Arrests in Europe Place 100,000 Member Chechen Disapora in the Spotlight

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 11 Issue: 10

Mass arrests of alleged terrorists in three European countries –Belgium, Holland and Germany– were shown live on TV in Holland and Belgium in late November. The campaign started with bold headlines referring to the arrests of individuals from the Chechen branch of Islamists. In an interview with the BBC’s Russian Service, Lieve Pellens, a spokeswoman for the Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s office, clarified that there were two Russian citizens of Chechen origin among those who were arrested on November 23. The group of suspects now in police custody also includes six citizens from Belgium who are of Moroccan descent. These suspects were caught in Antwerp, Belgium; while three citizens of Moroccan origin were from the Netherlands, and two individuals were apprehended in the German city of Aachen near the Belgian border (www.lesoir-echos.com/2010/11/25/belgique-terrorisme%E2%80%89%E2%80%89neuf-marocains-parmi-les%E2%80%89interpelles/).

Based upon preliminary reports from Belgium, however, it would appear that the majority of those arrested had something to do with Chechens and the Caucasus Emirate, an Islamic organization in the North Caucasus (www.gzt.ru/topnews/world/-beljgiya-priznala-chechentsami-arestovannyh-v-/335901.html). “[Those arrested] are suspected of recruiting people and raising funds as well as making appeals on the Internet to join the jihad,” Pellens was quoted as saying, adding “They were recruiting those who were ready to join and undergo special training in camps, including in Chechnya.” In her interpretation, the aim of their campaign was to assist the Caucasus Emirate, in particular. The Belgian prosecutor’s representative also stated that the arrested Chechens and Moroccans belonged to the same organization and knew each other (www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=20533).

The wording used by Pellens “including in Chechnya” underlines the importance of that particular location. Although, apparently, there were more important places than Chechnya that the group was allegedly targeting, the Chechen theme was intentionally amplified and put forth in the announcement of the prosecutor’s office.  In reality, though, the members of the group “probably coordinated” their activities in order to provide financial assistance to militant organizations, “including,” perhaps, the Caucasus Emirate. So far, these are just suppositions, since no proof has been presented to prove the guilt of the arrested men. Even if such networks had really existed, it would be hardly credible to allege that it was involved in sending money to structures within the Caucasus Emirate. It is far easier for Islamic jamaats in Russia’s North Caucasus to receive financial aid from local sources than via transactions from Europe to Chechnya. Ms. Pellens was clearly some seven or eight years late with her accusations. As of November 27, the seven alleged terrorists remained in Belgian custody (http://levif.rnews.be/fr/news/belga-generique/malines-les-7-terroristes-presumes-maintenus-en-detention-jusqu-au-7-decembre/article-1194877558992.htm).

This is not the first wave of anti-Chechen demarches in Europe. In December 2002, pompous announcements were made about thwarting “the Chechen network” in St. Denis and Courneve, the suburbs of Paris (www.newsru.com/world/27dec2002/embassyrf.html). Several Algerians were arrested. They were accused of planning terrorist attacks against Russian interests in France and first and foremost the Russian embassy in Paris. Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière repeatedly returned to the topic. As a result, in 2004-2005 there was a highly publicized campaign throughout France aimed at eradicating the Chechen terrorist network. In one episode, Judge Bruguière detected a Chechen footprint in the vicinity of the city of Lyon. Nonetheless, no Chechen was ever arrested, nor was any criminal investigation opened against Chechens. The name “Chechen network” was used, paradoxically, to imply that one man among the dozens of persons who were arrested was an Algerian who had purportedly travelled to Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge in 2001; however, this fact was never proven. This was enough to ascribe all of the detained Algerians to a mythical “Chechen network.” Incidentally, many of them were later released due to the lack of evidence. Ultimately, in 2006, altogether 26 Islamists ended up in a French court. There was not a single Chechen man among the convicts (all of them were of North African descent), and none of them had ever been to Chechnya or had had contact with Chechen commanders. But the false name “Chechen network” still left the bitter memory on the French public that it was the Chechens who sought to blow up the Eifel Tower in Paris.

Similar to what occurred several years ago in France, the most recent arrests in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, and the way they were covered in the press, gave disproportionate attention to the Chechnya-related segment of the operation. Commentators tried to one-up one another with their inflated reports about Chechen Islamists seeking to organize terrorist acts, although Belgium’s federal prosecutor could give no affirmative other than to say that “the goal of the terrorist attack was not specified yet in concrete terms” (http://actu.voila.fr/actualites/monde/2010/11/23/belgique-coups-de-filet-dans-les-milieux-islamistes-un-attentat-dejoue_608531.html). It means that the authorities did not know what the targets of the alleged terrorists were. Even when showing the faces of the suspects of North African origin, TV commentators continued to emphasize the Chechen factor. The negative image created by the Russian government over a long period of time seems to be working in Europe, since there is a desire to see emissaries of al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden in every handicapped man (one of the suspects is a disabled person). It is worth noting that frequently Chechens establish private relationships in mosques with Muslim segments of European countries. Not surprisingly, Chechens look for solace and understanding from the Muslim population in Europe since the non-Muslim public and western governments do not seem to be interested anymore in what is happening in the North Caucasus.

Approximately 100,000 Chechens now live in the countries of the European Union alone. Politically, the Chechen diaspora is not homogeneous. It includes those who support the Caucasus Emirate as well as those who back the idea of an independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Some have no particular liking for either and others are supportive of Ramzan Kadyrov, the incumbent leader of Chechnya. The European Chechen diaspora’s role in and influence on Chechnya’s domestic discourse have become more significant lately. Rebels and the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership alike are trying to use the diaspora to their advantage.  The authorities in Grozny believe it would be better for their own security if they succeeded in neutralizing members of the diaspora by coaxing them back to Chechnya under the control of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).  

In sum, it can be stated that notwithstanding their political beliefs, the Chechens living in Europe would not like to undermine their own safety. It is highly unlikely that supporters of the Caucasus Emirate would establish contacts for the purpose of organizing terrorist acts, let alone participating in such activities personally. This would simply not be in their interests because such contacts might jeopardize their refugee status, not to mention putting their families and relatives living in those countries at risk. That is why the Chechens arrested in Belgium will be most likely charged with having secondary connections to Islamic organizations in Europe, but nothing more serious than that. Moscow must be irritated by the fact that in the past 11 years of the existence of the Chechen diaspora in Europe, none of its members has been sentenced for terrorism so far.