The Magazine

The Road from Riyadh to Beslan

How Islamists hijacked the Chechen separatist movement.

Sep 20, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 02 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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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.