IS THE SALAFI-JIHADIST WAY STILL AN OBSTACLE TO RUSSIA IN CHECHNYA?

By Murad Batal al-Shishani (05/18/2005 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Abu Zaid or Abu Omar Al-Kuwaiti, his real name Ahmad Nasser Eid Abdullah Al-Fajri Al-Azimi, was not the only Kuwaiti who joined the Jihad in Chechnya. Many young people from the Persian Gulf went there, and Al-Azimi was one of a group of Kuwaitis with similar biographies. Their journeys started in Afghanistan, Bosnia Herzegovina and then Chechnya. Some, like Hamad Al-Slaiman, went back to Afghanistan and was killed in Tora Bora in 2001.

Al-Azimi was an actor in children programs until he became religious and worked as an Imam in Safwan Bin Omayah Mosque in Kuwait, the capital. His services where terminated “for breaking the Ministry of Awaqaf’s regulations regarding collecting donations from mosque goers and he was expelled from his work.” Some newspaper sources indicate that following that incident he moved to Afghanistan in 1998, trained in the al-Farouk camp during the American raids on Afghanistan in 1998, and then went to Chechnya in October 1999. In Chechnya, Al-Azimi got married and had two boys, Omar and Abdullah.

Al-Azimi’s ideology is salafi-jihadist, just like all Arab fighters in Chechnya. They followed to us that Jihad, as ordained by religion, is directed at Russian soldiers and not civilians.” This pupil is clearly Abu-Omar Al-Saif, who is a salafi-jihadist ideologue in Chechnya, because he was a pupil of the Saudi Sheikh Mohammad Bin Othaimin’s. Al-Saif wrote a letter in commemoration of Othaimin’s death about his support for Chechnya in fatwa and opinion; and there seems to be a great similarity between the ideology of Al-Saif and that of Othaimin.

After Abu-Omar Al-Saif addressed a recorded letter through qoqaz.com in November 2003 to the Islamists who where performing violent acts in Saudi Arabia, asking them to turn their attention to fighting the Americans instead of the Saudi government, Al-Azimi posted a letter of his own on the website a month later entitled “Fadl Al-Jihad wal Mujahideen wal rad ala al-Muthabbitin” (The benefit of Jihad and Mujahideen and a response to demoralizing attempts). Al-Azimi presented ideas similar to those of Al-Saif, especially with regard to targeting Americans in Iraq instead of local government in an attempt to ease the pressure off funds to Arab fighters in Chechnya, which were what gave legitimacy to their presence there. Since September 11, Gulf governments have created constraints on sponsors and donors to Islamist groups, and these constraints increased in severity with the increase of terrorist attacks in those countries.

In addition to that, Al-Azimi, just like Abu-Saif, considers the American war on terrorism a “crusade” and Iraq a graveyard for American troops, saying that this is a war that concerns all Muslims. They consider democracy a form of heresy, and the salafi-jihadist way “a thorn in the side of enemies, hypocrites and apostates. He believes that “monotheism if not achieved by jihad will be tradition”, a statement that clearly exemplifies the salafi-jihadist way that calls for establishing the rule of religion by the sword.

IMPLICATIONS: Russia misleadingly described the former Arab fighters leader in Chechnya, Abu Al-Walid Al-Ghamidi, who was the successor of the well-known leader Khattab; the Jordanian Abu Hafs, Abu-Omar Al-Saif; and then Abu Zaid Al-Kuwaiti as “money wielders”. In addition to that, there is great confusion about the names of Arab fighters in Chechnya, coupled with a lack of adequate information about them. The problem of cutting off funds for terrorism is a fundamental issue for the salafi-jihadist way in Chechnya as is clear in the letters and statements issued by Al-Ghamidi and Al-Saif, especially in the latter’s above-mentioned letter. Cutting off funds has been one of the main causes of undermining the salafi-jihadist way in Chechnya. Since the assassination of the President of the Chechen Independence Movement, Jokhar Dudayev, Islamic funds from the Middle East played a major role in attracting young Chechens frustrated by the brutal Russian operations and Russia not keeping its commitment to paying the compensations stipulated by the Khasavyurt agreement of 1996 for rebuilding Chechnya. The American war on terrorism and cutting off funds meant bad news for the salafi-jihadist way because most donations came from Persian Gulf countries that began imposing restrictions on money transfer.

Secondly, the agenda of the salafi-jihadist way is fundamentally different from that of the Chechen Independence Movement, which limits its action in terms of adversary and location to Russia. The agenda of the salafi-jihadist way is broad. It encompasses the United States, Israel, India and other countries, and spreads its operations on a wide geographic field covering Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, etc. Further, the Chechen Independence Movement calls for a secular state and the salafi-jihadists want a religious state. This difference becomes more pronounced if we look into the salafi-jihadist opinion regarding Iraqi resistance. They are in favor of a guerrilla warfare and the political leadership being linked to the military leadership, in addition to the sectarian perspective in solving the Iraqi crisis as indicated by Al-Saif and Al-Azimi’s writings.

Such ideas might be what drives Russia (and some foreign newspapers) to claim that there are Chechen fighters in Iraq, a claim that was proven to be false. These writings are an indication of the salafi-jihadist way’s crisis in Chechnya due to the cut-off in funds or assassination of its leaders such as Khattab and Al-Walid or his supporters like the former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, assassinated at the hands of Russian Intelligence agents in the Qatari capital of Doha. A crisis that led the salafi-jihadist way to look for another ground to prove its credibility. This is explained by a dichotomy that legitimizes the continuing presence of the salafi-jihadist way between the “close enemy” and the “distant enemy”. It is only natural and expected of jihadists to start looking for another front, and Iraq seems a likely option. Therefore, it would seem that those ideas were meant for Iraq, but this time around there will be no ethnic Chechens who will leave their war-ravaged country to fight a new war.

CONCLUSIONS: Killing the salafi-jihadist leadership will not urge the peace process forward or end the dire human situation in Chechnya. Since the eruption of the second Russo-Chechen war in 1999, Russian forces have taken control of the media outlets in Chechnya and exercised propaganda to make their war look like a war on terrorism. That is why it becomes crucial to clearly distinguish between reality and propaganda. The influence of the salafi-jihadist way in Chechnya is already limited if compared with the moderate movement represented by late President Aslan Maskhadov, whose call for a ceasefire at the beginning of February to all Chechen resistance groups was a proof of his power, before being assassinated by Russia. In addition, the negotiations the Mothers of Soldiers organization is holding in London with another leading figure of the moderate movement, Ahmad Zakayev, further proves that Russia is using its propaganda to claim that there is terrorism in Chechnya. In order to end any extremist tendencies, Russia would need to search for policies different from those it is using at the moment. These include ending the mopping-up policy and violations of human rights, and hold negotiations with moderate Chechens, as the call for war and fighting has exhausted the two sides economically and humanly.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Murad Batal Al-Shishani is a Jordanian-Chechen writer who holds an M.A degree in Political Science, specializing in Islamic Movements in Chechnya. He is author of Islamic Movement in Chechnya and the Chechen-Russian Conflict 1990-2000, Amman 2001 (in Arabic).