Chechen jihadists have provided inspiration to Islamists across the world. Threats to India could emanate from Russia's battlefields in future.
“The Mujahid,” wrote Chechen jihadist Shamil Salmanovich Basayev, “never asks anyone for permission to strike with his sword; he just takes the sword in his hand. He will never waste his time explaining his actions; he is faithful to what has been predetermined by God.”
Last month, a jihadist group founded by Basayev staged suicide bombings targeting Moscow's metropolitan train system, killing 39 people. Followed in quick time by a suicide bombing in Dagestan, which claimed 12 lives, the attacks have again focussed attention on jihadist groups in Russia —groups responsible for attacks which match, even dwarf, the assaults on India by Pakistan-backed Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad.
In September 2004, jihadists from Basayev's Riyad ul-Saliheen Martyrs Brigade seized control of a school in the town of Beslan, sparking a hostage crisis which ended in the death of 334 people, including 186 children. Earlier, in 2002, the Brigade took 800 people hostage at the Nord-Ost theatre in Moscow, leading to the death of 129 of them. Last year, 29 were killed when the group bombed a Moscow-bound high-speed train.
India has paid little attention to jihadist violence in north Caucasus. It should have. The jihadist movement in Russia has provided inspiration — and, on occasion, training grounds — to Islamists in India and across the world. Had our police forces studied the Beslan and Nord-Ost attacks, for example, they might have been better prepared for the November 2008 horrors in Mumbai. More important, the history of the Islamist movement in Chechnya and the North Caucuses illustrates just how global the jihadist threat in fact is. In the future, India could discover that threats to its soil emanate not just from Pakistan but further afield.
India's Chechen jihadist
Twenty years ago, Mohammad Abdul Aziz — ‘Gidda' to his friends — began an improbable journey that led him from Hyderabad to Chechnya and, finally, to the prison in Saudi Arabia, where he began serving time for terrorism a year ago.
Born in the crowded neighbourhood of Hyderabad to a police constable, Aziz's political life was shaped by the city's highly criminalised communal politics. Hyderabad's communal war of attrition was spearheaded by street gangs, legitimising themselves as defenders of the community. Educated at the Anwar-ul-Uloom College in Mallepally, Aziz discontinued his studies in 1984 and apprenticed with an electrician. But he soon fell in with the gang of Mohammad Fasiuddin, from which many jihadists would emerge. Aziz cut his teeth in an anti-prostitution campaign targeting the Mehboob ki Mandi red light district. He also joined the Darsgah Jihad-o-Shahadat, a vigilante group set up by cleric Maulana Mohammad Naseeruddin.
Late in 1989, Aziz got a job in Saudi Arabia, where he worked as electrician with construction giant Bemco. He returned home on a vacation in December 1992, days before the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Embittered, he joined an Islamist group in Saudi Arabia. In 1994, he volunteered to fight against the Serbian forces in Bosnia. Aziz trained at Zentica along with jihadists from Europe, West Asia and Africa before being despatched to fight on the front lines.
In an interview to the Pakistani jihadist magazine, al-Sirat al-Mustaqeem, in August 1994, Aziz said his decision to fight in Bosnia had been laid by the speeches of Abdullah Azzam — the Palestinian jihadist who was Osama bin Laden's ideological mentor and co-founder of the Lashkar's parent organisation, Markaz Dawat wal'Irshad. “I was one of those,” Aziz said, “who heard about the jihad in Afghanistan when it started. I used to hear about it, but was doubtful about its purity and imagination. One of those who came to our land [through audiotape?] was Dr. Abdullah Azzam. I heard him rallying the youth to come forth and go to Afghanistan. I decided to go and check the matter for myself. This was the beginning of my jihad.”
Back home in 1996 — carrying a Bosnian passport as a memento of his tour of duty — Aziz found his desire for jihad unstilled. In March that year, he travelled to Moscow and on to Shatoy, near Grozny in Chechnya. Aziz helped provide logistics support to fighters operating under the command of the Saudi Arabia-born jihadist Samir Saleh Abdullah al-Suwailem. Later, in April, al-Suwailem's forces carried out the now famous ambush, massacring troops of Russia's 245 Motor Rifle Regiment, killing 53 soldiers. Fighting alongside Basayev's jihadist forces, al-Suwailem commanded the guerrilla units which sparked the second Chechen war. Al-Suwailem was eventually assassinated by Russia's Federal Security Service in 2002.
For his part, Aziz returned home to help assemble infrastructure for the growing jihadist movement in India. In 1996, India's intelligence services say, he met with the Lashkar's covert operative, Mohammad Ishtiaq who, operating under the code-name Salim Junaid, had set up one of the organisation's first cells in the country. He also met with Lashkar commander Mohammad Azam Ghauri, one of the co-founders of the outfit's Indian networks. Helped with funding from his Saudi contacts, Aziz set about making plans to execute bombings across India, to avenge the demolition of the Babri Masjid. He was arrested by the Hyderabad police, but he jumped bail and worked for several years as a jihad financier before his arrest in Saudi Arabia.
The jihad in Russia
Like India, complex political processes underpinned the growth of the jihadist movement, of which Aziz was a part. In the 18th century, as Russia expanded into territories until then controlled by Iran and Turkey, it faced frequent resistance from local Muslim rulers. Chechen rebellion often broke out in times of crisis. In 1940, Chechen fascists allied with Nazi Germany in an effort to gain independence from the Soviet Union, sparking a prolonged insurgency.
Even as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, a war for independence broke out between Russia and the newly-formed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Years of fighting followed, claiming the lives of an estimated 5,500 Russian troops. In the wake of a ceasefire with Russia, Basayev was appointed Vice-Prime Minister of the Chechen Republic by President Aslam Maskhadov. But in August 1999, he led an Islamist army to stage a coup in neighbouring Dagestan. Russian forces intervened, ending the de facto independence of Chechnya. Basayev himself was killed in 2006.
Basayev's writings show that the Chechen jihadist movement, like others across the world, was a product of modernity — not traditionalist Islam. His iconic 2004 book, The Book of the Mujahid, was derived bizarrely from the Brazilian pop novelist Paulo Coelho. “In late March of last year,” Basayev wrote in the preface, “I had two weeks of spare time when I got a hold of Warrior of the Light: A Manual. I wanted to derive benefits for the mujahideen from this book and this is why I rewrote most of it, removing some of the excesses and strengthened all of it with Quranic verses, Hadiths and stories from the lives of the disciples [of the Prophet].”
From mid-2008, the jihadist movement in Chechnya began to gather momentum again. In November that year, jihadist leader Doku Khamatovich Umarov declared himself the amir, or supreme leader, of a so-called Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus. Early this year, he gave an interview warning Russians: “God-willing, we plan to show them that the war will return to their homes.”
In July 2008, a woman suicide bomber critically injured the President of the Russian republic of Ingushetia, targeting his armoured convoy. The previous month, a sniper shot dead Dagestan interior ministry chief Lieutenant-General Adilgerei Magomedtagirov, while gunmen assassinated Aza Gazgireyeva, deputy head of Ingushetia's Supreme Court, and Bashir Aushev, Deputy Prime Minister. In May, another suicide bomber killed two police officers while attempting to target the offices of the Interior Ministry in Grozny.
Early in March, Russian forces shot dead Alexander Tikhomirov, a key jihadist commander who operated under the name Sheikh Said Buryatsky. Born to an ethnic-Buryat mother and a Russian father in eastern Siberia, Tikhomirov converted to Islam and studied theology in Egypt. His unit, the Russian media reported, was part of a group planning to assassinate Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and presidential envoy to the North Caucuses Aleksandr Khloponin during a visit to the region. The killings followed the elimination, in February, of al-Qaeda-linked Egyptian jihadist Mohammad Shabban in a shootout in Dagestan.
Last month's Moscow bombings are believed to have been carried out to avenge these deaths. Before the Beslan attacks, the Riyad ul-Saliheen Martyrs Brigade bombed the headquarters of the Chechen government in 2002, killing 72 and injuring 280. In August 2003, Riyad ul-Saliheen also targeted a hospital serving both military and civilian patients, killing 52.
India has lessons to learn from Russia's experience. Its jihadists, like those of the north Caucasus, are intimately entwined with Islamist groups in Pakistan —but, increasingly, are acquiring the capabilities needed to stage major operations independently. Facing up to the new challenges of a globalised jihadist movement will need unprecedented levels of international cooperation.