There They Go Again – U.S. Mainstream Media Again Gets Wrong About Chechenya and the Global Jihad

by Gordon Hahn
Russia” Other Points of View
October 10, 2011

The U.S. mainstream media continues to get the involvement of the global jihad and Al Qa`ida (AQ) in Chechnya and the North Caucasus over the last decade and a half. In September, Time published Simon Shuster’s sadly misinformed “How the War on Terrorism Did Russia a Favor.” Shuster makes it clear that his real concern is not to understand the history of Al Qaeda’s involvement in this now Jihadi-plagued region, but rather to accuse Russian Prime Minister and former president Vladimir Putin of lying about it. The U.S. mainstream’s longstanding abhorrence of Putin has been the main driver of all of its ‘news’ reporting and ‘analysis.’

To be sure, there is much to criticize Putin over––but this obsessive disdain for far-from-the-world’s most authoritarian leader has become the prism through which U.S. mainstream media interprets every minor and major issue regarding Russia. In short, if Putin said it, then it has to be wrong.

Thus, Shuster argues: “There was scant evidence, however, that the Chechen rebels were part of some global Islamist terrorist network, as Putin and his government repeatedly claimed.” The fact is that Osama bin laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, and AQ in general paid special attention to Chechnya and the Caucasus going back to at least 1996. Zawahiri even was briefly detained in Dagestan in that year. A simple internet search will garner you piles of U.S. court documents showing how AQ-affiliated ‘philanthropic’ foundations such as the Benevolent International Foundation and al-Haramain began sending what would come to tens of millions of dollars in funding, training, recruits, and supplies to the de facto independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ChRI) during the inter-war period in 1996-1999.

It is common knowledge and well-documented that international jihadist and AQ operative Ibn al-Khattab organized a network of training camps in Chechnya in the mid-1990s and that mujahedin (local and foreign) being trained there led to the invasion of Dagestan in August 1999 that sparked the second post-Soviet Chechen war. Numerous AQ amirs continued to fight and help fund fighters from Chechnya, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkariya in the first years of the second war and post-war insurgency from 2000, through the creation of the explicitly jihadist Caucasus Emirate (CE) in October 2007 which replaced the ChRI. That creation was in no small part the product of the AQ’s long involvement and growing ideological influence.

Nowadays the connection is even stronger, but Time and the rest of U.S. media refuse to notice. The CE network is now a strong AQ ally and an important member of the global jihadi revolutionary alliance that the AQ inspired and still seeks to lead. In fact, there has still not been an mention of the CE mention in U.S. mainstream media despite the fact that 15 months ago its amir, Dokku Abu Usman Umarov, was put on the U.S. list of international terrorists and the entire CE joined him this past May. The following statement by Umarov in May might be instructive for Mr. Shuster and like-minded colleagues in the U.S. mainstream media and academia:

We consider the Caucasus Emirate and Russia as a single theater of war.

We are not in a hurry. The path has been chosen, we know our tasks, and we will not turn back, Insha’Allah, from this path. Today, the battlefield is not just Chechnya and the Caucasus Emirate, but also the whole Russia. The situation is visible to everybody who has eyes. The Jihad is spreading, steadily and inevitably, everywhere.

I have already mentioned that all those artificial borders, administrative divisions, which the Taghut drew, mean nothing to us. The days when we wanted to secede and dreamed of building a small Chechen Kuwait in the Caucasus are over. Now, when you tell the young Mujahedeen about these stories, they are surprised and want to understand how those plans related to the Koran and the Sunnah.

Alhamdulillah! I sometimes think that Allah has called these young people to the Jihad, so that we, the older generation, could not stray from the right path. Now we know that we should not be divided, and must unite with our brothers in faith. We must re-conquer Astrakhan, Idel-Ural, Siberia ´- these are indigenous Muslim lands. And then, God’s willing, we shall deal with Moscow district (“Amir Dokku Abu Usman o bin Ladene, Imarate Kavkaz i poteryakh modzhakhedov,” Kavkaz tsentr, 17 May 2011.) English translation see here).

The CE’s Shariah Court judge put it more succinctly this past July: “We are doing everything possible to build the Caliphate and prepare the ground for this to the extent of our capabilities” (“Stennogramma video: Kadii IK Abu Mukhammad – ‘Otvety na voprosy’ – 1 chast’,”, 8 July 2011.) The CE now engages in international plots with Moroccans in Belgium and exchanges personnel and training with AQ and affiliated groups like Islamic Jihad Union based in Northern Waziristan, Pakistan.

Shuster and Time may know (but their readers never will) that the Russian government several years ago abandoned its former approach in describing the mujahedin, acknowledging that a significant part of their support and recruiting base derives from low living standards, overbearing security forces, weak development, and high levels of corruption and youth unemployment. Moscow is making real effort to solve some of these problems through the investment of billions of dollars. Despite that the CE mujahedin continue to kill hundreds and wound hundreds more of their fellow Muslims in the region each year, having inflicted nearly 5,000 casualties since the CE’s founding in October 2007.

But you will only read about Putin’s decade’s old exaggerations and present-day Russian excesses in the U.S. mainstream media. However, Shuster and Time’s readers might be interested in such facts the next time they plan a vacation to Belgium or, say, the 2014 Sochi Olympics that the CE has targeted the former and threatens to hit the latter.

Now, there is no doubt that Putin exaggerated the Caucasus-AQ connection back in the 1990s, but it would be almost impossible to exaggerate it now. Moreover, does Putin’s exaggeration mean that Time and the rest of the U.S. mainstream media should in turn deny or minimize the connection?

Dr. Gordon M. Hahn – Senior Researcher, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program and Visiting Assistant Professor, Graduate School of International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, California; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group; and Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch, Dr Hahn is author of two well-received books, Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007) and Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine. He has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and publishes the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report (IIPER) at


September 19, 2011
How the War on Terrorism Did Russia a Favor
By Simon Shuster / Moscow

Ten years ago, on Sept. 20, 2001, President George W. Bush announced for the first time that in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 the U.S. was starting a "war on terror," and he asked every nation to help. Four days later, against the advice of many of his generals, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed, creating a bond unlike any the U.S. and Russia had built since World War II. But as with many of the unlikely relationships the U.S. formed after 9/11, the reasoning behind this one was not just solidarity or common cause. Countries around the world realized the practical appeal of a war on terrorism. Over the past ten years, it has become a seemingly permanent call to arms, a kind of incantation used to dodge questions, build alliances and justify the use of force. No one, not even Bush, grasped this as quickly as Putin.

Even before Putin became Russia’s President in early 2000, and long before the Twin Towers fell, he had invoked the idea of a war against global terrorism to justify Russia’s war in Chechnya. The terrorism aspect, at least, was true. Chechen separatists, who renewed their centuries-old struggle for independence soon after the Soviet Union fell, had resorted to terrorism as early as 1995, when they seized a hospital in the Russian town of Budyonnovsk and held more than 1,500 people hostage. Then in 1999, a series of apartment bombings, also blamed on the Chechens, killed hundreds of people in Moscow and other Russian cities. Putin responded by launching Russia’s second full-scale invasion of Chechnya in less than a decade. "He received carte blanche from the citizens of Russia," says Mikhail Kasyanov, who was Russia’s Finance Minister at the time. "They simply closed their eyes and let him do whatever he wanted as long as he saved them from this threat."

There was scant evidence, however, that the Chechen rebels were part of some global Islamist terrorist network, as Putin and his government repeatedly claimed. The leader of the separatists at the time was Aslan Maskhadov, a former Red Army colonel who was closer to communism than Islamism, and there was no proof that he received much help from abroad. "Still, all official statements said that we are fighting a war against international terror," says Andrei Illarionov, who served as Putin’s senior economic adviser between 2000 and ’05. "Of course, nobody outside Russia bought it." In the West, Putin’s war in Chechnya thus enjoyed little sympathy. The Chechen conflict was seen as part of a rebellion that Moscow was trying to crush, and the atrocities allegedly committed by both sides earned widespread condemnation.

In late 1999, when Bush was campaigning for the presidency, he vowed to start urging an end to the war. "Even as we support Russian reforms, we cannot support Russian brutality," he said during a speech at the Reagan Library in California. "When the Russian government attacks civilians, leaving orphans and refugees, it can no longer expect aid from international lending institutions." Some days later, Condoleezza Rice, who later became Bush’s National Security Adviser after his election, reiterated the need for financial pressure against "what is really a quite brutal campaign against innocent women and children in Chechnya." And in the fall of 2000, then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the U.N. that the Chechen war "has greatly damaged Russia’s international standing and is isolating Russia from the international community."

But when Bush announced his own war on terrorism, all this rhetoric quickly evaporated. Putin, who had been the first to call Bush with his sympathy after learning of the 9/11 attacks, graciously offered to help with the invasion of Afghanistan. He let the U.S. ship supplies through Russian territory and did not object to the U.S. setting up bases in Central Asia, where the local despots quickly caught on to the opportunity. Uzbek President Islam Karimov, for instance, allowed the U.S. to build a permanent base, perhaps hoping that his new alliance with the war on terrorism would help reduce U.S. scrutiny of alleged human-rights abuses in Uzbekistan. "It all flowed naturally into the picture of a global war on terror," says Kasyanov, who by that time had been promoted to serve as Putin’s Prime Minister. "There was no more criticism … It just ceased to be a thorny issue."

By the summer of 2000, Russia had defeated the Chechen separatists and installed a puppet government led by the Kadyrov family, a Chechen clan loyal to the Kremlin. But claims of wholesale violations of human rights, including torture and extrajudicial killings, continued to surface as the Kadyrovs consolidated power in Chechnya. The need to remind the world that Russia was still fighting the war on terrorism remained, and Putin began to claim ever stronger links between Chechen rebels and the global jihad.

"Exaggeration of these links was one of the goals," Kasyanov recalls. During and after the 2004 terrorists siege of a school in the town of Beslan, where hundreds of hostages died, the Russian government claimed firm links between the Chechen terrorists and Islamist networks such as al-Qaeda. Soon after the siege, Putin said that nine of the hostage-takers were from the "Arab world," a claim that was never substantiated. Asked why he had decided to storm the building instead of trying to resolve the crisis through negotiations, Putin fumed: "I don’t tell you to meet Osama bin Laden and invite him to Brussels or the White House for talks."

But the very idea of a war on terrorism had unnerved some officials inside Putin’s own government. "Terrorism is a method of waging conflict," says Illarionov, Putin’s former adviser. "How can you fight a war against a method? The very idea is nonsense. It’s like announcing a war against tanks." In early 2005, Illarionov resigned from his post in the Kremlin, citing the rollback in democracy that followed the Beslan siege. Kasyanov had resigned in early 2004 for similar reasons, going on to join the opposition.

Yet the idea of a global war on terrorism remains one of Putin’s key political narratives. It is trotted out to this day after every terrorist attack in the Russian heartland and during most discussions with Western leaders, who see it as a firm bond in their alliances with Moscow. Since Bush left office, President Barack Obama has let the term fade from White House rhetoric, usually preferring to name a specific enemy of the U.S. But the use of the phrase has spread far and wide. During this year’s Arab Spring revolts, besieged dictators from Egypt to Libya and Syria have claimed that the revolutionaries trying to overthrow them are in fact foreign terrorists with links to the global jihad. Few Western governments have taken these claims seriously. But 10 years on, Bush’s idea of a global war on terrorism is still more often used for propaganda than to prevent more attacks like 9/11. Changing that could take many more years.


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