Chechen Militancy: The Path from Nationalism to Islamism

5 MINS READMar 24, 2005 | 03:53 GMT
With a Wahhabist ideologue taking the helm of Chechnya's anti-Russian militancy, the movement will transform into a largely Islamist force dependent on its foreign Wahhabist sponsors. The militancy could witness an internal power struggle and the loss of local support, as foreign Islamist commanders will likely dominate Chechen militant leadership. As they become isolated inside Chechnya while enjoying continued cash flow from abroad, the militants will use terrorist tactics more often than traditional guerrilla warfare, which requires popular support.
The March 8 death of Aslan Maskhadov, the top Chechen rebel leader, dealt a heavy but not mortal blow to the Chechen militancy fighting Russia. Abdul Khalim Sadulayev, a Wahhabist ideologue and commander close to foreign Islamist commanders, has succeeded Maskhadov as leader. Having a Wahhabist ideologue as its top leader, the Chechen militancy largely will transform into a militant Islamist group. As it becomes more dependent on foreign Wahhabist sponsors, more foreign Islamist commanders will probably take leadership positions. This change will come with a high price — an internal power struggle between field commanders and the likely loss of local support. Chechen militants, finding themselves isolated within Chechnya but with a steady cash flow from abroad, will begin to resort to terrorist tactics more often than traditional guerrilla warfare. A former Soviet philology student, Sadulayev fought in the first Chechen war (1994-1996). After the war, Russian troops left Chechnya and the area became a safe haven for radical Wahhabi clergy and militants from Saudi Arabia, who pushed aside the traditional local Muslim beliefs rooted in the Sufi brand of Islam. Sadulayev converted to Wahhabism and traveled to Saudi Arabia to further study the religion. Chechen sources say Saudi sponsors of Chechen militancy welcomed and trained Sadulayev, who then returned to participate in the second, ongoing Chechen war. Thanks to support from Arab commanders in Chechnya and the main Wahhabist Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, Sadulayev became chairman of the supreme Shariah (Islamic law) court for the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. In that capacity, he issued fatwas condoning a Moscow theater hostage-taking in 2002 and the Beslan school hostage-taking in 2004. In 2002, Sadulayev was named next-in-line if Maskhadov died. Chechen sources say Maskhadov and Sadulayev quarreled over how often to use terrorist-style attacks, with the Sadulayev arguing they should be used more often. Sadulayev's leadership will accelerate the Chechen resistance's transformation from a combination of two roughly equal components — nationalist and Islamist — into a largely Islamist force. Chechen and Russian sources confirm that, after Maskhadov's death, some nationalist field commanders started secret negotiations with Moscow to join Russia's efforts to start a peace process in Chechnya. Other nationalist commanders are taken aback by the Chechen militancy's supreme leader being a Wahhabist ideologue — a figure seen as hostile to local Muslim traditions. That Sadulayev is close to foreign Islamists instead of local fighters adds to the commanders' resentment. Chechen sources say that more nationalist militants have surrendered or entered negotiations with authorities since Maskhadov's death and Sadulayev's appointment. Though a few nationalist commanders continue working reluctantly under Sadulayev's command, Islamist commanders far outnumber them. The militancy's nationalist wing is probably on the verge of collapse. Sadulayev's close relationship with Wahhabist sponsors from the Persian Gulf will lead the Chechen militancy to become more dependent than ever on those sponsors — who will then be able to wield deeper influence on the militancy's strategic decisions. Also, foreign Islamist commanders in Chechnya might come to dominate operational decision-making, having a decisive say on the planning of operations and the use of manpower and other resources. The empowerment of the foreign Islamist component in the Chechen militancy will cause local support to dwindle and probably will lead to a power struggle among the field commanders. Enter Basayev and Doku Umarov, Chechnya's most powerful warlords. Both are Islamists and would like to see Sadulayev serve as a figurehead while they enjoy the real power. Each warlord has tried to subject Sadulayev to his will. Basayev has been more successful; Chechen sources say some even see Sadulayev as Basayev's puppet. With his man already in the top position, Basayev has no need to become the militancy's official leader — but Umarov is unhappy and wants to become the top leader himself, the Chechen sources say. Sadulayev's appointment has upset Umarov's plans, and sources say he is prepared to fight back. Another division within the militancy is between local Islamists and foreign Islamist commanders. Basayev knows that Sadulayev is happy to oblige not only him but also Arab commanders in Chechnya, such as Abu Hafs — considered an al-Qaeda-linked militant and international Islamism's main emissary in the region. Basayev and Abu Hafs also have feuded over the militancy's leadership, including who should pull Sadulayev's strings. Several quarrels between Basayev and Abu Hafs' close associates became firefights in March, Chechen and Russian intelligence sources say. Becoming fragmented and isolated inside Chechnya but enjoying continued cash flow from foreign radical Wahhabists, the Chechen militants in the near future will likely begin turning more often to terrorist tactics instead of traditional guerrilla warfare. Major guerrilla attacks require popular support, which is waning. Terrorist operations, conversely, mostly depend on money and the expertise of a limited number of die-hards — both of which the Chechen Islamist militants have. The Chechen militants' terrorist tactics probably will include not only attacks against soft civilian targets, but also executions of pro-Moscow Chechen officials and assassination attempts on Russian politicians working in the North Caucasus. On March 22, militants tried to assassinate Sergei Abramov, Chechnya's ethnic Russian prime minister appointed by Moscow to manage a restoration process in the war-torn republic. Security services discovered two powerful landmines on the road which Abramov was traveling just before he passed them. Russia should prepare for all types of terrorist-style activities by Chechen militants, from large-scale attacks against civilian targets aimed at inflicting horror and mass casualties anywhere in the country, to attacks against nuclear and other strategic objects outside Chechnya, to assassination attempts on Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen bureaucrats and local supporters.

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