Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 6

Islamic radicals in Dagestan

By Igor Rotar

Women wearing yashmaks have recently appeared on the streets of Dagestani cities. Locals call them "vakhabitki" ("Wahhabis"). When you enter the village of Karamakhi, one of the centers of Dagestani "Wahhabism," you feel as if you are in another country. It is rare to meet an unveiled woman on the streets and the men have full chest-length beards. (Wahhabis are forbidden to shave.)

Wahhabis are adherents of a religious-political doctrine in Sunni Islam which emerged in Arabia in the middle of the eighteenth century. It is based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who preached strict observance of the principle of monotheism, rejected the veneration of the saints and the holy places, and sought to purify Islam from later innovations and accretions. Wahhabism is close to the official ideology of Saudi Arabia.

But Dagestan’s "Wahhabis" categorically deny that they are adherents of this doctrine. "This is a label that ignorant people have stuck on us. We are normal Muslims. To be precise, you may call us Salafites [a general name for Islamic activists who, in various periods of history, have called on Muslims to return to the faith and way of life of the early Muslim community]," Akhmedkadi Akhtaev, the former chairman of the All-Union Islamic Revival Party, told Prism’s correspondent.

A few years ago, Islamists in Tajikistan were also referred to as "Wahhabis." Today, most of the Tajik opposition live in Shiite Iran. This in itself is a persuasive argument that Dushanbe’s opponents are not Wahhabis. "The term ‘Wahhabi’ was deliberately used by the KGB in order to provoke a schism among believers," Akbar Turajonzoda, deputy chairman of the United Tajik Opposition, told Prism. Today, the term is used in many parts of the former USSR to describe any Muslim group that criticize regional Islamic peculiarities, many of which are influenced by local customs and even Soviet innovations.

Champions of Jihad

Salafites first appeared in Dagestan and Chechnya in the late-1980s, when Islamic preachers from Arab countries began to enter the USSR’s Muslim regions. They became particularly influential in Dagestan after Russian troops entered Chechnya in 1994. The Salafites saw the Chechen resistance as a jihad against the infidel. Many went to help their fellow Muslims. The Chechen victory strengthened the Salafites’ position still further. Dagestani volunteers returning from the war in Chechnya did not hide their intention of building an Islamic state in Dagestan.

Attitudes toward the Salafites in both Dagestan and Chechnya are ambivalent. Sectarian conflicts — between the "Wahhabis" and the currents in Islam traditional to the republic — are much more common in Chechnya today than inter-clan strife. (1) At a joint conference of Islamic clergy from Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia last summer, Chechen Prime Minister Shamil Basaev strongly criticized the Wahhabis. Recently, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov banned the preaching of this branch of Islam in the republic.

In Dagestan, the fight against the "Wahhabis" began after the December 1997 raid on the Russian military unit in Buinaksk. Makhachkala claimed that a detachment led by Jordanian-born Chechen Emir Khattab and supported by Dagestani "Wahhabis" was responsible for the raid. Several Dagestani Salafite leaders were arrested.

Soon afterwards, leaflets appeared in Dagestani bazaars. The "Dagestani Central Liberation Front" took responsibility for the raid. Initially, there were suspicions that both the underground organization and the leaflets were a provocation by the Dagestani authorities, who intended to kill two birds with one stone by soliciting additional subsidies for the republican budget from the center and cracking down on their local Islamic radicals.

In this case, however, it does not seem like a provocation. One of the leaders of the Dagestani Salafites, Bagauddin Muhammad, the mullah of the Kizilyurt mosque, declared that "Dagestan can remain part of Russia only if Russia becomes an Islamic state." Bagauddin Muhammad favored the idea of turning the Chechen war into a holy jihad, which would make it possible to mobilize the "Wahhabi" youth in Dagestan and create special Dagestani detachments. (2) Recently, he wrote and published a book entitled "My Struggle, or the Army of the Imam," in which he advocates the creation of an independent Islamic state in Dagestan.

Prism‘s correspondent has a videotape of the signing, on December 20, 1997, of a "Military Mutual Assistance Pact" between maverick Chechen field commander Salman Raduev and the "armed forces of the Islamic Jaamate of Dagestan" (an organization of armed detachments of Dagestani Salafites). It is true that early this year, Raduev criticized "Wahhabism" and demanded that Chechnya’s top leaders condemn it. Even if Raduev has broken with his recent allies (perhaps because the Dagestanis had become close to one of Raduev’s rivals), the document is evidence that there are armed groups in Dagestan whose goal is to remove the republic from the Russian Federation, and who are trying to achieve this end with the armed support of the Chechens.

"The Dagestani government has now begun open repressions against Muslims. In this situation we are left with no other choice than to take up arms in self-defense. We totally support the Dagestani Central Liberation Front," Khalif Ataev, leader of the Salafites in the village of Karamakhi, told Prism. And there can be little doubt that Chechen fighters — above all, those from Emir Khattab’s detachment (Khattab’s wife is from Karamakhi) — will come to the aid of the local Salafites.

Exporters of Islamic Revolution

Although official Grozny denies involvement in terrorist acts in Dagestan, raids into the neighboring republic suit the Chechen authorities’ strategic interests.

Grozny is actively lobbying for the creation of a "Caucasus Common Market." The Chechen authorities hope that, if the project is implemented, the pursuit of profit will force the world community to recognize Chechen independence. Today, this project looks rather far-fetched. Were Dagestan to join Chechnya, however, Chechnya would thereby gain access to the Caspian Sea. In those circumstances, the chances for recognition of the self-proclaimed state would sharply increase. Since Dagestan has almost two-thirds of Russia’s Caspian Sea shelf, the new confederation could become a leading Caspian power. The potential economic benefit is so great that not only prominent European financiers like the family of the late Sir James Goldsmith, but also influential British politicians such as former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, talk to the president of the "Caucasus Common Market," thrice-convicted Chechen Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev. (3)

Grozny has other interests in neighboring Dagestan as well. Chechnya defeated Russia in battle, but in peacetime the Chechen authorities have been unable to restore even minimally acceptable living conditions for the population. There are today more than 100,000 armed unemployed men in the republic. For many of them, war is the only trade they know and wish to practice. In these circumstances, the Chechen authorities make little effort to hide their strategic interest in Dagestan. Chechen Foreign Minister Movladi Udugov has created a movement called "Islamic Nation" which includes both Chechen and Dagestani political parties; its goal is to "restore Dagestan to the historical borders" that it occupied during the Imamate of Shamil — that is, the union of Dagestan and Chechnya.

Udugov stressed to Prism‘s correspondent that he was speaking of a cultural and historical community, and that Grozny was not calling for a political union. But while the Chechen authorities say they have no territorial claims to Dagestan, the supporters of "Islamic Nation" on both sides of the border protest whenever border controls between the two republics are tightened. Moscow and Makhachkala have been forced into such steps to limit the incessant raids from the Chechen side, and each time their actions have provoked appeals to "historical justice." Udugov has told Prism that, if the Russian authorities oppress Muslims in Dagestan, official Grozny "will assist in resolving the conflict by peaceful political means." He did not, however, rule out the possibility that "groups of Chechen volunteers" would go to Dagestan. Since Chechnya is split into zones of influence of individual field commanders, Udugov’s statement amounts to little more than an assurance that the Chechen president’s personal guard will not come to the help of Dagestani Muslims.

Of all Chechnya’s neighbors, Dagestan is perhaps the most vulnerable and, consequently, the most convenient target for Grozny’s geopolitical ambitions. Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district is compactly settled by the Akkin Chechens, who consider themselves to be citizens of the Chechen Republic rather than of the Russian Federation and who participated in the Chechen presidential elections. The activity of the Akkin Chechens could backfire and end up pushing Dagestanis away from Chechnya. For the Dagestani-Chechen conflict to broaden into a conflict between Dagestan and Russia, not just local Chechens but some at least of Dagestan’s other native peoples would have to be drawn into confrontation with Makhachkala. And Chechnya has found such a force in Dagestan — the so-called Dagestani "Wahhabis."

Movladi Udugov is generally assumed to be the "patron" of the Salafites in Chechnya. Udugov himself told Prism that "I support neither the Salafites nor the Wahhabis. This is a holdover from… the labels that overzealous Kremlin politicians tried to stick on us back in 1993 and 1994." But the fact that Udugov refused to criticize the Salafites in even the mildest of terms may be interpreted, in the light of present Chechen realities, as tacit support for this current in Islam.

It would be naive to think that Udugov’s sympathies are to be explained merely in terms of his own theological or philosophic views. From all indications, he sees the Salafites as Chechnya’s most reliable allies in the North Caucasus.

To be fair, it must be noted that only the most radical Salafites are ready for jihad. For example, the former chairman of the All-Union Islamic Revival Party Akhmedkadi Akhtaev, one of the most influential Salafites in Dagestan, opposes any violent action. But if Chechnya stood behind the radicals, even a relatively small number of supporters could prove sufficient.

Soon after the raid on Buinaksk, Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin stated that "The security services are well aware that most of Khattab’s camps and training bases are located in Dagestan. They even know from which village his wife comes." (4) The day after Rybkin’s interview, Russian Deputy Premier Ramazan Abdullatipov made a similar criticism of the force ministries: "The security services say that fighters are being trained in the Chechen Republic under the banner of Wahhabism, but they aren’t doing anything about it."

Soon afterwards, Russian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov announced that the federal security services would shortly take steps to prevent the spread of terrorism from Chechnya. But there are fears that the proposed steps could lead to the opposite result. "We are very afraid that if the Wahhabis start a war with the Russians, they could get stronger in our village. Then, the Russians could attack us. If that happened, our village might support the Wahhabis," Dagestani villagers told Prism.



1. War Report [London], No. 56, 1997

2. Izvestia, February 26, 1998

3. Monitor, November 4, 1997 and March 13, 1998; and Igor Rotar, "Grozny Lobbies for a Caucasus Common Market," Prism, December 5, 1997

3. Itogi magazine, No. 5, 1998

Translated by Mark Eckert

Igor Rotar is an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation.


Prism is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is edited by Elizabeth Teague and Stephen Foye.

The opinions expressed in Prism are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Jamestown Foundation.

If you would like information on subscribing to Prism, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at <>, by fax at 202-483-8337, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 1528 18th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036.

Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of Prism is strictly prohibited by law.