Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, killed during the Boston rampage last week, and his surviving brother Dzhokar Tsarnaev, 19, who is charged by federal authorities in the series of abominable crimes, are doubtless the first Chechens many Americans will ever have heard of. And the news coverage of the last week will have been their first introduction to Chechnya and the Muslims of the Caucasus.
Naturally, law enforcement will seek to establish whether the brothers had ties to radical Islamists abroad. Anyone familiar with the modern saga of Caucasian Muslims will know that the idea is not farfetched. The YouTube account of Tamerlan Tsarnaev disclosed that his favorite videos included a production titled “The Emergence of Prophecy: The Black Flags of Khorasan,” predicting a victorious jihad in Central Asia. That concept is a favorite of al Qaeda and more generally of Saudi-inspired Wahhabism.
Wahhabi interference has been catastrophic for the Chechens. Since the mid-1990s, Wahhabism has fragmented the Chechens and the other Caucasian Muslims, with the pretext of theological differences. When they became Muslims, the Chechens and their neighbors cleaved to spiritual Sufism, especially the Qadiri Sufi order. The Qadiris are fundamentalist in many of their attitudes. But they maintain esoteric practices that Wahhabis hate virulently—including honoring the Sufi metaphysical guides at their tombs. Wahhabis condemn graveyards and memorials as “idols” and accuse Sufis of “polytheism” for placing, supposedly on an equal level with God, their spiritual mentors.
In addition to the Khorasan video, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s YouTube gallery featured, at the top of his “Islam” playlist, a three-part diatribe, in Arabic with Russian subtitles, by a leading Saudi Wahhabi cleric, Abdul Hamid Al-Juhani. Al-Juhani denounced the Sufis and, in particular, a conservative Kuwaiti Sufi Koran reciter, Mishary Rashid Alafasy, who is popular in many Muslim countries, including Chechnya.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s YouTube page included a fourth video (in the Caucasian Avar language with Russian subtitles) attacking Sufis. The video list further proffered an extended Koranic citation selected to justify jihad (in Arabic, but subtitled in English) by Muhammad Al-Luhaidan, one of Saudi Arabia’s most notorious Wahhabi extremists. Al-Luhaidan was dismissed from his post as head of the country’s Supreme Judicial Council by Saudi King Abdullah in 2009. Al-Luhaidan had opined that Arab television broadcasters showing “immoral” programs during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan could be murdered legitimately. Al-Luhaidan is also known for inciting the destruction of Sufi shrines. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, moreover, tracked the website of the Kavkaz Center, which disseminates jihad propaganda, and upon Tsarnaev’s death produced a considerable volume of material attempting to exonerate him. Finally, the SITE Institute noted that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the pair, followed 104 Twitter accounts, including one maintained by “Ghuraba,” or “Strangers,” that recommended a lecture series by the late al Qaeda cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki.
Chechens and other Muslims in the Caucasus are ancient residents of their territory, and have accepted Islam for only about two centuries. Previously, they worshipped stones and other features of their environment. They lived—and in many cases still survive—in mountaintop settlements, isolated by their languages, which are exceptionally diverse and mostly unrelated to others. The Caucasian Muslims’ remoteness left them isolated from outside powers until the late 18th century, when tsarist Russia decided to consolidate control over an area on the frontier between it, Christian Georgia, and the Ottoman and Persian empires. The Caucasian Muslims had no political state.
The Chechens count only about 1.5 million people. They have no legacy of grievances against the West, although a long history of violent conflict with Russian forces. The U.S. government, and political advocates from across the American spectrum, condemned Russian authorities repeatedly for gross brutalities inflicted in Chechnya during the so-called “First Chechen War” of 1994-96 and “Second Chechen War” of 1999-2009.
For decades Chechens have been burdened with a global reputation as Islamist terrorists and criminals. Yet their leader in advocating independence after Soviet Russia collapsed, Dzhokar Dudayev, was a secular Muslim who served Moscow in the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, having become a major general in the Soviet air force. Dudayev gained formal sovereignty for Chechnya (titled the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria) in 1991, but was assassinated in 1996, aged 52, in his native territory. Russian personnel triangulated his satellite phone signal and killed him with laser-guided missiles.
Dudayev was, and is still, considered a hero by Baltic, Ukrainian, and other ex-Soviet subjects for his refusal of orders for his personnel to suppress the newly-reclaimed freedom of Estonia in 1991. Dudayev placed the airbase he commanded under the flag of reborn Estonia, which had been forcibly incorporated into Stalin’s Russia in 1940.
Dudayev was succeeded as Chechen president by Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who served until 1997. Yandarbiyev was slain in Qatar in 2004, at 51—a crime for which two Russians were found guilty and deported to their home. Yandarbiyev, unlike Dudayev, leaned toward Islamist ideology and went to the Arabs seeking financing for the Chechen fight against the Russians.
Yandarbiyev was followed by Aslan Maskhadov, who like Dudayev had been a Soviet military commander in the Baltic region, in Lithuania. Maskhadov was a Sufi and deeply suspicious of the Arab interest in the Russo-Chechen conflict.
Although a tough fighter, Maskhadov sought an end to war with the Russians, signing a peace treaty with then-president Boris Yeltsin in 1997. The Chechens had won the “First Chechen War.” That year Maskhadov was elected president of independent Chechnya. But in 1999, the “Second Chechen War” began. Vladimir Putin established a parallel “Chechen Republic” in 2003 under Akhmad Kadyrov, a former associate of Maskhadov's, and reabsorbed it into the Russian Federation. Maskhadov, too, at 53, was killed in Chechnya in 2005 by the successor to the Soviet KGB, the FSB or Federal Security Service. It was a chaotic and dangerous time for the competing Chechen leaders.
Chechen independence ended, in no small part, because of the eruption into the Caucasus, in the last decade of the 20th century, of Wahhabism. The chief Wahhabi adherent to appear on the ground was Shamil Basayev, a Chechen and a political rival of Dudayev and Maskhadov. Basayev was known throughout the Muslim lands as a hard-core fundamentalist and terrorist. His indispensable ally was a Saudi Wahhabi, Samir Saleh Abdullah Al-Suwailem, who called himself “Khattab.”
Basayev and Khattab provided the pretext for Russia’s 1999 invasion in the “Second Chechen War” by launching an Islamist insurrection in Daghestan, east of Chechnya. Khattab was killed in 2002 by delivery of a poisoned letter, according to most authorities. Basayev died in an explosion in 2006, the nature of which remains unexplained. A period of Islamist efforts at political rule over Chechnya ensued, and Putin’s ally Akhmad Kadyrov was murdered in 2004. Kadyrov’s son Ramzan was installed as president of the pro-Moscow Chechen Republic, where he remains an absolute ruler today.
The armed conflicts of the 1990s were in fact neither the “first” nor the “second” Chechen wars. A historian of Caucasian Muslim resistance to the Russians in the 19th century, Moshe Gammer, notes that with the full annexation of the Caucasian territories the tsarist regime began to persecute the local Sufis. The Caucasian Muslims fought back, and Leo Tolstoy wrote sympathetically of them in his last, posthumously-published novel, Hadji Murat. In 1944 came the most traumatic event in Chechen history: their mass deportation to Central Asia by the Stalin regime. Other Caucasian Muslim ethnic groups—notably the Ingush people, who live west of the Chechens and speak a related language—were similarly expelled from their homelands. At least 40 percent of Chechens died on the road of exile, and as many as 60 percent of Ingushes. They were accused falsely of collaboration with the German army, which never reached Chechnya or Ingushetia—even as Chechens, Ingushes, and other Caucasian Muslims fought in Soviet military ranks.
Chechens reported to Sufis in the West, late in the 1990s, that Wahhabis had entered the republic and were destroying cemeteries. As elsewhere in Muslim societies, the Sufis were the first victims of the fanatics—but not the last. And as seen in Boston, the embrace of Wahhabism leads to terrorist attacks against non-Muslims as well.