Chechnya’s Terrorist Network: The Evolution of Terrorism in Russia’s North Caucasus

Elena Pokalova. CHECHNYA’S TERRORIST NETWORK: The Evolution of Terrorism in Russia’s North Caucasus. 2015

With the rise of terrorism in the Russian Federation, many scholars try to study the development of jihadi movements in the North Caucasus. Elena Pokalova provides an authoritative and deep analysis on the counterterrorist policy of the Russian government and the evolution of the Russia-Chechnya conflict, which became the only hot spot within the Russian Federation where the authority employed military forces in order to restore the state’s sovereignty. Not only the study presents a valuable overview, but it also considers the conflict in terms of the global scale, showing readers the much bigger perspective for this local conflict.

chechenyabookThe conflict between Russia and Chechnya has deep historical roots, descending all the way back to the Russian Empire. To navigate readers through this complex topic, Pokalova begins the examination of Russian-Chechen relations in the 16th century, providing a very clear and insightful summary in the first chapter. The chapter covers such prominent historical figures as Sheikh Mansur, Ghazi Muhammad, and Imam Shamil. Analyzing the anti-Russian struggle in the 19th century in the North Caucasus, the author underlines that the Caucasus imamate was serious regional competition to the royal rule of Russia. Referring to religious unity and incorporating sharia law, it did not only embrace neighboring territories and nationals but effectively managed them. Pokalova argues that for decades, many generations of North Caucasus Muslims have perceived this statehood project as the only suitable order.  

Chapter two discusses the Russian counterterrorist approach since 1991. The reliance of the Russian government on military forces in the first Chechen war led to a tactical shift on the separatists’ side: separatists acquired new forms of fighting from hostage taking to acts of radiological terrorism. The Chechen rebels not only tried to conduct their operations on the Russian territories, but they began to adapt methods of unconventional war. The command center of the separatists invited experienced foreign militants to join them in order to learn these new methods. According to the author, by May 1995, rebels had several suicide units which were fully equipped and ready to launch covert operations. The Budennovsk attack in June 1995 opened a new stage in this conflict, brought personal success for Shamil Basaev and added publicity for this conflict. At this stage of the conflict, Basaev’s militants recognized the difference between terrorism and subversive actions, trying to avoid killing women and children. In addition to this, this attack revealed the inability and unpreparedness of the Russian government to provide adequate response to neither terrorism nor subversive acts. To stress the unprofessionalism of the Russian secret service, Pokalova refers to Basayev’s radiological plot. As many other scholars warn, the author believes that terrorists’ attempts to acquire WMD will repeat over and over again.

The next chapter examines the interwar period. Along with the description of the emergence of jammats in the North Caucasus, the author explains the meaning of such important terms as Wahhabism in the Russian Federation, presenting profound knowledge about Russian society. In the public mind, Wahhabism is understood as “fundamentalism, extremism, jihadism, and terrorism”. Scrutinizing the arrival of Wahhabi ideas to Dagestan and Chechnya, the study emphasizes that the Chechen separatist movement observed this as a convenient tool for gathering political influence in the region. Research indicates that despite the close connections with foreign mujahedeen, the ideological influence on the separatist movement was not significant: Chechen militants left the North Caucasus for global jihad in very limited numbers. At that time, the local fight for independence was more important than a creation of a world caliphate.

The second Russian campaign against Chechnya had a different character in comparison to the first war. The leading role in this operation was played by Putin, who tried to heed all previous mistakes and pursued the goal of keeping Russia’s borders the same at all costs. First of all, the government undertook rigorous control informational flows, restricting the access of media to battlefields. Second, Putin rejected the idea of negotiations with terrorists. In addition to this, in terms of political perspective, the authorities worked out the strategy of Chechenization, which had to increase loyalty to the Kremlin. The separatist movement was not the same any more: the inner tendency toward Islamisation became obvious. Operationally, Chechen militants began to deploy suicide attacks, especially outside Chechnya. The author connects the decline of suicide attacks in 2006 with the death of Basayev and their upsurge – with the appearance of new spiritual leader - Said Buryatsky. Buryatsky did not only try to reestablish suicide units, but he actively recruited ethnic Russians to be bomb carriers. In the 2000s, the terrorist groups focused on recruiting ethnic Slavic people in order to avoid state profiling. As a result, by the mid-2000s many Slavic people had engaged in terror attacks against Russian society. This development again revealed the unpreparedness of the Russian secret service, which was not ready to effectively prevent the involvement of ethnic Slavs in terrorist organizations. The tragedy of the Dubrovka and Beslan hostage situations did not have a significant impact on the hard-line counterterrorist approach; the newly issued legislation just expanded the role of the military forces. Pokalova argues that Chechen separatists have adopted the global jihadi rhetoric that changed the nature of the entire movement geographically as well as ideologically.

To sum up, the author covers many crucial and complicated issues in a very understandable way. In general, it is very easy to follow the author’s narratives and logic. Everybody, from scholars to history lovers, will find this research very interesting and useful.

Julia Sweet

PhD Candidate,
Rutgers University, NJ

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