There are now a few Wahhabi mosques operating in the town of Urus Martan. It all started with a Saudi warlord named Ibn-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 named Aslan 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 new Saladins 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.