Russia, Chechnya and holy war

The war has lasted for most of 10 years and, with each year that passes, Islamist separatists have had to sink to ever greater depths of brutality to get their cause noticed.

Chechnya — a war the Kremlin reignited to boost the political career of an unknown former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin — today returns to haunt the Russian president.

Wednesday’s seizure of a school in the southern town of Beslan, in the volatile republic of North Ossetia, caps a bloody week for Putin, whose usual take on the conflict is that it is “getting better’‘.

Two planes and a metro station have been attacked and now he must achieve what seems impossible: the safe extraction of up to 400 schoolchildren from a mined gymnasium. They are being held by 17 Islamist extremists, well-versed in Russian siege tactics, ready to die, and demanding the unacceptable — the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.

In the name of giving Russian civilians a taste of the suffering Chechens have endured at the hands of Russian soldiers, separatist militants have held hostage the sick in hospitals, and theatregoers.
They have dispatched suicide bombers to rock concerts and hotels and on to aircraft and rush-hour metro trains. Yet few could comprehend what they hoped to gain by targeting primary schoolchildren.

The Beslan gunmen have targeted a region already fraught with ethnic tensions. The North Ossetians are a fierce contingent in the North Caucasus. Their relations with the neighbouring Muslim Ingush have yet to recover from a war 13 years ago. Ingushetia has recently seen serious fighting and “anti-terrorist’’ operations by Russian troops who believe militant separatists have found a foothold there. The headstrong North Ossetians will not take kindly to seeing their children held hostage by the same people who would bring their holy war to their homeland.

As little as three months ago, the Chechen separatist movement appeared to have fractured irrecoverably. Russian officials claimed separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov’s inner circle were slowly surrendering. The Russian security services, the FSB, even said Maskhadov was himself abroad, perhaps in Turkey, along with his commander-in-chief, Shamil Basayev.

The Chechen people — despairing after 10 years of Russian bombing, sharia law, and brutal disappearances and extra-judicial executions by Russian troops — appeared willing to tolerate Moscow’s rule, if it meant peace.

A pro-Moscow president, Akhmad Kadyrov, was installed last October and his vicious grip, enforced by his oafish son, Ramzan, did, for many, provide a set of rules under which they might find stability. Yet on May 9 Kadyrov was assassinated by a bomb blast, for which Basayev claimed responsibility.

Kadyrov’s policy of buying up militants to serve under him had contaminated the republic’s security forces with separatist sympathisers. It became easier for militants to move around the republic and attack Russian troops. This not only angered the military, but some said it even led to the collapse of security that allowed a bomb to be placed under Kadyrov’s seat in Grozny stadium on Russia’s VE Day.

The Kremlin’s attempt to turn Chechen against Chechen had self-combusted, leaving a separatist movement brimming with internecine rivalry. At one extreme were those “traitors’’ who would take Moscow’s money and on the other those who sought alliance with internationalised Islamist extremists.

The exiled Maskhadov has been rendered largely irrelevant by this week’s attacks. It may — or may not — be his fighters attacking Russian troops in the hills daily. Yet his spokesperson’s insistence that the separatists had nothing to do with the double plane crash last Tuesday was a turning point. It showed Russia’s fight against terrorists can no longer involve negotiating with, or even “neutralising’’ Maskhadov.

The Kremlin’s long-repeated claim that its fight in Chechnya is against groups linked to al-Qaeda has proved to be self-fulfilling.

Since 9/11, the West has chosen to turn a blind eye to Moscow’s suppression of separatist sentiment in Chechnya, believing there was a greater fight against Islamist extremists at stake. As Maskhadov was disowned by Washington, hardliners in the rebel camp assumed a greater role.

Now a new cast of militants people Russia’s wanted posters. Abu Walid, a Saudi-born hardliner, has regularly been named as the shady mastermind of suicide bombings across Russia until his family said he had died in combat earlier this year.

The FSB believes he may have faked his own death and gone to organise Islamist resistance in Iraq. Another foreign citizen, Abu Yasin, is now performing Walid’s old role, it suggests.

The claim fits the slow internationalisation of the conflict.

The irony is that, while the Chechen conflict may not have started as a struggle involving Islamist fighters, it is one now. The gunmen who seized the Dubrovka theatre in October 2002 said they reported to Maskhadov. The Islambouli Brigades, who claimed responsibility for the plane bombs and the metro attack, say they wish to “punish infidel Russia’’ and to help their “Muslim brothers in Chechnya’‘.

Two years ago Moscow faced an enemy with a clear leader who sought a basic and definable objective: Chechen independence. Now it has allowed this enemy to morph into extremists who are ready to die — and kill anyone from soldiers to schoolchildren — to punish Russia and bring infinite holy war to it.

Two years ago Moscow had someone with whom it could negotiate. Now, in Beslan, it faces impossible demands, mined schoolchildren, and 17 gunmen who have kept their cellphone turned off. — Â

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