Suicide bombers, the global jihad, and the situation in Chechnya

An analysis of how the role played by Al-Qaeda in the Caucasus has changed over the years. Compiled by experts from the Institute of Defense and Security Studies (Singapore) and Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (Israel).

All experts agree that Al-Qaeda’s presence in any given region is signified by public beheading of hostages, terrorist attacks on Western targets, and the use of suicide bombers (shakhids).

All this is evident in Iraq. Experts at the IDSS (Institute of Defense and Security Studies) say it will all be evident in Afghanistan as well in 2006. They point out that the Taliban wasn’t exactly skillful from the military standpoint in the past, but interaction with foreigners enabled them too hone their skills. Some sources imply that Taliban activists are split into of groups 10 to 25 men each, and each group includes an Al-Qaeda member or a mercenary from the Persian Gulf countries who teaches the rest the tactics deployed in Iraq. Coordination of terrorist attacks has improved greatly as a result.

The Taliban started using suicide bombers in late 2005. These tactics were largely unknown in Afghanistan before September 11, because “istishhad” (the eagerness to become a suicide bomber) was alien to the Afghan culture. Not any more.

Beheading hostages is becoming a widespread tactic in Afghanistan. The Taliban is using these executions to emphasize its contacts with the global jihad movement.

All this is essentially absent in Chechnya. Chechen terrorists don’t use suicide bombers nowadays (the most recent terrorist attacks of that kind took place in 2004), and don’t attack American or British targets. Al-Qaeda leaders don’t call Chechnya the third battlefield of the global jihad (after Iraq and Afghanistan). Moreover, Russian secret services have never uncovered any evidence that any act of terror in Russia was organized under Al-Qaeda’s direct command.

And yet, the conflict in Chechnya retains its considerable role in propaganda for the global jihad. The Al-Qaeda suicide terrorists who hijacked passenger jets on September 11 had once intended to fight in Chechnya. These days, video recordings of battles in Chechnya are being viewed in Iraq.

In fact, experience in Chechnya is being widely used in other countries. Iraq’s first suicide bomber blew herself up on September 28, 2005. Although some extremists had used women in this capacity in the past, it was in Chechnya that women first began blowing themselves up for religious rather than political motives.

The first female suicide bomber drove a KamAZ truck loaded with high explosives into the building of a federal forces commandant’s office in Alkhan-Yurt in Chechnya in June 2000 – and that incident sparked a series of similar explosions worldwide. Israel’s first female suicide bomber blew herself up in January 2002, and two women followed suit in Uzbekistan in March 2004.

However, it is highly unlikely that Al-Qaeda abandoned the actual Chechen front (not the propaganda front) only because of the absence of American military contingent there.

IDSS experts John Harrison and Rohan Gunaratna believe that Al-Qaeda is in decline nowadays. Yoram Schweitzer agrees. He maintains that Osama bin Laden’s organization never succeeded in transformation from a group into a movement. Moreover, the second generation of fighters appeared in the global jihad now – from Iraq, Europe, and South Africa – and they pushed bin Laden’s Afghani and Bosnian followers into the background. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of the Iraqi Al-Qaeda network, makes an emphasis on this new generation and is practically out of bin Laden’s control now.

Bin Laden built his global terrorist network using Afghanistan, and al-Zarqawi is now using Iraq in the same manner. Aware of the fact that a great many Al-Qaeda ringleaders and senior officers are arrested, al-Zarqawi would not mind taking over its cells on the territory from North America to Asia.

Al-Zarqawi has enormously boosted his influence in Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Persian Gulf states. Terrorist web-sites usually post information on al-Zarqawi’s operations nowadays, leaving Al-Qaeda as such and bin Laden in the periphery of attention. Using his considerable skills in dealing with media outlets, al-Zarqawi is becoming the symbol of global jihad.

What information is available at this point indicates that emissaries of both structures (Al-Qaeda and al-Zarqawi’s network) operated in the Caucasus until recently. Bin Laden was represented in Chechnya by Abu Omar al-Saif between 1995 and November 2005 when he was killed. Al-Zarqawi has been represented since 2002 by Abu Hafs al-Urdani.

Al-Saif of Saudi Arabia was an ideologue rather than field commander. He bears a lot of titles, all of them with religious undertones: legal advisor to Chechen mujahedin, member of the Shar’ah court, head of the Court of Appeals in Chechnya, etc. Al-Saif’s opinion was not valued in the Caucasus alone.

Calling the war in Iraq “the third wave of Crusades against Muslims,” al-Saif actually viewed peace as a never-ending battle for the triumph of Islam. He did not really care about regional and cultural differences between Muslims from different countries.

Al-Urdani is a Jordanian. He represents al-Zarqawi and Chechen diaspora in Jordan. It is common knowledge that “Arab” Chechens have played a major role in the conflict in the Caucasus ever since 1995. The first Foreign Minister of Ichkeria Shamil Beno was a Jordanian Chechen. Zijad Sabsabi, representative of Chechnya in Moscow, was born in Syria.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell was the first to mention al-Urdani’s name in his speech at the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003. It was Powell who called al-Urdani an emissary of al-Zarqawi’s “terrorist network with Iraqi connections.”

When Abu al-Walid was killed in Vedeno in April 2004, Al-Jazeera released a statement of the Majlis al-Shura to the effect that Abu Hafs succeeded to him as commander of foreign mujahedin in Chechnya.

Abu Hafs of Jordan became the first non-Saudi to command foreign mercenaries in Chechnya. When the school was seized in Beslan, Abu Hafs was blamed as the sponsor of the operation. By the way, the Federal Security Service also said at first that al-Saif was involved in the Beslan attack. The investigation, however, failed to uncover any evidence of Al-Qaeda’s or al-Zarqawi’s involvement in the Beslan horrors on September 1-3, 2004.

In the meantime, the Jordanian’s accession is hardly surprising. IDSS experts say that a new generation of foreign mercenaries is fighting in Chechnya nowadays. Mostly Arabs before 2001, they are mostly Turks and Chechens from Arab countries now.

Al-Urdani’s promotion to foreign mujahedin commander may also mean a shift to new financial sources from Saudi trusts to the funds raised by organizations of Chechen diasporas.

It isn’t hard to see that the influence wielded by Abu Hafs and the dead al-Saif is not a match to the influence wielded by Shamil Basayev. How the war in Chechnya should be viewed (as an element of the global jihad or as a war for independence) depends precisely on the latter.

Basayev in the meantime is not exactly logical in his statements.

He denounced any religious motives of his actions in the interview with Babitsky ran by ABC channel in July 2005. “No, this is first and foremost a war for independence for me,” he said. “When I’m not free, I cannot live by my faith. I want to be free. Freedom is primary, that’s what I think. Shar’ah is secondary.”

In an interview with posted on January 9, 2006, Basayev called the attack on Nalchik “performing the duty to carry out the jihad.” “Adopted at the majlis in 2002, the jihad expansion strategy is being successfully implemented,” Basayev bragged. He even promised expansion of the hostilities to across the Volga in summer 2006.

Along with everything else, Basayev has been trying since last autumn to incorporate his struggle into the global jihad. The first non-Chechen video became available on in November 2005, the film was titled “Genocide in Indonesia.” Films like that are perfect instruments of recruitment.

The so-called Caucasus Front was established in May 2005, when Aslan Maskhadov was already history and replaced with Abdul-Halim Saidullayev. It was established to organize the hostilities all over the Caucasus including Stavropol and Krasnodar. Gunmen chose guerilla tactic of attacks on military objects only, never on civilian targets. The federal forces all but accepted the rules of the game, responding with police and military measures – merciless raids, use of armored vehicles in towns, and so on. Armored vehicles have not been used in Stavropol on the scope of the operation in Tukui-Mekteb on February 6 since the capture of Budennovsk.

It follows that what gunmen are going is a war for independence on the scale of Chechnya and jihad on the scale of the Caucasus as such.

There is only one explanation possible. Al-Qaeda, the first truly global terrorist network, is putting its interests above interests of local movements. Separatists do not want foreigners attack Americans on their own territory. It interferes with their own struggle for their own political objectives: bargaining with the government, appealing to the international community, etc.

As for Al-Qaeda, its own view on political objectives is quite specific. Its spiritual guru Abdulla Azzam wrote article “Solid Basis” in April 1988 and formulated the group’s central principle in it: transformation of the jihad from a means to the end. Azzam was killed, and new leaders of the organization (bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, al-Zarqawi) proved themselves perfect tacticians but weak ideologists. As a result, ideology of the group has not changed these last two decades: liberation of the Islamic world from Western-Jewish colonialism, establishment of a state by the divine laws of Islam.

That is why Al-Qaeda refused to participate in the election in Iraq and declared a war on the government of Saudi Arabia. Triumph in a single country is nothing compared to the global war on Crusaders.

All this doesn’t really concur with interests of national-liberation movements. It explains Al-Qaeda’s failure to penetrate the regions where local separatists are strong – first and foremost Palestine (even though the importance of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to Islamists is undeniable).

Al-Qaeda attacks Western targets only wherever local terrorists themselves are weak – the way it was in Kenya and Tanzania.

Basayev is not going to give Chechnya over to global jihad zealots just like HAMAS is not going to hand Palestine over to Al-Qaeda. Basayev knows that he is not going to benefit politically or economically from it because for years already his war has been sponsored by Chechen diasporas who find the idea of a Chechen state dearer to their hearts than bin Laden’s Apocalyptical ideology.

In the meantime, Basayev is eager to play the part of a “local bin Laden” for the as yet weak but promising Islamic movements of the Caucasus. In fact, he has a serious rival – al-Zarqawi’s organization that may soon find itself capable of investing considerable sums in inflammation of the jihad in the Caucasus.

Paradoxical as it may appear, but the tactic of the Russian security structures is objectively playing into the hands of al-Zarqawi and Al-Qaeda. Tough response to the attack on Nalchik makes a political dialogue impossible. It means that the local Islamists have the example of their brothers in Egypt, Algeria, or Morocco to follow as the only option, and the brothers in question recognized priority of the goals of the global jihad.


Question: Is there anything that distinguishes the use of suicide bombers by Al-Qaeda and others?

Yoram Schweitzer: Al-Qaeda’s suicide bombers work in pairs. It helps terrorists, you know. It offers them support. Al-Qaeda made an emphasis on finding a pair for every terrorist used in terrorist acts including the ones on September 11. Al-Qaeda needs it to prevent would-be terrorists from thinking too much of the suicide they are about to commit. Besides, the pair lessens the discomfort of the isolation needed to keep the terrorist act a secret.

Question: But these are not the tactics used in Chechnya.

Yoram Schweitzer: If you mean the Beslan school hostage siege or the Dubrovka theater hostage-taking in Moscow, these terrorist acts required many more terrorists to be involved – just because of the size of the targets.

Question: Chechnya’s suicide bombers are inactive at present. Why?

Yoram Schweitzer: The role of public opinion must be taken into consideration here. I don’t think Chechen society supports suicide bombing.

Question: But it’s unlikely that Chechen society would support the operation against children in Beslan more than a suicide bombing in Moscow.

Yoram Schweitzer: Correct, but there are also differences between terrorists. Al-Qaeda, for example, cares for public opinion as little as the Palestinians do.

Question: And meanwhile, propaganda materials from Chechnya are found in the possession of European Islamists.

Yoram Schweitzer: There is a difference between Palestinian suicide bombers and European Islamists. Videos of the Chechens’ war on the Russians do have a considerable effect on the European youth, that’s a major part of their recruitment and training. But the Palestinians do not care as they have problems of their own.

Question: How would you describe Al-Qaeda’s presence in the Caucasus?

Adam Dolnick: Al-Qaeda does wield ideological and financial influence there, but its influence is not decisive. Basayev and his camp are purely anti-Russian, and the Chechens don’t attack Western targets like terrorist groups infiltrated by Al-Qaeda throughout the world.

The absence of further suicide bombings since Beslan (there was but one attempt in Dagestan and even that was thwarted) corroborates Basayev’s strategic decision to back Saidullayev’s strategy of expansion of the conflict throughout the Caucasus. Should Basayev decide that it doesn’t work, he may revert to using suicide bombers again.

There are fewer incidents corroborating foreign mercenaries’ presence in Chechnya now, and we do not see Chechen instructors involved in other conflicts.

Question: Chechen guerrillas stopped using Al-Qaeda tactics after Beslan. When do you think Al-Qaeda’s interest in Chechnya ebbed?

Reuven Paze: I’d say that Al-Qaeda never viewed Chechnya as a priority as a part of the global jihad. Khattab’s Arab battalion came to Chechnya from Afghanistan or Bosnia in the middle of the 1990’s but it was not following Al-Qaeda’s orders. Al-Qaeda has never solved the ideological problem of how it should treat wars for independence like the ones in Chechnya or Palestine. I think that 2003 became a turning point for Chechnya, the period when volunteers started coming to Iraq. An emphasis on Iraq as an alternative to Afghanistan compelled Al-Qaeda to forsake its rapt attention to Chechnya. Arab volunteers go to Iraq nowadays, they are no longer interested in Chechnya. In the meantime, some Saudi Islamists like Yusef al-Ajiri commander of the Al-Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia and bin Laden’s personal bodyguard killed in 2003 – Authors did try to view the Chechen conflict as a part of the global jihad. The impression now is, however, that Chechnya has faded into the background in Al-Qaeda’s plans – at least for the time being.

Question: Can al-Zarqawi, unlike bin Laden, solve the problem of national-liberation movements Al-Qaeda cannot penetrate?

Reuven Paze: Unlike Al-Qaeda and bin Laden, al-Zarqawi is making a special emphasis on involvement in local and ethnic conflicts. His Jordanian origin may help him in establishment of contacts with Chechen Arabs.