(IHT) Chechnya’s militant separatists have received money, men, training and ideological inspiration from international Islamic organizations, but they remain an indigenous and largely self-sustaining force motivated by nationalist more than Islamic goals, Russian and international officials and experts say.
The flow of financing from Islamic groups that supported Chechnya’s separatist movement has slowed from its peak in the late 1990s, Sergei Ignatchenko, chief spokesman for Russia’s Federal Security Service, said in an interview Friday.
And yet Chechnya’s separatist guerrillas have recently managed to carry out the most devastating attacks against Russia in years, killing nearly 600 people since late June alone.
They have also organized locally, exploiting Russia’s weak security and corruption to travel and arm themselves, the officials and experts said.
Although President Vladimir Putin and others have accused international terrorists of sustaining the war in Chechnya, the relationship between the separatists and Islamic terrorists abroad remains only an element in a far more complicated war, they said.
Despite assertions that Arab guerrillas participated in the seizure of Middle School No. 1 in Beslan, Russian officials have yet to prove that any of the suspects came from abroad, or that any received training or supplies elsewhere.
Of the dead suspects identified so far, all came from Ingushetia or were ethnic Chechens, including some who raided the police and other security garrisons in Ingushetia in June, killing nearly 100 people.
Those holding the school and more than 1,200 hostages cited no grievances about conditions in the larger Muslim world, but focused demands on Chechnya’s independence, according to official accounts thus far.
Officials and experts said in interviews that as Russia’s conflict in Chechnya has evolved, a portion of the republic’s separatists has merged nationalist goals and tribal codes with the ideology and tactics of groups like Al Qaeda, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, has cited Chechen resistance as part of his global religious war.
The influence of Islamic extremism is clear in much of Chechnya-related terrorism now, including large-scale attacks and, increasingly, suicide bombings that are intended to shock and sow fear more than to accomplish a clear military or political objective. Chechen guerrillas have also adopted Al Qaeda’s methods of securing money through conduits masquerading as charities, officials say.
Islamic ideology has also left its mark among the separatist guerrillas – who have adopted, at least outwardly, the dress, slogans and strictures of extremist guerrillas elsewhere – though it has not taken root in Chechnya’s relatively secular society.
Nevertheless, many officials and experts said that influence was limited and, to Russia’s critics, overstated by the Kremlin to avoid addressing the roots of war in Chechnya. The number of foreign fighters is also thought to be small – from a dozen to 200, though most estimates fall on the lower end.
“There are people from foreign countries, perhaps 20,” Ilyas Akhmadov, a Chechen leader living in the United States, conceded in a telephone interview. “Most of them are from the Middle East. Most are of Caucasian ethnicity, though some are Arabs. But it is not on the scale as described by the Kremlin and Interior Ministry in Russia.”
The officials and experts said the principal motivation for Chechnya’s guerrillas remains independence, a goal that after 10 years of war has increasingly become entwined with Chechnya’s traditional codes of revenge, known as adat. Mixed with them are smaller elements of Islamic extremism, including that of the Saudi branch called Wahhabism.
“There are two tracks,” said Nick Pratt, director of the Program on Terrorism and Security at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany. “When you get these two together – Wahhabism and adat – you have this witch’s brew.”
Fueling this mix has been international money, which has helped arm and pay guerrillas, allowing them to sustain attacks against Russia. “A lot of money has been flowing into Chechnya as part of the global jihad movement and as part of the separatist movement, too,” said Juan Zarate, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Treasury Department, speaking recently in a telephone interview.
“There has been enormous flow of funding from outside Chechnya, from the Gulf, some from Europe and some quite frankly from North America,” he said.
Al Qaeda’s interest in the region is not in dispute. As early as 1997, bin Laden said Chechnya served as an incubator of religious war. In an interview with CNN, he said fighters from Afghanistan had “spread to every place in which nonbelievers’ injustice is perpetuated against Muslims.”
Among those drawn to Chechnya was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who would later become bin Laden’s top deputy. At the time, Zawahiri led the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Late in 1996, Russian authorities detained him, evidently as he tried to reach the gathering cadres of jihadists. He was held for six months.
“He had four passports, in four different names and nationalities,” Ignatchenko said. “We checked him out in every country, but they could not confirm him. We could not keep him forever, so we took him to the Azerbaijani border and let him go.”
Chechnya’s period of independence, when the republic was lawless and Russia’s southern border poorly guarded, appears to have been the peak of the transit of fighters, cash and ideology from abroad.
It soon ended.
After Basayev led a raid into Dagestan and bombs destroyed three apartment buildings in Russia, Russian forces poured into Chechnya again.
The Russians drove the separatists, with their Islamic fighters, into the mountains along the border and destroyed the training camps.
Russian troops, along with loyal Chechens, now control almost all the republic, at least by day. The separatists, however, still conduct attacks and have dispatched terrorists across the North Caucasus and as far as Moscow.
The number of separatist guerrillas is estimated at several hundred to a couple of thousand. Alu Alkhanov, who was elected Aug. 29 to replace Chechnya’s assassinated president, Akhmad Kadyrov, said in a recent interview that battlefield losses had reduced them to 400 or 700.
By all accounts, the number of foreigners among them is small.
The Saudi-born Amir Khattab was killed, reportedly by a poisoned letter, in 2002. His successor, an Arab who fought under the name Abu Walid, is also reported to have died.
Six Arabs were also arrested among Chechens in 2002 and 2003 in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, a region that had served as a sanctuary for Chechen guerrillas, according to Gigi Ugulava, deputy minister of state security in Georgia. They included a Syrian and two French citizens of Arab descent.
Among those interviewed one common assertion was that Al Qaeda was much more interested in Chechnya than Chechen separatists were interested in a global religious war.
Three senior counterterrorism officials in Europe, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, said they believed that Al Qaeda was seeking to expand links with the Chechens.
“We have reason to believe their ties have strengthened in recent months,” one of them said.
After the war against the Taliban chased many Qaeda members from Afghanistan, the official said, some sought to relocate to Chechnya, although with difficulty.
That difficulty almost certainly stems from the fact that Russian forces now control most of Chechnya and have air and artillery supremacy over the rest.