Few conflicts in modern times have been so poorly known or understood as the Russo-Chechen war. And as the struggle over Chechnya is propelled to the forefront of the War on Terrorism, further obscuring the war’s causes and effects, new works of scholarship are desperately needed to move the debate over the fate of this tiny republic beyond the realm of myth. Unfortunately, The Wolves of Islam, a new book by Paul Murphy (“a former U.S. senior counter-terrorism official” and “U.S. congressional advisor on Russia in 2002”), does little to increase our understanding of the complexities of this conflict.
The book’s dust-jacket gives some hint of the approach of the rest of the work; just above the subtitle “Faces of Chechen Terrorism” is a large image of the late Amir al-Khattab, a Saudi-born Arab who led foreign volunteers in Chechnya. In his opening, the author remarks that in telling the story of the “Chechen Wolves”, “…misinformation and disinformation have to be carefully filtered out.” What follows, however, is a casual mix of facts, factoids and fantasies seemingly designed to discredit the Chechen struggle as another front in the war against al-Qaeda.
The sensational tone of the book is set in the opening pages, which warn that “graphic descriptions of terror, acts of torture, and human cruelty in this book will disturb the reader.” Indeed, much of the first half of the book is devoted to detailed descriptions of various atrocities allegedly committed by Chechens. The author devotes some space to a gruesome account of the crucifixion and mutilation of a Russian soldier during the 1994 battle for Grozny. The “crucifixion of the innocent soldier” is a recurring propaganda motif that dates back to the Belgian front in the First World War (where the victim is usually described as a Canadian soldier victimized by Germans). But the author insists on the authenticity of his account, citing a scene from a novel (though Murphy does not describe it as such) by Vyacheslav Mironov and a similar scene from the 1997 movie Purgatory (Chistilishche), made by Russian nationalist and Duma deputy Aleksandr Nevzorov. By this point the reader may begin to suspect that the author’s “misinformation and disinformation” filters are seriously defective.
Murphy’s failure to cite references or to include any form of bibliography leaves the reader beholden to the author’s accuracy in quoting various individuals. The reviewer was therefore not encouraged to see a lengthy quote from the late Khunkarpasha Israpilov attributed to Aslan Maskhadov on page 75.  In another incident involving Israpilov, the author offers an account of the 1996 Salman Raduev raid on Kizlyar. Raduev is described as deciding to seize a hospital in emulation of Basaev’s earlier hospital seizure in Budennovsk and later killing a police hostage. In fact, the inexperienced Raduev was compelled to turn over command of the operation temporarily to Israpilov when things began to go wrong. It was Israpilov who decided to seize the hospital (he was a veteran of Budennovsk) and who later shot the policeman. 
Wolves or Humans?
In Murphy’s description of the Chechens, soldiers, terrorists, criminals, politicians, foreign volunteers, women and children, all Chechens are gathered under the single appellative of “Wolves” – a dangerous and evidently sub-human species that poses a dire threat to the rest of mankind. The substitution of the term “Wolves” for Chechens throughout the text is a simplistic means of dehumanization, usually found in crude propaganda. Chechens, we are told, travel in “packs”, Shamil Basaev leads a “pack of Wolves”, and in the conclusion we are told “Wolves have taken to the skies”. This affectation makes it difficult to tell whom the author is even talking about most of the time, as “Wolves” seems to include Chechens, Arabs, Ingush and possibly others. When Murphy says that “Wolves” paid two individuals to place a bomb, one wonders where they got the money.
There is almost no discussion of Chechnya’s complex social structure (essential in any work attempting to describe the command structure of the Chechen resistance) or the region’s history of devastation at the hands of Russian forces. The omission of a context for the author’s account aids in the depiction of Chechens as inexplicably single-minded in their hatred of Russia, the West, Christianity, Judaism, the United States, etc. The 1944 deportation of the entire Chechen nation to Central Asia (an event that defines modern Chechen attitudes towards Russia) is described in a mere two sentences – one of which manages to repeat Stalin’s false accusation of Chechen collaboration with the German army (which never set foot in Chechnya). The author fails to mention that most of Chechnya’s men of fighting age were busy at the time offering stiff resistance to the Nazi invasion of Russia.
In his treatment of the late Aslan Maskhadov, the author adopts the paradox displayed in the Kremlin accounts he is so fond of citing; Chechnya’s late president is a powerless figurehead who “controls no-one”, while at the same time bearing personal responsibility for the planning and management of every major act of terrorism. Maskhadov and most other Chechen leaders are eagerly linked to al-Qaeda whenever possible. Murphy uncritically repeats every allegation in what might now be termed the mythology of the “Chechen International” – Chechen expeditionary forces campaigning for al-Qaeda against U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. Though more serious analysts have exposed the falseness of all these claims in detail, Murphy’s own research does not appear to have penetrated deeper than the tabloid headlines.
The Khattab/Bin Laden connection Murphy creates is unconvincing. On page 91, we are told “Khattab likely attended Osama bin Laden’s worldwide Islamic League emergency session in Kandahar, Afghanistan, at which he must have laid out the idea of reuniting Chechnya and Dagestan by force…Osama bin Laden surely liked the idea…” (Italics inserted by the reviewer). On page 153 we find a Chechen delegation to bin Laden was “almost certainly led by Khattab.” Later we find that bin Laden “almost certainly discussed and approved” financing for Khattab (page 215). In general the book follows the ever-popular, but not very useful, “Bin Laden controls everything” model. For those who question the extent of the alleged Chechen/Bin Laden links, the author offers that “President Putin confirmed in February 2003 that Osama bin Laden is still funding Wolves in Chechnya.” Case closed.
Nuclear Threat or Atomic Scam?
The author appears especially eager to promote the Chechens as a source of “nuclear terrorism”. He cites Yoseff Bodansky’s old and unsubstantiated claim that Chechens supplied Bin Laden with suitcase nukes in the mid-90s. We are warned repeatedly of the threat posed by Chechen access to Osmium 187, a platinum-group substance. Osmium 187 is a non-fissile, non-radioactive substance of no use in constructing a “dirty-bomb” or any other weapon. Despite this, the author assures us that “Osmium isotopes are one of the required components for making mini-nukes because osmium increases the destructive power of the explosion” (page 177). This is precisely the sales-pitch con-artists have used to make a killing by peddling this expensive material to Russia’s many consumers of bomb-making technology. Osmium 187 is not regulated by any U.S. or international agency and is easily available from legitimate dealers over the internet. The scam is well-aided by media sources and politicians who insist on repeating the bogus claims of its danger.
Meanwhile, the infamous bombings of Russian apartment buildings in 1999 (blamed on Chechens by the Kremlin) might be expected to fill at least a chapter in a work like this, but Murphy deals with this complex event in just two pages. Despite the absence of an inquiry, the demolition of the crime scenes without investigation, and the apprehension of several FSB agents caught in the act of placing explosives in the basement of a Ryazan apartment building, Murphy declares that “the evidence that Khattab was responsible for the apartment building bombings in Moscow is clear” (page 106). Anyone familiar with Russia knows that this is far from the case, but dissenting opinions and evidence are dismissed as part of “the now well-known story told by (Russian billionaire Boris) Berezovsky” (page 106). The description of fugitive Achimez Gochiyaev, the self-described “patsy” in the bombings, as a terrorist “mastermind” is simply excessive.
There are numerous small annoyances in the book, such as dubious mathematics (the Chechen population was “decimated by half”) and inconsistencies in the spelling of names. The description of the regional drug trade might have more credibility if there were fewer references to “heroine” production. At times, the author betrays his weak grasp of technical issues by making ludicrously simplistic statements such as “it is easy to make different kinds of primitive biological weapons in the field.” And, while discussing the “Black Widow” phenomenon, the author dismisses claims that Chechen women have been mistreated by Russian soldiers (“these accusations are difficult to prove” – page 210), preferring to ascribe their motivation to “forbidden love”.
Murphy’s book wastes little time on describing the torture of Chechen civilians by Russian forces, the looting, the disappearances, the trade in bodies, the mass graves. The concept of “state terrorism”, however, is never approached – though some of Basaev’s quotes would make a good launching point for such a discussion. The author mentions “war terrorism” several times without explanation, though the term seems to refer to what is commonly known as “guerrilla warfare”. The book’s treatment of Islam in Chechnya is extremely weak. There is no explanation of what a “Wahhabi” is exactly, though the term is liberally applied to the “Wolves”. Of the Naqshbandi and Qadiri Sufi orders we are told only that they are “mystical”. On the Russian side, there is no discussion of the deep involvement of rival Russian intelligence agencies in the conflict. In Murphy’s view the FSB (former KGB) and the GRU (military intelligence) are as blameless as a London Bobby.
What is the author’s solution to this conflict, now in its third century? Maskhadov and Basaev must be killed and their financial networks destroyed in order to avoid chemical, biological and nuclear terrorist attacks. That’s it. By the author’s reckoning we should now be 50% closer to peace in the Caucasus. But anyone hoping for an accurate and thoughtful examination of the Russo-Chechen conflict will find The Wolves of Islam a most unsatisfactory work.
Dr. McGregor is the director of Aberfoyle International Security Analysis in Toronto, Canada.
1. Charles W Blandy, “Chechnya: A Beleaguered President”. no. OB 61, Conflict Studies Research Center, Aug. 1998, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1998/ob61.htm.
2. Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal, Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus, New York University Press, New York, 1998, p.292.