Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 1

On December 23, two Russian military intelligence agents, who had been found guilty by a court in Qatar of the murder of former Chechen president and separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, returned to Russia. Their return was a result of a special agreement between the governments of Qatar and Russia. The Qatari authorities agreed to transfer the agents to spend their life imprisonment term in their homeland. The majority of observers regard this as an actual release of the agents. Kommersant reported on December 24 that the agents were met at a Moscow airport like guests of honor, with a red carpet and luxury-car escort.

It is still not entirely clear what methods the Kremlin used to force the Qatari authorities to release the murderers of the Emir of Qatar’s personal guest (Yandarbiev lived in the country under the Emir’s protection), but it is quite obvious that in this case relations with Russia were Qatar’s highest priority. And this fact enraged Chechen rebels, who had regarded Qatar as their latent ally.

On December 25, Ilyas Akhmadov, the Chechen separatist government’s foreign affairs minister, lodged a strong protest with the authorities of Qatar in connection with the “extradition” of the two Russian special services agents to Russia. Chechenpress quoted him as saying that the “extradition” of the two agents to Russia not only cast doubt on the independence of the justice system in Qatar, but also directly encouraged the Russian special services to continue their terrorist activity and physically eliminate political opponents of Russia’s authoritarian regime abroad.

The reaction of the radical wing of the separatists was even more emotional. One article, posted on Daymokh, was headlined “The Muslim Qatar Made a Christmas Present to the Satanist Putin,” while the other, on Kavkazcenter, was headlined “They Betrayed Us.”

However, Chechen rebels had become disillusioned with the lack of support from Muslim countries much earlier. After the first war in Chechnya ended, the governments of some Muslim countries offered help to restore the Chechen economy and infrastructure. For example, in 1997 Saudi Arabia financed the reconstruction of several villages in Achkoi-Martan region and housing in Grozny, the capital. Nevertheless, it was various non-government organizations and foundations that mainly supported the authorities of the independent Ichkeria, and these were mostly connected with radical Islamic groups. The largest group operating in those days in Chechnya was the Saudi Arabian Al-Haramein, whose envoy, Abu Umar Mohhamed Al-Seif, is reportedly still in Chechnya hiding somewhere in the mountains along with other rebels. Unlike support from official authorities, financing from Muslim organizations always implied a quid pro quo. According to Akhmed Zakaev, Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov’s emissary in Europe, the Arabs gave money only to those who had declared solidarity with Palestinians and who advocated the Sharia law in Chechnya. This made the fundamentalists the most powerful force in the republic. With no money in their pockets, the supporters of the idea of a secular state in Chechnya could not compete with religious radicals.

When the second war in Chechnya broke out, Maskhadov, the president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Ichkeria, appointed the pro-Western Zakaev to be his envoy in Europe, while Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, the spiritual leader of the Islamists in Chechnya, was sent to represent Maskhadov in Muslim countries. Chechen “foreign policy” was split into two: the rebels appealed to the West with peace plans and pointed to massive human rights violations in the republic while asking Muslim communities all over the world to donate for Jihad. During the entire second campaign, the separatists have had to balance between the two camps, being dependent on the Arabs’ money and seeking political support in the Western world.

Nevertheless, after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, financial support from the radical Islamic groups started to dwindle. According to Laurent Vinatier, a research fellow at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris and a specialist on the Chechen Diaspora in Muslim countries, the activity of the Islamic foundations in the Caucasus has dropped dramatically over the last two years. The rebels had to look for new financing sources and found them quickly by extorting members of the pro-Russian administration in Chechnya and in neighboring republics. Alexander Torshin, head of the Investigation Commission of the Events in Beslan, said in an interview published in Moskovsky komsomolets on December 22 that at most 10 percent of the rebels’ funding now comes from outside Russia, with the bulk of the remaining money coming from the Russian government’s budget.

The change in the money sources also affected the ideology of the rebels. Shamil Basaev, the most influential field commander, again talks more of “national liberation” than of “Jihad.” In his statement released after the Beslan drama, he said: “To hell with it all, but we will continue to fight for our freedom and independence.” In December, separatist websites published an appeal by the “Chechen mudjahideen” to the “Muslims of the world.” The authors, probably mid-level rebel field commanders, addressed those Muslims who “live in comfort and safety” and asked them to remember the hardships of their “brothers in Chechnya.” “Remember the mudjahideen who live in the mountains, are covered with snow, under rockets and bombs.” The main idea of the message could be described as “we need your support,” and despite the fact that the letter was written in a quiet polite form, one can also sense the anger caused by the lack of support from the Muslim community.

As for the main leader of the rebels, Aslan Maskhadov, who has always been skeptical about the idea of turning Chechnya into another front in the global Jihad, he never even mentions Muslim solidarity these days. In the long interview he gave to Reuters in July, he appealed mainly to the U.S. government saying that the rebels “fight for freedom, and the USA is not our enemy or a rival.” The government of Qatar’s decision to return the two Russia special services agents convicted of murdering Zelimkhan Yandarbiev can provide Maskhadov with another strong argument in his attempts to convince his brothers-in-arms to forget about Jihad sponsors from abroad and persuade them to concentrate on their own capabilities, hoping that some day the superpowers of the world will help them to stop the war in the Caucasus.