When referring to events in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, the media often employs a one-sided interpretation of the term “jamaat.” In most cases, the media interprets the term exclusively as a community united by a universal conviction that is basically religious in nature. However, in Arabic the word “jamaat” means nothing more than a collection or association of people, without any religious connotation implied. Of course, in an Islamic state, membership in a jamaat does entail collective prayer, mutual assistance, and joint decision-making. Even in this sense, though, the term implies the same types of activities that might take place in communal village life.
Among some Dagestani peoples, the term is widely used in everyday life, meaning nothing more than the rural community. Among the Karachai, the term has also recently come into wide usage, but few Karachai would think to construe “jamaat” as having a religious connotation. For instance, the first national Karachai movement to arise during the Soviet transition was at the same time a jamaat, which in this case meant a certain commonality shared by Karachai people seeking to defend their interests in a multinational republic. Additionally, the term “jamaat” is widely used among Balkars, where it is exclusively used to indicate a collection of people united by a common goal and harmony of interests.
In Chechnya and Ingushetia, on the other hand, the term jamaat never took root. In its place, the term “yurt”, meaning village or village community, was used. For many Chechens and Ingush, the final word in many matters was always left to the “yurt” (or to the village), while in the same situation, Dagestanis, Karchai, and Balkars would say that the final word lay with the jamaat .
The current leaders of so-called radicals were present at in the first days of the Party of Islamic Rebirth, which was formed in 1990. The Chechen group was represented by well-known figures such as Isa Umarov, Islam Khalimov, Movladi Udugov, Ahmed Bachyurtovsky, and Adam Deniev.
In Chechnya, the term “jamaat” found its way into everyday life in 1995 with the formation of militarized groups under the leadership of Sheikh Fathi, an ethnic Chechen from Jordan who had come to Chechnya in 1995. At that time, Fathi formed a unit of those who had recently arrived from the Middle East. His unit soon began to expand at the expense of other Chechen groups, as many fighters were attracted to his methods and equipment. Fathi’s brigade was well outfitted and had no financial problems, in contrast to the Chechen units, which often looked bedraggled compared to his unit. Before coming to Chechnya, Sheikh Fathi had extensive military experience in Afghanistan and Tadjikistan. Despite his advanced years (he was well over 60, at the time), Fathi decided to devote himself to the struggle against the Russian occupation of Chechnya. Financial considerations attracted to his side many young fighters who could not buy weapons, ammunition, or uniforms – all of which Fathi could grant in exchange for entry into his jamaat.
In the post-war period, jamaats acquired noticeable strength in Chechen society, even though there were hardly more than a thousand of them. But discipline and finance were another matter. While Fathi was alive, the Chechen jamaat adhered to a policy of neutrality with respect to the Chechen government under Aslan Maskhadov. However, this neutrality was more strategic than it was ideological. Though Fathi did not publicly speak out against Maskhadov, he did make frequent calls for the Islamization of Chechen state and society in numerous speeches in the Republic’s mosques. The sheikh also levied harsh criticism at Sufi Islam, which, in his opinion, had introduced innovations into Islam that contradicted the immutable foundations of the faith laid down in the time of Mohammed.
Fathi’s death in 1997 came as a surprise to the Chechen leadership, and the authorities in Chechnya were not prepared to influence the choice of a new leader for the radicals. Sheikh Fathi’s successor was his compatriot from Jordan, a young ethnic Chechen named Abdurakhman. The new leader, in contrast to Fathi, had practically no formal or Islamic education. His inexperience and dissatisfaction with the state of affairs under the Chechen Constitution of 1992 led to armed conflict with forces allied to Maskhadov in July 1998. In this two-day armed altercation, which took place near the town of Gudermes in eastern Chechnya, the radicals suffered a complete collapse. Only the intervention of Vice-President Bakhi Arsanov and Shamil Basaev saved them from complete physical destruction. This was the first such attack on the authorities. According to Chechen Prosecutor Khavazhi Serbiev, Zelimkhan Yanderbiev, considered one of the spiritual leaders of the radicals, was also widely accused of being responsible for these actions (see Nevskoe Vremya, No 131 (1773), 22 July 1998).
Maskhadov considered this a serious attack on his government and ordered the disarming of Abdurakhaman’s brigade. According to A. Kudryavtsev, President Maskhadov used the conflict between his allies and the radicals as a chance to cleanse his government of individuals who sympathized with the religious radicals (see “Vahabbism: Problemy Religiosnovo ekstremisma na Severnom Kavkazye” Tsentralnaya Aziya i Kavkaz No 9). A number of prominent officials were forced to resign, including Minister for Shariat Security Islam Khalimov, his deputy, Abdul-Malik Mezhidov (who was also deprived of his rank and war medals), Minister of Foreign Affairs Movladi Udugov, Minister of Education Abdul-Vakhab Husainov, Vice-minister of Defense Arbi Baraev (who was also deprived of rank and medals), representatives of local Shariah courts and others. Believing that they could be better managed under his immediate control, Maskhadov had originally brought these individuals into government as a means of staying one step ahead of the radicals. However, this turned out to be a strategic mistake on Maskhadov’s part, because the radicals used their positions to strengthen their base and neutralize their enemies. The very participation of such people in government provoked incomprehension on the part of those who considered themselves adherents to the politics of President Maskhadov. In the end, Maskhadov ordered that four prominent Middle Eastern “immigrants” leave Chechnya. This included the ethnic Chechen Abdurakhman (see Timor Muzaev’s “Aslan Maskhadov: politicheskaya biografia,” 18 November 2004).
At the same time, in Argun, 14 kilometers from Grozny, a different type of jamaat had taken shape and was successfully operating. In this jamaat, however, devotion and conviction were priorities and violence played absolutely no role. The leader of this jamaat was the young and popular Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, a native of Argun and a graduate of the Philosophy Faculty at Chechen State University. Sadulaev often worked with Maskhadov and he could often be seen discussing religious affairs on the state-run television channel.
But, in the meantime, the immaturity of the Chechen government had created another problem – the appearance of military units not under the control of Maskhadov that sought to overthrow the government. The entire republic became an arena for the anti-government activities of these groups, and a wave of murders and kidnappings swept the republic. A written indulgence (on the forgiveness of these sins) was issued by the leader of Abdurakhman’s jamaat (after the altercation with Maskhadov’s forces, Abdurakhman had been replaced by a Chechen native from Tsatsan-Yurt, Emir Umar).
At the same time, Shamil Basaev, who was unable to get over his loss in the 1997 presidential elections, gathered radical allies around him. In turn, these allies found Basaev useful, owing to his exalted status as national hero in the war. In their eyes, Basaev was a screen for the continuation of their fight against the Chechen government. They needed him to help carry out their plans for the construction of an Islamic state in Chechnya and Dagestan. In April 1998, he was chosen as the military emir of the radicals. The political wing of the radicals, meanwhile, had made an alliance with Movladi Udugov, who organized the Congress of Chechnya and Dagestan, where the final aim was declared to be the formation of an Islamic state in the North Caucasus.
Towards the end of 1998 and the beginning of 1999, another illegitimate attempt was made to push aside Aslan Maskhadov on the basis of a Shariah court decision that had dismissed basically all of the charges levied by the opposition led by Shamil Basaev, Zelimkhan Yanderbiev, and the leaders of the jamaat.
Though Shamil Basaev personally spoke out against armed removal of the President, but attempts by Maskhadov’s enemies to physically remove the President never ceased.
According to Basaev’s version of the story, the rebel leader decided to draw Dagestan into his sphere of influence as a way of avoiding internal conflicts in the Chechen resistance. Thus, according to Basaev, the August 1999 incursion in Dagestan was planned with this in mind. Many radicals and portions of the moderate resistance rallied to Basaev. Maskhadov condemned the actions of Basaev and ordered the immediate recall of all Chechens from Dagestan. Therefore, it is not surprising, that after a few days, mass quantities of people began to return to Chechnya, and this happened before the beginning of large-scale Russian military operations against Islamic radicals in Botlikhsky region. President Maskhadov did not have the forces or the possibility to resist Basaev. But Maskhadov understood perfectly well that the incursion would inevitably give the Russians cause to use force against the Chechens.
With the beginning of the war, the radicals attempted to conduct their operations independently. But they soon came to understand that without unified coordination they would not be able to survive and carry on the war, so they agreed to recognize Maskhadov as their leader in the war against Russia.
After the retreat from Grozny, the activities of the jamaats were completely coordinated with the leadership of the Chechen resistance movement. Furthermore, it would be incorrect to assume that the jamaats were subordinated to Basaev personally. In actuality, they have their own military emir, who in the name of all the jamaats swears allegiance to the President. Nonetheless, among the jamaats there are different sympathies for different leaders in Chechnya. For example, the jamaats in Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachai are subordinated to Basaev, and the Chechen jamaats tightly coordinate their relations with the Dagestani jamaats. In practice, Basaev is continuing the line of Khattab (who was always his deputy). Khattab always had under his control foreigners that were never members of a Chechen jamaat. Therefore, it is inaccurate to claim that Khattab was ever the leader of a united Islamic radical trend in Chechnya. The units of Khattab and the units of the jamaats were, in fact, quite different, as was the character of those units. They were, of course, more similar to one another than they were to the units subordinated to the President of Chechnya. Another important factor is the fact that one of the main leaders of the jamaats, Basaev, considers himself a follower of the Kadiri Tarikat and is also a follower of the Chechen Sheikh Ali Mitaev.
Today, in terms of the military resistance, the jamaat units are some of the most powerful military groups in the Chechen resistance movement. It is impossible to ignore their influence, and therefore the statements of any Chechen public figures should always be understood on the basis of this military force. In less than 15 years, jamaats have gone from organizations with just a few members to one of the leading forces on the political and military scene in Chechnya. With the death of notable figures such as the Akhmadov brothers (Ramzan, Rizvan, and Zelim), Arbi Baraev, Khattab and others, it is possible to say that the movement has made at least a small step towards becoming more understandable and predictable in their activities. In the final analysis, however, it is President Maskhadov who deserves credit for this, since he was able to leave behind an organized military structure that cannot be dominated by any single faction.
Mayrbek Vachagaev is a PhD candidate in Social Sciences at the University of Paris. He is the author of the book, “Chechnya in the 19th Century Caucasian Wars,” and was chief of staff to the late Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov from 1997 until the August invasion of 1999.