Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 31

The influence of Islamic extremism is growing among the rebel guerrillas, one of the most seasoned journalists specializing in the Chechen wars has concluded from a recent visit to rebel strongholds in Chechnya’s southern highlands. Andrei Babitsky of Radio Liberty spent five days with the rebels, whom he found to be as resolute as ever–and even better-armed than when he last visited them more than two years ago. The RFE/RL website published a summary of his report on August 14.

Despite the “Spartan quality” of the rebel’s daily life, Babitsky was struck by the improvements in their military equipment. The rebels whom he met were wearing NATO-style, waterproof clothing, and the quality of their weapons was also better. One of them had a silencer and a sniper’s scope attached to his Kalashnikov assault rifle.

Babitsky confirmed reports from other sources that the rebels get almost all of their arms from Russian soldiers. As described by one of the guerrillas, these sales take place through Chechen youths who act as middlemen, taking substantial profits for themselves: “…the local youth get to know the soldiers and for two or three bottles of vodka the soldiers will sell them some ammunition rounds. These kids, for 200 rubles, sell it to us and I know that they’re getting it for even cheaper….”

As for morale, the reporter said, the rebels “are as self-assured as before, they couldn’t look less like people hunted and driven into caves.”

Babitsky also found a “generational split” among the rebels, with the younger generation more self-consciously religious and more militant. An older guerrilla commander told him that the younger were more willing to adopt radical tactics such as suicide attacks, consciously imitating the Palestinian uprising. “I don’t know exactly who is promoting this, but there is a thesis that is growing in influence, which is that the Arabs spent fifty years blowing themselves up and have finally gotten a ‘road map.’ That’s what some people believe,” the commander said. “But personally, I don’t think this is acceptable, that it is acceptable to resort to such methods to fight a war.”

“Here in the mountains, to an increasing extent, the atmosphere is becoming influenced by radical religious doctrine,” Babitsky said. “In other words, Wahhabism–although the mujahadeen don’t like the word–is becoming the dominant ideology, not only of the war, but of peacetime.”

In the lowlands, on the other hand, Babitsky found that the same young people who sell arms to the rebels often sign up with the “pro-Moscow” police controlled by the Kadyrov administration. “On the one hand, there is no work and people have no money,” he said. “On the other hand, people have no information about what is happening in the mountains. Kadyrov and Russian television…say no one is fighting, that only a few fighters are hiding out in the mountains to escape being killed. And young people think, ‘Let’s take the weapons and money and we won’t touch the mujahadeen.’ But it doesn’t work out that way, because their superiors are smarter. At the first opportunity they create a blood tie. They take somebody who’s allegedly tied to the mujahadeen….They torture him and then they kill him. Whether you want to or not, you have to participate. After that, you’re tainted forever.”