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The Boston Horrors and Wahhabism in Chechnya

5:50 PM, Apr 24, 2013 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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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.

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