TURKISH VOLUNTEERS IN CHECHNYA

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 7

For several years Kremlin spokespersons have identified Turkey as the primary source of foreign jihadi volunteers (always referred to as naemniky, “mercenaries” in official proclamations) fighting alongside their Chechen adversaries. One spokesman claimed “We keep killing armed Turkish citizens on Chechen territory” and another described Turkey as “a record breaker for producing foreign mercenaries killed in Chechnya.” [1] While skeptics might be tempted to dismiss such claims as mere bluster in light of Turkey’s well known secular tendencies, the evidence is mounting that Turkish volunteer fighters make up a sizeable component of the foreign element fighting alongside the indigenous Chechen insurgents in Russia.

While it is widely recognized that the 100-200 foreign jihadis fighting alongside the approximately 1,200 Chechen insurgents are led by Arab emirs (commanders) such as the slain Amir Khattab (a Saudi whose mother was Turkish according to jihadist websites), Abu Walid (Saudi killed April 2004), and Abu Hafs al Urdani (aka “Amjet” a Jordanian), the Russian government has consistently maintained that Turks play a prominent role among the foreign “terrorists” in Chechnya. [2]

To support their claims, Russian security services have produced Turkish passports found on the bodies of several slain fighters and have given the names and personal details of Turkish jihadis killed in Chechnya. Among others, Russian spokespersons referenced one Ziya Pece, a Turk who was found dead with a grenade launcher following a fire fight with Federal forces. Russian officials have also provided detailed information on 24 Turkish fighters killed between 1999 and 2004, and Russian soldiers in Chechnya have spoken of engaging a unit of 40 skilled Turkish fighters. [3] If this were not compelling enough evidence, Russian security forces have also produced a living Turkish jihadi named Ali Yaman who was captured in the Chechen village of Gekhi-Chu.

A Turkish Platoon in Chechnya

Surprisingly, this evidence is not refuted by Chechen or Turkish jihadi sources and on the contrary has been corroborated on such forums as the kavkaz.org website produced by Arab and Chechen extremists linked to the field commander Shamil Basayev. The following excerpt from a kavkaz interview with a Turkish jihadi commander in Chechnya is illuminating and suggests the existence of a Turkish jamaat known as the “Ottoman platoon” in the Arab-dominated International Islamic Brigade (it also corroborates the above Russian claim that Federal forces have killed 24 Turks in Chechnya):

“Interview with the Chief of the Turkish Jamaat ‘Osmanly’ (Ottoman) fighting in Chechnya against the troops of Russian invaders, Amir (Commander) Muhtar, by the Kavkaz Center news agency:

(Interviewer) Are there many Turks in Chechnya today? Some mass media were reporting that there are about 20 of you guys.

(Amir Muhtar) Out of the first Jamaat that was fighting in 1995-1996 seven mujahideen have remained. Back then there were 13 of us. They are actually the core of the Turkish jamaat in Chechnya today. Twenty-four Turks have already died in this war. Among them was Zachariah, Muhammed-Fatih, Halil…Three mujahideen became shaheeds (martyrs) during the battle with commandos from Pskov in the vicinity of Ulus-Kert. Some died before that in the battles in Jokhar (Grozny). Five were wounded.” [4]

In February 2004 a Turkish jihadi website devoted to Chechnya also announced the martyrdom (shehid olmak) of three Turkish mujahideen in just two weeks. [5] Another site that has been removed left the following account of the combat that led to the martyrdom of three Turkish jihadi fighters:

“Last night we had news from verifiable sources that a group of Turkish mujahideen came across Russian soldiers north of Vedeno in a small village. After stumbling on them a fire fight ensued and one Algerian and three Turkish brothers died. The Algerian’s name is Hassam and the Turkish brothers’ names are Ebu Derda, Huzeyfe and Zennun. These brothers fought in Commander Ramazan’s unit in the Dagestan conflict.” [6]

For several years now Turkish jihadi websites have actually been posting the martyrdom epitaphs of Turkish fighters who died in the Chechen cihad. Much of the jihadist rhetoric found on these Islamist sites will be familiar to those who follow the martyrdom obituaries of foreign jihadis who have died fighting in Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones. The following account, for example, describes the fate of a Turkish fighter who followed the well worn path of roaming Turkish jihadis in the Balkans before being killed:

“Shaheed Bilal Al-Qaiseri (Uthman Karkush). 23 years old from Qaiseri, Turkey. Martyred during the Withdrawal from Grozny, February 2000:

Bilal fought for six months in Bosnia during 1995 from where he unsuccessfully attempted to travel to Chechnya. He went to fight for the Jihad in Kosova but returned after a month when the fighting ceased. He came to Chechnya in August 1999 where he participated in the Dagestan Operations in Botlikh. After the Mujahideen withdrew, he was planning to return to Turkey when Russia invaded Chechnya. He participated in the fighting in Argun and, subsequently, Grozny. Before and throughout Ramadan he cooked for the Mujahideen in his group. During the fighting he was distinguished for his bravery. After seeing a dream in which he was married, he decided to marry a Chechen, but Shahaadah (martyrdom) was destined for him instead. He was severely injured during the withdrawal from Grozny in the village of Katyr Yurt where his room received a direct hit from Russian Grad Artillery. He was later martyred from his injuries in the village of Shami Yurt.”

Ethnicity and Turkish jihad in Chechnya

The following epitah, which describes a Turkish martyr “with some Chechen ancestry” speaks of a deeper and less obvious current in the Turkish jihadi movement that delineates Turkish volunteer fighters from the majority of trans-national Arab jihadis fighting in Chechnya:

“Shamil (Afooq Qainar). 25 years old from Istanbul, Turkey.

Martyred in Grozny, November 1999:

With some Chechen ancestory, he deeply loved Chechnya and was more often alongside Chechens than Turks. He had also participated in the Chechen Jihad of 1996-99. With his good manners, polite demeanor and modesty, he got along well with everyone. He also took part in the Dagestan Jihad in the Novalak Region where, notably, his group fought their way out of a Russian siege at a cost of 25 Shaheed (martyrs). He was martyred in the second month of this War (November 1999) in Grozny.” [7]

While it might be overlooked, the fact that the slain Shamil is, like many of his compatriots, of Chechen extraction, is of tremendous importance. It would seem that many Turks who volunteer to fight on the behalf of the Chechens do so because they have ethnic origins in the Caucasus region or identify with the Chechens as irkdashlar (kin).

In the 19th century, Tsarist Russia instigated a brutal policy of ethnic cleansing that saw tens of thousands of indigenous Caucasian highlanders expelled to Anatolia. While public expressions of Laz, Circassian, Kosovar, Bosniak, Tatar and Chechen ethnic identity were subsequently discouraged in officially homogenous Republican Turkey, folk traditions such as the famous Caucasian highlander sword dances, Albanian borek (pastry), Crimean Tatar destans (legends), and ritualized commemoration of past victimization at the hands of Russians, Serbs, Bulgarians and others continued.

It was only with the liberalization of Turkey under President Turgut Ozal in the early 1990s that these historical sub-ethnic grievances could be expressed in the public sphere. As this unprecedented celebration of ethnicity and commemoration of past repression took place in a liberalizing Turkey, Turks were confronted with horrifying images from the Balkans and Caucasus. Stories of rape camps in Bosnia, mass graves in Kosovo, and televised images of columns of pitiful Chechen refugees in Russia struck many Turks as a replay of the apocalyptic destruction of millions of Balkan-Caucasian-Ukrainian Muslims by Orthodox Christians in the 19th century.

As a result, informants interviewed by the author in Turkey in the summer of 2004 claimed that many young men from villages in Eastern Turkey inhabited by people of Caucasian origin were told by their family patriarchs to go and fight for their honor, faith, and ancestral homeland in Chechnya. Moreover, with the advent of the internet in Turkey, gruesome images of horribly mutilated Chechen women and children, mass burials and vandalized mosques appeared on Islamist and secular-nationalist websites alike and enraged many traditionalists in the country. In this climate, both nationalists and religious extremists exploited many Turks’ sense of ethnic or religious solidarity with their Chechen “brothers and sisters” and invoked strong feelings of namus (a traditional sense of machismo, pride and honor among Turks that comes from the defense of faith, family, motherland, and honor of one’s women).

Like the Turks who continue to fight and die in Chechnya, the websites that glorify the defense of the Chechens run the gamut from the anti-American/Zionist rhetoric of the Islamists to the nationalist irredentism of the Pan-Turkists. But the latter predominate. [8] The pro-Chechen websites with an ethnic dimension tend to feature images of Turks wearing traditional Caucasian folk costumes and 19th century anti-Russian heroes. Others with a slightly more nationalist bent (such as www.kafka.4t.com/photos.html) blend images of Ataturk and Alparslan Turkes (the founder of the Turkish Boz Kurt-Grey Wolves extreme nationalist party) with images from Chechnya. As these sites make clear, many Turks who fight in Chechnya are engaging in the same sort of volunteerism that led Albanian Americans to go fight in Kosovo in 1999 under the auspices of Homeland Calling and other widely recognized diasporic organizations.

This ethnic diaspora narrative might also explain some of the Arab jihadi participation in Chechnya. Many Chechen refugees settled in Ottoman Jordan following their expulsion from Russia in the 19th century. Jordanian Arabs of Chechen extraction, such as the influential Sheikh Muhammad Fatih, have played an important role in the Chechen jihad as warriors, preachers, and fund raisers.

Notwithstanding the involvement of Turks in the Chechen conflict, it would be erroneous to interpret this as proof that secular Turkey faces a serious Islamist problem. Turkish jihadis who have fought in Chechnya have found the Wahhabi Puritanism of their Arab jihadi comrades-in-arms unsettling, and many secular Turks partake in “jihad tours” simply to gain prestige at home in their tight knit families or neighborhoods. In addition, the vast majority of Turks interviewed tended to view Chechens as “terrorists” who reminded them of the hated Kurdish PKK/Kadek militants.

Finally, the involvement of two Turkish extremists (Azad Ekinci and Habib Akdas) who had a history of jihadi activity in Chechnya in the bloody al-Qaeda bombings in Istanbul in November 2003 further undermined the Chechen cause in the country. [9] Indeed for all the romantic notions, some Turks have of volunteering to fight on behalf of the Chechens, the carnage wreaked on innocent Turks by El Kaide Turka (Turkish al-Qaeda) clearly demonstrates that jihadism has a potentially unpredictable effect on those who are attracted to it.

Notes:

1. “Turkish fighter killed in Chechnya.” Aljazeera.net http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/571DBFAB-CF71-4F5E-8498-C975A0FA8810.htm; “Most Foreign Mercenaries Killed in Chechnya are Turks.” RIA Novosti. January 13, 2005.

2. ” FSB Raskryla Set’ Virtaual’nikh Arabskikh Terroristov.” Novosti. Lenta.ru. Feb. 02, 2005.

3. Pravda.Ru 11/05/2004.

4. Hasan Israilov, exclusively for Kavkaz-Center 2003. http://www.kavkazcenter.com/eng/article.php?id=906.

5. The Turkish Jihad in Chechnya website which posts the photographs of ‘martyrs’ in Chechnya: http://www.cecenya.net.tr.tc/.

6. This site also described the death of a Turkish emir (commander) who was killed by a land mine and the death of several Turks and a Jordanian in a shoot out with Russian soldiers. http://www.cihad.net/cecenistan/.

7. Martyrdom obituary found at: http://www.islamicaweb.com/archive/showthread/t-16293.

8. For the nationalist perspective on Chechnya see: cecenonline.com/ana.

9. Mehmet Farac. El Kaide Turka. Ikiz Kuleler’den Galata’ya. Istanbul, Gunizi Yayincilik. 2004.