In his recent audio tape expressing sympathy with the people of Gaza, the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, named Chechnya as one of the Muslim areas that have been oppressed by the superpowers of the world order. While this is a normal position for Salafi-Jihadis, there are some indicators that al-Qaeda and Salafi-jihadis-affiliated groups are taking another look at Chechnya since their activities in the region declined several years ago.
Remarkably, after a period without such postings, the jihadist web-forums have circulated several items on Chechnya in recent months. On November 7, 2008, one contributor to Alhesbahweb.net—a well-known forum that is now defunct—criticized Muslims for “forgetting” Chechnya and the Chechens’ tragedy. More interestingly, in October 2008, the As-ansar.com/vb jihadi web-forum (now also defunct) circulated a video recording entitled “Fursan al-Shishan” (Knights of Chechnya) showing attacks against Russian troops which had taken place in different areas of Chechnya. The same recording showed graphics to remind audiences of an old fatwa issued by the prominent Saudi Sheikh Muhammad bin Salih Al-Uthaymeen (1925-2001) urging Muslim countries to cut their diplomatic ties with Russia. The jihadist electronic journal Jannat (Issue 53, June/September 2008) published an article about Chechnya stating that North Caucasus Islamic Emirate leaders “had reviewed its previous strategies and will expand the Emirate in the neighboring North Caucasus republics.”
Most postings on jihadist web-forums suggest that the North Caucasus Emirate is indeed expanding in the region and the Salafi-Jihadis in the Middle East are looking for a foothold in the region . This can be understood in the context of the shift in strategy of the Salafi-Jihadi movement and in the ideological justification that the North Caucasus Islamists are looking for.
In November 2008 the Amir of the Islamic State of Iraq (i.e. al-Qaeda in Iraq), Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, directed an open letter to Barack Obama immediately after he was elected President of the United States urging him to withdraw American troops from Iraq. Significantly, al-Baghdadi directed his letter on behalf of Salafi-Jihadis in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Chechnya, which indicates that Chechnya is one of the pivotal areas in the world view of Salafi-Jihadis.
The Salafi-Jihadis’ focus on certain areas can be explained in the context of a shift in the strategy of al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups. In other words, instead of franchising al-Qaeda and inspiring affiliated groups, they now aim to create hotbeds and safe havens in different geographical areas from which to launch attacks against their enemies in a war of attrition . The Salafi-Jihadis seem to hope that Chechnya and the Caucasus region will serve as one of these safe havens.
The Salafi-Jihadis have existed in Chechnya since the mid-1990s, when the first Chechnya war began, but they declined after 2001 as neither the society nor the Chechen resistance movement accommodated them. But even though the role of the Salafi-Jihadis has declined, they were successful in reviving the idea of the unification of North Caucasians under the banner of Islam to confront Russia’s advance. As a result, recent years have witnessed the emergence of several local jihadist organizations in the neighboring regions of the North Caucasus, such as the Sharia Jama’at in Dagestan (al-Hayat, July 18, 2008), and Yarmuk in Kabardino-Balkaria (al-Hayat, December 27, 2005).
Islamic North Caucasus
Ironically, Chechnya, which has experienced war for more than a decade, has become relatively more peaceful than the neighboring republics, which have been experiencing attacks and bombs targeting federal buildings and local security facilities on a more regular basis (al-Hayat, July 18, 2008).
Reports suggest that several factors explain the increase in attacks in neighboring republics, such as the “enhancement” of the situation in Chechnya that led the fighters to move to those regions, the deterioration of “moderate” Islamists and concomitant increase in “extremist” Islamists all over Russia and particularly in the North Caucasus, and finally, as al-Hayat revealed, the success of these organizations in reviving their financial channels from the Middle East (al-Hayat, July 18, 2008).
In addition to their adherence to a unification ideology, it seems that Jihadis in the North Caucasus are motivated by opposition to Russian hegemony and to the way the local rulers tackle day-to-day politics. The Salafi-Jihadis can provide, in addition to funding, ideological incitement to take up arms to confront both.
In this context, in November 2008, jihadist web-forums circulated a video recording entitled “the apostasy of Kadyrov,” stating that Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov is a murtad (an apostate). The recording also criticizes Akhmed Zakaev, which seems to be an attempt to demonstrate the difference between the Islamic project and the national one represented by Zakaev. Interestingly, the recording was shown with comments by the Salafi-Jihadi ideologue Abdullah Rashid al-Rashoud, whom Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the slain former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (June 2006), eulogized after he was killed by American forces near al-Qaim, Iraq, in 2005.
It seems that the fragile situation in the North Caucasus in terms of its unstable socio-political conditions has played an important role in fuelling the rise of Islamist extremists in the region, as well as their historic ambitions, which unsurprisingly seem to remain alive among the newer generations. Al-Qaeda and affiliated Salafi-Jihadi groups look to Chechnya and the North Caucasus as a geopolitically important area that could be used in carrying out their new strategy of creating safe-havens in different parts of the world in order to weaken their enemies. While Chechnya is more stable than it has been in the past decade, it remains an important rallying point for supporters of Salafist groups who have long been sympathetic to the Chechens and their struggle against Russian oppression.
1. It is worth mentioning that some of the postings on the jihadi web-forums were posted by people affiliated with the small Salafi-Jihadi groups that emerged in the Gaza strip in the last few months and confronted Hamas and were aimed at undermining Hamas, which had established good relations with Russia. These groups could be re-emerging after the recent Israeli assault on Gaza.
2. See Abu Bakr Naji, Idarat al-Tawahosh (The Management of Savagery), 2004. Also see Osama bin Laden’s January 14, 2009, audio tape on the events in Gaza.