War Crimes, Reprisals and International Law: The Chechen Experience

Andrew McGregor

Canadian Institute of International Affairs

Summer 2000

Vainakh Tower, Chechnya (Sputnik News)

In recent months, the warfare in Chechnya has entered into a bitter “no quarter” struggle, prompted in large part by what Chechens see as an unrelenting attack by Russian security forces on the dignity and well being of the civilian population. Rape, torture, murder and hostage-taking are all alleged by the Chechen resistance, who have brought their own Islamic perspective to the problems of what they see as Russian war-crimes. [1] There is, however, no single Chechen viewpoint. It is important to recognize that the Chechen resistance is not hierarchical in structure; it is a network of government forces, clans, bands of warlords and foreign volunteers from North Africa, Bosnia, Turkey, the Middle East and Central Asia, bound only by a common hatred of the Russians. For these fighters, the enemy is waging a genocidal crusade organized by Orthodox Christians and a criminal Kremlin regime, aided materially and financially by the “hypocritical Western states” and the Zionists of Israel. The rhetoric of the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is couched in the language of a crusade, as he urges Christians and Jews to united against an international effort to restore the Islamic Caliphate.

The Russian forces are no less heterogenous; the current war is being fought largely by a bewildering array of special forces units rather than the line regiments of the Russian Army. The spetznaz units include marines, paratroopers (desantniki), SOBR (rapid reaction forces) and kontraktniki, as well as various para-military units, most notably the OMON forces who report to the Interior Ministry. There are, in addition, units of the GRU (Defence Ministry intelligence) and the FSB (heirs to the old KGB). The mujahidin response to this alphabet-soup of opponents is that the Russians `do not recognise that the Mujahideen do not care about the cool names and fancy titles of Russian forces – whatever units the enemy deploys in the field will eventually be annihilated by the soldiers of Allah.’ Allied to this array of forces is Bislan Gantamirov’s largely ineffective pro-Moscow militia. For its part, the Russian government claims to be engaged in a battle against `terrorists’ and `bandits,’ common criminals who fall outside the protection offered to legitimate combatants under international rules of war.

Chechen Fighters (Rferl.org)

Imam Akhmed Kadyrov, Putin’s choice as the new governor of Chechnya, opposed the Russians in the 1994-6 war. He represents the dominant mystical Sufi approach to Islam that has come under increasing pressure in Chechnya from more ascetic Islamic movements, such as Wahhabism. Kadyrov’s reconciliation with the Russians is largely a reaction to the growth of conservative Islam, which has been adopted by many of the most militant field-commanders and their fighters. Though the Kremlin is interested in foisting responsibility for security onto Kadyrov’s shoulders, the religious leader has no real armed force of his own and has to rely entirely on his former Russian enemies. Several of his aides have been assassinated, and the Chechen president, Asian Maskhadov, has publicly called for his death, as have a number of prominent warlords who accuse him of promoting “Russian atheism.”

Police and Martyrs

Certain elements of the Russian security forces have so antagonized the Chechen field commanders with their brutal approach to the civilian population that they have been especially targeted for reprisal attacks by the mujahidin. Among these are the kontraktniki, comparatively well-paid volunteers who are generally older and more hardened than the youthful conscripts of the Russian army and can thus be counted on to do the dirty work of re-occupation. They have generally been shown little or no quarter at the hands of the mujahidin and have been much reduced in numbers through casualties, desertion, or failure to re-enlist at the end of their contracts. The OMON para-military has also been singled out for special treatment by the mujahidin. Unlike units of the Russian armed forces, which may be drawn as a group from individual urban centres. Thus, the Russian command is forced to admit the scope of their losses when mass hometown funerals inevitably attract international media attention. OMON police un its are often unwitting victims of Russian propaganda. They are deployed into areas that have been optimistically declared free of mujahidin operations by the defence ministry, though in reality there is no such place south of the Terek River. With lighter weapons than the regular army (though no less so than the mujahidin) and little training for full-scale combat operations, the columns of OMON armoured personnel carriers are easy prey for mujahidin ambushes. OMON effectiveness is also limited by poor communications and often outright antagonism between the interior ministry and defence ministry forces in the field.

A wave of suicide bombings (or “martyrdom operations” as the Chechens call them) was launched in the spring of 2000 against Russian military units accused of participating in war crimes. The first attack was carried out by Hawaa Barayev, a 19-year-old woman who smashed an explosives-laden car into the barracks of the Russian Special Forces in Alkhan Kala, detonating a massive explosion that badly shook the confidence of the Russians.

The mujahidin made full use of Hawaa Barayev’s action in statements following the attack: “Her sacrifice was a clear message to the enemy: get out or die.” The Chechens claimed that another suicide bombing in Grozny less than a week later was the work of a captured Russian who had converted to Islam and wanted to strike the Russians “for the sake of Allah.” [2] These bombings and other acts of martyrdom were also intended as a message for those in the ummah (the larger Muslim community) “who waste their time with worldly exploits while Muslims are slaughtered in Chechnya and other parts of the world.” Though the Chechen leadership has largely written off the Western nations for being in league with Putin, they remain bitter about the lack of support not just from the Muslim territories of the Caucasus, but also from the larger international Islamic community.

Although the official response of the Chechen government to the suicide bombings has been cooler than the ringing endorsements of the mujahidin warlords, it blames the same factors: “The recent chain of Chechen suicide attacks is a direct response to the Russian inhumane torture, rape and murder of the innocent Chechen civilians including women and children. The Government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria cannot control every Chechen that seeks vengeance for his tortured, murdered and raped relatives. In the whole history of mankind, no one has managed to prevent suicides from committing acts of self-destruction. Because of the Russian brutality and international indifference, such acts are becoming an irreversible process in Chechnya.” [3]

Arbi Barayev, a militantly Islamic field commander and leading “Wahhabite,” has risen to prominence in the current war. Still in his twenties, Barayev is nonetheless a veteran of the 1f994-96 war. He is also the uncle of Hawaa Barayev. Barayev ran the region of Urus-Martan after the first war as a personal fiefdom through the deployment of his “Islamic Battalion,” but he ran afoul of the Chechen government’s Anti-Terrorism Centre when he became a prime suspect in a wave of kidnappings. [4] Several firefights ensued between government forces and Barayev’s men, but Barayev was able to escape prosecution because Maskhadov was reluctant to start an all-out civil war. Although Barayev has proven his effectiveness as a commander in the Chechen resistance, he continues to be surrounded by controversy, in part because of his ruthless methods. Reports (possibly Russian in origin) have circulated that his forces failed to secure the lines of retreat for non-Wahhabite Chechen fighters evacuated from Grozny. [5]

Amir al-Khattab and Shamyl Basayev

On 29 June, Shamyl Basayev, the chief of the Mujahidin Command Council, and Ibn al-Khattab, a Saudi-born warlord, delivered a warning to the Russians that war would spill over into Russian territory unless all Chechen women and children held against their will were released within three days: “We see the repeated violations committed by the Russian military against innocent women and children; we hear the cries of the women who were violated and women who were widowed; we hear the cries of the elderly and the young, and see the concentration camps crowded with the innocent. Our patience has run out in view of these crimes unless a clear deterrent stands in their way.” [6] True to their word, the mujahidin struck on 2 July with five suicide bombings and intensified ambushes and attacks throughout the republic. Incredibly, the Russian security services appear to have taken no precautions against the attacks, even though they were given three days’ warning. The Russians reported scores of casualties, while the mujahidin claimed up to 1500 Russian dead in one day’s actions; it is nearly impossible to ascertain the true numbers because Russian security forces immediately made all the sites off limits to observers. It does appear, however, that incoming casualties strained Russian medical facilities to the limit.

While the Chechen commanders have not hesitated to claim responsibility for the suicide attacks within Chechnya, they have adamantly denied any involvement in the 1999 bombings of apartment buildings and the summer 2000 subway bombing in Moscow. After all, as they point out, there is an abundance of military targets within Chechnya. There is strong evidence that the apartment blasts at least were the work of the Russian FSB. The Chechen vice-president, Vakha Arsanov, claims that the subway bombing was also the work of Russian security forces, designed to revive dwindling Russian interest in continuing the war of attrition in Chechnya and to provide President Putin with greater centralized power. In many ways the war in Chechnya serves as an object lesson to those parts of the federation that followed Boris Yeltsin’s advice to “seize all the autonomy you can” after the dissolution of the USSR.

The Case of “Colonel-Sadist” Budanov

An incident earlier this year illustrates the bitter divide that has arisen between Western and Chechen perceptions of war crimes. In March, Colonel Yuri Budanov raped and murdered an 18-year-old Chechen before crushing her body beneath the tracks of his tank in full view of his regiment. Budanov was arrested and charged by Russian authorities on 29 March. But the mujahidin are suspicious of war crimes trials conducted by Russia, regardless of the outcome; such trials are seen merely as the sacrifice of a few individuals in exchange for a public excuse for Western governments to continue funding the Russian war machine. Thus, the mujahidin offered to exchange nine captured members of the Interior Ministry forces for Budanov, who would then stand trial before the Chechen shari’a court.

Colonel Yuri Budanov (RAPSI)

The nine OMON men, all from the Russian city of Perm, were captured by Emir Khattab while they were on a marauding mission near Zhanni-Vedeno. A mujahidin communiqué signed by Khattab and Basayev stated that the prisoners would face execution unless Budanov was handed over within 72 hours. According to the mujahidin, the brother of the slain woman was in their ranks and would perform the executions himself (as called for in the adat, the still influential pre-Islamic code of law in the north Caucasus). The Russians refused, and the nine OMON men were killed on 5 April. Their photos and identification cards were posted on the rebels’ internet site along with a promise that the execution of prisoners would continue until Budanov was turned over to the mujahidin.

On 9 July, bombs went off in the southern Russian towns of Vladi Kavkaz and Tostov, killing three civilians and injuring fifteen. Rostov is the home of Colonel Budanov, but again the mujahidin denied all allegations of involvement and claimed that the bombs were planted by the FSB to further inflame public opinion; “Let the Russian government and the whole world know that the Mujahidin do not disclaim any operations they conduct. The Mujahidin are proud of all operations they launch and acknowledge them without fear or hypocrisy. Had the Mujahidin conducted these blasts they would have admitted it; but such actions are against the morals of Islam which condemn the murder of the innocent and the weak.  Rather the murder of the innocent is part of the behavior of the cowardly Russians. This war is between us… and the Russian military; it is not between us and the Russian people. If we wanted to conduct explosions, we would have done it against the Russian military in Chechnya and beyond Chechnya.” [7]

Russian Special Forces in Chechnya (Rferl.org)

Other offers to exchange Russian captives for Budanov have failed and more prisoners have been executed. Many captives face summary execution; three Chechen employees of the FSB were killed on 24 July after they were seized by al-Khattab’s “Islamic Peacekeeping Army,” and in early August the mujahidin announced the execution of three captured GRU (military intelligence) agents.

The operations described above are typical of many carried out since March in which officers of the Interior Ministry, Russian intelligence services and “national traitors” (Chechens in the service of the Russian Federation or the puppet government of Akhmad Kadyrov) were executed after hearing the verdict of the Chechen shari’a courts (“Decision on neutralization of criminal activity in the territory of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria,” February 2000).

On 13 March 2000, the Chechen state-committee of defense listed 56 accused Russian and Chechen war criminals, including Yeltsin, Putin and Kadyrov, with an appeal to the international community for help in apprehending them. In September, the mujahidin issued cash contracts on the lives of 20 major Russian politicians and generals. During the September United Nations millennium summit, the Chechens officially asked the United States to arrest and hand over President Putin on charges of mass murder and genocide, and the minister of the interior, Vladimir Rushailo, narrowly escaped death in an ambush in Chechnya.

International vs. Islamic Law

Russian protests against Chechen treatment of prisoners-of-war are somewhat compromised historically by the Soviet army’s refusal to grant prisoner-of-war status to German troops, who they saw as war criminals, in World War II. The Geneva Convention of 1929 does not recognize reciprocity as grounds for violations of its articles by any of its signatories. The most relevant precedents for the Chechen actions can be found in the post-war conflicts in Algeria and Vietnam, where the offending parties were not clearly bound by the Third Geneva Convention. The execution of French prisoners by the Algerian provisional government in 1958 and 1960 was justified as punishment for war crimes, but was more likely in reprisal for the numerous executions of captured Algerian fighters by the French military tribunals, which, like the Russians, refused to consider their captives prisoners-of-war. The reprisal executions occurred before the provisional government acceded to the Geneva Convention in 1960.

Russian Tanks in Chechnya

The mujahidin leadership has gone to great lengths to justify their selective execution of Russian prisoners as in accord with Islamic law and tradition. Basayev and Khattab, though not religious leaders or scholars, claim to have spent six months consulting Islamic texts and scholars “to ensure that our Jihad was within the guidelines of Sharia.” The question of the fate of non-Muslim prisoners-of-war has been addressed many times over the years, and a substantial body of work by Islamic scholars exists on this point. The Chechens have cited the opinion favored by three of the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence, which gives the leader of the Islamic forces and his deputies the option of choosing execution, ransom, confinement or release, whichever provides the greatest benefit to the Islamic community. This allows the mujahidin to reject criticism from within the Islamic world that the execution of the nine OMON men was a violation of the maxim that “No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another” (Koran, 35:18): “We are not obliged to treat prisoners in any particular way; we study the character and circumstances surrounding each prisoner and make a decision that is based upon and thoroughly backed by Divine Law.” [8] It should also be noted that reprisal killings and suicide attacks are consistent with the adat of the northern Caucasus highlands, which calls for blood revenge for the death or humiliation or relatives in the extended clan and provides for a tradition of pledging one’s life in the pursuit of ghazawat, the local form of holy war.

Reprisal punishments hold some attraction for desperate and inferior military forces: “For a technologically weaker party the prisoners it has captured may be one of the few ‘assets’ it possesses vis-à-vis the adversary. The inclination to use this asset is likely to increase if its combatants are not recognized as lawful combatants by the adversary, but are prosecuted and possibly executed as criminals.” [9] Such actions are often counter-productive, as the probability of torture and death provides little incentive for Chechen fighters to surrender. As Chechen commander Akhmad Zakayev has pointed out, it is safer to take up arms against the Russians than to wait for arrest and then attempt to prove that you’re not a fighter. The Chechens are not, however, blameless when it comes to battlefield atrocities. The heavily out-numbered mujahidin rely to a large extent on their fearsome reputation to help even the odds and are rarely averse to demonstrations of their own ruthlessness (The spring communiqué of the mujahidin to the Russian forces consisted of the cheery message: “The ground is turning green once again, and the Mujahidin are ready to reap the fruits of spring. O you Russians! We see that your heads are ripe for decapitation – you have no escape!”). Constantly on the move, the guerrillas do not have the facilities or resources to take many prisoners in any case.

The Chechen approach to the issue of war crimes and international law reveals deep divisions between Aslan Maskhadov’s official Chechen government and the more militant of the mujahidin represented by Basayev and al-Khattab. The mujahidin respond to allegations of violations of international law by citing the following:

  • The mujahidin are not members of the United Nations and have no wish to sign any of their accords or treaties.
  • The mujahidin have never given any commitment not to kill Russian prisoners and cannot therefore be accused of violating any prior agreement.
  • Several of the clauses of the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of prisoners of war correspond to Islamic law and are to be followed, subject to the overriding needs of the Islamic community.
  • The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council routinely violate the Geneva Conventions.

As proof of the selective application of human rights accords, the mujahidin cite United Nations tolerance for the Serbian massacres of Bosnian Muslims at Zepa and Srebrenica, the alleged murder of 2000 Egyptian prisoners of war by the Israeli Army in 1973, and the massacre of thousands of unarmed or surrendering Iraqi troops at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. In August 2000 before the International Court of Justice in the Hague, the Chechen government initiated legal proceedings against the Russian government on charges of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention. Russian has nevertheless received significant support from France and Britain in recent months, and the conduct of Russian operations in Chechnya was a non-issue at the G-8 conference in Okinawa in July 2000. According to Shamyl Basayev: “Most of the world today is against us. The Crucifix is being raised anew and war is being declared against Islam and Muslims… [The European nations] are supporting the Russian military by providing it with media support, international loans, important information – all of this is done openly or covertly.” [10] Basayev compares the current conflict to the 19th century massacres and expulsion of the Muslim Circassians of the northwest Caucasus by Russian armies, and identifies a continuous Russian policy to eliminate the Muslim minorities within its borders. In such cases the strict regulations binding military conduct in the harb al-bugha (war against Muslims) do not apply in the harb al-kuffar (war against unbelievers). [11] President Maskhadov has attempted to hold Russia to its obligations as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions by signing the accords on behalf of the Chechen government. [12] In response to Russian assertions that the war in Chechnya is an internal matter to which the conventions do not apply, the Chechens may point to article 1(4) of the 1977 additional protocol which provides that armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination, alien occupation, or racist regimes are considered international conflicts. Failure to recognize the government or armed formations of the Chechen Republic does not relieve the Russian Federation from its responsibilities under the accords: “The armed forces of a party to a conflict consist of all organized forces, groups and units which are under a command responsible to that party for the conduct of its subordinates, even if that party is represented by an adverse party. Such armed forces shall be subject to an internal disciplinary system which, inter alia, shall enforce compliance with the rules of international law applicable in armed conflicts.” [13]

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov with Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin (Caucasian Knot)

President Maskhadov has also signed on to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Chechen participation in this accord has a more political purpose; the Chechens believe that acceptance of the convention implies de facto international recognition of Chechen sovereignty as an independent successor state of the Soviet Union. In support of that position the Chechen government claims that recognition was already granted in the 1997 Treaty on Peace and the Principles of Interrelations between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria because treaties are normally negotiated between independent states under customary international law. [14] Accession to the 1948 convention also allows Chechnya to call upon signatory states to abide by their obligations to take action against states committing acts of genocide.


The latest war in Chechnya has entered a stage of bitterness and ruthlessness on the part of both protagonists that is unequal to anything experienced in 1994-96. The systematic atrocities engaged in by Russian security forces have revived the tradition of blood reprisals endorsed by the Chechen adat, with the claim of sanction from the shari’a. For their part, the Russian mix of police and special forces units live in constant fear of capture or death at the hands of the vengeful Chechens. Events have proved that the Russian soldier is unsafe anywhere in Chechnya, and the resultant psychological toil leads to acts of cruelty upon the civilian population that are unsanctioned by the customary or explicit rules of war. Maskhadov’s efforts to introduce international law in this conflict are unlikely to hold sway with most of his fellow Chechens, nearly all of whom have seen relatives raped, tortured or murdered. Nor is his appeal to the Convention on Genocide likely to have a greater effect than previous appeals to the international community, but it does establish the groundwork for continuing legal action against the Russian Federation.


  1. The Chechen government recently alleged that Russia used bacteriological weapons within Chechnya and performed chemical and bacteriological experiments on Chechen civilians in Russian concentration camps. “Crisis in Chechnya,” August 12, 2000, http://www.kolumbus.fi/kavkaz/english/12_8.htm (August 14, 2000).
  2. There have been several instances both in the current war and in the 1994-96 conflict of Russian prisoners converting to Islam and turning their skills and weapons against their former comrades. Under Islamic law, non-Muslim prisoners who convert to Islam may not be used in prisoner exchanges with the enemy.
  3. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Press Release 10-667, 3 July 2000.
  4. Chechen government officials accused Barayev of leading the kidnapping gang responsible for beheading four Western hostages in December 1998. Itar-Tass news agency, Moscow, December 26, 1998; “Chechens accuse warlord of leading kidnap ring,” Chechen Republic Online – News – 13 December 1998, http://www.amina.com/news/98/98.12.13.html
  5. See Lyoma Turpalov: “Battered Chechen fighters say fundamentalists betrayed them,” AP, 17 March 2000; and “Meeting of Chechen mujahidin commanders deny the Kremlin propagandists,: 1 August 2000; http://www.kolumbus.fi/Kavkaz/English/01_8.htm (4 August 2000).
  6. “Mujahideen issue severe warning to the Russian government,” 1 July 2000, http://www.Qoqaz.net (4 July 2000).
  7. “Russian Intelligence murder Russian civilians,” 11 July 2000, http://www.qoqaz.net (14 July 2000). On 21 August, the mujahidin claimed that the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk was the work of a Daghestani Muslim crewman who was in league with the Chechen rebels.
  8. “The Islamic ruling on the permissibility of executing prisoners of war,” (n.d.), c. June 15, 2000.
  9. Allan Rosas, The Legal Status of Prisoners of War (Helsinki, Soumalainen tiedeakatemia, 1976), p. 448.
  10. “Exclusive interview with commander of Mujahideen forces in Chechnya, Shamil Basayev,” 1 July 2000, Azzam Publications,
  11. Khaled Abou El Fadl: “The rules of killing at war: an inquiry into classical resources,” Muslim World 89, April 1999, pp. 144, 153.
  12. Office of the President, Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Decree no. 10-390, 7 July 2000; Instrument of succession to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two additional protocols of 1977, accepted by the Swiss Federal Council on 31 May 2000 and approved by the International Committee of the Red Cross, 21 June 2000.
  13. Protocol additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts (Protocol 1), 8 June 1977, singed and ratified by the Russian Federation as a successor state to the USSR.
  14. See Francis A. Boyle: “Independent Chechnya: Treaty of Peace with Russia,” May 1997, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 18(1), 1998.

Islamism in Dagestan: The Roots of the Crisis on Russia’s Southern Flank

Strategic Datalink no. 80, September 1999

Andrew McGregor, Canadian Institute of International Affairs

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a low-level Islamist rebellion has simmered along Russia’s frontier with the new Central Asian states. In August of 1999, this rebellion crossed into Russia proper as Islamist fighters seized territory in the Russian republic of Dagestan. The explosive violence of the insurrection has dealt another embarrassing blow to Russian security forces and largely eliminated any hope of a Russian-Chechen reconciliation as Russian bombers struck deep into Chechnya in attempts to destroy rebel training bases.

Most of the current analysis of the conflict has depicted the rebellion in terms of a Chechen-inspired Islamic/nationalist revolt against the Russian state, much like the 1994-96 conflict in neighboring Chechnya. The presence of leading Chechen guerrilla commanders such as Shamyl Basayev lends weight to the notion that the fighting in Dagestan is an extension of the earlier conflict into a new arena. Lost in this line of reasoning are the severe divisions the fighting has revealed in the Chechen leadership and the importance of ultra-conservative Islamic “Wahhabism” in creating the direction of the revolt. The Wahhabi campaign in Dagestan is concerned just as much with conquering the Dagestanis as with expelling the Russians.

Rather than constituting a nationalist struggle, as in Chechnya, the campaign in Dagestan is the military expression of a two-and-a-half century old Islamic movement that has been reinvigorated as the ideology of the foreign volunteers who fought communism in Afghanistan. These mujahidin have gone on to form the core of Islamic resistance movements throughout Asia and the Middle East.

Traditional Tower in the Dagestan Mountains (Hotel-all.ru)

Russia, in seeking Western support for its 1994-96 Chechen war, overemphasized the importance of Islam as a source of the conflict, describing the Chechen nationalists as “Muslim fundamentalists,” which clearly, they were not. Even General Dudayev, the late Chechen president, warned in 1991 of the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism if the nation did not follow a politically secular path. While nationalism drove the Chechen rebellion, it was the discipline provided by the introduction of the Shari’a (Islamic law) that helped keep the guerrillas in the front lines through the war’s darkest days. The appeal of a more conservative form of Islam grew among some commanders such as Shamyl Basayev, one of the war’s Chechen heroes. For many others though, Shari’a came into conflict with the still important pre-Islamic Chechen code of tradition know as the adat.

Wahhabi Origins

The Wahhabist movement derives its name from the puritan reforms introduced to Arabian Islam in the 18th century by ‘Abd al-Wahhab, a formidable religious reformer who took inspiration from the teachings of the Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328). He rejected religious innovation, the survival of pre-Islamic traditions, pilgrimages to shrines, saint-worship and the cult of intercession; in short, the core of popular Islam as it is practised in the Sufi-influenced North Caucasus. The modern importance of Wahhabism is derived through the Wahhabi alliance with the founder of Saudi Arabia, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Sa’ud, whereby it became the officially recognized form of Islam in that nation.

Though the puritanism of modern Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia has been tempered by political necessity in the post-war decades, the Wahhabism espoused by missionaries and guerrillas in Central Asia and the Caucasus bears none of the restraints found in the Saudi court. Wahhabis often refer to a struggle against “Sufis, saint-worshippers and grave-worshippers,” whom they refuse to acknowledge as true Muslims, and therefore not subject to the prohibition against fighting fellow Muslims. Long seen as a militant expression of Arab superiority over backsliding non-Arab Islamic cultures, the recent growth of Wahhabism in the Caucasus and through the Turkic cultures of post-Soviet Central Asia and China represents an important step in the growth of the movement.

The core belief of Wahhabism is tawhid (literally the “unity” of God), an unflinching commitment to monotheism. The movement rejects the term “Wahhabi” (which implies worship of the man rather than adherence to his ideals), preferring the name muwahhidun, or Unitarians.

The Russian government has warned of the “dangerous expansion of Wahhabism” in Central Asia, and even signed a pact with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in May of this year to combat the movement. The pact is similar to one China signed with the Central Asian states in 1998 in an effort to dampen Islamic militancy in its western province of Xinjiang. [1] In late August, as the Russians battled Wahhabis in Dagestan, President Yeltsin attended a summit of the “Shanghai Five” (named for a previous summit) in Kyrgyzstan. While the summit of leaders from Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan continued, troops from the host country of Kyrgyzstan were battling Islamist guerrillas who had seized several villages in the east of the country. It has been suggested that the gunmen were also responsible for February’s assassination attempt on Uzbekistan’s president.

Islam in Conflict

While quick to designate fellow Muslims as guilty of shirk (polytheism) because of even slight variations from the spirit of eighth century Islam, the Wahhabis have always reserved a special antagonism towards followers of Shi’a Islam (as practiced in Iran, southern Iraq, eastern Saudi Arabia and elsewhere) and members of the mystical Sufi brotherhoods that often incorporate pre-Islamic elements in their rituals and customs. Sufism, or “popular Islam,” can be found everywhere from Bosnia to Indonesia, but it is particularly well grounded in the North Caucasus, making it seemingly infertile ground for Wahhabi expansionism. The lengthy list of prohibitions on personal and social activities demanded by the Wahhabists are also certain to dim their appeal to most Muslims of the North Caucasus. Dagestanis, who converted to Islam centuries before their Chechen neighbors, are on principle unlikely to accept Chechen leadership in any Islamic movement.

In the North Caucasus, Sufi Islam has long been seen to be the staunchest defender of national independence, with the tombs of great Sufi leaders martyred in the struggle against Russian imperialism being among the most revered and visited sites in the region. Sufism survived the Soviet period because the communist rulers of the Caucasus realized, after a long period of persecution, that the only effective way to combat Sufism was to re-invigorate more orthodox forms of Islam. This option was a non-starter for the atheist Soviets in Moscow.

The Mosque of Sulayman on Mount Shalbuz-Dagh (Hotel-all.ru)

At Mount Shalbuz-Dagh in southern Dagestan (a place where the Prophet Muhammad was said to have ascended to the summit on horseback, but is more likely to be a holy site of pre-Islamic origin), seven ascents of the mountain were considered locally to be the equivalent of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Traditions such as these represent the grossest heresy to the Wahhabis. Unlike some other areas where Sufi orders showed submissiveness to Soviet rule, the brotherhoods of Dagestan proved capable of mobilizing and leading resistance to those who would challenge local Islamic practice. The current Wahhabi revolt is not only a challenge to Russian rule, but is the first major challenge to Sufi leadership of independence movements in the North Caucasus since the eighteenth century. To the Wahhabis, the current state of religious expression in the Caucasus is akin to that found by al-Wahhab in 18th century Arabia; full of deviation and pre-Islamic custom, ripe for the most severe Orthodox reformation.

Wahhabism in the North Caucasus

The Wahhabists saw in the Chechen war an opportunity to expand their presence in the Caucasus, providing fighters and refugee relief while missionaries spread the word of Islamic reform and revival. Following the war, the continued Wahhabi presence produced violent religious tensions in Chechnya. In 1997, armed clashes occurred in Dagestani Kari-Makhi between hundreds of Wahhabist converts and more traditional supporters of Sufism. The Wahhabists gained the upper hand, policing the area themselves according to the Shari’a. An attempt by Russian prime minister Sergei Stepashin last year to buy off the Wahhabites with expensive Western medical equipment was a failure, with the Wahhabites accepting the equipment but refusing the presence of Russian police.

After declaring victory against the rebels in late August, the Russian security forces turned their attention to the Wahhabist enclave around Kari-Makhi and Chaban-Makhi south-west of the capital of Makhachkala. Instead of an easy victory over the villagers, the Russians only succeeded in opening a second front as the Dagestani Wahhabis fought back ferociously. Their bombing of a military apartment complex in the nearby town of Buinaksk sent shock waves to the highest levels of the Russian government. At the same time, Wahhabi guerrillas once again poured over the border from Chechnya into the Novolakskoye district in western Dagestan. Russian bombing raids on Chechen targets and the consequent civilian losses will only ensure a steady supply of Chechen volunteers to take up the fight against the hated Russians, thereby playing right into the hands of the rebel commanders.

The campaign mounted by an international group of Wahhabist fighters in Dagestan has gathered little public support, other than in the small Wahhabite communities, and, to a lesser extent, in the western border area of Dagestan, where 60,000 ethnic Chechens live. Isolated by language and geography from most other Dagestanis, these communities have little influence in the republic, which has a complicated power-sharing agreement among its 34 ethnic nationalities. [2] Moderate Muslim leaders have strongly opposed Wahhabism, and called for the arrest of the council of Muslim leaders who gathered in Botlikh to declare an independent Islamic State of Dagestan. The Wahhabis appear determine, however, to impose their will on the rest of the republic; according to one Wahhabi leader, “If the people of Dagestan don’t like to live in accordance with the law of Allah, we will take corresponding steps…”. [3] The rebels have even gone so far as to form a tribunal to judge the members of what they referred to as the “occupation government” of Dagestan. Despite three decades of resistance to the Russians offered by the legendary 19th century Dagestani Imam Shamyl, the current Dagestani government has sided solidly with Russia in the current conflict, even providing local militias with arms to combat the Wahhabi threat. This strategy has been questioned within Russia, which still has a standing army of 1.2 million men and several hundred thousand Interior Ministry troops.

Igor Ivanov, the Russian foreign minister, has denounced the presence of “foreign mercenaries” in Dagestan and sternly warned the Organization of the Islamic Conference (an umbrella group of Islamic governments) of the consequences of interference in Russian domestic affairs. Moscow has further accused Saudi Arabia and Kuwait of funding the Wahhabites, and even claimed a connection between the Dagestani rebels and the notorious Osama bin Laden. In September, Russian interior minister Vladimir Rushailo informed FBI director Louis Freeh that Bin Laden was directing the Wahhabi operations in Dagestan, but so far the Russians have failed to provide any evidence of their allegations of foreign support.

Leaders of the Rebellion

The Wahhabi fighters operating in the Caucasus are led by the high-profile Chechen commander Shamyl Basayev, and a shadowy but highly experienced Jordanian known only by his nom de guerre, Khattab. Beside the contribution of his formidable military talents, Basayev assumed the early role of public leadership of the rebellion, issuing statements and posing for photographers. Basayev is, however, a fairly recent addition to the troubles in the Dagestan frontier where the committed Wahabbist Khattab has been operating for several years.

Emir Khattab and Shamyl Basayev

Basayev’s pan-Islamist inclinations were shown as early as 1991, when he joined the armed force of the Confederation of the People of the Caucasus, eventually commanding a force of foreign Islamic volunteers in the Abkhazian separatist struggle against Georgia in 1992. During this conflict Basayev received covert military training from Russian security forces. In 1994, after further training in Afghanistan, Basayev was ready to emerge as a daring rebel commander in the Chechen war of independence, leading an audacious commando raid on the Russian town of Budenovsk as well as the stunning two-day re-conquest of the Chechen capital of Grozny against an entrenched Russian force at least ten times the size of his lightly armed group of fighters.

Basayev appears not to have found a niche in the post-war political structure of Chechnya. Having lost the presidential election to the more pragmatic Alsan Maskhadov (Chechen chief-of-staff in the war), Basayev recently served six months as prime minister before resigning to dedicate himself to the “liberation” of Dagestan. Tensions are well known between the conservative Maskhadov and the militant Basayev, who views the Chechen war as only the first step in the expulsion of Russia from the entire North Caucasus. Basayev and his allies are committed to restoring the Shari’a-based North Caucasus Emirate (1919-20). Led by Uzun Hadji, a 90-year-old Sufi sheikh, the Emirate united Dagestan, Chechnya, North Ossetia, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. The Bolsheviks admired Uzun Hadji for his iron will; as an old man he had survived 15 years imprisonment in Siberia and once promised to “weave a rope to hang students, engineers, intellectuals and more generally all those who write from left to right.” [4] The Wahhabis envision a theocratic “Islamic Confederation of the North Caucasus” covering the same area as the former Emirate. Some Russians fear that the Islamist Caucasians also have designs on areas within Russia proper, including parts of Stavropol and Krasnodar krais, and Rostov Oblast. [5]

Despite the trouble the Dagestan adventure has caused Maskhadov in repairing Chechen-Russian relations, ties of comradeship seem apparent in Maskhadov’s unwillingness to cooperate with the Russians in suppressing the Wahhabi bases and supply lines in Chechnya. The extent of Maskhadov’s patience with the fiery Basayev is, however, unknown. Many observers have regarded a civil war within Chechnya as inevitable, but so far the deep-seated Chechen aversion to killing other Chechens seems to have prevented open conflict.

In Russia, Basayev is publicly despised as a terrorist, and privately feared as a brilliant guerrilla leader and a major threat to Russian dominance of the Caucasus. His reputation is so formidable that once, after musing to shocked reporters that if food ran out for his men they could always eat dead Russian soldiers, he felt compelled by their expressions to add that he was only joking.

Shamyl Basayev and ChRI President Aslan Maskadov

In late August, Maskhadov sacked security advisor Mavladi Udugov and security chief Ibrahim Khultigov for their participation in the attack on Dagestan. Udugov was the energetic and often flamboyant spokesman for the Chechen forces in the 1994-96 war against the Russians, but reinvented himself for the subsequent presidential elections as a dour, black-suited Islamist. Well respected by the Russians for his control of information and handling of international media, Udugov’s support is a major contribution to the rebel effort. While Udugov presents confident rebel commanders in press conferences and television interviews, Russian public relations remain as confused and unbelievable as ever. After mistakenly bombing the Republic of Georgia, Russian spokesmen claimed that unnamed individuals had carried unexploded Russian bombs from Chechnya to Georgia before strewing them on the ground in order to cause embarrassment to the Russians. Only after this rather preposterous refused to float did the Russians finally admit to a mistake.

In his mid-thirties, like Basayev, Emir Khattab arrived in Chechnya in early 1995 leading a mujahidin battle group composed of Saudi Arabians and North African Arabs. A veteran of the Afghan war, Khattab keeps his origins secret but is believed to be a Jordanian ethic Chechen, a member of the extensive North Caucasus exile community in Jordan. By other accounts, Khattab is held to be a Saudi Arabian, marked by a heavy regional accent in his Arabic. Wounded three times in the Chechen war and denounced by the Russian government as a foreign mercenary, Khattab remained in Chechnya after the war, marrying a Dagestani woman. Known locally as “the Black Arab,” Khattab and his men have frequently been accused of forming one of the leading gangs in Chechnya’s lucrative post-war kidnapping business.

Emir Khattab with Rocket Launcher

Khattab gained immense notoriety in the Chechen war with his destruction of a Russian column at Yarysh-Mardy in March 1996, the humiliation of which is thought to have led the Russians to assassinate Chechen president Dudayev in reprisal. His contributions to Chechen independence have made Khattab impossible to remove from Chechnya, though the Maskhadov government is well aware that the Wahhabis regard Chechnya’s dominant form of Sufi Islam as heresy. Customarily accused by the Russians of any outrage in the region, including the murder of six Red Cross workers in the village of Novye Atagi in 1996, Khattab has responded: “Whenever anything happens, the Kremlin immediately accuses me, without a shred of evidence.” [6]

Since the end of the Chechen war, Khattab has run a number of guerrilla training bases in eastern Chechnya, though these were mostly destroyed by Russian air raids in late August 1999. It was from these bases that Khattab launched an attack on the Russian armour base at Buinaksk in December of 1997. Khattab claims that his force of 115 “foreign mujahidin” surprised the garrison and destroyed 300 vehicles, including 50 brand new T-72 battle tanks. [7] Though the Russians claimed only two tanks destroyed, they were clearly embarrassed by Khattab’s ability to launch a successful attack deep into Russian Federation territory.

Referred to by Basayev as “head of the Islamic Army of Dagestan,” it is most likely to be Khattab rather than Basayev who conceived the Wahhabist rebellion in Dagestan. The hard core of the fighters also appear to be mujahidin from Khattab’s command. While Basayev commands the headlines in the press, Khattab’s importance is recognized by the Russian military, which claimed to have seriously wounded and captured Khattab in mid-August. The Emir was shortly afterwards seen on TV, mocking reports of his capture and asserting the success of mujahidin operations.

Khattab and Basayev have both threatened to bring the war to Moscow through terrorist attacks on political leaders and installations. The Russians are taking the threats seriously, and have stepped up the visible military presence in Moscow, creating yet another strain on the Russian budget and the fragile political structure. As explosions rip through Moscow, Russian security forces are left wondering whether they are the work of gangsters, radical anti-materialists, Islamic terrorists, or even the product of Moscow’s decaying system of gas lines.

The initiation of the rebellion in Dagestan may yet prove to have been a strategic miscalculation on the part of the Wahhabi volunteers; Dagestan is more likely to dissolve into a bewildering web of ethnic violence than to suddenly rise as one under the Wahhabi banner. The initial success of their campaign will, however, sow the belief amongst the great number of Dagestanis disaffected by corrupt Russian rule that defiance of the militarily inept Russian security forces is possible. Resilient and aggressive by nature, the Wahhabi movement will provide a growing threat to the stability of most of the ex-Soviet Islamic nations ranged along Russia’s southern frontier.


  1. Andrew McGregor, “Mummies and Mullahs: Islamic separatism in China’s ‘New Frontier’,” Behind the Headlines, 56(4), CIIA, Summer 1999.
  2. The exact number of ethnic groups or nationalities in Dagestan is a matter of some dispute. Depending on your definition, the number of groups may range from 9 to 200.
  3. Bagaudin Magomedov, quoted in Reuter-AP, “A call for holy war: Islamic rebels want Russian states liberated,” Toronto Star (Toronto ON), 11 August 1999.
  4. Marie Bennigsen Broxup, “The Last ghazawat: The 1920-1921 uprising,” in MB Broxup (ed.), The North Caucasus barrier: The Russian advance towards the Muslim world (C. Hurst, London, 1992).
  5. Boris Nikolin, “The Threat from the Caucasus,” Russian Politics and Law 36, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1998), p. 40.
  6. Jamestown Foundation Monitor, A daily briefing on the post-Soviet states 3, no. 202, 10-29-97 http://www.jamestown.org/pubs/view/mon_003_202_000.htm, 08-19-99. Blame for the massacre was eventually laid by the Chechen government against a pro-Russian Chechen who had fled to Moscow to evade charges. Geoffrey York, “Chechens believe assassin roams free,” Globe and Mail, Toronto,, 27 January 1998.
  7. Communiqué from Emir Khattab, “Mujahideen attack Russian base in Dagestan” (Parts 1-2), Azzam Publications, MSA News (12/29/97), http://msanews.mynet.net/MSANEWS/199712/19971228.1.html, 08/19/99. The mujahidin claim to have videotaped the entire operation, as is their practice.