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Chechnya and Al-Qaeda

Mark Kleiman asks for comment on Masha Gessen's assertion in Slate that al-Qaeda has very little to do with Chechen terrorism. Unlike Mark, I do know Gessen's work, and it's quite good -- she's a very honorable Russian journalist who's been highly critical of the Putin regime in an increasingly difficult time for Russia's independent media. On the other hand, I think her anti-Putinism and the connections between Putin's rise and brutal treatment of the Chechen population is somewhat clouding her judgment here.

Certainly al-Qaeda has absolutely nothing to do with the Russo-Chechen conflict per se. Nothing whatsoever. One of my favorite books, A Hero of Our Time, is set in the early 19th century and deals in part with Russian counterinsurgency warfare against Chechens. It's a theme that also surfaces in Tolstoy. More recently, the series of post-Soviet Russo-Chechen conflicts started up before al-Qaeda was a going concern. It's a nationalist conflict that has to do with the fact that Russia wants to rule Chechnya and Chechnya doesn't want to be ruled by Russians. On the other hand -- and it's a big on the other hand -- the whole purpose of al-Qaeda is to opportunistically find conflicts between Muslim and non-Muslim populations (or Muslim populations and secularist rulers as in Uzbekistan), provide military assistance to the Muslim side, and seek to draw the Muslim side of the conflict into al-Qaeda's broader struggle with the West. In the interim between the two Chechen wars of the 1990s the area was basically a mini failed state where Islamist guerillas began operating. Russia wound up making the situation worse by killing off much of the nationalist leadership and, during the Second Chechen War, utterly wrecking the infrastructure of the country.

The upshot is that while the conflict has nothing to do with global jihad in terms of its origins, it has become a part of it. On the one hand, jihadis fight on the Chechen side. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin now defines his anti-Chechen warfare as of a piece with America's war on terrorism. In the middle is the United States, which basically supports Putin in this interpretation. This has the dynamic of a self-fulfilling prophesy -- if everyone accepts that Chechnya is a front in the global war on terrorism, then Chechnya is a front in the global war on terrorism. One assumes that, were Chechnya to gain its independence or autonomy, that the vast majority of Chechens would have no interest in fighting a broader conflict. And yet, the jihadis would still be there, and unless the independent/autonomous Chechen state were to demonstrate both the capacity and determination to root them out, the resulting situation would be very dangerous indeed. During the mid-nineties period of de facto Chechen independence, neither capacity nor determination was demonstrated. It is, as I've said before, an extremely thorny situation. Russia already reduced Grozny to rubble. Then they did it again. It's hard to see how levelling it a third time will resolve things. But Russia also already tried giving Chechnya de facto independence and that didn't work either.

UPDATE: Via Socal Justice a Christian Science Monitor backgrounder on the subject, written from Putin-sympathizing perspective. It should be noted that western reports out of Russia tend to be more pro-Putin than is wise, due to reliance on official government sources. That said, CSM does some of the finest international reporting out there. Since Putin's rise to power is so inextricably bound up with the Second Chechen War, it's a bit hard to get fully objective reporting on this subject.

September 6, 2004 | Permalink


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» Ongoing applied coherentism: Chechnya from Majikthise
Link dump: Marcia Gessen, Chechnya, Slate, 9/4/04. David Johnson and Borgna Brunner, Chechnya timeline: 1830-2004, Infoplease. Beslan hostage crisis, Wikipedia. Chechnya, Wikipedia. Putin warns of security backlash, Guardian, 9/6/04. This is not going ... [Read More]

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