Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 18

By Igor Rotar

The Russian authorities claim that the ideological inspiration and the main source of funding behind the paramilitaries in Chechnya is the well-known Saudi terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev believes that the incursion into his country’s territory by armed brigades of Uzbek fundamentalists and the war in Dagestan are two links in the same chain, and that the guerrillas in both regions are financed by Bin Laden and other Islamic fundamentalists. Significantly, the Saudi terrorist has declared a jihad on the United States and Israel. It may be inferred that this is the beginning of a new global conflict, to use Samuel Huntington’s term, between Western and Islamic civilizations. If this hypothesis is correct, then the position of the CIS states at the junction of the Christian and Moslem worlds is more than unenviable: According to the American political scientist’s theory, most modern wars take place in the zone where two cultures meet. It is of great interest, in this context, to note the viewpoint of one of the more prominent Islamic fundamentalist ideologues in Russia today, Geidar Dzhemal, who seriously believes that in order to avoid the destructive–as he sees it–influence of the West, the Russians will simply have no choice but to adopt Islam. Let us attempt to establish the nature of the forces opposing both the Kremlin and the secular regimes of Central Asia today, and assess how serious the threat of Islamic fundamentalism really is.


Almost journalism describing the military activity both in the North Caucasus and in Kyrgyzstan mention the so-called “Wahhabites.” The collective media image of the adherents of this Islamic doctrine is of Moslem fanatics with long beards who have no qualms about cutting off the heads of their secularized fellow-countrymen and who mercilessly kill Russian soldiers and take journalists and foreigners hostage.

Wahhabism is a doctrine of Sunni Islam which advocates strict observance of the principle of monotheism, rejecting the veneration of saints and holy places, and ridding Islam of popular cults and innovations. Wahhabism is close to the official ideology of Saudi Arabia.

In the Soviet Union the Wahhabites were first mentioned in the early 1990s during the civil war in Tajikistan. The opponents of the Tajik opposition said that they were not fighting real Moslems, but “Wahhabites.” The Islamic opposition in Tajikistan did indeed take up certain elements of Wahhabite ideology, calling, for example, for a rejection of opulent weddings and funerals. One of the leaders of the Tajik opposition, Hadji Akbar Turadzhonzoda, made no secret of the fact that his “Moslem brothers” had had an enormous influence on him, and that he considered them fine philosophers. “It is my conviction that fundamentalism is not extremism, nor is it religious intolerance. I think that every religious person should have something of the fundamentalist in him, if by fundamentalism we mean that a person adheres to the true faith,” Turadzhonzoda said at the time (1). However, it is intrinsically wrong to equate fundamentalism and Wahhabism, because the former concept is much the broader of the two.

The first “Wahhabites” appeared in the North Caucasus, just as they did in Central Asia, at the beginning of perestroika, when, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, missionaries from Arab countries reached the Moslem regions of the Soviet Union and young Moslems from these republics had the opportunity to study in religious institutions in other Islamic countries. However, just as in Central Asia, local “Wahhabites” categorically objected to being so dubbed. “Wahhabite is a term which ignorant people use to describe groups of Moslems who often differ very greatly from each other. Basically, anybody who criticizes the official clerics is dismissed as a “Wahhabite.” If you want to be totally accurate, the so-called North Caucasus “Wahhabites” should be called Salafites (the general term for Moslem religious activists who at various times in history called for a return to the way of life and beliefs of early Moslem society), or fundamentalists,” one of the most important Moslem academics in Russia, Akhmedkadi Akhtaev, told the author shortly before his death.

Akhtaev’s view is probably not far from the truth, and in fact the term “Wahhabites” is generally used to describe all groups of Moslems in the former Soviet Union who criticize the regional features of Islam which often incorporate local customs and even Soviet innovations.

However, the problem is in reality far more serious than one of minor religious differences. Before perestroika, Moscow managed successfully to adapt the very divergent cultures of the various peoples in the country to communist ideology. Alas, this was only possible under a totalitarian system. Western European democratic institutions turned out to be ineffective in the Moslem regions of their crumbling empires. There is perhaps one thing which unites the rather disparate fundamentalist groups: They accept neither the former communist system nor the Western model of development which has appeared in its stead. Typical of this is the viewpoint expressed to Prism’s correspondent back in 1991 by the then chairman of the Islamic Resurgence Party of Tajikistan (now one of the leaders of the united Tajik opposition), Mukhammad Sharifzodoi: “Western countries have their democracy, we have ours. Our democracy is incompatible with Western democracy! In the West the rights of the individual are unlimited to such an extent that they are practically not recognized as social rights; because of the permissiveness of the Western way of life, the West is heading for collapse. Whereas in the Soviet Union, until recently, individual rights were severely constricted. We will try to strike a balance between these two extremes.”

The growth in the social base of CIS fundamentalists is also facilitated by the legal anarchy rampant in almost all Moslem regions of the former Soviet Union. In Dagestan today, for example, just two sections of society have very nearly divided power between them: the former party nomenklatura and the so-called “new Dagestanis”–in other words, criminal bigwigs who have their own armed units. The conflict between the so-called “Wahhabites” of the Kadarskaya zone and official Makhachkala first arose when the fundamentalists refused to make a payment to the local criminal structures. Meanwhile, in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan an “official racket” of corrupt officials often successfully replaces the mafia. Given this state of affairs, many Moslems lose their confidence in the effectiveness of the actions of the secular authorities, and become convinced that it will only be possible to deal with this legal chaos if society lives by the laws of the Shariah.

The success of Islamic fundamentalism can also be attributed to the fact that its ideology is organically intertwined with nationalist ideology. Thus not only Chechen separatists, but also Tajik and Uzbek fundamentalists stand up for their national distinctiveness, setting this against the “destructive” influence of the West. It is interesting to note that among the leaders of both the Uzbek and the Tajik opposition there are many people who speak practically no Russian (a rare phenomenon in Central Asia today), yet speak fluent Arabic. As the Russian eastern specialist Robert Landa rightly points out, “for any nationalist, even a nonbeliever… Islam is the “everyday life” which protects them from invasion from outside and from modernization which is forced upon them (as is customary to believe). Therefore Islam is an integral part of nationalism” (2). Thus the current resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in Moslem regions of the former Soviet Union would appear to be quite logical. Whereas at the beginning of the 1990s the number of fundamentalists among the population of Dagestan was no more than 2 percent, today official Makhachkala estimates that it is approaching 10 percent. There are no figures available for fundamentalists in Central Asia, but there can be no doubt that their number is growing.


The situation in the North Caucasus and in Central Asia overall could have remained fairly stable had it not been for the emergence in each region of Islamic enclaves which did not comply with the official authorities: Chechnya and the mountainous southeastern part of Tajikistan controlled by the opposition (the Karategina valley). The situation in both regions began to develop along similar lines. Uzbek Islamic radicals headed for the mountains of Tajikistan, where they formed armed brigades–presumably with the aid of like-minded Tajiks. Meanwhile, the Dagestan “Wahhabites” rushed to Chechnya–to Khattab’s camps. Then it was basically a question of time: The rebels just had to amass enough force to declare a jihad.

It was quite natural that these two de facto Islamic states which had formed on CIS territory should try to join forces. The leading role in this partnership was taken by the militarily stronger Chechnya. Uzbek nationalists, for example, not content just with creating their own military camps in Tajikistan, also went to visit Khattab to learn from his experience.

For the sake of balance, it should be pointed out that there were also things the Chechens could learn from their Central Asian counterparts. Back in Soviet times in the Fergana valley there was a network of semi-underground madrasah (Islamic religious school), independent from the secular authorities. Although the Chechen population is noted for its strong religious nature, there is a chronic lack of theological students. In the early 1990s hundreds of young people from Chechnya and Dagestan went to study Islam in the underground madrasah of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. One of the students at one of the madrasah in the “capital” of the Uzbek Islamists, Namangan, was Salman Raduev.

It would have been remarkable if fundamentalists from abroad had not paid close attention to the Islamic enclaves in the CIS. Many independent sources confirm that they did. Khattab fought with Bin Laden in Afghanistan, and later Shamil Basaev traveled with his fighters to the military camps in that country; after the current military campaign in Chechnya began, the Taliban gave the Chechen paramilitaries four Stinger units free of charge, at least according to the Russian authorities (3). It should also be remembered that investigations showed that the last terrorist attack on Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was carried out by terrorists who had been trained in special camps in Chechnya by instructors from Pakistan. Yet, even so, the role of Bin Laden and others should not be exaggerated, at least in regard to the events in the North Caucasus. It may be that the Kremlin is trying to excuse its helplessness by accusing the Saudi billionaire. In any event, during the 1994-96 war in Chechnya most of the material support the paramilitaries received certainly did not come from Islamic radicals from abroad. The mainstay of the Chechen resistance were their compatriots living in Russia. There was a fairly straightforward system in operation: Chechen mafia groups in Russian towns collected payments from their compatriot businessmen, and themselves used the proceeds to buy weapons from Russian soldiers. We may surmSise that the same system is in operation this time. It turned out that paramilitaries in Kadarskaya zone in Dagestan were equipped with Russian weapons issued this year, and there have been reports in the media that criminal elements procured geoksin (the explosive used in the recent terrorist attacks) not from their like-minded friends abroad but from Moscow armaments factories.


Despite the clear similarities between the events in Central Asia and those in the North Caucasus, it may nevertheless be assumed that forecasts for the development of the conflicts in these two regions are different. The leaders of the Central Asian states will probably manage to avert the further spread of the Tajik troubles. Cynical as it may sound, perhaps the main factor restraining the spread of radical Islam in Central Asia is the blatantly totalitarian regime of the regional superpower, Uzbekistan. Immediately after the terrorist attacks in Tashkent in February, almost all Islamic dissidents were thrown into prison, even though most of them did not have anything to do with the underground movement. For all the overtly undemocratic nature of these measures, they were quite effective: Not only were the terrorists themselves neutralized, but the social base of the fundamentalists was destroyed. The well-oiled apparatus of repression in modern Uzbekistan allows for total control of the whole of society (it is practically impossible to own weapons illegally here, for example). Because of this, those members of the population who are sympathetic to the guerrillas are unable to render them effective assistance.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that the current efficiency of the Uzbek policy for dealing with the Islamists may turn out to be a temporary phenomenon. “Stubbornly rejecting shock therapy, Islam Karimov seems to take pride in the fact that his country is slowly sinking into the abyss. We do not understand whether they are really planning to build a modern capitalist society in Uzbekistan, or whether they only want to make minor adjustments to the previous socialist system,” a Russian diplomat in Tashkent told the author. If Tashkent does not manage to turn the situation around in the near future and deliver economic growth, then a dramatic drop in the standard of living may lead to hunger riots, and in this case the well-oiled apparatus of repression may begin to develop glitches.

The prospects for development in the North Caucasus are quite different. Essentially the Kremlin lost control of certain republics in this region long ago. In Dagestan, for example, it is not just that almost the entire population is armed; a significant number of people have joined paramilitary groups (basically small armies) which are formed by nationality. Experience shows that fully armed Chechen paramilitaries move unimpeded not just around the North Caucasus, but also in the “Russian” part of Russia. It is doubtful that with such a state of affairs the Kremlin will be able to efficiently put a halt to the export of the “Islamic revolution;” in reality it will only be possible to defeat the Islamists by engaging them in a long and bloody war (which is what Moscow is basically doing today, creating a so-called “exclusion zone” in Chechnya). But by doing this the Kremlin is inadvertently falling into the Islamic radicals’ trap. Public support allows the federal troops to use aerial and artillery bombardments from a great distance (thus avoiding losses to their own soldiers), but this inevitably increases the number of victims among the civilian population. It is difficult to guess where this will lead: Even during the 1994-96 campaign (when Moscow was forced to take note of indignant public opinion), federal troops were killing civilians rather than paramilitaries. This time, probably the whole of the paramilitary-controlled part of Chechnya will be razed to the ground. In Russia itself, in order to prevent possible terrorist attacks and to shut off the supply lines for aid to the rebels from Russia’s Chechen community, the authorities will have to carry out comprehensive checks on the population, and may limit the freedom of movement of certain categories of citizen (already today, for example, contrary to Russian laws, refugees from Chechnya are only being admitted into neighboring Ingushetia); they will basically impose a state of emergency de facto.

In these circumstances, it is doubtful whether Russia will be able to remain (even purely by declaration) a Western-style democratic state. Thus at least one of the Islamic radicals’ goals would be achieved in any case.


1. Akbar Rashidov. Tot, kto deistvitel’no reshaet // Megapoliss-Express. 1995. 31.10. p. 2

2. R.G. Landa. Islam v istorii Rossii. M.: Izdatel’skaia firma “Vostochnaia literatura” RAN. 1995. p. 253

Igor Rotar is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.