Exploiting A Jihad?

A group of about 100 armed Islamic guerrillas, some wearing balaclavas, gather in a circle in an unidentified forest in Chechnya. In a grainy scene from a videotape found by Russian intelligence agents, they are shown in the middle of a meeting led by Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, some time after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. A black-bearded Basayev tells his soldiers, "We are under pressure to finish the jihad. We must be more organized, more disciplined." The men nod in agreement.

In fact, the Chechen fighters--or terrorists, as the Russians call them--are already well organized. What began as an anti-Russian movement for self-determination mutated over the course of the 1990s into a jihad with the aim to Islamicize and liberate the Caucasus from Russian rule. Although that goal has not been met just yet--Russian troops have once again occupied Chechnya and small-scale battles are a daily occurrence--the organization and support from Islamic regimes abroad has invested the Chechens with a revitalized mission and much-needed funds.

Although outside experts doubt Russian intelligence service (FSB) claims that 70 percent of the fighters in Chechnya are mercenaries from Islamic countries, evidence does show that Arabs, Chinese Uighurs and Afghans continue to take part in the ongoing fight against Russian troops and the training of future militants in terrorist camps. The Islamicization of the conflict in Chechnya has seen the former Soviet territory attempt to adopt Sharia (Islamic law) and a strict Islamic moral code, with the hesitant approval of much of the populace.

Russia's FSB insists that the blame for this can be squarely placed on the shoulders of Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored groups, which, they say, have registered in 49 of Russia's 89 regions under the guise of peaceful Islamic nongovernmental organizations. After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, "they came in to fill the vacuum" says an FSB official. "They came to [the former Soviet republics of] Chechnya, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachai-Cherkessia," he says. "We've had dozens of groups from Pakistan that come in, wearing white robes and telling locals that they are not learning the Quran correctly, that they have been sent by bin Laden."

These regions offered fertile ground for this message. Hard hit by post-Soviet poverty, they were areas where pensions and salaries were overdue and education standards low. Rumors of Osama bin Laden's link to these emissaries and to Chechen guerrillas--in particular the Saudi or Jordanian-born field commander Khottab, who allegedly set up training camps in Chechnya--were so prevalent that at one point in 1999 Chechen officials had to vehemently deny rumors that bin Laden was in Chechnya as the guest of Khottab. The Chechens blamed the reports on disinformation spread by foreign intelligence agencies.

A direct link to bin Laden himself has yet to be proven, but there are many strong hints that Chechnya's jihad is not just a local one. "Terrorist training centers did exist in Chechnya and still do," says Alexei Malashenko, a Chechnya specialist with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "There are Arab instructors there, but not many. They teach both ideology and warfare." Chechens, including Basayev, have traveled to Afghanistan, "but only a few small groups are known to have gone there for terrorist training," says Malashenko. Mostly, they train inside Chechnya and get support from Chechens abroad, but "it is clear that some money from bin Laden made its way to Chechnya, although the amount should not be exaggerated."

Chechnya's jihad relies on low-tech weapons like land mines and Kalashnikov assault rifles, not helicopters and tanks. But it also seems to rely, or at least get some of its strength, from mercenaries and, according to the FSB, financial help from abroad. In 1999 the FSB, at the request of Chinese officials, detained and deported a Uighur, Kyrban Abdulauk, who, the service claimed, had studied in terrorist camps in Chechnya and was plotting a terrorist attack against the Chinese embassy in Turkey. The next year, two more Uighurs were detained and sent back to China. Confiscated videotapes obtained by the FSB--some of which occasionally turn up as "inspirational" items for sale in Chechen markets--show bloody attacks on Russian military convoys, with thorough documentation of the number of Russian soldiers killed.

One video shows the slow death of a Russian soldier and his comrades, with a 20-minute subsequent inventory of their corpses, military IDs, and Kalashnikovs--allegedly to obtain payment from Persian Gulf states for each slain Russian. Other confiscated materials include handwritten notebooks in Arabic and Russian detailing bombmaking and planting, gun maintenance and other fighting tricks. Another video tours what the FSB alleges was one of the several terrorist training camps in the Serzhen-Yurt and Urus-Martan regions of Chechnya, which Russian officials claim are now shut because of the present Russian military operation there.

The video includes Khottab and Basayev, Chechens, Arabs and at least one Asian carrying out war exercises ranging from firing off automatic weapons to running in formation on their supposed training center "graduation day." The video is hard to verify, but perhaps even harder to fake. The FSB claims that students come from Kenya, Indonesia, northern China, Yugoslavia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and all over the Persian Gulf. When they complete their training, says the FSB, they return to form terrorist cells in their home countries.

So how have the Russians been fighting what the Chechens guerrillas describe as their jihad? Somewhat like the U.S. and Britain have so far been bombarding Afghanistan: as hard as they can and from the safest distance possible. This strategy has and continues to fail the Russians: after two recent military campaigns (one ongoing) they have yet to quell the guerrillas. The only military strength of their poorly trained recruits has been massive bombardment of both military and civilian area, prompting an outcry from Western governments. While Russian officials have long insisted that a hydralike terrorist network has been gestating in Chechnya, the West has focused it's attention on human-rights abuses carried out by Russian soldiers. Until now. "Before Sept. 11, the West looked at us as if we were a totalitarian state," Anatoly Kulikov, a former Russian Interior minister who also served as commander of Russian troops in Chechnya, told NEWSWEEK. "We were not offended. We know their position has now changed." He's right. If there have been any complaints about Moscow's activities in Chechnya since Sept. 11, they've certainly been muted.

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