Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Trouble at the Top

Could old religious disputes divide the Chechen high command as Moscow steps up its relentless offensive? Spiritual leaders are calling for extremist elements to be held accountable for their war-mongering crusades.
By Erik Batuev

Chechnya's former defense minister, Shamil Beno, struck a major blow for Russian propaganda when he claimed last week that fierce in-fighting had broken out among the rebel leaders. In an interview with the Spanish newspaper Vanguardia, Beno hinted that the Chechen high command could be split by bitter religious disputes--the legacy of pre-war feuding. Old wounds were re-opened in late December, he said, when maverick warlord Shamil Basaev was shot three times in the stomach by current defense minister Mohammed Yambiev.


The gunfight reportedly broke out after Yambiev attacked Basaev's Dagestani expedition of August 1999 and accused the extremist Wahhabi faction of starting a potentially apocalyptic war. Basaev promptly shot the minister in the leg: Yambiev grabbed his own handgun and fired back. Recent TV appearances suggest that the warlord was not badly hurt.


In a more recent development, a letter was published in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta (January 20), apparently signed by the infamous Chechen general Salman Raduev, offering to execute Basaev in return for an amnesty and $1 million. The letter read, "[We] will cease military action for which Shamil Basaev is responsible. It was he who invited Shi'ite extremists to the Caucasus and on their advice attacked our ethnic brothers in Dagestan. This criminal must be punished. This is why my men are ready to execute Basaev or to hand him over to the Russian army."


The claims have fuelled Russian hopes that the rebel forces can be divided and conquered on religious grounds--hopes that stem from the sectarian witch-hunts of 1998-1999, when the republic was said to be on the verge of civil war.


In the early days of the latest Russian invasion, Chechnya's spiritual leaders apparently buried their hatchets, choosing to unite against the common enemy. Radical Wahhabis fought side by side with traditional Muslims: only the green ribbons fluttering from the aerials of captured APCs harked back to the "gazavat"--the holy war declared by the extremist Emir Khattab after his raids on Dagestan. Religious convictions--temporarily at least--were subordinated to state interests.


However, the conflict may offer little more than a stay of execution for Islamic extremists, whom many believe should be held accountable for starting the war. A Chechen defeat will undoubtedly unleash a wave of violence against the architects of recent crusades, whilst a Chechen victory could see a renewed power struggle between existing factions. Certainly, hopes for a united Islamic state in the North Caucasus are fading fast.


Historically, the Chechens and Dagestanis are adherents of the Sufi branch of Islam and it was only in the early 1990s that Wahhabism found its way into the region. Founded on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Wahhabis reject the veneration of saints and holy places, calling for a purification of Islam from later innovations.


The Wahhabi movement in Chechnya owes much of its impetus to the efforts of Emir Khattab, a Jordanian-born militant, who reportedly fought against the Russians in Afghanistan. Under Khattab's patronage, the sect used cash donations from Saudi Arabia to open schools, mosques and publishing houses across Chechnya. Impoverished parents were paid to have their children educated according to the Wahhabi doctrines.


Between 1994 and 1999, a new generation of Chechens grew up on a diet of Wahhabi and anti-Russian literature. Many went on to study at Muslim universities abroad or at religious schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. During the first Chechen war, Khattab formed the so-called "Islamic Battalion" which united the new converts under a single banner.


In the aftermath of the fighting, Chechen religious leaders outlawed the Wahhabis in a bid to limit the sect's influence in the Northern Caucasus. The Mufti of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, expressed concerns that friction between Wahhabis and traditionalists might escalate into armed conflict.


The concerns were not unreasonable. Khattab was openly training "Islamic Cossacks" in special bases in Dagestan and had succeeded in forging an alliance with Shamil Basaev. Soon, atrocities committed by the radicals were sending shockwaves across the Caucasus.


In December 1997, four Western telecommunications workers (three Britons and one New Zealander) were taken hostage by a Wahhabi group, reportedly under the leadership of Chechen field commander Arbi Baraev. The hostages were later beheaded, sparking a bitter backlash against the terrorists. A year later, Wahhabi fighters from Chechnya and Dagestan staged a surprise attack on a Russian military unit stationed in the Dagestani town of Buinaksk, the first of a series of cross-border raids.


Meanwhile, the Chechen government under President Aslan Maskhadov attempted to discredit influential Wahhabis, including Movladi Udugov, the propaganda minister, and to deport Khattab himself. However, Maskhadov's motives were only partly sectarian. Most analysts agree that the moderate government was more interested in eliminating radicals who ruled out the idea of compromise with Moscow. Consequently, the purge failed and the Wahhabi power-base remained largely intact.


In August 1999, units commanded by Basaev and Khattab crossed the border into Dagestan and announced the creation of a Chechen-Dagestani Islamic state. Khattab outraged religious leaders by declaring a "gazavat" in direct contravention of Muslim law. In effect, his fighters came into armed conflict with local Muslim police, rather than federal forces, and the villages of Karamakhi, Chabanmakhi and Kadara--traditionally Wahhabi strongholds--refused to support the Chechen holy war.


However, Khattab won the approval of the Islamic organisation Markazu Tabler and former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbiev who ruled that the Wahhabis had acted in the best interests of Islam. They gave Khattab permission to continue the policy of aggression on Dagestani soil, sending fresh consignments of weapons and volunteers across the frontier. In late September, Russian tanks once again thundered into the mutinous Chechen republic.


But, even if the sectarian conflict has been set aside, the fate of the Wahhabis still hangs in the balance. In the event of the Chechens losing the war against Moscow, recriminations against Khattab and, in particular, Shamil Basaev are likely to be bitter. A source in Maskhadov's entourage, who preferred to remain anonymous, commented, "Of course a lot of people are unhappy that Basaev went off to Dagestan and I myself don't approve of his actions. But his reputation was greatly damaged during the first war and he saw an opportunity to redress the balance."


Certainly, Khattab's raid has effectively soured relations between Dagestani and Chechen Muslims. Immediately after the fighting in Dagestan, a survey revealed that the local population was unanimously opposed to the creation of a united Islamic state with Chechnya. Chechens living in Dagestan have been feeling the heat of local indignation with regular outbreaks of violence in the Chechen enclave of Novolaksky.


Chechen mufti Akhmed Kadyrov was swift to condemn the August raid--a move which has won him favour with Vladimir Putin's government in Moscow. Rebel Chechens under Aslan Maskhadov have since branded the mufti a "traitor" and condemned him to death. However the 48-year-old Kadyrov is no stranger to hostile opposition. A graduate of the Islamic school in Bukhara, he is the founder and rector of the Muslim Institute in Chechnya. In the first Chechen war, Kadyrov, a member of the influential benoy clan, won massive popularity by refusing to leave the republic even during the fiercest fighting.


But Kadyrov has been unbending in his stance against Wahhabism which, he claims, is diametrically opposed to the Chechen way of life. The mufti wants the extremists to stand trial for triggering a war with Moscow and, as such, has become an important pawn in Russia's propaganda war. His outspoken criticism has prompted a series of failed assassination attempts during which several members of his inner circle were gunned down.


It is likely that Shamil Basaev's support for the Wahhabis owes more to political convenience than it does to religious conviction. By throwing in his hand with the "Islamic Cossacks", Basaev has succeeded in recruiting Chechnya's most notorious fighting force and achieving his own military objectives.


But the war has made even stranger bedfellows. Following the outbreak of hostilities, Aslan Maskhadov himself has made an uneasy peace with Khattab, inviting him to join the Chechen high command and play a major part in the overall rebel strategy. The Chechen president was apparently prepared to use any means at his disposal to rally the disparate factions.


However, rebel government sources are quick to dismiss talk of a "religious timebomb" in Chechnya. Akhiad Idigov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Chechen parliament, said, "All this pales into insignificance when compared with the real issues at stake - the relentless destruction of the Chechen people and the daily abuses of human rights perpetrated by the Russians.


"Religious differences and tales of who shot whom will all be settled when we have guarantees from the Russians that all military operations will be ceased and Chechnya has the freedom to determine its own future. If there are any guilty parties, then they will be brought to justice in the proper way."


Erik Batuev, a freelance journalist from Ingushetia, is a regular IWPR contributor.