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Chechnya: Experts Play Down Links With International Terrorism

Russia has asked the United States to add several militant Chechen groups to its official list of terrorist organizations. Some Western officials say it is possible that some Chechen fighters might have links to larger terrorist groups. But experts say the evidence supporting such a link is neither clear nor convincing.

Prague, 4 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, Russian presidential adviser Sergei Yastrzhembskii traveled to Washington in an effort to convince the U.S. administration to add a number of Chechen militant organizations to its blacklist of international terrorist groups.

The move, which would freeze the groups' bank accounts and prohibit members' entry into the United States, would also enable Russia to recast its protracted conflict in the breakaway republic within the wider war on global terrorism.

Washington, however, did not act on Yastrzhembskii's advice. The refusal has prompted accusations from Moscow that the United States is applying a double standard in refusing to include Chechen fundamentalists among the rising number of Islamic groups on its terrorist blacklist.

For some in the West, last autumn's Moscow hostage crisis -- when a group of armed Chechen militants held theatergoers captive and demanded an end to the 3 1/2 war -- was sufficient proof of a connection between Chechen organizations and wider terrorist movements. But many remain unconvinced.

Akhmed Zakaev is a top aide to Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov. Now in Britain, where he awaits possible extradition to Russia to face terrorism charges, Zakaev told RFE/RL that Chechnya's separatists are interested in only one thing: independence from Russia. "I can state with the utmost confidence that the Chechens have no enemies except the Russian state. The war does not have the religious character that Yastrzhembskii and others wish to present. We do not have problems with Catholics, with Christians, with Orthodox Christians, or Jews. We do not have problems even with the Russians. But [we have problems] with the Russian state, which, over a period of several centuries, has tried to annihilate the Chechen nation," Zakaev said.

Zakaev said Russian authorities are spearheading a disinformation campaign in the West to portray Chechens as religious fundamentalists as a way of silencing critics of its war in Chechnya.

The campaign has found some sympathetic ears in the West. In mid-January, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a prominent French judge who presides over the bulk of the country's terrorism cases, told a U.S. news channel that he believes Islamic radicals have set up training camps in Chechnya. "The West's response to the growing threat in Chechnya," Bruguiere said, "is not sufficient."

Zakaev said it is the mounting instability in Russia, and not the Chechen nation, that poses the greater danger for the West. "Chechens living in the West are people who have escaped the war and are in no way interested in anything that might make them enemies of the West. They are not interested in being seen as a threat to Europeans," Zakaev said.

Thomas de Waal works for the British Institute for War and Peace Reporting and is an author of several books on the North Caucasus, including "Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus."

He said there is no evidence linking Chechen fighters to terrorist activities organized by foreign Islamic fundamentalists. However, he said there is reason to believe that a number of extremist, militant Muslims from Arab countries have joined in the Chechen effort.

Most notable among Chechnya's Arab fighters was Saudi-born Khattab, a field commander who was killed last year. De Waal said that a number of Arab fighters were also detained last summer in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, where many Chechen militants are believed to shelter. "But this is all one-way traffic, as it were," de Waal said. "[These are] extremist Arabs with links to Afghanistan taking an interest in Chechnya. There is much less evidence of Chechens actually leaving Chechnya and fighting outside [the republic]."

De Waal said the majority of Chechens have a political, and not an extreme religious, agenda. "There were many reports of Chechens in Afghanistan, but in most cases they turned out to be Russian-speaking people from other parts of the former Soviet Union. And another example: There is not a single Chechen in Guantanamo Bay, [the U.S. naval base in Cuba where suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants are being held]. There are eight people from Britain. There are hundreds of people from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. But not a single Chechen," de Waal said.

De Waal said there is no tradition of Islamic fundamentalism in Chechnya. He warned, however, that as the war drags on into its fourth year, more and more people are becoming extremist in their views. "The longer the conflict goes on, the more the fighters get radicalized," he said. "And also, the longer Russia does not offer any political compromise with the radical bit of the population, the more they will turn to radicals in the Middle East. So in that sense, Chechnya is posing a greater and greater threat."

According to some estimates, de Waal said, just one-tenth of Chechnya's civilian population sympathizes with extreme religious views, although greater support for extremism can be found among fighters.

Paul Wilkinson is an analyst with the British-based Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. He told RFE/RL it is difficult to know with any certainty to what degree Chechen fighters have been radicalized during the years of conflict. "It's obviously a very slippery area, as you know, because people who are in touch with terrorist organizations don't necessarily carry membership cards around with them or give you a clear guide as to who recruited them and what their ultimate objectives may be." So, Wilkinson said, "much of the evidence about a connection with certain Chechen militant groups -- between Al-Qaeda and Chechen militants -- is circumstantial."

Wilkinson said most Western experts make a sharp distinction between those Chechen groups who are fighting against Russian rule and those who have a broader, extremist religious agenda. He agreed with de Waal that there are few supporters of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden among Chechen organizations. He added that Chechens receive the most support from Western rights groups and European Union bodies. They receive very little official support from other Muslim countries. Wilkinson said the problem is compounded both by the Western media's confusion over the Chechen conflict and Russia's interest in positioning its war as part of the wider fight against terrorism. Regarding allegations of terrorist training camps cropping up in Chechnya, he said that Pakistan, parts of Afghanistan, and a number of South Asian countries would be far more likely to serve as bases.

De Waal also said that such allegations ring false. "Chechnya is smaller than Afghanistan, its borders are very hard to cross, and they are blocked by Russian troops," he said. "It's not the best place to train people."