Book - Chechen Jihad: Al-Qaeda's Training Ground and the Next Wave of Terror
Why Should We Care?
To most Americans, the War on Terrorism – the popular euphemism for the series of U.S-led military campaign all over the world – had a distinct starting point in the spectacular terrorist strikes against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., on September 11, 2001.
In reality, however, these strikes were milestones in what was already an ongoing global war. The Islamists’ quest to dominate Islam and control the Muslim world, as well as to cordon of the Islamic world from Westernized modernity until it could be taken over by the Islamists through a fateful jihad, has been unfolding in various degrees of intensity since Napoleon set foot on Egyptian soil in the late eighteenth century. At present, the primary “front” of the Islamist jihad is the Hub of Islam – the Middle East along with South and Central Asia – where the jihadist movement is trying to confront Western modernity while preserving the Islamic sociopolitical character of society. Rather than adapt to the ethos of the information age and globalization, the jihadists see controlling and dominating the West as their only salvation.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the jihadists resolved to pursue three historic axes of advance into lands within reach of the Hub of Islam, lands that have been claimed by Islam since its ascent; the Caucasus (the historic avenue into the heart of Russia and Eastern Europe), the Balkans (the historic road to Western Europe), and Kashmir (the entrée into the Indian subcontinent). By the mid-1990s, the Islamists were already escalating their jihad in each of these regions. During the same period, the United States was involved in conflict in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan/Pakistan – a series of entanglements that were problematic for U.S. interests at the time and quite counterproductive, in retrospect. In each of those regions, Washington was pursuing near-term political interests while disregarding historic and global megatrends. So the idea that Washington “discovered” the jihadist menace on 9/11, and has since been leading the global campaign to defeat and reverse the phenomenon, simply ignores the crucial role played by regional powers who have battle Islamist-Jihadism for more than a decade.
Critical, in these years, was Russia’s role in combating Islamist terrorism on the Caucasus jihadist front, in a drawn-out conflict commonly referred to as the “war in Chechnya.” For the Russians, the importance of containing the jihad in the Caucasus went beyond their desire to control this small republic, with a population of slightly over a million and a land mass smaller than the state of Vermont. The rebellion in Chechnya may have begun as an indigenous nationalist movement, but it was soon co-opted by the international Islamist movement as an element of its global jihad. By the turn of the century, the jihadists were well on their way to transforming the Caucasus into a springboard for strikes into Russia and Europe, and a site of sociopolitical transformation that threatened to affect the entire Hub of Islam and beyond.
In order to comprehend the process that has become known as “Chechenization,” its role in the Islamist-Jihadist movement, and what in the world it is critical to examine the course of the Islamist jihad as it has played out in the Caucasus in the last decade.
Chechenization is a relatively new concept, still whispered about by experts on Islamist-jihadist terrorism and attacked by Western politicians, mainly American, who are loath to face the reality of the conflicts their countries are mired in – or to acknowledge Russia’s preeminent role in the worldwide war on terrorism.
Chechenization refers to the profound transformation of a predominantly Muslim society from its traditional, largely pre-Islamic structure to one dominated by Islamist-Jihadist elements that historically have been alien to that society. Chechenization involves not only the Arabization of that society’s value system, social structure, and way of life, but a near-complete abandonment of a society’s own cultural heritage in favor of subservience to pan-Islamic jihadist cause, even if those causes are detrimental to the self-interest of that society.
The process of Chechenization – which is now arguable at play in significant parts of Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, and Indonesia, as well as several Muslim communities in both Central Asia and the Balkans – was named for the jihadist campaign in Chechnya in the mid-1990s. There, the national liberation struggle of a secularized Muslim population, inspired by a rich historical legacy of quests for self-determination, was taken over from within by the Islamist-Jihadists – transforming the liberation struggle into a regional anti-Russian terrorist jihad, at the expense of the Chechens’ own self-interest. The process – which included the international destruction of Chechnya’s own socioeconomic infrastructure and the forfeiting of Chechnya’s ability to benefit from agreements with Moscow – could not have been accomplished without lavish funding from charities based in Saudi Arabia and several Persian Gulf states. Since the mid-1990s, the radicalization and transformation of Muslim societies from within has bred and nourished the waves of the Islamist-Jihadist terrorists, which not only kill their own kin but also strike out at the heart of the West.
Today, the Chechenization of other regional conflicts, subversions, and insurgencies around the world is fast becoming the key to al-Qaeda’s rapid expansion and further consolidation, despite the U.S.-led war on terrorism. The Islamist-Jihadists see Chechenization as the profound transformation of a “jihad front” from a besieged community on the defense to a springboard for expansion of their fateful onslaught on Western civilization. The first cycle of Chechenization saw the jihadists’ struggle for the heart of Asia and the Caucasus cross a major milestone. The Islamists were no longer intent merely on consolidating their hold over the Muslim states of South and Central Asia, or on “liberating” traditionally contested territories such as Russia’s northern Caucasus, Indian Kashmir, and the state of Israel. Rather, the Islamist-Jihadists launched an offensive into Russian territory aimed to transform the very shape of Eurasia. Given the strategic and economic potential of the Caucasus and Central Asia, it was the sponsoring states of this Islamist-Jihadist upsurge – not the people of the Caucasus – who would reap the primary benefits of this strategic upheaval.
Meanwhile, the integration of the Chechen jihad into the global Islamist-Jihadist movement made both native Chechen and Chechen-trained expert operatives and terrorists available to participating in other jihad fronts all over the world. (Foreign mujahideen who volunteered, trained, and fought in Chechnya and the northern Caucasus came to be referred to as “Chechen mujahideen,” an umbrella term that comprised all mujahideen native to the region – not just ethnic Chechens but Dagestanis, Avars, Ingushets, and so on – as well as Chechens and other Caucasians from Central Asia, and Circassians from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle East nations.) Despite their relatively small numbers, the Chechen mujahideen came to play an increasingly important role in the global jihad. Many of the Chechens had extensive military knowledge and expertise gleaned during their service in the Soviet and Russian military, including service in Afghanistan. Starting in the mid-1990s, the Chechens established an elaborate training system in which such Chechen veterans, as well as highly experienced Ukrainian and Balt mercenaries/volunteers, trained the Chechen mujahideen in sabotage, communications, military and combat engineering, logistics, intelligence work, information technology, weapons of mass destruction, and the like, offering a level of expertise that exceeded what was available in other Islamist-Jihadist training programs in South Asia and the Middle East. Many of the Chechen trainees, too, were professional fighters – disciplined and responsible, having a combination of skills, expertise, and character. Today, these trainees are the most sought-after “force multiplier” (to use the U.S. military term) in the Islamist movement – their unique fingerprints increasingly noted with each new phase in the jihad.
Another overlooked aspect of Chechenization was its growing impact and influence over the movement known as pan-Turkism. Originally a nationalistic trend with only vaguely Muslim overtones, pan-Turkism was co-opted as an instrument for the spread of jihadism in the Turkic lands from the Balkans to Xinjang, China. In the early 1990s, the revival of nationalistic pan-Turkism in Turkey helped to destabilize the Caucasus, aggravating the Chechen revolt of 1994 by providing international recognition and support to the rebels. Pan-Turkism has grown in recent years in Turkey, supported by the military elite popular with a military nostalgic for the glory of long-ago wars in the Caucasus and the days of the Ottoman Empire. Even though the Turkish military elite is essentially anti-Islamist, this pan-Turkic nostalgia has undergirded Ankara’s commitment to the Chechen revolt, and it endures despite the Islamist-Jihadist nature of Chechenization. A steady stream of Turkish volunteers – most of whom ar e highly trained military veterans – continues to fill jihadist ranks today, even as Ankara ignores the Islamist support for Chechnya and the drug trade that funds the jihad.
The growth of pan-Turkism also had major political ramifications for the West, and especially for the United States. Washington has long considered Turkey and ally, a status that has survived even the crisis over access to Iraq that began in 2003. At first, this traditional alliance led the West to extend some support to the Chechen rebellion. Even today, this legacy provides a reluctant Bush administration with a fig-leaf excuse for not confronting the Chechen threat head-on, despite its immersion in a war on terrorism that has been aggravated by the spread of Chechenization.
Chechenization involves mobilizing a country, or a region, against the West, in large part by conditioning its local society to commit to the spread of jihad. For Russia, the Chechenization of its war in the Caucasus meant unleashing waves of jihadist terrorism at the heart of Russia – a terrorist campaign that has already taken hundreds of innocent lives and is far from over. For the United States and the West, the Bush administration’s mounting contretemps with Putin’s Russia has prevented the United States from understanding Chechenization or benefiting from the vast intelligence data and operational knowledge accumulated by the Russians. The increasing casualties in the American quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan testify to the self-inflicted ramifications of official Washington’s adamant refusal to confront, let alone learn from, the realities of the Caucasus and Moscow’s war on terrorism – at a time when the United States could hardly afford to ignore the experience of the rar nation that had battled the Islamists to a draw.
In this context, a somber word about the ongoing U.S. war on terrorism. Among other things, the unfolding global jihad should be understood as the latest, and most significant and intense, phase in the profound struggle within Islam over its interaction with Western modernity, and over its own future. Since the march of Western modernity is unlikely to be reversed or stopped, the war is unlikely to end until a genuine reformer – a Martin Luther – rises from the ranks of Islam to lead its followers into the twenty-first century. The United States may be an object of wrath for the Islamist-Jihadist movement, but it does not have a side in this conflict within Islam itself. That is why the United States could lose this war – if the Islamist-Jihadist movement triumphs – but cannot win it. Victory is solely in the hands of the Muslim world. Until then, it is in the interest of the West to understand, and combat, the strategy represented by Chechenization, in order to help the sane and responsible elements within Islam triumph over adversity while bringing modernity to their world.
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