The Chechen, jihadlist, al Qaeda connection

AEI’s lead Russia scholar, Leon Aron, has this, in part, to say:

Islamic radicals have been very active in Chechnya since the early 2000s, when the Chechen independence movement truly radicalized into a fundamentalist movement. Since then, there have been several large attacks in Russia, such as the Beslan school siege in 2004 and the Nord Ost theater attack in 2002. Several Chechens were sent to Guantanamo. . . .

[Ties between Chechnya and al-Qaeda] go[] back to the late 1990s, when the then second-in-command of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, went to Chechnya to look for a base. He was arrested but then let go. The Pankisi Gorge in Georgia was a training camp of al-Qaeda until Georgia — with American help — ousted them. So it’s a long connection. To read more, see my paper on Chechnya here.

The Chechen independence movement was initially secular; it was a region that suffered hugely — initially under the Soviets — when there were mass deportations to gulags in 1944. We see in many other places that something that begins as a secular movement becomes radicalized. After a Moscow theater was seized in a 2002 terror attack, there was a brutal Russian assault on Chechnya. And we saw how this movement became more of a martyrs’ movement that had nothing to do with the independence of Chechnya and more to do with jihad. It started as a Soviet/Russian problem, it festered, legitimate demands for independence were never met, and the younger fighters became radicalized. . . .

What initially starts as a secular movement for independence becomes part of the worldwide jihad. . . .

There’s a longstanding Chechen terrorist connection. In November 2002, at the Hamburg trial of one of the 9/11 plotters, it turned out that three of the 9/11 pilots were recruited during al-Qaeda training in Afghanistan, where they had come to “fight the Russians in Chechnya.” In December 1996, Zawahiri came to scout a potential base for al-Qaeda in Chechnya. In an audio tape attributed to bin Laden (broadcast in 2002 by al Jazeera), Osama bin Laden mentioned a list of Muslim grievances: “As you look at your dead in Moscow, also recall ours in Chechnya.” The radicalization of the Chechen movement has long roots.

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