SHATTERING THE AL QAEDA-CHECHEN MYTH: PART I

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 35

by Brian Glyn Williams

 

In 1999, U.S. presidential candidate George Bush spoke for much of the American right when he warned the Russians that they “need to resolve the dispute (with the Chechens) peaceably and not be bombing women and children and causing huge numbers of refugees to flee Chechnya.”[1] If the Russians did not stop their brutal second war against the Chechens, which had begun in the fall of 1999, Bush threatened to cut off IMF and Export-Import Bank loans to the former superpower that the Republican right, led by Senator Jesse Helms, still saw as a dangerous manifestation of the USSR.

 

In 1999 the Chechen insurgents were typically portrayed in the United States as Afghan-style “freedom fighters” engaged in a heroic David-versus-Goliath struggle against the neo-Russian imperium. The anti-Russian Chechen resistance was hardly viewed as a component of Osama bin Laden’s “World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders,” which had been formed to expel the United States from Saudi Arabia in 1998. Condoleeza Rice, the future president’s National Security Advisor, best summed up the Bush administration’s views of the Chechens when she announced that “not every Chechen is a terrorist and the Chechens’ legitimate aspirations for a political solution should be pursued by the Russian government.” [2]

 

Such sentiments were not limited to the American right. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s influential National Security Advisor, similarly said of the Second Russo-Chechen War: “What should be done? To start with the U.S. should not fall for Russia’s entreaty that ‘we are allies against Osama bin Laden’…Terrorism is neither the geopolitical nor moral challenge here (in Chechnya).” [3]

 

Fast-forward two years later to the aftermath of al Qaeda’s kamikaze attack on the United States. As the domestically focused Bush administration surveyed Eurasia through the new prism of the global war on terror, the Chechen resistance, whose objectives (that is, national self-determination of the sort achieved by the Baltic states) were once looked upon with a degree of tacit sympathy by the Bush administration, was suddenly discovered to be in league with the “evil ones” responsible for 9/11.

 

In a volte-face that stunned the moderate Chechen leadership of President Aslan Maskhadov, a pragmatic leader known for his struggle to crush Islamic extremists attempting to infiltrate his own republic, President Bush now declared that “Arab terrorists” linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization were operating on Chechen territory and ought to be “brought to justice.” [4]. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell went a step further and proclaimed “Russia is fighting terrorists in Chechnya, there is no question about that, and we understand that.” [5]

 

This reassessment in Washington was only the beginning of a process that would ultimately see the secular Chechen Sufi-mystics reconfigured by the Western press into a foaming-at-the-mouth, globe-trotting nation of al Qaeda super terrorists. The Chechens, a Sovietized nation of moderate Muslims that arguably knew the words of Marx better than Muhammad, are now suspected of being tied to Wahhabi-fundamentalist Arabs at war with the West and modernity. In the process, the Western media and government officials began the character assassination of an entire nation, one that had no previous history of animosity toward the United States or the West.

 

Most notably, as the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom in an effort to destroy al Qaeda’s training bases in the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Chechen-watchers and specialists on conflict and ethnicity in the Caucasus were stunned to hear a variety of newly discovered media “talking heads” matter-of-factly proclaim that, in Afghanistan, the United States and Coalition soldiers were confronting hordes of Chechens. Those who had intimately followed the progression of the first Russo-Chechen War (1994-96) and the descent into an increasingly senseless second Russian quagmire in Chechnya could not contain their shock at the veritable barrage of glib media accounts of Chechens fighting on behalf of the Pashtun-Taliban theocracy/al Qaeda terrorist organization in distant Afghanistan.

 

If one were to swallow uncritically the “expert” testimony of the media “pundits,” the outgunned Army of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (currently considered by Russian sources to consist of 1,200 mountain fighters engaged in a life-and-death struggle with 80,000 Russian Federal troops) had somehow developed the logistic capacity (and the desire) to project “hundreds” of apparently unneeded fighters across Eurasia and through American-controlled air space over Afghanistan to defend illiterate Pashtun-Deobandi-Taliban puritans.

 

Specialists on Afghanistan were as bewildered as Chechnya experts by this blitz of media accounts referring to the important role that Chechens were suddenly playing in the doomed Pashtun-Taliban regime’s defense of its puritanical “religious concentration camp.” Afghan watchers were quite familiar with the Taliban’s increasing reliance on the al Qaeda’s “International Islamic Brigade” (that is, the 055 Brigade, a shock unit made up of Uzbek extremists from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Arab jihadis, and Pakistani militants), but no Afghan experts had ever heard of Chechens serving so far from home in the Taliban’s increasingly costly spring offensives against the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. While Juma Namangani’s Uzbek extremist-jihadis (members of the Northern Afghanistan-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), as well as Arabs (who had openly fought and trained in Afghanistan as mujahideen volunteers and al Qaeda terrorists), and Pakistani Pashtuns from the neighboring North West Frontier Province all had a long and widely documented presence in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan…the Chechen highlanders were encircled in the far away Caucasus by Russian Federation forces and were completely unknown to the Afghans.

 

Despite the commonsensical queries that should have arisen in the western media surrounding the unsubstantiated rumors of Chechens appearing in Afghanistan as “die-hard al Qaeda fighters,” no one in the industry questioned these wild claims in the winter of 2001-2002.

 

As the “dots were connected” between the Taliban and the Chechens, the western rumor mill also began to speak of the Chechen separatists’ nefarious involvement in the global struggle of al Qaeda. On any given moment one could turn on the television and see newly discovered “experts,” with no field expertise in Afghanistan or Chechnya, blithely predicting that a cornered Osama bin Laden (an Arab-speaking Wahhabi) would somehow find refuge in the “wild lands of the Islamic militants” of Chechnya (an inaccessible republic encircled by an 80,000-man Russian occupation army).

 

As the war on terrorism unfolded, uninformed American television audiences were confidently told that Chechens were involved in every manner of al Qaeda global mischief and mayhem, from acting as “white-skinned European-looking Al Qaeda infiltrator-hijackers” (a remarkable achievement for a swarthy, dark-haired Caucasian mountain nation known to the Russians by their racist epithet as cheorny–“niggers”), to providing al Qaeda with ricin chemical laboratories in the rugged mountains of Chechnya and neighboring Georgia (ricin is of course one of the most unstable biological weapons and requires advanced technology and facilities to manufacture). Since the American public discovered the various ethnic groups of Eurasia in the aftermath of 9/11 a veritable Chechen rumor industry has emerged. This would be laughable were it not for the fact that the Chechens, a nation undergoing horrible crimes against humanity at the hands of the brutal Russian Federation forces, are being misconstrued as a nation of ubiquitous al Qaeda ethno-terrorists.

 

This author has taken great pleasure in collecting particularly preposterous examples of this genre of outlandish media accounts, examples that serve to demonstrate the ways in which the Western press has inadvertently played into the hands of the Russian Federation’s “agitprop” spin-meisters. Below are some of my favorites:

 

–Earlier this month, Russian military sources were quoted as saying that they had intercepted Chechen rebel communications indicating that “mercenaries” fighting in Chechnya were heading to Afghanistan to fight on behalf of the Taliban and that “several hundred” Chechens were already fighting there alongside 3,000-4,000 Arabs and 5,000-7,000 Pakistanis. (Secondhand account critically assessed in the Jamestown Foundation’s Monitor, Vol. 7, Issue 216, Nov. 26, 2001.)

 

–Al-Watan reported that bin Laden had obtained nuclear material from his Chechen contacts. Reportedly, al Qaeda’s Chechen branch paid the Russian mafia US$30 million in cash and two tons of opium in exchange for warhead materials that could be used in the making of a “suitcase nuke.” (Mark Riebling and R.P. Eddy, “[email protected] Behind the Moscow-Theater Attack.” National Review Preview. March 24, 2003.)

 

–According to Yossef Bodansky, director of the U.S Congress Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, the war in Chechnya had been planned during a secret summit of Hizballah International held in Mogadishu, Somalia. The summit was attended by Osama bin Laden and high ranking Iranian and Pakistani intelligence officers. In this regard the involvement of Pakistan’s ISI in Chechnya “goes far beyond supplying the Chechens with weapons and expertise: the ISI and its radical Islamic proxies are actually calling the shots in the war.” (Levon Sevunts, “Who’s Calling the Shots? Chechen Conflict Finds Islamic Roots in Afghanistan and Pakistan, The Gazette, Montreal, October 26, 1999.)

 

–It is estimated that a total of 8,000 Chechens fought in Afghanistan and most of them died at their posts covering the retreats from Bagram, Mazar-i-Sharif and other cities. (“Friendless Chechens shield Taliban despite vast differences in beliefs,” Straight Goods, Ken Hechtman, March 15, 2002.)

 

–Antiterrorist police have focused on an alleged Algerian-dominated network whose operatives are believed to have received specialized training with biological and chemical weapons at al Qaida camps in the Russian republic of Chechnya. (“French Believe Poison is tied to al Qaeda Plots,” St. Petersburg Times, March 23, 2002.)

 

My personal all time favorite, however, has to be the following account:

 

–The U.S. Customs Service issued a bulletin late last week urging law enforcement to be on the lookout for two possible Chechen terrorists who may try to enter the United States through Mexico, then travel to Montana. (“Are Chechen terrorists headed for Montana?” Chris Vlasto, ABC News.)

 

A google search on “Chechens in Afghanistan” or “Chechens al Qaeda” will bring up hundreds of such nonsensical media hits which would seem to indicate that the Chechen chimera has the potential to send 8,000 (sic) “white skinned” mafia-hijackers armed with suitcase nukes, opium, and biological weapons to Montana to do the evil bidding of Hezbollah (an Arab Shiite organization at war with Israel), the Pakistani ISI, and al Qaeda. Truly an extraordinary global feat for an out-gunned insurgent movement of 1,200 clan-based fighters engaged in a desperate guerilla war against the powerful Russian Federation.

 

In light of such seemingly preposterous accusations one would expect the media to engage in some investigatory research on the Chechens. In particular, the question that begs to be asked in this frenzied climate is “have the Chechens really taken on the struggle of al Qaeda and the (neo)Taliban as their own?” Is there any shred of evidence to support the claims made above? If “hundreds” or “thousands” of Chechens were, or still are, involved in the Afghan theater and in the atomized al Qaeda movement’s global plots, then surely one Chechen fighter/terrorist would have been apprehended, photographed, interviewed, or killed in Afghanistan…or in the breakup of al Qaeda cells world wide.

 

If there is no proof to substantiate these claims, then this lack of evidence should surely lead to some critical reassessments by the U.S. and allied Coalition governments. Sadly, to date the U.S. government has not launched an in-depth probe into this issue. The Chechens remain a strange new al Qaeda bogey that mysteriously emerged on 9/11 to serve as elusive “super-terrorists” in an Arab megalomaniac’s “jihad against the Crusaders and Zionists.”

 

Fortunately, several reliable eyewitnesses (with expertise in both Chechen and Afghan affairs of the sort glaringly absent among the “talking head pundits” rolled out by the Western media after 9/11) have carried out bona fide searches for the mysterious Chechen specters in Afghanistan (though not yet Montana).

 

Among those to visit and interview hundreds of foreign prisoners of war captured by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Northern Afghanistan was Robert Young Pelton, a veteran combat reporter. Pelton, who had spent time in the trenches with the Chechen separatists during the Russian siege of Grozny (winter 1999), made his way to Mazar-i-Sharif in search of Chechen fighters, many of whom he may well have expected to know personally. Although Pelton soon discovered scores of Arabs, Uzbeks, Pakistanis, and even one American among the al Qaeda 055 Brigade/Taliban prisoners of war, he encountered no Chechens. For his part, Johnny Walker Lindh (a.k.a. “the American Taliban”), a uniquely qualified source who actually served as a Taliban foot soldier in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz, told Pelton “Here, in Afghanistan, I haven’t seen any Chechens.”

 

Carlotta Gall, another correspondent with first hand experience in Chechnya, also went to Afghanistan in search of Chechens and came up empty handed. She had the following to say on the existence of Chechens among the 3,500 al Qaeda/Taliban POWs held by the Northern Alliance at Shiberghan in Afghanistan:

 

More than 2,000 of the prisoners are Afghans, of whom only the commanders will probably be of interest to the United States. More than 700 are Pakistanis, with smaller numbers from other countries of the Islamic world; Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Sudan, Morocco, Iraq, the Muslim republics of Russia, and the countries of Central Asia. Despite assertions by the Afghans that there were many people from Russia’s separatist Chechnya region fighting for the Taliban, there is not one Chechen among the prisoners. [6]

 

A breakdown of the nationalities of the Taliban/al Qaeda “illegal combatant detainees” subsequently taken by the American military for interrogation in Camps X-Ray and Delta, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, supports these first hand accounts that unanimously dismiss the notion of Chechens in Afghanistan. While the American military eventually captured and took to Cuba over 680 suspected Al Qaeda foot soldiers/terrorists from more than forty-two countries (most of whom were Arabs, Pakistanis, Uzbeks, and Afghans), not one Chechen was detained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

 

The question that begs to be asked if the facts on the ground flatly refute the existence of the Chechens in Afghanistan is “How did the legend of the Chechens fighting for the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan come to have such currency in America after 9/11 that it shaped U.S. foreign policy towards the Russian Federation and Chechnya in subsequent months?” The second part of this paper will critically analyze the history of Chechen links to Afghanistan and al Qaeda and trace the history of the Russian government’s surprisingly successful efforts to conflate its war against nationalist insurgents in Chechnya to the Coalition’s war against global Islamic terrorism.

 

FOOTNOTES:

 

1. For an analysis of the White House’s changing post-9/11 perceptions of the Chechens see my forthcoming article, “From Secessionist ‘Rebels’ to ‘Al Qaeda Shock Brigades.’ Critically Assessing Russia’s Efforts to Extend the Post-September 11th War on Terror to Chechnya.” Comparative Studies on South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, vol. 23, no. 2. 2003; Michael McFaul, “U.S. Foreign Policy and Chechnya,” The Century Foundation, March 2003, p. 22, http://reports.stanleyfoundation.org/EAIrussiaB03p.pdf .

 

2. Ibid. p. 26.

 

3. Zbigniew Brzezinski “Why The West Should Care About Chechnya,” Wall Street Journal, November 10, 1999.

 

4. “Western Leaders Re-evaluate Their Stance on the Chechen War,” Jamestown Foundation Monitor, September 27, 2001.

 

5. Thomas de Waal, “Greetings from Grozny,” PBS, Wide Angle, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/shows/chechnya/briefing.html. See also, Ambassador Stephen Minikes, “Statement on Chechnya, ” OSCE, Vienna, June 6, 2002, http://www.usosce.rpo.at/archive/2002/06/06chechnya.htm .

 

6. Carlotta Gall, “Fighters were lured to Afghanistan by Islam, Holy War, and Promise of Escape,” New York Times, January 1, 2002.

 

Dr. Brian Glyn Williams is assistant professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.