Understanding Chechen Terrorism

Is there a connection to Islamic extremism?

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Following this morning's brutal suicide bombings in the Moscow subway, the world's attention is once again turning to Chechnya. Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the small Russian province in the outer reaches of the Caucasus mountains has been torn apart by cycles of warfare between the Russian military and separatist rebels. Though in 2009 Russia declared the war officially over, a low-level guerrilla resistance still plagues the province, and Chechen terrorists have launched several high-profile strikes in Russia.

Monday's attack, the most violent in years, is generating global attention in part because most Chechens are Sunni Muslim, raising concerns that they would link up with Muslim terrorists in groups like al-Qaeda. Substantial connections between Chechen separatists and al-Qaeda have been difficult to prove, however, and the Chechen goal of independence would mesh poorly with al-Qaeda's aim of global Muslim rule. Here's what observers are able to piece together:

  • The Security of Authoritarianism  The New York Times' Ellen Barry says most Russians have "lost the jittery reflexes of a decade when Russians refused to board airplanes beside a veiled woman, or waited for the last train car because they assumed suicide bombers would get on at the front. That fear reshaped the Russian state at the beginning of this decade." Could it be resurfacing? Barry reports onlookers at the attack are already calling for "a crackdown" and pining for the days of Josef Stalin, with whose leadership, says one Russian, "none of this would be going on."
  • Who Are The Black Widows?  The U.K. Telegraph's Andrew Osborn surveys the violence wrought by Chechen female suicide attackers, like those who struck the Moscow subway. The name, Black Widows, is a creation of the press for any female Chechen terrorist. "[2004] was a bloody year for Russia. Black widows blew up two passenger planes that took off from Moscow airport, bombed the Moscow metro twice, and took part in the infamous siege of Beslan's School Number One. Hundreds of innocent civilians, including children, lost their lives in the carnage."
  • Similar Tactics to Al-Qaeda  No connection yet, but conservative blogger Ed Morrissey worries it could happen. "AQ has been known to use women in their attacks, mainly in Iraq. AQ has also used burqas as a ruse to hide men.  While the Chechnyan conflict started off as a political rebellion, it has been an Islamist affair for most of the last several years."
  • More Islamic Terrorists Than Separatist Rebels  Conservative blogger Rusty Shackleford suspects the attackers are coming to emphasize religious extremism over sectarian concerns. "This isn't a 'Chechen' problem. This is an 'Islamic Emirate in the Caucuses' problem." He says a website that serves as the rebels' mouthpiece, the Kavkaz Center, "openly supports terrorism and raises funds for Islamist terrorists in Russia."

In the spring of 2009, Doku Umarov, the current leader of the al Qaeda-linked Caucasus Emirate, reignited the Chechen insurgency by launching a wave of suicide attacks in the Caucasus and broadening the battle beyond the Chechen border. In April 2009, Umarov revived the Riyad-us-Saliheen martyr brigade, which has spearheaded the assault.

The Riyad-us-Saliheen martyr brigade's most recent successful operation was the wounding of the president of the Republic of Ingushetia in June of 2009.

A cell associated with Sayeed Buryatsky, the slain ideologue of Caucasus Emirate, may have carried out today's attack. On March 2, Russian security forces killed Buryatsky and five other terrorists during a raid in Ingushetia. Buryatsky was the mufti for the Caucasus Emirate.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.