, Basayev’s verbal attacks on the Church seem to represent an attempt to define the Chechen struggle in religious terms quite different from the parameters used during the presidency of the late Aslan Maskhadov. The Orthodox Church has acted in a similar fashion, helping to redefine a war against “terrorists” into a war against Islam.

The new Chechen president, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, is committed to creating an Islamic state in Chechnya. Basayev suggests that Sadulayev is already “virtually the Imam of the whole Caucasus,” and that a congress will be held this spring to consider the proclamation of Sadulayev as Imam (political/religious leader, in this sense). With Basayev’s encouragement, Abdul-Khalim shows every sign of assuming the mantle of Shaykh Mansur and Imam Shamyl to unify the Islamic opposition to Russian rule in the Caucasus. Basayev’s remarks on the growing symbiosis of the Orthodox church, the Kremlin and Russian security services are meant to remind Russia’s Muslims that Islam presents the only alternative to permanent subservience in a Christian state.

This article first appeared in North Caucasus Analysis 7(4), January 26, 2006

Dokku Umarov: The Next in Line

Andrew McGregor

January 6, 2006

While warlord Shamyl Basayev dominates the headlines of the Chechen conflict, a lesser-known guerrilla leader has worked his way into a crucial position in the Chechen leadership. Dokku Umarov was appointed vice-president in the new administration of President Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev in June 2005. A native of southwestern Chechnya, the 40-year-old Emir has already been entrusted with the command of several fronts beyond his original post in the southwestern sector. Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel noted as recently as last July that the northern district “is controlled by Umarov.”

Dokku UmarovDokku Umarov

Background

A veteran of the 1994-96 war, Umarov served as security minister in Aslan Maskhadov’s postwar government. Umarov began the current war in 1999 as a field commander working closely with warlord Ruslan Gelayev. After the dual disasters of the evacuation of Grozny and the battle of Komsomolskoe in early 2000, Umarov and Gelayev crossed the mountains into the Pankisi Gorge of Georgia, where they rebuilt their commands. Georgian intelligence reported Umarov leading 130-150 fighters in the Gorge before his return to Chechnya in the summer of 2002 (Civil Georgia, January 20, 2003). Gelayev gave Umarov several Strela missiles, which Umarov’s forces used to good effect against Russian helicopters in the fighting around Shatoi in 2003 (Chechenpress, December 4, 2002).

Gelayev was killed in February 2004 after a disastrous attempt to lead a group of fighters over the mountains of Dagestan into Georgia. After Gelayev’s death, many of his men joined Umarov’s command. Russian security services created a scenario based on the alleged testimony of a prisoner (Baudi Khadzhiev) in which Umarov urged Gelayev to undertake an operation in Dagestan that he knew would be fatal in order to take over Gelayev’s command. The allegation was part of a long tradition of Russian reports about feuding commanders and dissension in the Chechen ranks. Gelayev’s family was quick to point out that their clan and the Umarov family are closely related (an important consideration in clan-conscious Chechnya).

In early February of this year, Russian security suggested that Umarov and Basayev were arranging a meeting of Chechen and Arab field commanders in Grozny to mark the one-year anniversary of Gelayev’s death (Vremya no. 16, February 2, 2005). Later in the month Maj.-Gen. Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for the Russian command in the North Caucasus, claimed that Russian special forces had destroyed three units of Umarov’s command on their way to Azerbaijan to wipe out Gelayev’s family at a ceremony marking the first anniversary of Gelayev’s death. The family’s alleged declaration of blood vengeance against Umarov provided the motive. The details of this unlikely plot came from the interrogation of a mortally wounded Chechen (RIA Novosti, February 25, 2005). Several Ingush clans have also been reported as having declared blood vengeance against Umarov as a result of deaths suffered in the Nazran operation of 2004.

Like most Chechen field commanders, Umarov has been declared dead on several occasions. In the last year Russian forces have intensified their efforts to eliminate him. In January 2005, he was reported killed in a gun battle with Russian commandos near the Georgian border. In March, Umarov was reported as having been seriously wounded by a spetsnaz assassination team. After stepping on a landmine sometime later, Umarov was reported to have lost a leg, but was only injured. In April, Russian Special Forces destroyed a small guerrilla unit in a seven–hour battle in Grozny after receiving intelligence that Umarov was with them, but he was not found among the dead.

Umarov struck back in an attack on Roshni-Chu in August, but in September the Russian Interior Ministry declared victory over Umarov’s fighters, finding Umarov’s “grave” in the process. In October, Umarov was again reported dead in the raid on Nalchik. In a new tactic designed to put pressure on resistance leaders, masked men in uniform abducted Umarov’s father, brother, wife and baby. Umarov believes those responsible are members of the “Oil Regiment,” a notorious loyalist unit better known for kidnappings than its nominal mission of guarding pipelines.

Relations with Basayev

Chechen Duma Deputy Ruslan Yamadaev suggests that Umarov is currently part of Basayev’s “terrorist wing” of the Chechen resistance, but Umarov distanced himself from Basayev after the latter claimed responsibility for the Beslan outrage (Interfax, March 9, 2005). Only a few months earlier, Umarov had played a leading role with Basayev in organizing the military assault on Nazran in Ingushetia (June 21-22, 2004). Umarov firmly refuted the value of terrorist attacks such as Beslan: “In the eyes of the resistance such operations have no legitimacy,” he said. “We ourselves were horrified by what they did in Beslan” (RFE/RL, July 28, 2005). During the crisis Umarov was repeatedly identified by security services as the leader of the Beslan hostage-takers, a claim that has never been substantiated in any fashion. Umarov emphasized the military nature of his own war: “Our targets—these are the Russian occupation forces, their bases, command HQ’s, and also their armed servicemen from the numbers of local collaborationists, who pursue and who kill peaceful Muslims. We will attack, where we think it’s necessary. Civil objects and innocent civilians are not our targets” (Kavkaz Centre, July 1, 2004).

In May 2005, Maj. Gen. Shabalkin accused Umarov of joining warlord Shamyl Basayev and President Sadulayev in planning a suicide truck-bombing in Grozny. The trio were also said to be planning large-scale civilian massacres in several towns of the North Caucasus by using cyanide “in highly populated areas, key installations and in reservoirs.” A Jordanian emissary of both al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood allegedly provided the cyanide. Proof of the plot was provided in the form of a photo of a Russian in a white lab-coat holding a vial of clear liquid, identified as cyanide. The strategic advantage the Chechen leadership might hope to gain through committing such outrageous atrocities remains unexplained. The allegations came at the same time Sadulayev was trying in his public statements to distance the resistance from terrorist methods.

Four days after Shabalkin made these allegations, Umarov responded by promising large-scale military activities within Russia before the end of the year. This promise seems to have been fulfilled by the October raid in Nalchik, in which Umarov played a leading role (Chechenpress, May 9, 2005).

Conclusion

Umarov is one of the last veteran commanders from the 1994-96 Chechen-Russian war still alive and active in the fighting. He bears the scars and limp of multiple wounds, but his commitment to the conflict remains inflexible. He regards death in battle as an inevitability, and has publicly expressed his hope that those Chechen men who have not fully participated in the war “will all burn in the fire of Hell!” Although Umarov admits he has grown much closer to Islam during the last decade of conflict, he is openly scornful of suggestions that he is a “Wahhabi” or radical Islamist: “I have a whole [military] front,” he said. “I go along that front and I don’t see people fighting to bring the world Wahhabism or terror” (RFE/RL, July 28, 2005). It is unlikely that Umarov’s new role as vice-president will interfere with his ongoing military operations. These days there is not a great deal of paperwork to do in the resistance government. Nevertheless, the appointment was hardly symbolic, considering the record of three successive violent deaths of Chechen presidents (four including the Russian-backed presidency of Akhmad Kadyrov). In the volatile and dangerous world of Chechen politics, Dokku Umarov now stands next in line for the leadership of the Chechen resistance, barring renewed aspirations for this role by Shamyl Basayev.

This article first appeared in North Caucasus Analysis 7(1), January 6, 2006

Upheaval in Nalchik: New Directions in the Chechen Insurgency

Andrew McGregor

November 3, 2005

When Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev succeeded the late Aslan Maskhadov as the leader of the Chechen resistance, he was initially described by Russian sources as an Arab and a representative of al-Qaeda. Even after it was shown that the new President was a Chechen, many observers suggested that the presidency of the Islamic scholar would function merely as a rubber-stamp for the terrorist ambitions of warlord Shamil Basayev, Arab fighter Abu Hafs and others. Contrary to these expectations, the young President has moved the Chechen resistance away from terrorism and any potential association with al-Qaeda. Military operations are the order of the day, and expansion of the conflict is the long-term strategy. While Maskhadov was never able to assert complete control over extremist factions in the resistance, the raid on Nalchik (capital of Kabardino-Balkaria) suggests that Sadulayev is ready to pursue a unified military solution to the Chechen conflict (unless Russia offers terms for peace). Recent events also demonstrate the growing influence of Chechen field commanders like Doku Umarov, who have respectable military records relatively untainted by charges of terrorism.

Nalchik 1Urban Combat during the Nalchik Raid

The Nalchik Raid

As Basayev admits, the Nalchik raid was, in some ways, a botched job. As early as October 8, a captured militant informed police that a large-scale attack was about to be launched on Nalchik [1]. On October 11, a large cache of explosives was discovered, followed by a party of militants being trapped in a Nalchik suburb on the morning of the 13th. According to Basayev, local fighters insisted on carrying out their plans despite Russian awareness that an attack could be imminent. When the raid began, parents worried about another Beslan massacre and rushed to evacuate the schools, but these did not figure in the militants’ list of targets.

Basayev reported that the mujahideen “stormed 15 military objects” [2] and British-based rebel spokesman Akhmad Zakayev used the phrase “legitimate military operation” to describe the raid [3]. The “military targets” of the rebels were carefully listed in their post-raid statements. Sadulayev cited strict orders to the fighters to avoid civilian casualties at all costs: “Our soldiers attacked military targets… where there were no civilian citizens… Such military operations by our troops will from now on become, God willing, the constant lot of the occupiers and their servants everywhere in the Caucasus” [4].

The attack was more effective than Russian spokespersons have admitted to, and the number of “Wahhabi” dead has almost certainly been inflated by adding the bodies of male civilians to their totals. Though their own casualties were high (with 41 out of 217 insurgents killed, according to Basayev), most of the raiders appear to have escaped with captured arms. It was a poor showing by Russian security forces who had several days advance notice of the raid and were reinforced by hundreds of Special
Forces members.

Most significantly, the Nalchik operation was almost exclusively carried out by fighters from the “Caucasian Front” established by Maskhadov. These Ingush, North Ossetians, Karachays, and Cherkess joined local Kabardians and Balkars in carrying out their missions with only minimal Chechen involvement in the operation. This constitutes a major difference from the Nazran raid of June 2004, when Ingush militants received substantial Chechen assistance.

New Leadership from the President

Relations between Maskhadov and Basayev were always influenced by their past, thus inhibiting cooperation between the two. Basayev needed Maskhadov to legitimize the resistance movement through his elected role as president, while Basayev was too valuable (and too powerful) for Maskhadov to eliminate. In Maskhadov’s last year the two continued to cooperate on military raids (like that on Nazran), while Basayev otherwise remained outside the official command structure as leader of his own battalion of suicide-fighters. Sadulayev’s presidency allows Basayev a chance to reintegrate with the Chechen command. Before Maskhadov’s death in March 2005, Basayev claimed to be preparing “more Beslans.” By June, Sadulayev was declaring that “the Chechen government does not plan any operations similar to the Beslan one” [5]. Of course, all this has been tried before. Maskhadov was in a perpetual struggle to harness Basayev’s energies in strictly military operations, but with limited success. (Basayev has noted that in his disagreements with Maskhadov, Sadulayev acted as “a counterbalance in my opposition… not allowing us to overstep the mark”). The Sadulayev/Basayev relationship is significantly different, and will eventually be put to the test by the mercurial Basayev.

Nalchik 2Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev

For the first time in the modern struggle, Chechens have a religious scholar at their fore, a more traditional type of leadership than the soldier-turned-politician model of Dudayev and Maskhadov. This thought was no doubt in the forefront in Maskhadov’s mind when he chose a successor. A native religious figure would allow for a unifying presence at the top and a chance to refute damaging (and popularly held) allegations that the Chechen armed forces are led and directed by Arab Islamists connected to al-Qaeda.

In a June 2005 Chechen-language video statement, Sadulayev addressed the Chechen people in terms very similar to those used in the manifestos of the Yarmuk Jama’at in Kabardino-Balkaria (an “assault subdivision” of Yarmuk took part in the Nalchik raid). The concerns are local rather than international: the evil of drug addiction, the inviolability of Chechen women, respect for elders and the loss of traditional values. These are basic appeals to the day-to-day reality of Chechen life; the strong social net having been ripped asunder by violence. Sadulayev calls for spiritual regeneration through dedication to the expulsion of the Russians. The president also dispensed with the epithet of “Wahhabism” as applied to the Chechen resistance by affirming that Chechens already knew how to pray in mosques and observe Islamic customs long before the word “Wahhabi” was heard in the North Caucasus [6].

The Search for Legitimacy

Sadulayev has repeated his view on terrorism at every opportunity: attacks must be limited to military and economic objectives, unarmed civilians are to be left alone, and any deviation from this represents an abandonment of Chechen values. Sadulayev is following Maskhadov’s lead in distancing the Chechen struggle from association with al-Qaeda or any other Arab jihadist struggle (in an interview just before his death, Maskhadov maintained that bin Laden “couldn’t find Chechnya on a map” [7]). In his statements there is an emphasis on the Caucasian struggle, and no mention of Iraq or other hot-spots of the war on terrorism. According to Sadulayev, the Chechen resistance “recognizes conventional international law and respects the democratic values established in the foundations of the state structures of many countries of the world; but on the other hand, these must not become a pretext for imposing laws on the Chechens that contradict our spiritual values” [8].

The assassination of Chechen ex-president Zelimkhan Yandarbaev (responsible for fund-raising in the Persian Gulf states) by Russian agents in Qatar and the attraction of the Iraq war for militant Islamists have combined to decrease Arab funding and influence in the Chechen conflict. Rather than “go it alone” with severely depleted resources, the Chechens have created another option—spreading the conflict to divert pressure from Chechnya while using the arms stockpiles of Russian security services as convenient armories.

Both Sadulayev and Basayev complain that the international media, which has an otherwise insatiable appetite for “terrorist” actions, routinely ignores Chechen military operations. The Chechen information war has ground to a near halt for lack of funding. It is an ongoing dilemma for the Chechen leadership, which desperately need to bring international attention to its cause. Basayev thought he had discovered the answer by turning the Russian methods of “state terrorism” against the Russians themselves in failed terrorist actions at Beslan and the Nord-Ost Theatre in Moscow. Although his arguments have a certain post-moral logic to them, his practical efforts in this vein have set the Chechen cause back rather than furthered it. Periodic city-scale assaults on military and political targets may provide a means of putting the North Caucasus on the front pages without risking the international approbation that follows mass hostage-takings.

Conclusion

The importance of having a native Islamic scholar leading the Chechen resistance cannot be overstated. Sadulayev himself draws upon the 18th and 19th century rebellions of Shaykh Mansur and Imam Shamil in calling for a pan-Caucasian uprising. If the Chechen command wishes to exploit the growing dissatisfaction with Russian rule in the North Caucasus, then they will need the cooperation of Basayev. A veteran of pan-Caucasian organizations since the early 1990s, it is Basayev who has traveled through the Northern Caucasus in the last few years, developing ties to militant groups. Many of his personal links, such as to Dagestan guerrilla leader Rappani Khalilov, date back to Basayev’s pan-Caucasian legion that carried out the ill-considered attacks on Dagestan in 1999.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to impose order in the Caucasus rather than create it, the Russian Duma passes more counter-terrorism bills designed to eliminate the mounting insurgency with a few strokes of the pen. For years Russian security forces in the North Caucasus have trumpeted their repeated destruction of a phantom “terrorist organization” led by Karachay fugitive Achimez Gochiyayev while a real uprising was brewing beneath their feet. Systematic corruption, arbitrary police brutality and needless provocations like closing most mosques (as in Kabardino-Balkaria) have severed the allegiance of many young men from the state. The Nalchik raid was in no way a general uprising, but was successful enough to aid in the ongoing recruitment of fighters.

Sadulayev is poised to become a force by proving that his talk of a “Caucasian Front” against Russia is not empty, but he will need to rein in the excesses of Commander Basayev and others. The now daily fighting between security forces and jama’at members in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria are the fall-out from Moscow’s decades-old mismanagement of the North Caucasus region, and provide fertile ground for Sadulayev’s leadership—if he survives assassins long enough.

Notes

  1. “Militants planning airport bomb attack detained in North Caucasus,” RIA Novosti, October 8, 2005.
  2. Statement from Military Amir Abdallah Shamil Abu-Idris (Shamil Basayev) on results of assault operation in Nalchik on 13 October, 2005, Kavkaz Center, October 17, 2005.
  3. Neil Buckley: “Chechen battle statement spurs Moscow anger with London,” Financial Times, October 15, 2005.
  4. Statement by President of the ChRI Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, October 18, 2005, www.chechenpress.info/events/2005/10/18/01.shtml
  5. “Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev: ‘We promise Russians war up to the victorious end’” Text of interview with Radio Marsho, June 30, 2005, www.chechenpress.co.uk/english/news/2005/07/09/02.shtml
  6. “Statement of the President of the ChRI, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev to the Chechen People”, June 2, 2005, chechenpress.co.uk/english/news/2005/06/27/05.shtml
  7. Liz Fuller: “Chechen leader gives exclusive interview to RFE/RL”, March 7, 2005, www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2005/03/C8BF5CC0-D91F-4DAC-9185-A451B1124B1D.html
  8. “Message from the President of the ChRI, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, to the Chechen nation”, March 14, 2005, chechenpress.co.uk/new/2005/03/14/12.shtml

This article first appeared in the November 3, 2005 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Abu Hafs al-Urdani: The Quiet Mujahid

Andrew McGregor

February 2, 2005

A little known veteran jihadist, Abu Hafs al-Urdani, made a rather dramatic entrance onto the world stage on February 5, 2003, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell displayed his photo in a speech before the U.N.Security Council. Abu Hafs was identified as part of fellow Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s “Iraq-linked terrorist network.” (Abu Hafs al-Urdani is not to be confused with al-Qaeda leaders Abu Hafs al-Masri, who is deceased, or Abu Hafs al-Mauritani. Al-Urdani also has no connection to the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade).

Abu Hafs al-UrdaniAbu Hafs al-Urdani

Almost immediately after Saudi Amir Abu al-Walid (‘Abd al-Aziz al-Ghamidi) was reported killed in Vedeno province in April 2004, al-Jazeera carried a statement from the Chechen Majlis al-Shura (Command Council) that Abu Hafs had succeeded al-Walid as commander of the foreign Mujahideen in Chechnya. As a Jordanian, Abu Hafs is the first non-Saudi to command the foreign fighters (though the FSB claims he holds Saudi citizenship). Abu Hafs, like every other Arab mujahideen leader, is claimed by Russian intelligence to be a close associate of Osama Bin Laden, but the Russians have offered no evidence to support this claim. In the wake of the Beslan massacre, Abu Hafs was identified as the financier of the terrorist operation, working from a camp in Chechnya’s Vedeno district. (Saudi Abu Omar al-Saif has also been accused by the FSB of being the Beslan paymaster.)

Abu Hafs was likely commander of the approximately 80 foreign fighters (mostly Arabs and Turks) who accompanied Chechen warlord Ruslan “Hamzat” Gelayev in his return to Russia in August 2002. In the last two years there has been a gradual change in the composition of the foreign mujahideen. Turks and diaspora “Chechen-Arabs” now appear to be at least as well represented in the small corps of foreign volunteers as the more ideologically driven Gulf State Arabs. (This was recently confirmed by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. See: Alexei Berezin: “Most of Foreign Mercenaries killed in Chechnya are Turks,” RIA Novosti, January 3, 2005.) The topic of Turkish fighters in Chechnya was raised during President Vladimir Putin’s October 2004 state visit to Turkey. The promotion of a Jordanian to commander of the foreign mujahideen may reflect a shift in external financing from the hard-pressed Saudi charities to diaspora-based organizations. There are indications that external financing for the Chechen fighters is at a low ebb, though the problem has been eased by the seizure of Russian funds destined for the Chechen government and extortion of Chechen collaborators. (See Mark MacKinnon’s interview with Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, Chechenpress, October 31, 2004.)

Much of the FSB’s information on Abu Haf’s career comes supposedly through the interrogation of one his fighters, Algerian Abu Muskhab (Rabat Kamal Burakhlya), who was arrested entering Azerbaijan for medical treatment on September 17, 2004. Russian intelligence claims Abu Muskhab was present at the Beslan school seizure in early September 2004 with two other Algerians, Osman Larussi and Yacine Benalia, both of whom were already reported killed in a Russian operation in Chechnya on March 8, 2004. According to anonymous FSB sources, Abu Hafs joined Amir al-Khattab and Abu al-Walid in the Tajikistan civil war of 1994-95 before becoming a military trainer in Khattab’s camp in Chechnya in 1995, where he married a Chechen woman.

In 1996, Abu Hafs relocated to Georgia “on Osama Bin Laden’s order” to take charge of al-Qaeda operations in the Pankisi Gorge. Abu Hafs is allegedly in charge of the distribution of all al-Qaeda funds sent to Chechnya. (Before his death last year, Russian intelligence usually attributed this role to al-Walid.) Abu Hafs is also described as having been in charge of weapons supplies to the fighters in the Pankisi Gorge. (This statement implies that arms were being shipped in to the fighters. Aside from the practical difficulties of such international shipments, it is known that Gelayev arranged the re-outfitting of his men from Georgian sources in exchange for joining the fighting in Abkhazia. Russian arms are also available from the cash-strapped Russian rump garrisons in Georgia). In the FSB’s account, Abu Hafs returned to Chechnya in 2002 at the request of Khattab’s successor, Abu al-Walid. After his return Abu Hafs took a second wife, the widow of Yemeni mujahideen leader Abu al-Ja’afar. Abu Hafs’ picture was recently published on the website of the “Chechen Informational Center,” posing in the firing position with a weapon in a white winter uniform and traditional Chechen lambskin hat.

During his stay in Georgia, Abu Hafs operated under the name “Amjet” (or Amzhet). There were numerous reports of Abu Hafs’ largesse, building both a mosque and hospital in the Pankisi Gorge. According to Georgian security, the hospital was military in nature and (even more questionably) entirely funded by al-Qaeda. However, there seems to be little value to a military hospital that would be inaccessible from Chechnya for over half the year (due to ice and snow in the mountain passes) and would require the continued cooperation of the Georgian government to operate.

On August 20, 2004, Abu Hafs issued a rare statement, addressed to the Conference of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League. The statement urged member states to avoid participation in the Chechen presidential elections, warning that their role as observers offered legitimacy to the actions of the Russian army, which included “the killing of unarmed innocent civilians among the sheikhs, the women and the children, the rape of the virgin Chechen women, the looting of the oil wealth of Chechnya, and the attempt to subjugate the Chechen nation and the obliteration of its Islamic identity” (Communiqué from Abu Hafs al-Urdani, Commander of the Foreign Mujahideen in Chechnya, August 29, 2004). Abu Hafs signed his statement as “Commander of the Eastern Front,” the same role that Abu Walid held in the Chechen command.

Abu Hafs followed this statement with another on September 19, 2004, in which he berates the failure of Arab leaders to support the Chechen struggle as “treason against Allah.” The mujahideen leader also declared “the commencement of attacks on Russian and American interests in Chechnya after having observed that the Russian and American sides continue to [attack] the honor and dignity of Islam and the Muslims in Chechnya, Palestine, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and in other Muslim countries” (Communique from Abu Hafs al-Urdani, September 19, 2004). The statement is unusual in its targeting of the U.S., something typically avoided by Chechen militants. Even Basayev prefers to forgo threats to the U.S. in favor of warning the U.S. of the consequences of inaction as Russia descends into dictatorship.

In December 2004, the Russian army reported the presence of 200 Chechens and 30 Turkish-speaking fighters receiving training in the Pankisi Gorge. The camp is allegedly run by two members of Abu Hafs’ group, Abu Rabiya and Abu Atiya (also described in the Powell presentation). The latter was last heard from in September 2003, when he was arrested in Azerbaijan. Georgia has suggested these reports are a provocation designed to apply pressure in the ongoing dispute over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Abu al-Walid began his career as the successor of Emir Khattab in a similarly muted fashion, though his public wariness did not prevent his death from a Russian shell. Like Abu al-Walid, Abu Hafs is now vilified by Russian intelligence as the main representative of al-Qaeda in the North Caucasus. FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev has identified the detention of Abu Hafs as a priority for all the secret services of Russia. On December 3, 2004, Russian Special Forces announced the killing of a Syrian citizen in Ingushetia known as “Marwan,” said to be a deputy to Abu Hafs. According to the FSB, Marwan was closely tied to several Turkish Islamist groups.

If Abu Hafs is to have a longer career than al-Khattab and Abu al-Walid as leader of the foreign mujahideen he will need to keep a low profile. Antagonizing the U.S. is unlikely to contribute to his safety, especially in view of the alleged American surveillance contributions to the demise of Chechen President Dzhokar Dudaev and warlord Ruslan Gelayev. Without a public presence, however, Abu Hafs will have difficulty in keeping the Chechen struggle in the field of vision of the international Islamist donor community.

This article first appeared in the North Caucasus Analysis 6(5), February 2 2005

Ricin Fever: Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi in the Pankisi Gorge

Andrew McGregor

December 15, 2004

With Russia once again threatening pre-emptive strikes on “terrorist” installations in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, it seems timely to re-examine the alleged activities of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the region several years ago. The Pankisi Gorge is a river valley about 34 km long in north-eastern Georgia. It is home to about 10,000 Kists, belonging to the same ethnic group as the Chechens and Ingush. After the outbreak of the second Russo-Chechen war in 1999, eight thousand Chechen refugees joined the Kists there. Arriving later were Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelayev and the survivors of the Battle of Komsomolskoye (site of a major Chechen defeat). Gelayev chose to rebuild his forces in the Pankisi Gorge; with Georgia engaged in a struggle with Russia over the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia there was little danger of extradition.

Ricin 2Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

By 2002, unsubstantiated reports began to emerge of al-Qaeda leaders taking refuge in the Gorge after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov even suggested Bin Laden himself might be in the Pankisi Gorge. [1] Russia wished to focus international attention on the Gorge, where Gelayev had built up a significant armed force of 800 Chechens, together with about 80 international mujahideen, mostly Turks and Arabs. Georgian authorities pretended to be ignorant of their presence, despite having negotiated a deal to supply and arm Gelayev’s force in return for a little extra-curricular combat on behalf of Georgia in Abkhazia in 2001.

In his pre-Iraq invasion address to the United Nations Security Council Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that “we know that Zarqawi’s colleagues have been active in the Pankisi Gorge, Georgia, and in Chechnya, Russia. The plotting to which they are linked is not mere chatter. Members of Zarqawi’s network said their goal was to kill Russians with toxins.” Powell emphasized the production of ricin as a major threat, and the importance of Zarqawi as a master poisoner. Abu Atiya (Adnan Muhammad Sadik) was named by Powell as the leader of al-Qaeda’s Pankisi operations and part of Zarqawi’s network. In July 2002, there were reports that the CIA had warned Turkish officials that Abu Atiya had sent chemical or biological materials to Turkey for use in terrorist attacks.

Georgian raids started in February 2002, while the main security “crackdown” in Pankisi was carefully timed to follow the September 2002 departure of Gelayev’s forces for Russian territory. At the end of the security sweep in October, fifteen minor Arab militants were turned over to the U.S. The operation marked the first deployment of Georgian graduates of the Train and Equip program, a U.S. initiative to train a core professional army for Georgia. No evidence of chemical labs was discovered, though Georgia cautiously conceded that some militants in the Pankisi Gorge “may” have been chemical weapons experts.

The Ricin Crisis

There seems little reason for Zarqawi to move to the Pankisi Gorge, which makes a useful base for striking into Chechnya but is remote from Middle Eastern operational environments. The languages in the region are unfamiliar to most Arabs and the militants in Pankisi under the command of Ruslan Gelayev were nearly all bound for Chechnya. Gelayev feuded constantly with Islamist commanders in the Chechen resistance, and would be unlikely to have taken orders from Arab Islamists. Indeed, the entire story conflicts with the usual account of Zarqawi being wounded in Afghanistan and receiving medical treatment in Baghdad before joining Ansar al-Islam in the north.

Ricin 1In the buildup to the Iraqi war in early 2003, dozens of North Africans (mainly Algerians) were arrested in Britain, France and Spain on charges of preparing ricin and other chemical weapons. Colin Powell and others trumpeted the arrests as proof of the threat posed by the Zarqawi-Chechen-Pankisi ricin network (which had now been expanded to include the Ansar al-Islam of Kurdish northern Iraq).

French and British security officials were astounded by Powell’s insistence on February 12, 2003, that “the ricin that is bouncing around Europe now originated in Iraq.” With the Iraq invasion only weeks away, the source of the ricin threat moved from Georgia to Iraq. In the UK charges were dropped when government laboratories could find no trace of the poison in seized material. In Spain all the suspects were released when the poisons turned out to be bleach and detergent. In France, ricin samples were revealed to be barley and wheat germ. [2]

Responding to the arrests in Britain and France, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov stated that the suspects had been trained in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, where al-Qaeda laboratories were manufacturing ricin. Few bothered to question why anyone would set up a ricin lab requiring large numbers of castor beans for the production of even a tiny amount of purified ricin in a region with no native castor plants.

The “Chechen Network”

French Judge Jean-Louis Brugiere (a leading anti-terrorism official) led the attack against what came to be known as the “Chechen network” declaring that “the Chechens are experts in chemical warfare. And Chechnya is closer to Europe than Afghanistan.” The “Chechen network” was curiously devoid of Chechens: nearly all the suspects were Algerian. Despite the outcome of the European cases, the myth of the ricin-producing “Chechen network” took hold.

Chechen Brigadier General Rizvan Chitigov is the only Chechen leader who appears to have taken an interest in chemical weapons, and is frequently accused by the FSB of planning chemical operations against Russian troops. In 2001, leading FSB officials cited “serious grounds for suspecting him to be a CIA agent.” [3] Last October, Chechen police discovered two kilograms of mercury, which they claimed Chitigov intended to use to poison a water intake facility.

By August 2002 reports were emerging that Ansar al-Islam were experimenting on animals with aerosolized ricin under Zarqawi’s direction. Aerosolization is the only method of delivering lethal doses of ricin to large numbers of people, but requires a great deal of specialized equipment and expertise, certainly far beyond the limitations of a primitive lab. Ricin cannot be absorbed through the skin and was abruptly dropped from most state weapons programs as soon as the more lethal Sarin nerve gas was developed. Despite its potency, no effective method has yet been devised for the mass distribution of ricin. The weaponization of ricin is sufficiently complex that it almost precludes such use by non-state parties.

Conclusion

There is no evidence that Zarqawi knows anything about the manufacture or deployment of chemical and biological weapons. In the aftermath of the Jordan bombing attempt in April, Zarqawi made his only known statement on the use of chemical weapons, posted on alminbar.front.ru: “If we had such a bomb – and we ask God that we have such a bomb soon – we would not hesitate for a moment to strike Israeli towns.” [4]

Jordan’s King Abdullah II referred to Zarqawi as a “street thug” last July, adding that the media had inflated Zarqawi’s intelligence and skills to create a larger threat. Jordanian security services claimed the attempted attack was a chemical assault using nerve gas and blister agents, capable of killing 80,000 people. No evidence was presented, and even Zarqawi refuted the use of chemical agents in the plot. [5] Zarqawi’s career has followed the path of high-school dropout, failed video retailer, prisoner and gunman. It is thus impossible to identify how or when Zarqawi became an expert in chemistry.

The identification of a ricin-producing “Chechen network” under Zarqawi’s control developed because it was useful. In the media, every unproven allegation “from un-named intelligence sources” was treated as unquestionable evidence, each being used as proof of the last. This house of cards was saluted by Britain, Russia, the U.S. and eventually even the Georgians as it served to advance the interests of each. The British government was trying to justify an unpopular decision to join the Iraq war, and Russia was able to implicate Georgia in a Chechen-al-Qaeda network of terror, invoking “the common cause” of the anti-terror coalition in support of their methods in Chechnya. The U.S. trained Georgian troops essential for the protection of the two new oil pipelines about to cross Georgia under the cloak of counter-terrorist assistance, while using the Zarqawi chemical threat to drum up support in the United Nations. [6]

Last month Russia claimed that Abu Atiya (together with Abu Hafs “Amjet” and Abu Rabiya) commanded 200 Chechens and 30 Turkish “mercenaries” in Pankisi, though there is no explanation of how Abu Atiya, who was arrested in Azerbaijan in September 2003, has returned to action. [7] Georgia continues to deny the presence of any Chechen or Arab militants in the Gorge, calling Russian statements “a provocation.” Meanwhile Abu Musab al-Zarqawi remains central to the disinformation campaigns that obscure our understanding of Islamist terrorism.

Notes:

  1. “FM: Bin Laden could be in Caucasus”, Associated Press, Feb. 17, 2002.
  2. “The strange case of the dangerous detergent” New Statesman, April 14, 2003, By Justin Webster, “Ricin scare in Paris is false alarm,” AP, April 11, 2003.
  3. Russian Public TV (ORT), Interview with Nicolai Patrushev and Aleksandr Zdanovich, April 18, 2001 (BBC Monitoring, April 19, 2001).
  4. Translation from “‘Zarqawi tape’ says non-chemical attack planned on Jordanian intelligence”, AFP, April 30, 2004.
  5. “Al-Zarqawi denies the Jordanian version over the chemical attack”, Arab News, May 1, 2004.
  6. Baku-Tbilisi-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan.
  7. Not to be confused with the late Abu Hafs al-Misri or Abu Hafs ‘the Mauritanian’.

 

This article was first published in the December 15, 2004 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.