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Homeland Security

SLUG: 1-01342 OTL - Terrorism in Chechnya









Host: Bloodshed in Chechnya. Next, On the Line. [music]

Host: At a religious festival in northern Chechnya last month, a woman named Shakida Baimuradova got within six feet of Akhmad Kadyrov, the head of the Moscow-appointed Chechen administration, and blew herself up. Fourteen people were killed and dozens wounded. Kadyrov was unhurt. Two days earlier, suicide bombers rammed a truck loaded with explosives into a Russian government compound in Znamenskoye. The attack killed fifty-nine people and wounded more than one hundred. Shamil Basayev, a Chechen separatist leader, claimed responsibility for both attacks. Aslan Maskhadov, another Chechen separatist leader, denounced them. Is there hope for an end to the killing in Chechnya? I'll ask my guests: Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of The National Interest magazine, and Christopher Swift, program officer at the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya. Welcome and thanks for joining us today. Nikolas Gvosdev, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that the recent terrorist attacks were all of a piece with the al-Qaida attacks in Saudi Arabia and other al-Qaida operations. Is he right about that?

Gvosdev: Well, there have always been connections between the separatists in Chechnya, al-Qaida, and other elements of the international Islamist movement. It doesn't mean that the Chechens are taking orders from al-Qaida or that Osama bin Laden picks up the phone and says "I want attacks in Chechnya" or elsewhere. But there has been exchange of personnel. There are among some of the more extreme elements of the Chechen separatists, groups that identify with the al-Qaida ideology and identify with its outlook on how government is to be structured. Certainly the timing of the attacks has been to try to disrupt potential plans for political settlement in Chechnya and also to try to disrupt the potential holding of elections at the end of this year, which many people see as the first major step to trying to politically reconstruct the republic and begin the process of economic reconstruction.

Host: Christopher Swift, is this an effort to derail any kind of political settlement in Chechnya?

Swift: Well, I think it's important that we draw some distinctions between the various groups in Chechnya before we get started. Approximately seventy to eighty percent of the Chechens in the resistance who are under arms are essentially secular nationalists who are fighting for a political cause rather than for some sort of "Islamist international." [crosstalk]

Host: Now, who do they work for?

Swift: By and large those people are under the authority and respond to the authority of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. Now, the remaining thirty percent can basically be broken down into two groups. The first is a group of people who, for better or for worse, are working out family or personal vendettas. Over two-hundred-thousand Chechens have died in the space of the last ten years, another three-hundred-thousand have been displaced. That's approximately half of Chechnya's pre-war population either dead or displaced now. And there's a lot of vendetta and blood-letting going on right now that's of a personal rather than political or ideological nature. There is also an element, led by Shamil Basayev, that probably represents five to ten percent of the total Chechens under arms in Chechnya today that for whatever reason appears to have appropriated the rhetoric and the methodologies of radical Islam. Now the question of whether they are directly affiliated with al-Qaida is something that is believed but not known quite with a high degree of certainty. What is true is that this group, this marginal group, is mostly made up of people who lost the last Chechen presidential election in 1997 and have sought to destabilize the government since, and criminal and Mafia elements, some of whom may have ties to the Russian Federal Security Service. These two groups essentially have appropriated this rhetoric. Some of them probably believe it. Some of them are probably using it to bring in support and ammunition from outside sources. But it's important when we look at the conflict to remember that seventy to eighty percent of these folks are secular nationalists that practice Sufi Islam, rather than radical Wahhabi or Salafi Islam, and they for better or for worse are fighting for a political rather than ideological end. It's a native conflict rather than an international conflict for them.

Host: Nikolas Gvosdev, who in this competing group of rebel leaders has the upper hand at this point?

Gvosdev: Well, the real question is, and this has been a pattern that we've seen, Maskhadov denounces act after act of terrorism. We had the bus bombing in the center of Grozny on April 4th, we've had the suicide bombings that occurred in December and that have occurred more recently. We've had ongoing attacks, particularly directed against village administrators where people will come out of the woods and say we don't want you to cooperate with the administration in terms of reconstruction and in terms of laying a settlement. So, even if the number of Islamists may be small overall, they do seem to have the upper hand. They seem to be able to launch attacks. In many ways, it's discredited Maskhadov over the last several years because he has not been able to rein these more extreme elements in. It certainly has undermined him in the eyes of the Russian federal administration because they don't believe that Maskhadov, even if he were to sign a deal, would be able to enforce it. This of course, is what led to a breakdown of the agreements in 1996 -- the inability of the then-government of Maskhadov, which was the recognized government in Chechnya, to keep these extremist elements in check. And what you're now seeing, regardless, obviously we've had this referendum in March, there were people who quibbled about the exact percentages of people who voted, but I think it's very clear. You have a majority of Chechens now, particularly those who are in the refugee camps, those who've gone to Moscow, where you actually have a very influential Chechen diaspora, who are tired of the war, who want a political settlement, who are willing to accept a political settlement where Chechnya remains within the Russian Federation but has a good deal of internal autonomy. And now the real question is going to be whether or not the extremists who oppose this outcome will in fact be brought to heel and whether we'll be able to have the process of reconstruction. And that of course is, you know, what we've seen with these suicide attacks is it's directed both against obviously the Russian administration in Chechnya, but also the secular nationalists. This is a gauntlet that's being thrown down to say to the secular nationalists, you don't really control the rebel movement in Chechnya. We're the ones who can set the agenda. And so that's a challenge for Maskhadov to deal with as well.

Host: Christopher Swift, how does Maskhadov deal with that challenge then?

Swift: Well, the unfortunate fact is that when people make the decision, take the political decision or the ideological decision to cross the line from waging a war of national liberation if that's how they choose to characterize it -- that's certainly not how everyone characterizes it -- into targeting innocent civilians with violent force for the purpose of intimidating people, those people have immediately taken themselves outside the range of normal political discourse. And I think what's been happening in Chechnya is a small but increasingly radicalized group, predominantly under Basayev, has been able to dominate the political agenda internationally through the appropriation of the rhetoric of radical Islam and through the use of suicide bombings. At the same time, however, the question really at hand is whether this conflict is about terrorism or whether this conflict is about three-hundred years of Russo-Chechen history. If we look at the conflict only through the lens of terrorism and we consider it only within the confines of that rubric and we wrap the rhetoric of international terrorism around it, we're essentially empowering the extremists rather than allowing those moderate forces on both sides of the conflict to find some constructive means of dialogue. Our organization has been working with moderates on both sides to try to create that sort of dialogue over the space of the last four years. We've had some success. The difficulty is the rubric of terrorism, the use of terrorist methods has a tendency to empower extremists rather than enabling an actual political solution.

Host: Nikolas Gvosdev, is it, in calling this terrorism part of international terrorism that keeps a moderate dialogue from going on, or is it the terrorist acts themselves?

Gvosdev: Well the terrorist acts themselves certainly don't contribute to an atmosphere where this conflict can be settled. And again, I've mentioned this before, that Maskhadov in many ways has found himself as the [Yasser] Arafat of the Caucasus, someone who tried to start a political process but has been unable to or unwilling in some cases to control the extremists because of fear that he would lose control and lose authority and lose prestige. And that has then created a cycle by which extremist forces can then gain more credibility, they can gain more notoriety. And then that in turn reinforces those particularly within the Russian government but now also in many other parts of the world to see this as part of a terrorist problem. In the same way that Kashmir has also entered the same way, where you have terrorist forces that come in, they take what is essentially a local conflict and then internationalize it. The problem is that it's then difficult to say, "Well, we should make this a local conflict again," because you can't ignore the international dimension. You cannot ignore the international network that has gone in there and that's why this does become a problem not simply of a regional conflict within Russia but also becomes a problem that faces the international community. And it's becoming very difficult to separate the two.

Host: What can be done, Christopher Swift, to minimize the influence among Chechen rebels of the Arab foreign fighters there and those who are willing to commit terrorist acts?

Swift: Well, first off we have to again distinguish between what is known and what some folks think. This is what's known. There are one-hundred-twenty-thousand Russian military, M-V-D [Ministry of the Interior] and F-S-B [Federal Security Service] troops in a region the size of Connecticut. There are three-hundred-fifty thousand Russian troops surrounding Chechnya effectively blockading it from the north, east, and west. There are U-S troops in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia preventing anyone from crossing the border with Russia. If Russian serviceman in Chechnya today would link arms, they could walk from the north of the country to the south of the country and fit the entire width of it. Now all of those conditions create one of two possibilities with respect to the role of these international organizations. One, either the Russians are incredibly incompetent or two, the notion of sort of frequent flights between Kabul and Grozny are grossly overstated. It's important also to note that the Russian Federal Security Service, the F-S-B, this April came out with a statement estimating that in their best professional judgment, only one-hundred to two-hundred foreign fighters were in Chechnya. Now Ruslan Khasbulatov, the former speaker of the Russian parliament, says that half of that number are fighters from other areas in the Caucasus. They're not people from Afghanistan. They're not from Iraq or from Iran. They're not from the areas that we commonly associate with the U-S war on terror. So we have to get a sense of what the facts are and then determine what we believe based on those facts. Now based on those facts, I don't think we're dealing with a situation here that is akin to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Certainly some of the characteristics are very similar and increasing radicalization of the domestic population of the Chechen population, especially younger people, people under the age of fifteen, is certainly a trend that needs to be stopped and needs to be stopped immediately. The difficulty is that when you empower extremists by using the terrorist label and when you essentially say that there's no form of political negotiation that is acceptable because we're going to identify everyone in the separatist movement as either impotent politically or morally unacceptable.

Host: Yet isn't Russia trying to put forward an amnesty for rebels to bring them into some kind of political dialogue?

Swift: The difficulty here is that in Russia we have many, the Russian government has been very good at imitating a lot of things over the space of the last decade. They've been very good at imitating democracy, imitating the rule of law, imitating economic reform. And I think what you have in Chechnya right now is an imitated peace. It's an attempt to create the conditions for peace without actually sitting down with the people on the other side who have the guns and have control of the people who have the guns. [crosstalk]

Host: Well, Nikolas Gvosdev is that an imitated peace?

Gvosdev: Well, first of all, Akhmad Kadyrov fought in the first Chechen war. He's an excellent example of a group of moderate Chechens that sought independence and then realized later on that this was not going to work, that there were difficulties and have tried to broker a settlement. You have a number of the Chechen clans that have come over to the side of the Chechen administration that Kadyrov heads. You have the Moscow Chechen diaspora who are working for a settlement. So it's easy to fall into this trap of saying, well, "If the Russians would just sit down and negotiate." We do have avenues. There's certainly the negotiations that have taken place outside. I think that the elections and the amnesty provide an excellent way, because, let's face it, Maskhadov's term is going to expire. His ability to claim that he is an elected leader will expire when his term is up. There will need to be new elections which can put forward a Chechen leadership, hopefully one that can dialogue between Moscow and the separatists that will have their confidence. That's not going to happen, though, if you have buses being blown up. It's not going to happen if you have people coming out of the hills. Now this question about the troops. If we put all the Russian troops together, and we need to be careful about the labels here because a lot of these so-called Russian troops are not ethnic Russians, they're local Chechens who are part of the Chechen corps or are from other nationalities. So, we need to avoid making this sound like it's solely an ethnic fight between ethnic Russians from the outside and ethnic Chechens from within. This conflict, especially in the last two years, very much has characteristics of a civil war among Chechens as well. The problem is that you now have nexus points for organized crime and drug-trafficking. Pankisi Gorge on paper looks wonderful. You talk to the Georgian state security minister. He was at the Nixon Center several months ago when he said in reality you have Georgians on the ground who don't do a lot because they don't want to provoke conflict. And when you have border guards being paid the equivalent of twenty dollars per month, it's very easy if you're engaged in arms-smuggling or drug-smuggling or people-smuggling and you're making -- the drug trade in Eurasia alone generates twelve billion [dollars] in income a year. It's pretty easy that you're going to be able to bribe border guards and bribe troops to get things across. So I do think that just simply saying that there's all these federal forces in Chechnya, so why is there a problem -- there are other issues that are linked and then, of course, come back to the international issues, which we've seen were terrorism, drug-smuggling, ethnic insurgencies. These conflicts do begin to join together and it's important to have the local settlement on the ground. And that's where the efforts of the American committee are important. But it's also important not to neglect the international dynamic. And it certainly doesn't take a lot of foreign fighters to radicalize a conflict. A hundred and fifty people may not seem a lot, but if they go into an area, they begin to radicalize a population and train them. Suicide bombing was not part of the Chechen tradition. This is something that has come from the outside. It has come from the extremist, Salafist approach to conflicts. You don't even find [that] in the historical conflicts between Russians and Chechens of the nineteenth century. There wasn't a history of suicide attacks. Even in the first war you didn't have suicide attacks. So it does show that just the little bit of yeast from the outside can have a vastly more important impact than the numbers might suggest.

Host: Christopher Swift, how do you keep this from becoming a Salafist radicalized operation?

Swift: Well, first off, you have to look at the fact that, over ninety percent, probably ninety-five percent of Chechens are either Nasqbandi or Kadiri Sufi. You also have to look at the fact that some of these extremist elements, while there may be some yeast, while they may be able to grab onto some marginal or desperate elements of Chechen society, at the same time they're alienating themselves, progressively alienating themselves, not only from the Chechens who are the loyalists with Russia. I mean loyalist is as good a title as any. They are also alienating themselves from the secular Chechen resistance.

Host: Now what is the secular Chechen resistance doing about that?

Swift: Well, the difficulty is, the difficulty that President Aslan Maskhadov has, is that he's essentially fighting two wars and has been since the Khasavyurt Accords were signed in 1996. He's fighting a war with Russia. He's fighting with two-thousand troops and ten-thousand reservists, a hundred and twenty thousand Russian troops, in an area the size of Connecticut. He's also fighting anywhere from two-hundred to a thousand, maybe, individuals, mostly criminal organizations that have appropriated the language of radical Islam for their own ends. When you're stuck between two hard places, a rock and a hard place, you don't have a lot of room to maneuver, rhetorically, politically, and even militarily. The simple fact of the matter is that in Palestine, for example, Yasser Arafat is not able to control Hamas. His successor, the new Palestinian prime minister [Mahmoud Abbas], can try to negotiate with them, can try to reason with them, but he may not be able to control them because they're their own entity.

Host: Why should the Russians then negotiate with Maskhadov if he can't control them?

Swift: Why should the Israelis negotiate with the new Palestinian prime minister? Because at the end of the day, the only way to solve the problem is to talk to the people that control the majority of the guns, the majority of the fighters. Look at this in terms of Northern Ireland. Nobody wanted to negotiate with the provisional I-R-A [Irish Republican Army] or with the real I-R-A. Those people were crazy. They used suicide bombings. They used any number of other violent tactics against innocent civilians for their own narrow political ends. But the I-R-A and its political wing, Sinn Fein, was eventually over time brought out of that extremist camp or brought out of the vision that was being seen in that camp towards a place where they could have some sort of dialogue, where they could have some sort of settlement not only with the government of the United Kingdom, but also with, you know, the Ulster Unionists.

Host: Nikolas Gvosdev, can you have that kind of dialogue when you have terrorist acts going on? [crosstalk]

Gvosdev: I think that what you had at the outcome of the Russia-E-U summit on the 31st of May in Saint Petersburg, where the European Union has endorsed the political reconstruction project. They think that -- if you have elections scheduled for December -- I think that one of the things the United States should do is to press for the amnesty. And to say that this is the way to go forward, but at the same time to press the separatists to say, "You now have the opportunity for elections in December, to go to voters in Chechnya, in the refugee camps, in Ingushetia and elsewhere, those members of the diaspora in Moscow who are still registered to live and vote in Chechnya, and go to the voters, get a mandate. Don't rely on terrorist activities. Don't let the extremists use terrorist activities to disrupt the voting or to disrupt an election campaign.

Host: I'm afraid we only have about thirty seconds left. Is going to the voters, putting together an election like that, the answer? About fifteen seconds.

Swift: Can you do that under conditions of martial law? Can you do that under conditions where two-hundred-fifty-thousand Chechens have been essentially murdered, where another three-hundred-fifty-thousand are displaced, where there is a devastated ecology, where the society is essentially fighting for its survival?

Host: I'm afraid that's going to have to be the last word. We're out of time for today. I'd like to thank my guests: Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of The National Interest magazine; and Christopher Swift, program officer at the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya. For On the Line, I'm Eric Felten. We welcome you to send your questions and comments to Ontheline@ibb.gov

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