The Road from Riyadh to Beslan
How Islamists hijacked the Chechen separatist movement.
Sep 20, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 02 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
THREE ROADS led to the horror at Beslan in the Russian republic of North Ossetia, in which at least 330 people, most of them children, died: one road beginning in Grozny, the capital of neighboring Chechnya; one road beginning in Moscow, to the north; and one road beginning in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, far to the south. Americans need to know how such frightful events are connected to the global war on terror, and the degree to which they must threaten our own peace of mind.
The main culprits in Beslan were Islamic extremists. Since at least 1999, these violent fanatics, with backing from the Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia and financial support from radicals throughout the global Muslim community, have assiduously agitated to take over the Chechen national movement (about which more in a moment).
The participation of "Arabs"--meaning Saudis and other Wahhabi-influenced Muslim foreigners--is a constant in reportage and comment on Beslan and earlier terrorist incidents in Chechnya, as well as in neighboring Ingushetia, in Georgia, and in Russia itself. The majority of Chechens, most of whom want only to be left alone, are not avid for the Wahhabi offensive, which is one reason most attacks now take place outside Chechnya.
Meanwhile, the Islamists hope to exploit old rivalries between the Chechens, Ingushes, and other Muslim peoples of the Caucasus mountains and their Christian neighbors, including the majority of Ossetians. In Russian and Soviet history, Chechens were always the arch-opponents of Russian penetration into the mountains, and the Ossetians the most enthusiastic Russian supporters.
Al Qaeda-promoting websites accessible almost anywhere are replete with propaganda extolling terrorism against innocents in Russia, exalting suicide bombers, and seeking to intoxicate Muslim youth with the glamour of dying in the Chechen campaign (see, for example, www.islamicawakening.com/viewarticle.php?articleID=1059&). In mosques across the globe, from New York to Nairobi, Wahhabi extremists collect money and recruits for combat in Chechnya, which at times overshadows Iraq as a symbol of so-called martyrdom.
To cite an example on American soil, the 25th National Convention of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), a front for the radical Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan, was held in 2000 in Baltimore. There, Tayyib Yunus, head of the group's youth section, complained, "We all want to see our youth to succeed to become doctors, to become engineers; but how many of you can actually say that you want to send your sons to jihad, to Chechnya? How many of you can actually say that you want to send your youth to fight in jihad?" Chechen advocates claim that money collected in mosques in America and other Western countries never reaches the Caucasus.
Wherever al Qaeda and its supporters operate--which means wherever Wahhabis are to be found, including in the United States--atrocities like those in Beslan may occur. Why should a conspiracy capable of the attacks of September 11, 2001, known to have been plotting the use of nuclear dirty bombs, and guilty of bloodshed from the nightclub bombing in Bali to the Madrid metro massacre shrink from taking children hostage anywhere? To defeat the perpetrators of Beslan and its like must be the goal of all who would protect civilization. Yet two questions must be posed: How can we defeat the terrorists? And, is Russia under Putin truly an ally in the struggle?
The Wahhabi conspiracy that has taken over a section of the Chechen movement is controlled from Riyadh. To stop another Beslan from occurring, the United States and other leaders in the global war should do everything necessary to terminate al Qaeda, capture bin Laden and his command staff, and quiet the storm in Falluja. That is, they must force the rich Saudis and Saudi state institutions to halt their international promotion of Wahhabism. Notably, the terror-financing charities operating in the Chechen refugee camps in Ingushetia must be dismantled.
Action by President Bush calling the Saudis to order on this matter would be more effective than waiting while Vladimir Putin further mishandles a problem that the Russians have never been able to deal with. The Russians respond to such challenges by attempting to manipulate them for political purposes, rather than by trying to save lives and catch terrorists. In dealing with al Qaeda and its allies, Russia can be as slippery an ally as the Saudi kingdom.
Historically, the conflict between Russian power and the Caucasian Muslims, of whom the Chechens are the largest group, dates back more than a century and a half. For a useful glimpse of how the original Russo-Chechen war played out, one may consult the novella of Tolstoy, Hadji Murad, his last major work of fiction. Tolstoy was a young officer in the tsar's 1851 campaign to suppress a Caucasian insurgency. His book evokes the wild landscape and the experiences that drove him to an open and emotional identification with the Muslim fighters.
Back then, the Chechens were idolized by many in Europe as a freedom-loving, indigenous people who had done to the tsarist regime what the oppressed Poles and, later, the persecuted Jews could not do: inflict serious military losses. Among Russian Jews, respect for the Caucasian Muslims was so great that the Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson praised the Islamic leader Imam Shamyl as a hero of resistance to injustice.
The Chechens were not to be spared from vengeance for their success at undermining Russian authority. The most brutal of Russia's rulers in the past 150 years, Joseph Stalin, whose family tree included some Ossetians, ordered a whole range of Caucasian Muslim nations--Chechens, Ingushes, Karachais, Balkars, and Meskhetian Turks--deported to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and other Central Asian republics during and after the Second World War. In most cases, the pretext was alleged collaboration with the Nazis, who seldom even reached the territories these despised peoples inhabited.
In the 1950s, Stalin's successors allowed the Caucasian Muslims to return to their homes and absolved them of the charge of assisting the Nazis. But many of them settled in Central Asia, where they followed a moderate form of Islam. In a long interview with me in Almaty in June, the deputy mufti of Kazakhstan, Muhammad-Husein Hadzhi Alsabekov, one of that country's top Muslim clerics and an ethnic Caucasian, expressed his sorrow and outrage at the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Nevertheless, the Chechen problem resurfaced in the Caucasus after the Soviet Union fell apart. At first, Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, who as an infant had been deported from his native land in a railroad cattle car, served, with his supporters, as a protector of nascent democracy. A Soviet Air Force commander in Estonia, Dudayev turned over a nuclear air base to the newly freed Estonians in 1990, making him a hero in the Baltic states. Inside Chechnya, however, order soon disintegrated. For years, many Chechens demanded independence from Russia of the kind their leader had helped the Baltic peoples gain. But unlike Estonia, Chechnya has oil, and Russia was not about to let it go. The result was a series of low-intensity, high-atrocity conflicts, with Chechen militants striking at Russian forces guerrilla-style, and the Russian military responding with mass killings and disappearances of Chechen civilians.
Dudayev, a force for moderation and stability, was slain by the Russians in 1996. Russian president Boris Yeltsin then made peace in Chechnya, in cooperation with the moderate Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, and withdrew the Russian army. But in 1999 the Wahhabis showed up in Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan in force. Among Muslims, it was said that they were Arabs who had been excluded from participating in the Kosovo war by the Albanian leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who considered the Kosovar struggle nonreligious, and who did not want to alienate their U.S. allies.
For whatever reason, the arrival of the Wahhabis, led by a Saudi--Samir Saleh Abdullah Al-Suwailem, who called himself Khattab, and who would be killed in mysterious circumstances in 2002--plunged Chechnya back into a nightmare of kidnappings, murders, suicide terrorism, and similar incidents, which has yet to end.
But if the Chechen problem persists, so do its Russian and Saudi counterparts. Many in Russia and elsewhere believe that the Putin regime has a stake in maintaining the Chechen conflict as a means to unite his people behind the president, regardless of the criminal ineptitude displayed by Russian authorities at places like Beslan. According to authoritative Western experts, official Russian complicity in Wahhabi terror in the Caucasus cannot be doubted. The worst of the Wahhabi kidnappers, Arbi Baraev, and his nephew Rovshan, who carried out the hostage-taking in a Moscow theater in 2002, were connected with the Russian security services. The Russian authorities partly face a problem they themselves fostered.
Be that as it may, the decisive struggle to prevent atrocities like Beslan from being repeated will happen at the source, which is Saudi. We cannot, at this late date, expect Putin to suddenly come to his senses and find new Chechen allies capable of isolating the terrorists. Rather, we should recall the end of the Cold War. Once the Kremlin stopped financing world communism, the phenomenon nearly disappeared from the planet. If America can compel Saudi Arabia to cut off funding for global Wahhabism, the ghastly spectacle of Beslan will not be repeated again and again.
Stephen Schwartz is the author of The Two Faces of Islam.