Building Mosques, Importing Jihad
Puritanical Arab Wahhabists are trying to wrest control of Chechens' Sufi Islam. Will they succeed?
BY: Interview by Deborah Caldwell
I think so. You have what I call the Kalishnikov-ization of their culture. You have no jobs. Factories have been bombed, their fields can't be tilled because of the land mines, and there is a 70-80 percent jobless rate. What's a young man to do when there are no options? They're angry, they have rocket-propelled grenades. They shoot at people roaming around the country oppressing them, and they're often paid to do it by a new source - Arab charities, which see the Chechens as Muslim brothers and sisters.
No one came to help except for these charities-and by the way it wasn't the Arab governments. Russia is too important to them. The private charities began sending fighters to go fight for the Chechen Muslims.
Jihad has been called the sixth pillar of Islam. These jihadi sects believe in jihad as a form of religion. So they are going to fight for the Chechens, but in the process teach them "proper" Islam. The Chechens view [Wahhabism] as a wacko, New Age religion. They saw these bearded Saudi Wahhabis as wackos, but the Wahhabists fought well, they brought money, they brought wireless communication, sniper rifles, and surface-to-air missiles. And they paid you good money if you killed Russians. The Saudis have given local fighting commanders bounties for killing Russians. If you shoot down a Russian helicopter, they'll give you $5,000. If you shoot a soldier, you get $10,000.
How did the money get there?
The money was siphoned in from Baku,Azerbaijan
. It came in from the mountains of Dagestan or Georgia and was distributed to field commanders who espoused Wahhabi traditions. They said, "If you guys grow beards and kill Russians, we'll give you blood money." It was hundreds of thousands of dollars. But many Chechens told me that when they finally beat the Russians, they're going to turn on the Wahhabis and throw them out, too.
So they're just pretending to be Wahhabi?
Some may be genuine. They still speak Russian and are products of the Soviet system, but they're more devout, more radicalized. Some find in these brotherhoods of Arab warriors a sense of purpose. They give them something to fight for. And of course they offer heaven.
But don't make the mistake of seeing the money they offer, which feeds the fight, as the cause of the fight. If there was no Saudi money, no holy warriors coming in, the fight would still be bloody and be driven by its own historical precedents.
So what you are saying is that the Chechens are fighting a separatist movement similar to the Palestinians. But there is a subtext, which is that the Wahhabi Arabs are trying to take over the Chechen Sufis.
How successful have they been and what percentage of Chechens have been converted?
There are now a few Wahhabi mosques operating in the town ofUrus Martan
. It all started with a Saudi warlord namedIbn-ul-Khattab
, who fought in Afghanistan in the glorious jihad against the Soviets and then led a small reconnaissance group to Chechnya in 1995. Once they arrived there, they found the Chechens speaking Russian, drinking vodka, fighting against the Soviets for their homeland under their national banner, a gray wolf.
Khattab said, "I am here to introduce you to jihad and to the real form of Islam." He fought incredibly well, like the Afghan holy warriors. And his form of jihadism began spreading among Chechens. They began wearing green headbands with Arabic on them, which said "Allahu Akbar"-God is great. These were people who went to school in the Communist Youth League, read Tolstoy, and knew Gorbachev as their president. They knew about four words in Arabic, but Allahu Akbar were among them.
So they started identifying as Muslims.
Yes, it was similar to what happened among the Pashtun, the homeless orphans in Pakistan who became the Taliban. They've been sold out by the West, as they see it. They've seen no humanitarian aid, they've seen no outrage from Western governments over the mass war crimes perpetrated by Russian troops. Tens of thousands of Chechens have "disappeared." Who expresses moral outrage? Who sends them money for building mosques, for buying weapons? The Arab charities.
Are the Wahhabis winning the ideological war?
I don't think so. Only about 5 percent of Chechens have converted to Wahhabi Islam.
And you don't think it will grow?
I think if the conflict dies down, the Wahhabi influence will dissipate. I don't see them transforming the Chechens into some sort of Taliban. What you have are ad hoc Chechens joining Arab fighting units. You have despair. You have readily available funds to help arm them. But I don't see it changing the nature of Chechen society.
I think if the Russians keep at this, you will see an upsurge of people who see the fight increasingly in terms of jihad. I think many Chechens are joining the Wahhabis in the heat of combat. They join an elite fighting unit, they get blood money, they get a sense of fighting not just for independence, but for God.
How did 9/11 change the equation in Chechnya?
The Chechen leadership had distanced themselves from the Wahhabis and had actually tried to have them expelled from the country. The Chechens are led by a fellow namedAslan Maskhadov
. He's a pragmatist and can work with the Russians. He's always condemned Wahhabis. He was a gunnery lieutenant in the Soviet army.
Before 9/11, the American government had given a nod to the Chechens. We were aware that these Wahhabi charities were giving money to the Chechens; we occasionally condemned the Russian government for crimes against humanity.
After 9/11, that ended. The Chechens were identified as the ultimate al Qaeda terrorists, as if suddenly the IRA or Colombian narco-Mafias were al Qaeda. That's dangerous and reckless and most importantly inaccurate. The Chechens are not a part of Osama bin Laden's World Islamic Front. There are bona fide jihadi organizations that are part of this group: jihadi groups in Kashmir, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. But not the Chechens and not the Palestinians.
But al Qaeda would like to see those groups as part of them.
So you're saying that these jihadists who are Wahhabi-inspired are not necessarily al Qaeda.
Exactly. There's a whole movement in Islam of front-line holy warriors. Many of those camps that we bombed in Afghanistan were training grounds for jihadis. A small elite group culled from this mass crowd of fighters were trained for terrorism by al Qaeda. But many of those fighting in Chechnya or Bosnia or Kosovo or India are not al Qaeda. There are thousands of these people who have never heard of al Qaeda. They see themselves as newSaladins
who are fighting to save oppressed Muslim men, women, and children from going to rape camps in Bosnia or being tortured by the Russian federal forces or having their villages burned by Indian security forces.
They're missionary warriors. They come with a Qur'an in one hand and a Kalishnikov in the other.