At the end of August I met Ahmed Zakayev in his north London office. He got up from his comfortable chair and greeted me like a grey-haired man in his beige cardigan, surrounded by his two sons, one of whom was acting as a translator. I was shocked that this pious and humble Muslim wants to overthrow Russian President Vladimir Putin's strongman in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. As I write these lines, Kadyrov's forces are trying to poke holes in the front lines in Ukraine. The fact that Zakayev's house in a London suburb serves as the nerve center of his plan seems downright unworldly. But perhaps it's also a testament to London's own history: every global capital has attracted its share of expats, activists and rebel leaders. Yet few people have shown such resilience in pursuing their cause.
Chechnya is located in the extreme south of Russia. The Caucasus region in general is of strategic importance both for Russia's security and for its valuable resources, oil and gas. Historically, Chechnya has been contested for a long time, at least since the time of Peter the Great in the 18th century. More recently, Russia fought two wars over Chechnya in the 1990s. "Ichkeria" was the name Chechen separatists gave their republic after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, marking the start of the Second Chechen War in 1999. According to correspondent for the foreign newspaper The Guardian, Luke Harding, Zakayev was at the center of events. In the preface to Zakayev's memoirs "Submit or Destroy!" Harding writes: "He was a minister, a military commander, a negotiator and a presidential candidate." As the tanks entered Ichkeria, Zakayev was seriously injured in a car accident. After hiding in Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Georgia and fleeing from one hiding place to another, he sought asylum in London in 2004. He served there as a minister until 2007, when he proclaimed himself prime minister of Ichkeria. Though he served as head of Ichkeria's government-in-exile, his status there no longer existed as a reality.
By that time, Putin had installed Ramzan Kadyrov's father Akhmad as Chechnya's leader, effectively turning Ichkeria into a paper republic, existing only in a handful of websites and documents and in the memories of an exiled Chechen diaspora. In addition, the Russians successfully and systematically removed their leadership. In 2013 all of its presidents were assassinated, from its founder Dzochar Dudayev to Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, Aslan Mashadov, Abdul Halim Sadulayev and Dokka Umarov. The only one left was Zakayev.
Over the years, Zakayev never stopped hoping to rebuild this legendary Ichkerian republic. Now that Putin's invasion is ravaging Ukraine and creating a power vacuum in his former backyard, Zakayev has seen an opportunity. Zakayev travels from London, Brussels and Kyiv to mobilize political support from anyone willing to listen. He talks about building a “national” army that, to outsiders, looks like any other volunteer militia made up of diaspora Chechens. For Zakayev, however, this is no mere militia, but a nascent Grande Armée hoping to overthrow his rival Kadyrov and bring him back to Grozny with glorious fanfare. However, like many of the cross-border wars fought in the Middle East, this is a gamble that could easily backfire. In fact, it is a risk that failed once before in Chechnya's recent history.
Arousing Putin's wrath has not halted Zakayev's tireless political activities. Its mission is to keep alive the idea of the Ichkerian Republic and to highlight the many transgressions of Putin and Kadyrov. Once in London, he joined the incoming Russian exiles, united by their common political enemy: Putin. Of particular importance, as the British inquiry into the fatal poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko found in 2016, was Zakayev's friendship with Litvinenko himself and another prominent Putin critic, Boris Berezovsky. All three were on opposite sides in the Chechnya conflict. Berezovsky was then a Russian oligarch acting on behalf of Moscow, while Litvinenko was serving as an intelligence officer for Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB). In later years, however, Litvinenko increasingly sympathized with the Chechen separatist cause. As the investigation noted, Berezovsky "financed Russian émigrés," and Litvinenko served on Zakayev's security detail and was part of his war crimes commission investigating Russian human rights violations.
Such alliances come at a high cost. According to the British Foreign Office, in 2004 the houses of Zakayev and Litvinenko, who became neighbors in London, were bombed. The reasons remained unclear. In 2002, The Times revealed that Zakayev's name was on an FSB blacklist. In 2006, his friend Litvinenko was poisoned with the chemical polonium. The photos of his emaciated body on the front pages of British newspapers are a testament to the lengths Putin would go to pursue his enemies. Another Kremlin critic and friend, Anna Politkovskaya, who the investigation found was also a member of Zakayev's war crimes commission, was murdered in October 2006. In 2011, the British Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) expelled a suspected Chechen killer. that he had Zakayev in his sights. To this day, Zakayev has had to inform the British security services of his movements.
Although Zakayev sees this fight against Putin as "a holy war", it was not easy for him to gain political support for his cause. Little progress has been made over the years despite constant lobbying in Europe's capitals, which relies on friends from actress Vanessa Redgrave to former British Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to push the Ichkerian agenda forward. In the post-9/11 world, where Islamic terrorism was seen as the greatest security threat, then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other politicians preferred closer ties with Moscow to the chaotic world of dissidents and separatists like Zakayev.
However, with the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, attitudes towards the Ichkerian cause have changed. Members of the Chechen diaspora in Europe, motivated by opposition to Kadyrov, began flocking to Ukraine to fight. The Western press has expressed horror at the brutality of Kadyrov's forces, exemplified by their role in the April 2022 Bucha massacre, while showing surprising sympathy for the bearded Chechen battalions fighting on the Ukrainian side and in the lead behind Folk heroes like Sheikh Mansur and Dzokhar are named. Dudayev, the founder of Ichkeria. These volunteer battalions wear the red, green, and white military insignia with a black wolf in the center, denoting loyalty to Ichkeria. The militias, made up of exiled veterans of the 1990s Chechen wars in Denmark, have been fighting alongside the Ukrainian army since the conflict in Donbass began in 2014.
With the wind seemingly on the heels of the separatists, Zakayev has stepped up his lobbying efforts. The former stage actor is on a charm offensive, appearing in European media, flying to Kyiv, meeting Ukrainian lawmakers like Oleksiy Goncharenko and phoning him on YouTube. He also donned a military uniform to form his own military unit in September 2022. Returning to his time as a former commander, Zakayev gave this unit a big and long name: the Separate Special Purpose Battalion of the Republic Ministry of Defense Chechen from Ichkeria, or “OBON” for short. Zakayev is officially his commander-in-chief, and photos on social media show him leading his troops into Ukraine, wearing the customary Ichkerian armband and Kalashnikov rifle.
OBON seems to be a relatively capable squad. Images emerged of a well-equipped battalion fighting alongside the Ukrainian army, retaking villages in the Kherson region in the summer of 2022. The message he was trying to convey was that they were a "national army", an army in exile, similar to the Free French in World War II fighting German forces and the Vichy regime. The icing on the cake came in October 2022, when the Kyiv Post reported that 287 Ukrainian parliamentarians conceded that the Republic of Ichkeria was "temporarily occupied by Russians." It was a sign that Ukraine considered the Kadyrov government illegitimate. For his part, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Ukrainian President "recommended that the Foreign Ministry investigate the matter".
However, this apparent victory for Ichkeria was not necessarily a victory for Zakayev, or even for the Separatists, but for the existence of Ichkeria as a national entity. Ukrainian parliamentarians and outsiders alike must have wondered who exactly governs this breakaway Ichkerian state. Because of the legacy of the Chechen wars of the 1990s, the separatists themselves were sharply divided. Ukrainian politicians have been courted not only by Zakayev, but also by other Chechen politicians who claim leadership of the self-proclaimed republic. The issue was illustrated in November 2022, when Radio Liberty reported that Chechen separatist representatives had held two separate congresses; one in France led by Dzhambulat Suleymanov and the other by Zakayev, who held his own conference in Belgium the next day.
For this to make sense, Ukrainian politicians had to calculate politically. You would have to entertain the thought that Zakayev was at least an interim prime minister under the Ichkerian constitution, even though the last Ichkerian president, Dokka Umarov, effectively abolished the republic and declared it an "emirate" in 2007. ". , which now encompassed the entire North Caucasus. Also, a referendum in Chechnya in 2003, ridiculous as it may be, showed that the territory favored joining the Russian Federation. Since no elections had been held by the Republic of Ichkeria, how exactly did the parliamentarians want a man to take the lead?
As if that wasn't enough, the Ichkerian leaders also seemed to be politically separate countries. According to online news site Caucasian Knot, Suleymanov wanted a "Republic governed by Sharia (sic)" while Zakayev wanted a "secular Ichkeria," which he told me does not mean abandoning religion. There are also Chechens in the diaspora who believe in Umarov's vision of an Islamic emirate. And on more than that, the Separatists disagree. For example, what will Chechnya's relationship with the West look like? Some, like Zakayev, while ambivalent about the West's past behavior, still believe in pointing Ichkeria's political compass in that direction. Others believe that the West abandoned its self-proclaimed republic to its fate after 9/11 and are not so sure. Given the divisions within the Chechen separatists, Ukrainian politicians cannot be accused of acknowledging their contribution to the fight against the Russians while failing to recognize their political leaders. That's why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seemed to sidestep the issue.
Zakayev's OBON, too, is less a Chechen grande army than a declaration of intent. As mentioned, other Chechen separatist battalions also raised the Ichkerian flag and fought alongside the Ukrainian forces for much longer than OBON. Sheikh Mansur, a predominantly Sufi battalion, and Dzokhar Dudayev, a largely nationalist battalion, have been fighting alongside Ukrainian forces since the Donbass conflict erupted in 2014. The University of Birmingham, he notes, already has a much closer relationship with Ukrainian government than Zakayev's troops. To complicate matters further, former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's son, Anzor Maskhadov, is assembling his own "liberation army," according to press reports.
So Zakayev may be talking about a big game, as leaders do in times of war. It certainly makes your military unit feel like a national army of thousands when in reality it probably numbers in the hundreds; and that the Ukrainian parliament's recognition of Ichkeria is effectively tantamount to recognition of its own political legitimacy. But the reality, according to Moore, is that neither he nor the other separatist leaders are threatening the Kadyrov government as they remain "fragmented." Moore isn't entirely pessimistic, however: "The fact that they're even creating a sort of semi-virtual sense of identity under the umbrella of Ukrainian resistance to Russia does something very powerful." Kadyrov is no longer the only model of Chechen identity and government: the separatists could also serve as an alternative, and this worries Grozny.
Despite the separatists' fragmentation, Kadyrov is shocked by their presence. The Chechen strongman took an uncompromising position towards the Ukrainian resistance. Reuters reports suggest he plans to annihilate Ukrainian cities with tactical nuclear strikes while oddly waging a jihad to save Russia from "Satanism." That may sound ridiculous, self-important, and typical of a man known for his bombastic rhetoric and Instagram posts. Underneath the bombast is the realization that Putin's downfall will likely lead to his own. Kadyrov knows that if Putin falls, Birnam Wood will almost certainly come to Dunsinane: separatist forces will pursue him in Grozny. No wonder Harold Chambers, an analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says Kadyrov sent his troops where Separatist battalions operate. He also directed his anger at Zakayev. In September 2020, Caucasian Knot reported that Zakayev's relatives had gathered in the Chechen city of Urus-Martan to swear allegiance to Kadyrov. It was also reported that Zakayev's brothers, sisters and nephews were arrested. In November 2022, the same vehicle reported that Kadyrov had offered his compatriots a reward for "killing Zakayev."
The biggest problem for Zakayev, and for the separatists as a whole, isn't how he rolls against Kadyrov or Putin. It's not even about achieving political unity or assembling an army capable of penetrating the mountains of Chechnya. For Zakayev's gamble to be successful, he must defeat the real enemy: the legacy of Chechnya's recent history. This legacy haunts not only him, but Ukrainians and the international community at large. For the West, rightly or wrongly, the history of Chechen separatism is intertwined with jihadism. It is just disgusting that the international community is supporting separatists after they have tasted the fruits of jihadism for the last 20 years. Just the fact that the same ancient warriors, including Zakayev, are still in play today begs the question: Why should this time be any different? There are already reports of Chechen jihadists returning from Syria.
The world has seen and experienced the ultimate in dice rolling. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic split in two. The Republic of Ingushetia decided to stay in the new Russia. Meanwhile, separatists, led by former Soviet Air Force commander General Dudayev, were clamoring for independence. That was understandable. The Chechens had a history of resistance to the Russian Empire. The ghazawats (resistance) of Imam Mansur and Imam Shamil in the 19th century are part of their national history. In addition, Joseph Stalin's brutal treatment of the Chechens remained in their collective memory. His policy of punishing them for allegedly helping the Germans during World War II resulted in an estimated 400,000 Chechens and Ingush being forcibly relocated or killed in the process. Dudayev was also familiar with the way the USSR controlled subject peoples: he had commanded the Soviet air fleet serving in the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s and was looking forward to the war. And so, between 1994 and 1996, the First Chechen War unfolded. According to scientists and human rights organizations, around 40,000 civilians died in the first six months alone.
However, Dudayev managed to garner international support and some recognition from the late Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Chechnya became a de facto independent state after the 1996 Khasavyurt Accords negotiated by Zakayev. In 1997, the peace treaty between Russia and Chechnya was signed when, according to the New York Times, Yeltsin promised "never to use force or threaten to use force in relations between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Ichkeria." The Russian president had used the name by which the separatists called their republic. This equaled his recognition. Neighboring Georgia followed suit and also recognized Ichkeria. With the involvement of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the road to independence appeared to be on solid ground. It was a major blow to Russia's ambitions in the oil-rich region. But the victory was bittersweet: Dudayev, Zakayev's hero and mentor, was assassinated in April 1996. The self-proclaimed republic had an interim president in Selimkhan Yandarbiev until the 1997 elections.
There were some signs that Ichkeria could become an independent, democratic nation-state. The January 1997 elections, which included Zakayev, were tough and bitter. Yet Tim Guldiman, who led a team of some 70 OSCE international observers, called it "free and fair." A constitution also came into force in March. The result was that Aslan Maskhadov, considered a moderate politician by the international community, came to power. All candidates seemed to accept the result.
But even when Maskhadov took the reins, cracks and divisions were already forming. The same debates and questions that we see today took place then. Jandarbiev, for example, wanted to transform the country into an Islamic state in the short period of his current presidency. Maskhadov denounced this. A presidential candidate, Shamil Bassaev, participated in the 1995 hostage-taking of a hospital in Budyonnovsk, a city in southern Russia, to force the Russians to negotiate. failed. You'd think the presidential candidate had learned his lesson, but in 2004 he claimed responsibility for taking a school hostage in Beslan. This led to the death of his students when the Russian army decided to invade. Basayev again claimed that it was a ruse to force the Russians to come to the table. With friends like this, who needs enemies?
The post-war "republic" was in dire need of money, investment and security, but kidnapping and banditry deterred investors. Six Red Cross workers were killed in their sleep before the elections. Of course, many, like Zakayev, accused the Russians of fomenting this lawlessness. This is certainly plausible. For the Russians, the idea of an independent Chechnya was unthinkable. They were keen to show the world that this nascent nation was utterly ungovernable except under the protection of the Russian Federation. In December 1996, according to the BBC, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the last leader of al-Qaeda, spent six months in Russian detention after being apprehended in Chechnya without a valid visa. He was liberated by the Russians, with consequences that are still felt today. Therefore, it is not implausible that the FSB actively engaged in furthering Russian political goals and did everything possible to split the Chechen leadership.
But even if we assume that the Russians set these traps, that's what a ruthless enemy does, after all. In reality, then as now, it was the Chechen home that was torn apart by political power struggles. The leaders simply could not unite. The truth is that many of these men were mere mortals before the war. Zakayev had been an actor; Kadyrov's father Akhmad had been a construction worker; Umarov, the future president and emir of the Islamic Caucasus, was a gangster. They were assembled and forged by the Dudayev political leadership during the war. Basayev, for example, went from selling computers in Moscow to commanding 11 battalions. It was the same with many others. After Dudayev's assassination, these men became political orphans with no clear direction for their country. At the same time, they had an exaggerated self-image as Ghazawat heroes. Who wouldn't like it? It's not every day that someone stands against the power of the Russians and defeats them. Not even Imam Shamil did this; He spent his last days in exile in Kyiv and died in 1871 in Medina, the city of Prophet Muhammad. It was therefore not surprising that every political leader, albeit tormented by himself, considered himself the protector of Ichkeria, at least publicly. - Doubts in private.
At this critical stage of political change, the radicals came to Chechnya. Some of these rebel leaders have allied themselves with Afghans and other Arabs. After all, just a few years ago, these Arabs fought alongside the Afghan mujahideen who defeated the Soviet war machine. They seemed like soul mates. The Arabs brought with them not only good will, military experience and money, but also a puritanical form of Islam known as Wahhabism or Salafism. Apparently, Wahhabism brought some clarity to some Chechen leaders who were not devout just a few years ago. Also, the Afghan Arabs may not have been part of al Qaeda, but they were certainly imbued with a relatively new idea known as "global jihad." To a Chechen layman untrained in the intricacies of the concept, this simply meant defending his homeland from Russian invaders.
While decked out in the language and iconography of Islamic fundamentalism, global jihad was also revolutionary in perspective and led by charismatic figures. The global jihadists saw themselves as the modern day equivalent of the A-Team: they were a foreign Muslim brigade helping oppressed Muslims wherever they were. At first glance, it was an immensely seductive offer, appealing to the emotional feelings of Muslims who want to help their fellow believers. In practice, however, their struggle can be directed against "infidel" rulers or oppressors who have prevented the populace from practicing their version of Islam. And so they showed up in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, took up arms against the rulers of Saudi Arabia, declared war on the United States or simply robbed an ummah bank, as happened on the streets of London. Global jihadists have had to decide who to help, when to help, and most importantly, what Islam is acceptable.
Understandably, such ideas were a recipe for disaster that was inherently utterly destabilizing. After all, what nation-state would want a transnational organization with a medieval worldview to decide that you are an oppressor or an "infidel," with policies independent of its own policies? It is not entirely clear whether the Chechen rebel leaders understood this in the early days. One also has to wonder if the current leadership still understands this today, with Chechen jihadists returning from Syria to join their ranks.
For Chechnya's leaders, however, global jihad has muddied the waters between the pre-modern and modern Muslim worlds, between the offensive and defensive components of the Islamic war tradition, between loyalty to a country and people and loyalty to the community. .
The truth is that many of these radical Afghan Arabs were immensely charismatic. The first guerrilla to arrive was Emir Khattab or Samir Saleh Abdullah al-Suwailim, a Saudi-Jordanian foreign fighter. Coming from a wealthy and religious family, young Khattab was fascinated by the bravery of the mujahideen and traveled to Afghanistan in 1988. In 1992 she recalls seeing him as "a man of leadership and insight". However, Khattab's jihad in Afghanistan did not go well. He became involved in the power struggles between the various Arab factions in Jalalabad. Apparently dissatisfied with his jihad in Afghanistan, he launched an insurgency in Tajikistan to try to overthrow the Soviet-backed communist government. He failed miserably, losing several fingers in the process. At that time, according to Khattab's brother Mansur, he was encouraged to go to Chechnya. He managed to enter the country via Azerbaijan in 1995 and decided to stay because an old woman told him: "We want [the Russians] to leave our country so that we can return to Islam."
Zakayev knew Khattab from the start and recalls his contribution, which consisted of small ambushes aimed at cutting lines of communication. "Khattab," he says, "had five or six men who were maybe eighteen, many of whom were Chechens." They were guerrillas, not part of the regular army. Nonetheless, Khattab's contribution earned him recognition and his star rose. According to Julie Wilhelmsen, a senior fellow at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs, Maskhadov made him a brigadier general in 1996. Khattab, who, unlike Osama bin Laden, had not severed ties with Saudi Arabia, was able to enlist the support of prominent religious scholars such as Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, Muhammad al-Uthaymin, Muhammad al-Farraj and others. With their support, he gained access to the immense financial riches of the Gulf and became a kingmaker.
Shamil Basayev, whose presidential ambitions had been thwarted, joined Khattab. With access to Khattab's resources, he acted independently of Maskhadov's political agenda. Their union was disastrous for the Ichkerian Republic; Their relationship was not unlike that between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, where the former behaved like a state within a state. Although Khattab claimed to be non-sectarian, he allowed Salafist scholars like Abu Umar to come in and "correct" the beliefs of Chechen recruits, who were largely of Sufi background. Courts and camps outside of Maskhadov's control were set up. Alumni of these camps, confident in their religious positions, became their enforcers and spawned an indigenous pipeline of future Salafist jihadists.
These fractures were exacerbated by the likes of Akhmad Kadyrov, who had trained as an Islamic jurist with the approval of the KGB. He used the Wahhabi presence to incite incitement against his political rivals, making the situation in Chechnya even more sectarian and volatile. He also paved the way for his eventual successor, Ramzan, to arm Sufism or traditional Islam to stamp out any form of political opposition to his rule in the name of destroying the Wahhabis.
Foreign missionaries, dawah men and radicals brought ideas totally foreign to Chechen culture and transformed the region's religious topography, particularly among the youth. Some were even appointed judges and tried to outlaw centuries-old Chechen traditions and customs. Tensions increased in the summer of 1998 after Wahhabi and jihadist factions attempted to apply Sharia law to some local Chechens in the town of Gudermes. Residents refused to be publicly punished and humiliated. Open firefights broke out, 20 people were killed, and the city of Urus-Martan became a restricted zone for Maskhadov's forces. According to the director of George Washington University's extremism program, Lorenzo Vidino, Maskhadov issued an expulsion order for Khattab, who simply ignored him. It was no longer the Russians who destroyed the state from without, but the radicals from within. Basayev had become so powerful that Maskhadov had to come to terms with him when Sharia law was introduced in Chechnya in 2002, Wilhelmsen writes. It was a clear sign that the jihadists had seized a dominant position in the country and played into the hands of the Russians: it showed the world that Ichkeria was a country of warlords where only the Russian Federation could restore order.
The final game came as Basayev and Khattab tried to drive the Russians out of neighboring Dagestan in a repeat of Tajikistan. The problem was that Dagestan was part of the Russian Federation. The independence movement crossed the borders of the Ichkerian Republic. Basayev's goal was no longer the presidency, but the unification of the Caucasus under the People's Congress of Chechnya and Dagestan. Of course, this would be under his own enlightened leadership, and Khattab would be the commander of an Orwellian peacekeeping force. This may not be Al Qaeda-style global jihad, but it was in the same spirit. During one of these attacks on Dagestan, the Second Chechen War broke out in 1999, which led to the fall of the self-proclaimed republic. It was a spectacular own goal. Even Mustafa Hamid, a famous Afghan Arab close to al-Qaeda, said the invasion was as catastrophic as 9/11. The country had gone from being a state to a state that existed only on paper.
It got worse and worse over the years. Putin installed Akhmad Kadyrov in Grozny. After his murder, his son finally succeeded him. Any hope of saving the republic was in vain as the invasion of Basayev and Khattab changed the world's perception of the Chechen cause. As one commentator, Michael Radu, noted, the country has evolved from a "small nation resisting bullying by Russian imperialism into yet another global jihad outpost."
In a final act of self-harm, Basayev was appointed Vice-President of Ichkeria by Dokka Umarov in June 2006. Meanwhile, in 2007, Umarov confirmed the fears of the world: he tore up the republic's constitution and declared it an Islamic emirate. Zakayev, now in London, refused to accept Umarov's "unconstitutional" decision and condemned his extremism. But that meant little since the state no longer existed. Instead, he was sentenced to death in absentia by Umarov's Islamic court. The republic was truly dead when Umarov resigned as president, relying on fatwas issued in London and Amman by jihadist scholars like Abu Basir al-Tartusi and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
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The effects of the Chechnya conflict continue to this day. Despite being assassinated by the FSB in 2002, Khattab has become a global internet legend. With the help of forums and websites, his exploits in the Muslim diaspora were amplified. The image of the long-haired Khattab with an oiled beard, a gray-dyed black beret or papakha, and army uniform still adorns many social media profiles today. Young foreign jihadists in Syria took his name in honor.
For many young Chechens, he was also more than just an internet star: he was the new warrior role model to follow. Khattab changed Chechnya's religious DNA. In the past, Chechens had joined the Ghazawat, which, as Moore put it, "was like a Sufi anti-colonial war." The warriors were Sufi followers or "Murids" of Sheikh Mansur or Imam Shamil. Both opposed the imperial expansion of Catherine the Great or Alexander II. Sufism was so deeply rooted in the Chechen tradition that the wars of the 19th century became known as the Murid Wars. The young men who fought alongside Imam Shamil belonged to the Sufi order of the Naqshbandi and others. Now the youth have found a new "order" in Salafist jihadism, embodied in the likes of Khattab. So it's not surprising that many Chechens have become roving warriors like their hero, venturing as far as Syria to ply their trade, leaving security analysts waking up in cold sweats.
In Syria, the legacy of the Chechnya conflict also played a role. When the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally, applied the same playbook to the 2011 protests in Syria, Chechen militants were among the first to arrive. Popular demonstrations and international sympathy were poisoned as Assad released radical Islamists from prison under an amnesty and foreign fighters poured in from the Turkish border. Newly released prisoners joined the uprising and quickly involved them in matters of religious doctrine. With the presence of foreigners, the country has become an outpost of global jihad in the eyes of the international community.
When the Syrians demanded freedom from authoritarianism, the world understood. Things changed when radical Islamists and Salafi jihadists entered the fray. When they demanded the application of Sharia law, the position of the world changed. The slogans initially uttered by the Syrians themselves were no longer so important. And so Assad managed to bombard the opposition into oblivion, using the same mantra the Russians had adopted in Chechnya a decade earlier: they were fighting "terrorists." In the mix were contingents of Chechens born into the Khattab legacy that Assad could point to as evidence for this claim. In fact, the Chechen Abu Omar al-Shishani has become the icon of the Islamic State group. It didn't matter that some of these Chechen jihadists stayed out of fighting between the rebels or never joined the Islamic State. Their mere presence bolstered Assad's argument and helped crush the insurgency, filling the world with fear.
Today Chechen jihadists are marching from the Syrian front towards Ukraine. Once again, they intertwine with the Separatists and muddy the waters. Photos and reports already show Rustam Azhiev, the leader of Ajnad al-Kavkaz, a Chechen jihadist group in Syria, joining the ranks of the separatists. Admittedly, Azhiev's group can hardly be compared to the Islamic State. According to Chechen jihadist expert Joanna Paraszczuk, the jihadist group fought alongside al-Qaeda members against Assad's forces. Al-Monitor reports that his group has remained neutral on power struggles among Syrian rebels. What is certain, however, is that these Chechen jihadists bring with them their own traumas, ideas and policies that almost certainly have a Salafist-jihadist connotation. Azhiev is not the devil incarnate and it would be unfair to portray him as such, but as Paraszczuk revealed in an interview with him, he is a product of the Caucasus Emirate and wants "divine law" to be implemented.
Zakayev also looks like a prisoner of Chechnya's bloody legacy. Always the optimist, he tells me that they can handle all these problems. "There will be a background check and if we see him coming with the Wahhabi ideology, we will know the FSB has invaded. If you want to help the Ukrainians, that's fine. If you are a mujahideen, you must fight for your country. If you want to help Ukraine, you can come. We obey Ukrainian law." However, after meeting him, Azhiev is photographed with Zakayev on social media. In October, the Caucasian Node reported that Zakayev had appointed Azhiev no less than the deputy commander-in-chief of Ichkeria and promoted him to the rank of "colonel This apparent turnaround is, according to Moore, "a marriage of convenience". However, it seems to lend weight to the argument that history will repeat itself Product of the Khattab gas pipeline, then what should be completed? Zakayev must know this. He wrote two volumes of memoirs, "Subjugate or Exterminate" and "Russia and Chechnya and the West 2000-2008", which show how bitter power struggles and a handful of radicals combined with Russian machinations that brought down the fledgling republic But here he is, seemingly once more, as a prisoner of history.
How will Zakayev convince the world to support the separatists with these grizzled veterans who have survived more than a decade of asymmetric warfare? The memory of a young Chechen teenager, Dzokhar Tsarnaev, who pipe bombed the 2013 Boston Marathon, is still alive. If an untrained teenager can make homemade bombs with a pressure cooker, what could these Chechen jihadists do with their experience? Why couldn't they get weapons from the Ukrainian conflict? After all, according to The Economist, the Charlie Hebdo and Paris assassins used weapons from the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s to carry out their attacks – why not point a British anti-tank weapon at MI6 headquarters? in London? The Real IRA did so in September 2000. The security implications for the international community should these Chechen jihadists become angry is a nightmare.
Looks like Zakayev's betting on a house on fire. While the war in Ukraine has certainly created an opportunity, the scars of the past weigh heavily on him and those who wish to support his cause. The same elements, cracks and fissures that existed in the 1990's still exist today; maybe they are worse. Zakayev will need to use all his charm, passion and energy to convince the international community and Ukraine to trust him despite everything he's been through. They are asked to confidently believe that their military unit will eventually become a powerful force capable of marching to glory on Grozny. They must believe that peace, democracy and the republic will be restored; that the wolf sits with the sheep. You must take his word that Urus-Martan will not be repeated; that Salafi jihadists like Azhiev will respect Zakayev's secular democratic vision; that this time everything will be different. His followers must look him in the eye and decide whether he is a power-hungry but capable superman, a Chechen Garibaldi if you will, or a Don Quixote fighting windmills. Should they give him a chance or stick with the well-known, albeit overbearing, greatness in the form of Kadyrov? It's a great question.
Of course, Zakayev could just walk away. Many Chechen veterans of the Ichkerian government lived and still live in quiet exile around the world. Zakayev fought the good fight. He has a nice suburban home in London, grandchildren, well-behaved sons and daughters. He has everything a devout Muslim could wish for at the age of 60. But I don't think you can do that as it doesn't make sense outside of your mission. He lives with Ichker's little flag on his desk, on shelves full of history, literature, lore, Chechen family photos, the mountains and the framed photo of his hero Dudayev, encouraging him to keep going.
I suspect his decision to fight transcended his hero. His past is closely connected with the bloody history of Chechnya. "Even as a child," says Zakayev, "I started praying and reading books about our history very early." He wanted to be a mufti, an Islamic jurist, but the only way to become one was to become a KGB agent become. Instead, he decided to act in the theater. In Soviet times, the arts were the only place to address cultural issues. The war changed all that, "as if God heard my prayer," he told me.
So Zakayev will never be able to return to an ordinary life because he lived an extraordinary life. He was an actor, a politician, a military commander, an exile, a writer, he's someone men want to kill. The fate of his homeland, the death of his comrades, the suffering of his children and relatives connected his own being in some way with this matter, so much so that he may not be able to get rid of them, because he does not know anything else. . He reminded me of my 70-year-old workaholic father urging him to retire. He had made enough money to live comfortably. But he refused and answered frankly, "I can't, son. I'm going to die." Zakayev is a version of this vain mystic who must carry on because the mission, tragic as it is, is not just about duty but about purpose.
Therefore, to ask Zakayev to simply step down from the cause is to misunderstand who he is; is to pronounce a death sentence. Giving up means giving up your life's work, your hero, your God, your family and everything else. Therefore, it doesn't matter if he can defeat Kadyrov or not. Even if the whole history of Chechnya is against him, he will continue. There are probably many like Zakayev in the Chechen diaspora. Many more Chechens are likely to be annihilated in this bloody conflict and repeat the same mistakes. Ask them to let it go, and like Zakayev, they will smile sadly, as if they've heard that scolding before, and reply, "I can't explain it, it's my belief...to me, it's a holy war against." the Russians." . ... to me it's jihad." Though he does say it in a way, those words will not appease Western tempers. If and when the war in Ukraine ends, the appetite for a repeat of the Chechen chaos will whet the appetite 1990s to be minimal to say the least.
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