The Jamestown Foundation’s Spotlight on Terror presents a special analysis of a major diplomatic development related to the war on terror. Two countries aligned with the United States in the war on terror have found a new basis for cooperation in the north Caucasus that could have important repercussions for U.S. interests in the Caspian Region and Russia’s standing in the Muslim world. ]
Since the start of the war in Chechnya, Moscow has unrelentingly castigated Wahhabite terrorism, an Islamic ideology originating in Saudi Arabia, as the enemy that it is fighting. President Putin has even spoken of a terrorist international from the Philippines to Sarajevo. Anyone who has examined Chechen websites and media could easily find that there are grounds for underscoring the Chechen connection with terrorism based on a Wahhabist interpretation of Islam. There is no doubt that some Chechens espouse and commit acts of terrorism inside the Russian Federation. And there is some evidence to suggest their connection to Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and behind them Pakistan’s Inter-Services Institution (ISI) which has long backed and bankrolled various Islamic terrorist groups. However the Russian Federation’s role in the global war on terrorism and its new partnership with Saudi Arabia cannot be explained by these facts alone.
Due to the war in Chechnya, Moscow has taken a prominent role in the war on terrorism, called terrorism the main threat to its domestic and foreign security, and virtually destroyed Chechnya. Similarly through 2003, the Russian government has continually hammered Saudi Arabia for its support of terrorism. Therefore the newly announced deal whereby Saudi Arabia has agreed to subsidize the reconstruction of Chechnya’s education system under Russian rule must be seen as an act of the deepest cynicism on both governments’ part. Saudi banks will allocate funds to Chechnya on the basis of a Saudi delegation’s investigation of local conditions even though previous subsidies to Chechnya have vanished without any accounting. Saudi banks will also discuss joint collaboration with Russian banks for purposes of humanitarian reconstruction and even possible investment in the local petroleum industry.[1 ] This collaboration and Moscow’s brazen demand for subsidies (or its extortion of funds from Riyadh lest it threaten the Saudis in the global oil market) indicates not just a profound act of cynicism on the part of both governments, with the Saudis abandoning Chechnya and the Russians showing their true interests, it also clearly constitutes a bribe to Russia.
From our knowledge of Russian banks and funding to Chechnya, we can be sure that very little of this money will actually go to any humanitarian projects be they reconstruction, revival of the oil industry or rebuilding the school system. Rather, both the Saudis and Russians must view this as a bribe, laundered under these auspices, to keep Russia from threatening Saudi energy interests in OPEC. This has clearly been part of the new Saudi-Russian rapprochement that we saw in 2003. This certainly owes much to the fact that Russia can now challenge OPEC for market share in the U.S. and Europe. Another motive for this deal may be that since Al-Qaida’s May 2003 attacks in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government has moved more vigorously than before to suppress Al-Qaida, and no doubt feels that support for the Chechens is now a risk.[2 ] Saudi Arabia must also be anxious about the growing number of Arab “alumni” of the Chechen wars, including Saudis who participated in the war and in acts of terrorism. They are linked to Al-Qaida and thus constitute a standing threat to Saudi security. True to the traditions of Saudi foreign policy, it is cheaper to buy off a challenger that is too strong to contend with than to confront him. And this mechanism allows Moscow once again to avoid the costs of reconstructing Chechnya, while exploiting its leverage over Saudi Arabia and OPEC.
Certainly this episode shows that Moscow’s claims about the threat to its security from Wahhabism and from terrorism are actually much less serious than advertised. Indeed, Russia’s participation in the war on terrorism is a lot less substantive than might otherwise be imagined. In 2001 FBI investigators clearly alleged that Russian spy Robert Hanssen had sold or transmitted electronic software programs and equipment to Russia, which then sold them to Bin Laden. This equipment let him monitor U.S. efforts to track him down.[4 ]In similar vein, recent assessments have made a plausible case that Moscow has a direct link to Bin Laden’s number two man, the Egyptian terrorist Ayman Zawahiri. Thus it had a source of leverage at the very top of Al-Qaida. Furthermore, Moscow has at various times promised Central Asian governments all kinds of military assistance against various terrorist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan only to go back on its word, and send little or nothing.
We also know that throughout the war in Chechnya the Russian intelligence services have enjoyed long periods of collaboration with Chechen leaders accused of being terrorists. Likewise, analysts like Elizabeth Fuller have made compelling cases for the argument that the Russian intelligence agencies are controlling the war to the extent of frustrating the army in its search for Chechen leaders who have committed acts of outright terrorism like Shamil Basayev. Clearly, those services have ulterior or at least mixed motives in waging this war. We also know that the war on Chechnya has proven to be extremely lucrative for many members of the Russian bureaucracy and armed forces who have been given virtual carte blanche to rob the country blind and to appropriate for themselves funds earmarked in Moscow for the supposed reconstruction of Chechnya. There is little doubt that both Moscow and Riyadh know that the funds the latter will earmark for similar purposes will encounter the same fate.
Inasmuch as the war in Chechnya originated largely as a part of an internal coup d’etat in 1999 by Russia’s ruling party and the various intelligence and military establishments to consolidate Putin’s rise to power as Yeltsin’s heir and that the bombings in Moscow and the aborted bombing in Ryazan have never been convincingly explained, there is good reason to argue that Moscow’s war on terrorism has always been an instrument to larger or more private interests. Without denying the commission of acts of terrorism by the Chechens, the evidence points to a kind of Matrioshka doll war, the more one looks for the war on terrorism, the less one sees it. We clearly see a brutal war against Chechnya to make its quest for independence an object lesson to anyone who also might seek to leave the Russian Federation, but beyond that, we see in this war an opportunity for the regime to consolidate power and use it to suppress the Russian media, an opportunity for many officials’ personal enrichment and the forging of murky and highly unsavory intelligence contacts among Arab and other Muslim terrorists for purposes which are not yet clearly revealed. What we do not see is much evidence of a sustained war on terrorism.
The new deal with Riyadh represents another in a series of acts of utter cynicism on Moscow’s part in this supposed war on terrorism. And on Saudi Arabia’s part, we also see an act of unmitigated cynicism and pursuit of self-interest as it now realizes that by abetting Al-Qaida and its numerous “alumni” throughout the Islamic world, it has put itself in that organization’s and its associates’ gunsights. Perhaps we should be glad that the Saudis have finally awakened to the threat posed by the ideology that they have so assiduously propagated over the years, but we should also take much better cognizance of what Russia’s war on terrorism actually is and has been, and what we should expect from Russia in the future. Certainly substantive strategic partnership with Russia on the basis of joint participation in a war against global terrorism is a partnership that rests on shifting sands. Its foundations for joint action are dubious and Russo-American interests can hardly be called truly common, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. Ultimately, states are judged by their actions, not their rhetoric, and Moscow and Riyadh’s jointly cynical actions indicate that for them the war on terrorism is now largely a matter of both naked self-interest and, to put it plainly, loot.
Professor Stephen Blank
Strategic Studies Institute
US Army War College
Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013
[The views expressed here do not in any way represent those of the U.S. Army,
Defense Department or the U.S. Government]
1. “Saudi Arabia to Assist Restoration of Education Sphere in Chechnya,”
Novosti, January 15, 2004.
2. Stephen Blank, “Moscow’s Cozy Saudi Connection,” Asia Times Online,
September 13, 2003.
3. Brian Glyn Williams, “The ‘Chechen Arabs’: An Introduction to the Real
Al-Qaeda Terrorists,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, I No. 9, January
16, 2004, M.B. Nokcho and Glen E. Howard, “Chechnya’s Abu Walid and the
Saudi Dilemma,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, I No. 9, January 16, 2004.
4. Jerry Seper, “Software Likely in Hands of Terrorist; FBI’s Hanssen Seen
as Provider,” Washington Times, June 14, 2001.
5. Evgeni Novikov, “A Russian Agent At the Right Hand of Bin Laden,”
Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, I No. 9, January 16, 2004.
6. Stephen Blank, “An Ambivalent War: Russia’s War on Terrorism,” Thomas
R. Mockaitis and Paul B. Rich, Eds., Grand Strategy in the War Against
Terrorism, London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2003, pp. 127-150.
7. Elizabeth Fuller, “What Lies Ahead in Chechnya,” In the National Interest,
January 14, 2004.
8. Stephen Blank, “An Ambivalent War: Russia’s War on Terrorism,”