Special Reports
 
 


 

MILITANT ISLAM IN THE NORTHERN CAUCASUS AND FSU CENTRAL ASIA

________________
  

 

 After the Boston bombings, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged stronger security cooperation between Moscow and Washington, adding that the terrorist attack also showed that the West was wrong in supporting militants in Chechnya. Putin said that "this tragedy should push us closer in fending off common threats, including terrorism, which is one of the biggest and most dangerous of them." It remains to be seen if those Americans still stuck in the Cold War era, seeing Russia as an enemy, can recognise the importance of closer cooperation.

The two brothers accused of the Boston bombings are ethnic Chechens who had lived in the former Soviet North Caucasus region of Daghestan before moving to the US, where they stayed for more than a decade. No evidence pointing to a direct link between the bombers and radical Islamist groups in Daghestan has yet been found, but it does pose the question, (the answers for which are presumably known to President Putin), how strong are extremist groups in the Russian Federation and former USSR. How much of a threat do they really pose?

North Caucasus
The historical reason for the rise of radical forms of Islam in the Caucasus is mainly due to the region's ongoing struggle for political and religious independence, not unknown to ‘mountain men’ in other parts of the world (see Afghanistan/Pakistan).

The fight began during the 19th Century expansionist phase of the Russian empire when Tsarist troops conquered the previously independent Muslim peoples in the region and forced them to become part of the Russian Empire. The Soviet government in its turn, subsequently repressed all genuine forms of religious expression there and across the Soviet Union. Communism could not co-exist easily with other belief systems. One of the policies the Bolsheviks enacted after seizing power in 1917, was to attack and vastly downsize all of the empire’s religious establishments.

This attempt to eradicate religion was most intense under Stalin, who nearly extinguished a nation deporting Chechens wholesale to Siberia and Kazakhstan, during World War II, accusing them of collaborating with the Nazis (their islamic credentials being emblematic of nationhood).

Chechnya
It was particular bad luck for Chechnya that this republic after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was administratively a part of the Russian Federation, and not like neighbouring Georgia, Armenia or Azerbaijan, “soviet socialist republics” of the USSR, that were handed their independence without a shot being fired.

After the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a Chechen politician and former Soviet air force general, overthrew the local communist government and declared Chechnya’s independence from Russia. Dudayev pursued “aggressively nationalistic, anti-Russian policies.” In 1994, Russia retaliated, invading Chechnya and taking the capital Grozny, destroying most of its infrastructure. Chechnya’s largely Muslim population continued to resist the Russian occupation during the 1990s in wars that killed up to 100,000 people in Chechnya and displaced more than 400,000. From 1991 onwards, foreign fighters started entering the region and associating themselves with Chechen rebels, especially prominent leader Shamil Basayev. Many of them were veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979-1989 and it's thought some would have been members, or had links to the early Al-Qaeda.

During that time, the influence of the Chechen criminal ‘mafia’ began to diminish in Moscow. Chechens had run the city’s underworld from the mid-1970s, but Slavic mafia groups turned on them with help from Russian police and the FSB. Many Chechen gang members returned to Chechnya and joined the rising separatist movement, partially financing their activities and buying arms through automobile theft, money laundering, trafficking Chinese illegal immigrants to Japan, narcotics smuggling, the illegal sale of plutonium and other criminal dealings. Unlike other Russian organised crime groups, the Chechen mafia blurred the distinction between organised crime and terrorist groups.

Chechnya's resistance movement was further boosted – militarily and financially – by the Arab mujahideen in Chechnya, which was created by Fathi al-Jordani in 1995. In the mid-1990s, with access to the wealth of Salafist charities like al-Haramein, these foreign mujahideen became an invaluable source of funds for the Chechen resistance. The Arab mujahideen in Chechnya – which is split into multiple military units, each with it's own Emir – was, and still is, mostly composed of Arab and Turkish jihadists. Its first Emir (leader) was Ibn Al-Khattab, from Saudi, who was killed in March 2002.

Over the last decade, the separatist insurgency in Chechnya has taken on an increasingly jihadist tone, shifting its focus from separatism to fundamentalism. In 2007, Dokka Umarov, the current leader of the Chechen resistance, was proclaimed the Emir of the new "Caucasus Emirate". He described Western countries as the enemies of all Muslims, and announced his intention to install Sharia law across the region, and to step up attacks against Russian police and military targets. It was the first time a Chechen leader had echoed al-Qaeda's rhetoric. Umarov has said he ordered the Moscow airport bombing on 24 January 2011 and the March 2010 suicide bombings on the city's Metro. It is also thought that Umarov ordered the November 2009 bombing of a train from Moscow to St Petersburg and played a key role in organising an attack in the neighbouring federated republic of Ingushetia in June 2004, in which several dozen people were killed, including the acting Ingush interior minister, who was of course backed by Moscow.

Umarov proclaims that the North Caucasian resistance will support Islamic resistance wherever it occurs, and when the “Arab Spring” erupted, he stated that North Caucasian resistance would be on the side of any Muslim movement prepared to fight against non-Muslim and pseudo-Muslim regimes. He praised the Syrian opposition, describing those involved as kindred spirits, and a number of “Chechen Emirate” fighters joined them, not least because Russia supports the al-Assad government.

Daghestan
Yet in the past five years terrorist attacks and the fight for independence for the Caucasus have increasingly been plotted from Daghestan, heralding a shift in threat from Chechnya to its neighbour. Daghestan's Muslims, who tend to follow Sufism, at first generally did not adopt Chechen-style separatism. But after the late 1990s, radical and militant elements said to be linked with Wahhabism began to become more influential. In August 1999, the Chechnya-based "Islamic International Brigade" (IIB), an Islamist militia led by warlords Shamil Basayev and Ibn al-Khattab, entered Dagestan in support of the "Shura of Daghestan" separatist movement. The organisations declared an independent state in parts of Daghestan and Chechnya and called on Muslims to take up arms against Russia in a holy war. Russian forces squashed the uprising within a few weeks, prompting Daghestan's Islamic militants to target Russia's military units at Kaspiysk, Buynaksk and Budennovsk.

The Kremlin continues to fight radical Islamists in the North Caucasus and the majority of kills are currently made in Daghestan: ninety-six rebel fighters were killed in Daghestan during the first six months of 2011, compared with 53 in Kabardino-Balkaria and 27 in Chechnya. Terrorist attacks in Daghestan are often launched by new militants who were not involved in Chechnya's wars for independence, or the 1999 bid for the Chechnya/Daghestan Emirate. Such new militants include Aleksandr Tikhomirov, a convert to Islam from Buryatia, who staged two car bombings in Ingushetia in 2009, one of which narrowly missed killing the then President Zyazikov's successor as leader, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov.

However, it's unlikely that the Boston bombers constitute two of this new breed. Even though the brothers lived in Daghestan prior to moving to the US in 2002, the Emir of the Caucasus Emirate in the region has denied having anything to do with them and it seems increasingly likely that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the brothers, who was shot by police, was a lone wolf who had his own ideas about why he wanted to launch an attack in the US. He attended mosque infrequently and didn't appear to have any firm connection to any established fundamentalist group. Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: "You see signs of radicalisation. He did seem to have some sympathies with Islamic extremist views. But we have only pieces. It's hard to say whether he did this because of ideology, or had some other motivation.”

But that doesn't mean that Daghestan isn't of major concern to Moscow and by extension, the west. Terrorist attacks hatched in the Caucasus look set to continue in Russia, and fighters for the “Caucasus Emirate” have repeatedly threatened to disrupt the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Russia is doing very little to address the roots of the problem. The Kremlin has poured millions of roubles into countering the insurgency rather than spending cash on developing infrastructure in the region and creating jobs, which could lessen the attraction of fundamentalist ideology. When Dmitry Kozak, Putin's advisor on the North Caucasus from 2004-07, argued the need to address issues such as corrupt elites, crime, human rights abuses, interethnic tensions, disputes over the use of land, economic stagnation, and unemployment, he was ignored. Putin's policy to meet terror with terror, is the same now.

Central Asia –the FSU
The rise of Islamic extremism in Central Asia also has its roots in the Czarist expansion of Russia to absorb the region in the 19th century and the Bolshevik's subsequent suppression of religion. The former Soviet 'Stans' – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan – are all predominantly Muslim and religious practices were driven underground for the best part of a century. As Central Asian countries gained independence in the 1990s, religion began to be practised more openly. Islamic missionaries (now banned), became thick on the ground and poured money from wealthy Wahhabi and Salafist supporters in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, into building new mosques, moslem schools and ‘ Korans for every household.’ The trend was squashed as regional dictators saw the danger to themselves, particularly in Uzbekistan, the highest populated FSU state in Central Asia, where initial tolerance gave way to state repression.

Some Islamist groups, in response, began to call for a regional Caliphate governed by Sharia. The groups with the greatest following were, and still are, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Hizb al-Tahrir, both of which drew inspiration from the Afghan Mujahideen that had successfully fought the Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989. Both wanted to oust Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who has been the country's iron leader since before independence, but while the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan used violence to further its cause, Hizb al-Tahrir did not. Karimov targeted these groups in the early to mid-1990s, declaring the organisations illegal and jailing and torturing suspected members, and the IMU moved into neighbouring Tajikistan.

Tajikistan was in the throes of a civil war between tribal Muslim rebels and the former Soviet government from 1992 to 1997. Because that country was in chaos and shares an ill-policed, mountainous border with Afghanistan that allowed for the exchange of arms and expertise from the Taliban, it became the IMU's base for operations. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the group conducted attacks in neighbouring southern Kyrgyzstan and in Uzbekistan.

Links to the Taliban were invaluable for the IMU and the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan all but destroyed that lifeline for them. The IMU was decimated in Afghanistan's Konduz Province in November 2001 when the US military bombed the region, killing its military leader Juma Namagani and forcing the remaining IMU forces to flee to Pakistan's tribal areas. Central Asia's former Soviet leaders, especially Karimov, were then able to crack down on the remaining Islamist militants in their own countries. From 2001-2010, extremist groups had far less strength.

Militant attacks in Central Asia became more frequent in June 2010, when urban clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks broke out in Kyrgyzstan's southern Fergana Valley provinces of Osh and Jalal-Abad, killing around 1,000 people. As a result, the Kyrgyz militia conducted security sweeps through predominantly Uzbek areas under the pretence of rooting out suspected militant Islamists. Latent and obvious hostility between the two ethnic groups has been present for decades and is unrelated to the more recent phenomenon of Islamic extremism, so these sweeps were likely directed at ethnic Uzbeks, regardless of their views or aspirations. Since then, violent incidents in the Ferghana Valley which is populated by mixed ethnicities, that the authorities have claimed were motivated by Islamic extremism, could actually have been related to the long-standing internal ethnic and political tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

The authorities in Tajikistan are also prone to saying that violent incidents are caused by Islamic jihadists when that might not necessarily be the case. After the country's 1992-1997 civil war, some Islamist militants who had fought in the war, such as members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, were incorporated into the government. Violence perpetrated by other Islamist groups unhappy with the truce – especially those from the eastern provinces of Garm and Gorno-Badakhshan – peaked in the early 2000s, after which Tajikistan experienced nearly a decade of relative calm. The tide turned in 2010 when 24 prisoners, who were said to be IMU members, escaped from a prison in the capital, Dushanbe, and fled to the Rasht Valley in eastern Tajikistan. The authorities went looking for them and Tajik military convoys were attacked by (the government said), Islamic jihadists. But it is at least as likely that the escaped prisoners and those protecting them, were linked to opposition elements from the country's civil war, rather than to jihadist militants.

More alarming is the appearance of Islamic militants in Kazakhstan, which had no history of extremist groups. Kazakhstan is geographically enormous and society there relatively speaking, less religious than the other ‘Stans. It has a repressive government but there were no obvious Islamic extremist groups operating there, until the first terrorist attacks in 2011, which were conducted across the country by different groups employing different tactics. A jihadist group called the "Soldiers of the Caliphate", claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, including the October 2011 bombings in Atyrau, however, there is little information as yet on its members or leadership.

Due to Central Asia's position with regard to Afghanistan and the long poorly guarded border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, there is potential for violence to spill over. Already, as NewNations has recently reported, the IMU are seeking permanent bases in the ‘undisputed’ Taleban areas of eastern Afghanistan. But while Islamist militants in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area could resurface in Central Asia, the then leader of the IMU, Abu Usman Adil, was killed in Pakistan in August 2012 by a US drone, and the group is said to be struggling to survive.