Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 18

Dagestan: The Fundamentalist Threat

By Aleksandr Zhilin

According to some analysts, in the period following the conclusionof the active phase of the armed confrontation in Chechnya andthe beginning of the activation of the political process in thatNorth Caucasus republic, Islamic extremism is one of the substantialthreats to the peaceful resolution of the conflict. In Chechnya,for the most part, it is represented by the Wahabis.

Who are the Wahabis?

The supporters of this religious-political movement in Sunni Islam,which began in Arabia in the 18th century on the basis of theteachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab, believe that Allah isthe only source of creation and that only He is worthy of worship.In the opinion of the Wahabis, Islam today is in need of purification,of a return to fundamentals, since many Muslims have strayed fromthe true faith, and have introduced all sorts of "novelties"into sacred doctrine. The Wahabis see two ways of achieving thisgoal: persuasion and the application of force — both spiritualand physical — if the "true" ideas are not accepted.In recent times, especially in the former USSR, the second methodis starting to become more popular, since it promises more resultsin a shorter amount of time. Objectively, this is also linkedto the fact that the de-ideologized Muslims in the post-Sovietspace (including those in Russia) are striving, on the wave ofdemocracy, to revive their own ethnic and religious traditions,which, of course, is something that can only be welcomed. Butat the same time, as the result of this process, their minds havebecome a "zone of religious competition."

The Separatists and the Wahabis are "Twin Brothers"

The increased influence of Wahabism in Chechnya, and as a consequence,in the Northern Caucasus, in comparison to that of other Islamiccurrents can be explained in rather banal terms. It is most ofall linked with the fact that our political elite had, in principle,only a vague conception of the complex processes at work todayin the Islamic world as a whole, and the Northern Caucasus inparticular. Detailed analyses of what was going on, and proposalsfrom specialists on how the situation in that region could bemanaged often piled up, unread, on someone’s desk because theydid not always answer the short-term economic and political interestsof certain concrete groupings in the government and financial-industrialgroups. As a result, half-hearted decisions were made, and nosystematic approach was worked out. The government ended up havingto "put out fires," and had to resort to the use offorce, to normalize the worsening situation and localize the conflicts.Chechnya is a graphic example of this.

Due to mistakes made by the federal center, a criminal regimein that republic managed to create an image of themselves as martyrsand fighters in a national-liberation movement. This process wascompounded by the religious factor. Of all the multifarious sectsof Islamic thought, Wahabism was the one they chose. Its increasinginfluence on the minds of Chechen Muslims, combined with bloodyactivity, had a "positive" result for the separatists.Today, we must admit that the overwhelming majority of the populationof Chechnya sees what has happened in the republic as "thevictory of the first true Muslim state which has emerged fromRussian control." It will be very hard to change this wayof thinking, even with the help of economic levers and concessionsto the separatists, including an amnesty.

The vice premier of the self-proclaimed "Republic of Chechnya-Ichkeria,"Movladi Udugov, once told a narrow circle of his comrades-in-armsand foreign guests that "our next holy task is to help ourbrothers, who are suffering for the true faith. With them, andwith our foreign friends, we will build a united Vainakh state."

Dagestan is Next in Line

The successes of the Chechen separatists and the further spreadof Wahabi ideas in "Ichkeria" has provoked a new outbreakof separatist sentiments in the republics of the Northern Caucasus,and above all, in Dagestan. The so-called chief of staff of theillegal armed formations of the Dagestani Wahabis, Nasib IsrapilovichIsakov, in interviews with journalists (especially with thosefrom Muslim countries) does not hide the fact that during thewar in Chechnya, he was involved in smuggling arms, uniforms,provisions, and medicine to the Chechen rebels. In his words,he did all this to create an Islamic state in Chechnya. AfterChechnya, in his words, Dagestan must become a real Islamic republic,"even if this requires dragging it into a war with the federalcenter."

According to the competent organs, in September-October of thisyear, about 200 Chechen rebels slipped into the Novolaksky andKhasavyurt raions of Dagestan along with refugees from Chechnya.Almost every day, up to 40 armed people from the "Djaamat"detachment of Arabian mercenaries, led by field commander EmirKhattaba, a Jordanian citizen and a Wahabi by conviction, appearin the republic. According to "chief of staff" Isakov,on the order of 600 Dagestani Wahabis got battle experience duringthe armed conflict in Chechnya. And we must add to that another900-1200 citizens of Dagestan (for the most part, Avars), whohave gone through a special training course in Pakistan. At thepresent time, these people are forming the basis of the illegaldetachments of the Dagestani armed opposition being formed inthe hard-to-access mountain regions of the republic. Their primarytask is to provide illegal armed assistance to the leaders ofAvar national movements who are active supporters of the ideaof Wahabism. In addition, active measures are now being takenby the opposition to legalize these militarized structures, towin for them the status of "self-defense" detachments.In spite of the agreements reached with the federal center onthe cessation of military operations in Chechnya, local Wahabisare recruiting young people to go to "free Ichkeria."There, they can get, under more favorable conditions, the knowledge,including military knowledge, that they need for the fight to"purify" the faith. The organizers of such actions aregetting a lot of help from the Wahabi center in Kyzyl-Yurt.

As regards the formation of the religious world-view of the supportersof Wahabism, in Dagestan, the main financial infusion for thispurpose comes through the local branch of the international Islamicorganization "Salvation," which is located in the republic.The chairman of this organization, Abdel Kader Zaryat, has alreadyagreed to give material assistance in the construction of themadrassah [Islamic religious school] which is being openedin the village of Akusha. There is one condition: some of theteachers will be representatives of his organization, and thetraining will be conducted according to their methods and literature.

The Coming Religious Wars

The Wahabis’ aggressive tactics in propagating their views arebeing actively resisted by the local "traditionalists,"who hold views on Islam which are traditional and characteristicin the region. And these confrontations are no longer taking placeon the level of everyday life, but on a purely religious level.The number and scale of these confrontations is constantly growing.

Just this year, there have been almost 80 of them. Of that number,about 30 were full-scale riots. One example of such a confrontationwas the drama which occurred on September 27 at Djuma mosque,which is located in the village of Chaban-makhi in Dagestan’sBuinaksky raion. During Friday prayers, a bloody riot betweenWahabis and traditionalists broke out there over who should becomethe mosque’s imam. According to the village elders, thefight was started by the leader of the local Wahabis, DjarulaBagomedov.

This religious conflict could have grown into a real bloodbath,since 100 people from Kyzyl-Yurt raion came to the aid of theirbrother Wahabis, and, according to the inhabitants of the villagesof Karamakhi and Chaban-makhi, there was yet another group inthe woods, this one already being armed. The situation was savedby the swift and professional action of the local police, andthat only because the Wahabis had not been able to unite intoa single "fist." There was no attempt to disarm the"forest brothers" who had come to their aid. Clearlythis was to avoid casualties, but did that really make thingseasier? Moreover, they did not even punish the man responsiblefor the riot. Encouraged by this, his supporters warned localinhabitants the next day that what happened the day before wasnothing compared to what they would get next time, and that therewas no point in counting on the legal authorities to defend them.Moreover, they openly said that they would soon be settling accountswith Abakar Akaev, a deputy to Dagestan’s National Assembly, whopromised the inhabitants of Karamakhi and Kadar assistance inacquiring arms to defend themselves from the Wahabis.

Under these circumstances, some of the local inhabitants are tryingto sell their homes and leave the republic. They see the futuredevelopment of the religious situation in Dagestan in the gloomiestof colors. For example, they are absolutely convinced that ifMoscow does nothing, the Wahabis, with the support of their Chechenbrothers, will take all power in the republic, including the government,into their own hands. Others in these villages are more resolute,and are ready to fight to the death to defend themselves fromthe religious and physical violence of the Wahabis. And that’snot just empty bravado. When one enters some Dagestani villagestoday, one can already see that together with police detachments,there are also members of the public, supporters of traditionalIslam, standing guard. In their hands, they hold, not the Koran,but Winchesters and pump-action rifles.

What Independent Experts Suggest

The reaction of the Russian leadership in general, and that ofthe Northern Caucasus in particular, clearly ought to be to putaside their arguments about the specifics of the spiritual developmentof national minorities under democratic conditions and unite todefeat ideologically radical Islamic elements in Russia. Withoutthis, relations cannot be normalized, either in Chechnya or inthe Northern Caucasus as a whole. Together with that, the Russianpolitical elite must understand that in addition to joint effortsdirected towards solving the conflict by political and economicmeans, law enforcement organs need to take active measures toisolate the people who are engaging in spiritual and physicalviolence, who are using Islam as a means to achieve their goals,and taking it away from the overwhelming majority of those Russiansfor whom Islam is, as it ought to be, a faith, and not a weaponin the fight for the redistribution of property and personal enrichment.

In the final analysis, the government must take responsibilityfor the mistakes it has made, and correct them.

Otherwise, we may once again find ourselves on the brink of war,but this time, with purely religious, and not criminal-economic,undertones. This scenario already exists. Such a war wouldbe simply fatal for the Russian Federation.

Translated by Mark Eckert