Chechen Rebels Radicalise

Radicals and Islamists now dominate the ranks of Chechen rebel fighters.

Chechen Rebels Radicalise

Radicals and Islamists now dominate the ranks of Chechen rebel fighters.

The death of Aslan Maskhadov, the moderate leader of the Chechen separatists, one year ago has proved a turning point for the rebel movement – though perhaps not in the way the Russian intelligence services intended when they announced that they had killed him.

The removal of Maskhadov, elected president in 1997 and killed on March 8, 2005, meant that the leading role passed to the radicals led by Russia’s most wanted man, Shamil Basayev. No major moderate figure has taken up Maskhadov’s mantle or has called for dialogue with the Russians.

Maskhadov’s successor as rebel president, Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev, is officially working with Basayev and has announced the creation of a “Caucasus Front” that stretches beyond Chechnya to the rest of the North Caucasus.

In February, Sadulayev reorganised his government, giving it a more radical complexion. In a rebuff to moderate envoys working in Europe, he called on all officials working abroad to return home and stripped Umar Khambiev of his post as presidential representative abroad. Another envoy Akhmed Zakayev, now resident in Britain, was demoted from his job as deputy prime minister, leaving him as merely culture minister.

The most eye-catching move was the appointment of the rebel movement’s exiled ideologist, Movladi Udugov, as head of the newly-created “National Information Service for the State Defence Committee”.

"Udugov's appointment to a high position while Akhmed Zakayev retains only the post of minister means just one thing: the radicals have won a victory," said Chechen political analyst Murad Nashkhoyev. "However, it is Moscow itself that has untied the Chechen radicals’ hands by killing Maskhadov, the elected president, and rejecting negotiations with its opponents."

The rebel commanders of the Nineties grouped around Maskhadov had Soviet backgrounds and little knowledge of Islam. They have been replaced by a new generation who talk about jihad and feel closer to the Islamic world than to Europe.

The thinking of these new-style rebels is typified by Ansar, a 40-year-old Grozny resident who fought on the anti-Moscow side in both the first and second Chechen conflicts.

"Chechnya cannot be independent if the whole of the North Caucasus is not independent,” said Ansar. “Otherwise, Moscow will simply crush us economically and politically, if not through war, which what it’s currently trying to do with Georgia. I think Sheikh Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, Shamil Basayev, Doku Umarov and all the other current leaders have come to understand this truth.”

A 23-year-old young man who said he is a member of a guerrilla group active in Grozny told IWPR, “Russia is engaged in real terror not only against Muslims in Chechnya, but also against them in the whole of the North Caucasus. The same thing’s really going on everywhere: Muslims are being killed, detained under various invented pretexts, tortured, maimed, and humiliated. Men are afraid of growing beards because they can be accused of being Wahhabis [Islamic radicals], with all the consequences that can entail. Women are afraid of wearing headscarves for the same reason.

"This is why a jihad is necessary, first and foremost the jihad of the sword - not only in Chechnya, but throughout the North Caucasus.”

This young man, who gave his first name as Islam, was critical of Maskhadov’s pro-western stance. Although he recognised that the late Chechen leader was “a very courageous man”, he said, “We should admit that he made a lot of mistakes. He relied on assistance from Europe and the West. He believed they would help to stop this massacre in Chechnya. He thought everything could be resolved through political negotiations. Time has shown that he was badly mistaken."

The policy of spreading the war to the rest of the North Caucasus was dramatised by last October’s attack on Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, in which dozens of people died.

In January, Basayev gave an interview, published on separatist websites, in which he said that Sadulayev planned to hold a big “majlis” or assembly in spring 2006 to unify the Chechen fighters. Basayev also said he "intends to cross the river Volga" in summer.

"Shamil Basayev's threats to 'cross the Volga' can be interpreted with some irony - but they cannot be ignored, as there are effectively no reliable data on the number of guns held by him and other field commanders,” commented Anatoly Petrov, who works with the Military Commandant's Office for Chechnya. “Most of the gunmen usually sit quietly at home, waiting for orders. They aren’t running around in the mountains, as people generally believe.

“It is quite likely that the leaders of the bandit groups want to carry out a few large diversionary and terrorist attacks this summer in order to make themselves heard again. The situation in Chechnya itself is under control. Therefore, in my opinion, the gunmen will try to do something in one of the North Caucasus republics, say Karachai-Cherkessia or Adygeia.”

Petrov said that the insurgents still enjoy support amongst the Chechen population “not only amongst young people who basically have nothing to do in a republic destroyed by war, but even among religious figures, and quite possibly among officials too”.

He cited an instance in which a Muslim cleric in the south-eastern Vedeno region who nominally supported the pro-Moscow government in Grozny was accused of aiding the rebels. In another case, a deputy to the mufti, or chief Muslim cleric, in Chechnya was dismissed after attending the funeral of rebel fighter Hussein Chersiev, killed in Ingushetia.

There are varying figures for the number of active fighters still operating in Chechnya. In January, Russian general Oleg Khotin put the number at 750, while pro-Moscow Chechen prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov said there were just 250.

Despite a reduced level of violence, and assertions by Moscow that it has the situation “fully under control”, there is still fighting going on in Chechnya – with some indications that it may flare up again with the start of spring. On March 3, a battle took place near the village of Serzhen-Yurt and locals reported seeing at least four military helicopters firing rockets into the forest. Residents of mountain villages say there has been an increase in artillery fire in their regions.

The young fighter Islam speaks with confidence about the future. "We are fated to victory," he said with a confident stare from unblinking eyes. "Because we have the two best choices - victory or paradise. Both are good for us. We will either eject the Russian aggressors from Chechnya and the entire Caucasus, or we will become shahids on the path of Allah and go to paradise. There is no third option."

Umalt Dudayev is the pseudonym of a Chechen journalist and IWPR contributor.
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