The Caucasus Snake Pit

By J. Millard Burr*
Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014 @ 4:14AM

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An Islamic militant plot target, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, was reported in late May 2012. News reports indicated that Russia’s security agencies, working with Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee in Georgia’s former Abkhazia region, had uncovered the plot.

A large number of caches of arms, ammunition, and explosives, including surface-to-air missiles and a flamethrower, were seized.  Although the activity seemed premature, it was said that rebels were eventually going to move them in advance of the winter Olympic Games to be held in Sochi in 2014. As the drive from Sukhumi, the major city in Abkhazia, to Sochi in Russia’s Krasnodar Krai is only 72 miles (a drive of one hour and twenty minutes), the discovery of weapons that close to the site of the winter games was unsettling to say the least.

Cynics with knowledge of Russian history just might conclude that the Abkhazia business was a ploy, a set-up that could just as easily have been planned by the Tsarist Okhrana or the KGB.  If one looks closely at recent events, Abkhazia is not a Russian target, but Georgia is.  Thus, should any terrorist act occur at the Winter Olympics the Russians may have been in the process of creating a scapegoat. While all eyes are fixed on Chechnya and its Islamist radicals, one should not forget that Russia will do just about anything to eliminate the Republic of Georgia, and an incident at the Olympic Games could serve as just the excuse that is needed. THE CAUCASUS EMIRATE Sochi, located on the Black Sea, has been the unofficial summer capital of Russia since Stalin ruled the Soviet Union.  As a city of only some 350,000 residents, assuredly the large numbers of security forces that will be needed to protect the Winter Games venues and the city itself can’t help but be noticeable. The so-called Caucasus Emirate (Kavkaz Emerat) is said to be responsible for the arms in Abkhazia.  It was the same group of radical Islamists that had been responsible for the suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in January 2011 and the Moscow metro bombings in 2010. Only days following the arms discovery in Abkhazia, Nasir Gadzhikhanov the deputy sports minister of violence-plagued Dagestan and former Olympic silver medal winner in wrestling, was shot dead by assailants unknown in the Dagestan capital, Makhachkala.  Dagestan had suffered an increasing number of terrorist attacks over that year. The perpetrators may be Islamist militants or crime syndicates, which in certain cases are one and the same. Abkhazia with its boundary on the Black Sea, and Dagestan with its capital on the Caspian Sea, form the two hinges of the Caucasus portal. Although the distance from Makhachkala, Dagestan, to Sukhumi is only some 350 miles, Dagestan is separated from Abkhazia by an alphabet soup of Russian republics beginning with Chechnya, followed by Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachay-Cherkessia.  None of them are free from Islamist penetration or terrorist acts. In 2010 the Stratford Group published information linking the Kavkaz Emerat to suicide bombings that targeted Russia’s Interior Ministry offices. Terrorist attacks were regular occurrences in Russia’s southern-most republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia. Islamists belonging to the self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate have attacked Russian security forces and Republic officials through the use of suicide bombers, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, armed assaults, and targeted assassinations. Ingushetia’s president Yunus-bek Yevkurov was seriously wounded in June 2009. The militants were reported to “have also returned to attacking the far enemy in Moscow and not just the near enemy in the Caucasus.” In November 2009 the Nevsky Express that runs between Moscow and St. Petersburg was bombed, killing 30 people.  And a bomb at the Siberian Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric dam did serious damage and killed 74 people. In March 2010 two female suicide bombers detonated IEDs in Moscow’s underground rail system killing 40 people. In the Caucasus, the Jamestown Foundation Eurasia Daily Monitor (1 June 2012) reported that security in Ingushetia, the smallest and youngest republic of the Russian Federation, had steadily diminished over the previous two years.  This, despite the fact that the leadership of the Sharia Jamaat-a regional Islamist organization determined to create what it calls “the Velayat of Ingushetia within the Caucasus Emirate”-had been seriously diminished.  It is only the anti-terrorist activity of the Russian security services (FSB) that guarantees the survival of a very ruthless and unpopular government. THE ISLAMIST PRESENCE After more than four centuries of interaction, the Russian intelligence services are hardly ignorant of the Islamic presence in the Caucasus and the potential for conflict. (Lt. Col. Robert W. Schaefer, a former Special Forces expert in Russian affairs has provided an indispensible history of that relationship in his book “The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad,” Praeger, 2011). Following in the wake of a Soviet diplomatic success, the Soviet penetration of Egypt began in the late nineteen fifties.  From that date forward, the resilience of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimun) has been of particular concern to the Soviet Union’s intelligence services.  Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, the Soviet intelligence agencies followed very closely the growth of the ultra-conservative Islamist (Salafist) movements, both abroad and in Russia itself. As far as Soviet intelligence agents were concerned there was no difference between the Ikhwan and radical Islamist organizations that sprung up during and after the war in Afghanistan. KGB chief Leonid Shebarsh, for one, argued that there was no such thing as Al Qaeda; there was only the Ikhwan.  And when the nascent Islamist revolt surfaced in the Caucasus in the late nineteen eighties the Soviet Union was convinced that the Ikhwan was behind a movement that was being funded by one of its fraternal organizations-the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia.  Even today, there is the unwillingness to differentiate, at least publicly, the activity of the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand and Islamist terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda on the other. (See: “Russia Suspects Jordanian of Planning Poison Attacks in Chechnya“)  And after years of internecine combat Russia’s RIA-Novosti reported that the actual command and financing of the “Amanat” (Amanat jamaat, or the Muslim community) in Chechnya and Ingushetia was “an emissary” of the Muslim Brotherhood. (“MOSNEWS: Former KGB Chief Reveals Supernatural Truth“) Beginning in the new millennium the post-Soviet Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has exposed a network of militant Islamic cells run by extremists seeking “to stir up trouble” in both Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The FSB searched the Moscow offices of “several organizations, which had been created by the extremist wing of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.”  Such an action was necessary, the FSB asserted, because the Muslim Brotherhood had set up clandestine branches across Russia, including one in Moscow.  News reports claimed that the Kuwait Joint Relief Committee (KJRC) supported the Moscow branch of the group, a Kuwait based charity with long ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In November 2000 the Russian FSB listed 2000 “structures” linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in some 49 (of 89) Russian regions, and in the CIS countries” (Transcaucasia, Central Asia, and Ukraine).”  The Ikhwan, it was claimed, was connected to charitable entities sponsored by organizations in Kuwait, Yemen, Palestine and Egypt. (“Russian Security Services Uncover Muslim Brotherhood Operations,”, 18 October 2000; Mikhail Falkov, Arktogaia Forum on Geopolitics and Politology, “The Wahabites’ Anti-Eurasian Crimes, April 11, 2001.)  Of special concern to Russian intelligence was the Society for Social Reform, headed by Ramis Khalitov and funded by the notoriously salafist Kuwait Joint Relief Committee.  The KJRC, chaired by Yousef al-Haji (in 2004), maintained an office in Chimkent, Kazakhstan, administered by a Jordanian Ali Salah Ali Zaitar.  Both men were tied to the international Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, the FSB claimed it had evidence that the KJRC was providing ideological, military and financial support to Chechen separatists and extremist movements in Muslim regions of Russia and Central Asia (just as is being done in Syria today). It was Dagestan that would serve as the nexus from which Islam would be expanded to the whole of the Caucuses.  The culmination of the strategy was to unite Chechnya and Dagestan in a single Islamist state. CHECHNYA AND DAGHESTAN: BACKGROUND Chechnya itself had formed a part of Dagestan, a Muslim state in the Caucasus, which Russia conquered in 1859 after thirty-four years of fighting.  Later, during the Civil War in Russia, the Dagestani’s declared independence in 1917.  Many of its leaders supported the Red Army believing that the Communists, if victorious, would recognize their independence.  Their freedom endured, however, only until 1925 when the Soviet Union reoccupied Dagestan.  The Chechnya Autonomous Region was then established in a move to fragment the Muslims of the Caucasus while “appearing to give recognition and autonomy to different linguistic groups.”  Islam was banned and mosques and madrassas were closed, and in 1944 the population was accused of aiding the German invaders.  Chechens were shipped off to Siberia and to Kazakhstan.  Before their return in 1965, an estimated one-third of the Chechen population had died.  Under the Soviet yoke, Chechnya, overwhelmingly Muslim, had little going in its favor; in contrast, Dagestan bordered the oil rich Caspian Sea and its petroleum reserves were important to Russia. In the early nineteen-nineties the Islamist revival movement in the Caucasus was spearheaded by Begauddin Kebedov, the director of the Islamic Community of Dagestan (Jamaat Islamiya Dagestan). A charismatic individual, Kebedov preached jihad against his enemies, both Islamic and Russian.  It was shortly after his emergence that there emerged a growing affinity involving Islamist organizations in the Caucasus and the international Muslim Brotherhood.  Russian intelligence services were aware that, “A high ranking representative” of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was known to support both Bagauddin and “the Salafis” who were ideologically close to the Dagestani. In addition to help from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist revival in Chechnya was supported by a number of international Islamic charity organizations.  Many were, “more or less connected with Saudi Arabia and other Arabic countries,” and operated through Begauddin Kebedov.  He received funds from powerful and well-funded Saudi charities including the Al Haramain, the International Islamic Relief Organization, Taibah International Aid Organization and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY).  (Dmitry Makarov, “Dagestan’s Approach to the Islamic Mega-Area? The Potentials and Limits of Jihadism,” Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University, Japan, 4 October 2005.)  WAMY, a Saudi-funded organization, established a publication bureau called Santlada (after a mountain village in Dagestan that was the home of Begauddin Kebedov), and it began to publish and distribute Islamist literature in Russian, Arabic and other languages. As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, the first National Congress of the Chechen People was held in Grozny in November 1990.  It was permeated by actual and former Muslim Brothers, and included members of the Chechen community that had settled in the Levant who pledged money and men to the cause of freedom for Chechnya. In October 1991 the Chechnya Autonomous Region declared its independence from Russia, and Dzhokar Dudayev, the former Soviet Air Force General who during WWII had been among the children deported to Kazakhstan, was elected president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya and its 1.3 million people. This was the stimulus for an insurgency that would take thousands of lives as the Chechens fought for independence and Russian forces sought to maintain the political integrity of a weakened Russia.  In effect, a scorched-earth policy was introduced in Chechnya. IN SEARCH OF FRIENDS Shortly following the 30 June 1989 revolution in the Sudan, which brought an Islamist government and a number of Muslim Brothers to power, the Chechen rebels found a safe-haven for their operation.  However, even though Sudan was a friendly site, the nation itself was impoverished.  Itself entangled in a long civil war, the Khartoum Islamists were unable to provide the funds that the Chechens needed to ensure the success of their insurgency.  Thus, in October 1992 Dzhokar Dudayev visited Houston, Texas, where he met with oil industry leaders who he hoped would provide his Chechen government badly needed oil field supplies and upgrade refinery capability.  For the oil men who participated, Chechen oil was far away and Chechnya was just too close to Russia.  Thus the oil men declined. Dudayev continued with a whirlwind tour of Jordan, Iraq and the Sudan, returning to Chechnya in late November with not much to show for his trip.  The situation looked more promising when the Second Popular Arab and Islamic Conference convened at Khartoum in late 1993. (The PAIC would soon acquire a sinister “Terrorist Internationale” nom de guerre.) Led by Hasan al-Turabi, a noted Muslim Brother leader, support for Chechnya had already been achieved prior to the opening of PAIC II at a special conference held in March 1993, during which a nine-man Majlis al-Shuyukh (Council of Seniors) was formed.  It issued a four-pronged strategy to govern future PAIC activity: (a) Every secular Muslim government was controlled by Westernized elites; (b) The elites would “not be able to meet the forthcoming Jihadi challenge”; (c) Secular governments would thus force the Western nations to fight for them; (d) The jihad was the “only alternative to the status quo in the Muslim world.”(Amir Taheri, “What Bullets Cannot Win Ballots Can,” Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, 16 June 2006.)  It was the Majlis al-Shuyukh that would be responsible for the ordering of revolutionary activity and the funding of revolutionary organizations, and Chechnya was high on the list. At the PAIC II conference Dudaev was present, and his jihad in Chechnya was featured.  Indeed, the quest to create an Islamic republic in the Caucasus was about to come to a head.  Still, when it came to funding, that revolution was soon forced to take a back seat to the conflict in Bosnia and the Balkans.  In addition, the Chechens had to compete for funding sources that assisted: the Intifada in the West Bank, the growth of Hamas in Jordan, the Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Taliban in Pakistan, plus the War of the Warlords in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, Sudan’s Hasan al-Turabi was eager to help.  The Sudan was soon serving as one terminus of an operation supported by Al Qaeda and its leader and Khartoum resident, Osama Bin Laden.  Both Bin Laden and Turabi were determined to steal a march on Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi clerics and their international Islamic charities that had already made Chechnya a center of their activity.  Saudi Arabian activity in the Caucasus benefitted enormously following the opening of a Saudi embassy in Moscow in September 1990. Diplomatic relations between the two countries had been preceded by a secret visit of a member of the wealthy and politically connected Bin Laden family. With the presence of an embassy in Moscow, there came a plethora of Saudi-backed charities.  Their activities were believed to be supervised by agents of the Saudi intelligence service (KSA) under the direction of Prince Turki al Feisal.  (The Russian intelligence services would soon attack the Iqraa International Foundation, a “charity” supported by Saleh Abdullah Kamel, head of the powerful Dallah al Baraka group of Saudi Arabia.) OTHER PLAYERS Following PAIC II Pakistan’s military intelligence service (ISI) became directly involved in Chechnya.  And in spring 1994, Pakistan Minister of Interior General Nassiroulla Babar, and head of the ISI Djavid Ashraf, initiated Pakistan’s clandestine support for Dudayev and for his “Islamic state.”  Meanwhile, in Washington at least one analyst saw that the international Islamist leadership led by Iran and Osama Bin Laden in the Sudan had, “adopted the Chechen war as a Jihad.” Caucasus mujahedeen were trained in Khartoum and Pakistan.  And once trained, fighters were funneled through Al Qaeda guesthouses and Islamic aid agencies that were active in Ankara, Turkey, and Baku, Azerbaijan.  By June 1994 some 500 mujahedeen trained at Hezb i-Islami training sites in Pakistan had been sent on to the staging base at Baku. By then, Al Qaeda provided direct support through mujahedeen camps located in Dagestan. The Benevolence International Foundation (Lajnatt al-Birr Al-Islamiya), a charity founded by Al Qaeda, and then centered in Chicago, Illinois, directly supported the jihad in Chechnya.  The Benevolence employed the former Egyptian lawyer (and Ikhwan) Saif ul-Islam to act on its behalf in Grozny, throughout Dagestan, and elsewhere in the Caucasus. And in Europe, exiled Syrian Ikhwan who had settled in Spain supplied cash and served as couriers to Chechen mujahedeen. Among those active in support of the Chechnya jihad was Kemal al-Helbawy, Egyptian expatriate, Ikhwan leader, and first executive director of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth.  (Inter alia, Helbawy appeared at a gathering of Muslim youth at Oklahoma City in December 1992.)  It was alleged that Helbawy had been active in narcotics trafficking along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier since 1983.  And in 1993 Helbawy was reported to have created an “international mafia network” of narcotraffickers.  The pipeline began in Afghanistan and continued through Pakistan to Oman and Yemen; from there it continued through Sudan and Egypt to the European market.  Helbawy was one link in a criminal structure that included Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and members of Pakistan’s military intelligence service.  After 1992, the traffic in narcotics was said to pay the expenses of Chechen (and other) jihadists trained in Afghanistan.  Support for the jihad in the Caucasus did not come cheap, and Al Qaeda estimated that it cost $1,500 to send a single jihadist and his rifle to Chechnya.  As for Helbawy, he would move to London in 1995 where he was publicly named head of the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.K. THE RUSSIAN COUNTERATTACK Following his attendance at PAIC II, Dudayev seemed to be in control of events in Chechnya.  However, that lasted only until December 1994 when the Russians closed the rail link that crossed the region.  Dudayev’s claim that the act was a declaration of war was all Moscow needed, and some 40,000 Russian troops then entered Chechnya and attacked the rebel stronghold at Grozny.  With the mujahedeen under attack, it was reported that by the opening of PAIC III in late March 1995, the Chechens were receiving their arms from Tehran and trained mujahedeen through Sudan. In all, Bin Laden himself was reported to have spent more than $10 million in support of the Chechen opposition.  The Russian attack was repulsed with extensive loss of life on both sides. One victim was Dudayev, and he was followed by the Salafist leader, Zemlikan Yandarbiyev (carbombed outside a Doha, Qatar, mosque in February 2004). Yandarbiyev had issued a decree that abolished the secular courts, replacing them with courts that applied the Muslim law (Sharia). In 1995 an “exploratory group” of Afghan-Arabs, blooded in Afghanistan and led by Amir (Commander) Khattab arrived in Chechnya to assist the out-gunned Chechens.  By year’s end the jihad in Bosnia had come to an end with the Dayton Peace Accords, and hundreds of fighters from the Balkans arrived in the mountainous region of southern Chechnya to do battle with the Urus Kufr (Russian infidels).  Thereafter, there were three forces opposing Russian troops: The CRI (Chechen Republic of Ichkeria), scattered remnants of Chechen militias, and the International Islamic Battalion led by Shamill Basayev.  The latter include many Afghan-Arabs and in general were called wahhabites or ikhvanis (from Muslim brothers) in Russian reports. In the aftermath of the Russian withdrawal from Chechnya in 1996, Khattab and many of his rootless Arab jihadis stayed on in Chechnya and continued to coordinate activities with Shamil Basayev. This led Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and his moderate supporters to urge Khattab and his followers to depart Chechnya and proceed to some other zone of jihad. But far from leaving, Khattab signaled his intention to stay on in the war-torn Chechen republic by marrying a Muslim woman from the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, and gradually joining the anti-Maskhadov resistance in Chechnya. Most ominously, Khattab signaled his real intentions by opening a series of training camps in southeastern Chechnya that trained unemployed young Chechen men and Muslims from throughout the CIS.  They were to be prepared to take part in a never-ending jihad that was far greater in scope than the microrepublic envisioned by Chechnya’s nationalist leadership. Ample proof of the danger these camps posed to Chechnya and the neighboring Russian Federation came in August and September of 1999 when Dagestan, Chechen, and Arab militants poured over the border from the camps and raided the neighboring Russian Republic of Dagestan. In general, the Chechen populace led by President Maskhadov opposed Khattab and Basayev’s jihadi attack.  Nevertheless, Russia used these incursions as a casus belli to reinvade Chechnya. THE SECOND WAR FOR CHECHNYA After a decade of struggle, in September 1999 “the Second Chechen War” was presented by the Russian authorities as a response not only to the incursion by Chechen militants into Dagestan in that summer, but also to the bombing of buildings in Volgodansk, Buynaksk and Moscow in the summer-autumn of 1999. In October 1999 it was officially classified as a counterterrorism operation with a security regime imposed in the region-which was ended only in April of 2009. Despite the setbacks the Mujahedeen suffered, Dagestan papers reported shortly after 9/11/2001 the arrest of couriers carrying $20,000, $50,000, and more, to Chechen rebels from intermediaries passing through Azerbaijan or Georgia.  Although the reports were hard to verify and some Western experts claimed that Russian announcements were exaggerated, “a cash pipeline” had survived.  Russian analysts claimed the “Fund of the Muslim Brotherhood” and the Al Rashid Trust of Pakistan were raising money for Chechen rebels “under the guise of aid to refugees”.  A year later that Russian sources continued to argue that the Muslim Brotherhood had never ceased its support to the rebels in Chechnya. It argued that the Ikhwan itself was behind the 27 December 2002 suicide car bombing in Grozny that destroyed the headquarters of the Russian-backed government.  (Michael Wines, “War on Terror Casts Chechen Conflict in a New Light,” The New York Times, 9 December 2001; “Russia Links Arab Militants to Bombing in Chechnya,” The New York Times, 28 December 2002.) The Chechen mujahedeen continued to receive funds despite the fact that the easiest point of entry beginning in Azerbaijan and passing through Dagestan had been interdicted.  In 2000 the Azerbaijan Justice Ministry revoked the registration of International Humanitarian Call, a United Arab Emirates-based charity, for “spreading propaganda”, using clandestine financial resources and “engaging in activities contradicting the national statehood of Azerbaijan.” Its director, a Sudanese national Al Rashid Ali Muhammad Al Amin, was an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood.  He had previously been in close contact with Al Haramein, the Saudi charity that was closed by the Azerbaijan government “for serious violations of law.”(Monthly Digest of Society for Humanitarian Research, 30 August 2001.) FINANCING UMAROV In the United States, the FBI announced in November 2003 that as a result of the death of a US citizen, killed in October 2002 during the jihadist storming of a theater production in Moscow, it was launching an investigation into reputed links between the anti-Russian Chechen resistance and Al Qaeda.  With that move the flow of funds through American charities to Chechnya was blocked. Similar actions were also taken by security forces in Europe. In turn, given American pressure, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ceased official support for charitable offices operating in Chechnya. In addition, the pipelines that existed through Azerbaijan and Georgia and that serviced Chechnya were slowly turned off. In 2010 Russia reported that it had destroyed a “foreign financial network” which was supplying funds to militant leader Doku Umarov.  In 2006 Umarov had taken charge of operations in the mujahedeen’s so-called Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. A year later he became the self-proclaimed Emir of the Caucasus Emirate that united mujahedeen forces operating in North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. Ironically, various sources reported that the Caucasus Emirate had been thoroughly infiltrated by Russian agents.  It was suggested that it was that infiltration that accounted for Umarov’s failure to unite the disparate movements in the five Caucasus republics.  Today, the Caucasus Emirate remains really nothing more than a weak and non-centralized jihadist organization.  Nonetheless, it is still dangerous. Umarov himself was wanted for a series of crimes including the bombing of the Moscow-St. Petersburg express train, the 2010 Moscow Metro suicide bombings that killed 40 and injured more than 100, and the 2011 Domodedovo International Airport bombing.  His jihad forces in the Caucasus were responsible for the death of nearly a thousand people in 2009, and more thousands since that date. Inexplicably, it was only after years of Russian urging that the U.S. State Department finally placed Doku Umarov on its terrorist list. The United Nations has also placed Umarov on its terrorist list. BACK TO THE BEGINNING The discovery of arms caches in Abkhazia were certainly cause for concern.  However, Abkhazia, whether forming part of Georgia or now as a questionably independent Republic, has never been known as a center of Islamist-directed terrorist activity.  And after the Abkhazia discovery Russian officials claimed once again that funds from abroad were responsible for a surge of terrorist attacks in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.  Still, the Russian security service would neither publish the names of those involved nor the names of the countries involved.  It was admitted only that the network was sophisticated and involved dummy corporations and banks.  The intelligence services then concluded that foreign funds for the Caucasus Emirate would continue, as would their unrelenting hunt for the terrorists. * J. Millard Burr is a Senior Fellow of the American Center for Democracy.

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