Fight in the Cause of God? Dynamics of Religion in Separatist Conflicts

In 1991, Chechnya, an autonomous republic in the mountainous North Caucasus region of the former Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, declared its independence. Distinct from Russians in religion, ethnicity and language, the predominantly Muslim Chechens had struggled against Russian domination for hundreds of years and capitalized on the momentum of the Soviet dissolution finally to achieve independence. The result of this declaration was two brutal wars between Russia and Chechnya during which cities were leveled and thousands of civilians were killed. The Chechen insurgency and Russian counterinsurgency continued for years after the war’s battle phase had concluded. As the conflict developed and progressed, popular discourse surrounding the Chechens began to shift. What had once been understood as a nationalist struggle for self-determination became associated with a relatively new phenomenon to the Caucasus region: radical Islamism. Russian President Vladimir has since reframed Russia’s campaign against the Chechens as one not against nationalism but against Islamic terror.

In a press conference in Brussels in 2002, he described the supporters and financers of Chechen independence as “religious extremists and international terrorists” who “speak about the creation of a global caliphate,” and he warned that many had reason to be afraid: “They are talking about the need to kill all kafirs [infidels], all non-Muslims, or Crusaders, as they say. If you are a Christian, you are in danger!”[1]

Islam has periodically resurfaced as a relevant factor in the long Chechen struggle against the Russians. During the Russian imperial era and the Soviet era, Chechen rebellions against Russia often coincided with calls for Islamization. Islam helped to unify the peoples of the North Caucasus against Russia during the Caucasian Wars and the commander of the Chechen forces Imam Shamil remains a legend among Chechens both for his military prowess and for providing Chechnya with greater societal structure through the implementation of shar’ia law. [2] The early leaders of the Chechen secessionist movement beginning in the 1990s, however, explicitly described their aspirations for statehood as secular.[3] In 1992, the first Chechen president Dzokhar Dudayev stated in an interview, “I would like to see Chechnya become a constitutional secular state. We are seeking it, this is our ideal. Religion should play an exclusively important role in the spiritual development of people, in moral and humane attitudes.”[4]

Other than two religious parties, Chechen political groups during the early 1990s did not have specifically Islamic objectives.[5] The first Chechen secessionist movement began through a popular front that was established in the summer of 1988.  The National Congress of Chechen People formed and had its first meeting in 1990 and elected Dzokhar Dudayev, a distinguished officer in the Soviet air force whose track record included bombing Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan in the 1980s, as chairman of its executive committee. Dudayev would eventually become the central leader of the Chechen secessionist movement. A political “outsider,” he “faced an immense task of building unity among the nationalists” as he consolidated power.[6] In May 1991, Dudayev dissolved the Chechen-Ingush Supreme Soviet, declaring the CNC executive committee the legitimate provisional government of the republic.[7]

There is no evidence that the early phases of this declaration of independence and initial development of the Chechen government was religiously motivated. As Hughes argues, “The evidence demonstrates that Dudayev, Yandarbiev, and other nationalist leaders were driven by a secular vision of nation-state building; beyond peripheral Islamic symbolism, such as the occasional cries of ‘Allah Akhbar!’ there was no significant Islamic content to the nationalist drive for independence at this stage.”[8]

Hughes does acknowledge that Dudayev relied on support from Beslan Gantemirov, leader of the Islamic Path party, essentially a paramilitary organization that formed the core of the new armed National Guard.[9] But he describes this party as “far from an Islamic party” and argues that former Mafia Mob boss Gantemirov was “more of a freebooting criminal warlord interested in the materialistic gains that would come after overthrowing the Zavgayev regime.”[10] Lieven, who interviewed Gantemirov in 1992, writes, “I… asked him all the proper questions about Islamic politics and social reform, Islam and pluralism, and links to Iran — and his answers of course were vague, not to say embarrassed — in fact, just like those of someone who has gate-crashed a party.”[11]

The revolution began in Chechnya in August 1991, when The National Guard seized the television center, the radio station and the building of the Council of Ministers, raising green Islamic flags above each one and constructing barricades on the streets and the streets crowded with people. Moscow did nothing in response.[12] In September, Zavgayev finally agreed to sign an “act of abdication.” Eventually, the National Guard seized the KGB building in Grozny.

Dudayev’s Chechnya

Dudayev increasingly centralized power in Chechnya and was soon elected President in an overwhelming victory.[13] A Russian coup attempt just after his inauguration in November failed, largely because Gorbachev, who still controlled the Soviet military, did not want to see more bloodshed after the violence that had occurred in Lithuania.[14] Chechnya thus became de facto independent. Moscow wavered in its acceptance of Chechen independence between 1992 and the Russian invasion of 1994, although it had fully recognized the independence of the former union republics and had recognized the split between Chechnya and Ingushetia, which had emerged out of a technically illegal referendum.[15] Meanwhile, Dudayev failed to establish in Chechnya any of the institutions and infrastructure of a state. Imam Salam Khamsat estimated that two-thirds of the population opposed Dudayev, but many were afraid to speak out. He also noted that Dudayev had failed to build a single hospital, school, or mosque, and had shown little respect for religion or mullahs.[16]

From the outset, Dudayev’s Ichkeria was a secular republic founded on nationalist principles. This is clear from its constitution, which made no reference to shari’a law or the establishment of a Muslim state. Article one of the constitution states:

The Chechen Republic is a sovereign and independent democratic based state, founded as a result of the self-determination of the Chechen people. It exercises supreme rights over its territory and national wealth; independently determines its internal and foreign policies; the adopted constitution and laws have superiority on its territory. The state sovereignty of the Chechen Republic is indivisible.[17]

Dudayev had stated elsewhere that his “ideal” state system would be one based on Shari’a law, but that sentiment was not reflected in the state structures he initially created.[18] Dudayev’s attitude toward Islam and the state was perhaps made most explicit in an interview with a Russian journalist in 1992. Stating that he liked neither the model of Turkey nor that of Iran with regard to the position of Islam within the state he said, “The place for Islam in Chechnya will depend on the political situation in the republic and on the external pressure which will be exerted. With the increase of negative external factors Islam is bound to grow. If we have the opportunity for the option of independence, independent development, a constitutional secular state would develop.”[19] Given the later development of fundamentalist Islam during the first war, Dudayev’s statement appears prophetic. He also warned that “if religion gains an upper hand over constitutional structures, then the Spanish Inquisition and Islamic fundamentalism in their extreme manifestations appear. No religion, upon subordinating the state structures, coming to power, can maintain a purely religion course due its nature.”[20] Although Dudayev did at times reference religion in his statements, Hughes notes that his “use of Islam often correlated with moments of extreme urgency, when his leadership was seriously threatened.”[21]

Hughes argues further that there is little evidence that Islam had been particularly significant in Dudayev’s life, personally or politically, until 1993, when the conflict with Russia became more intense.[22] In addition, he cites a lack of evidence that any of Dudayev’s policies during this critical period of state building were intended to Islamize state structures or public life.[23] In an interview on an unspecified date published on Nov. 21, 1991, Dudayev expressed the importance of Islam to him personally, in his leadership of Chechnya, stating “Taking the oath on the Koran is more binding on me than any secular constitution. We had a secular constitution but it failed to protect us or advance our rights. Therefore I gave my oath to the nation on the Koran that I will be faithful to my declared aims for which the revolution was launched.”[24] However, when pressed on whether his intent was to establish an Islamic orientation for the government, he said

We are not prepared for such a move. We are still suffering from the dire effects of 70 years of witch-hunts against Muslim and religion. Each of us kept his faith alive in his heart….The declaration of an Islamic state calls for preparations so that people will air their views on the south Islamic principles of the Koran, advocating harmony and unity. When we get to that stage, it will be up to the people to decide what they want. For the time being, we have to build a constitutional, democratic government inspired by the sharia and the constitution.[25]

Such a statement seems to indicate that, at the time, Dudayev did not believe that Islam would serve the interests of the state in setting up strong institutions.

Although this project of state creation was secular, the period between 1991 and 1994 was marked by an increase of religiosity in Chechnya, as was common around the former Soviet Union following the long era of religious repression. In Chechnya, this process featured increased contact with the broader Muslim world, including Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Chechen leaders like Yandarbiev completed the Hajj to Mecca in 1992.[26] Meanwhile, criminality and general social disorder became significant problems in Chechnya. According to Hughes, Dudayev armed a significant portion of the Chechen male population in 1991 and early 1992, many of whom were unemployed and impoverished highlanders; the result of this policy was an increase in social disorder and abuse.[27] A significant portion of the Russian population fled the republic due to targeting by criminal gangs, and Russian politicians began to describe Chechnya as “the first criminal state,” a characterization they would use to help justify their invasion in 1994.[28]

The First Russo-Chechen War: 1994-1996

A brutal catastrophe for human rights on both sides of the conflict, the first Russo-Chechen war destroyed Chechen infrastructure and fomented greater hatred between the two sides without achieving a permanent resolution on the status of Chechnya. Months prior to the conflict, Russia had been attempting to topple the Dudayev regime by funding and even arming an opposition to his regime that included former National Guard and Islamic Path Party leader, Gantemirov.[29] Smith argues that it had been the intent of the Russian regime to encourage civil war in Chechnya in order to justify invasion.[30] On November 26, 1994, Russian soldiers and tanks secretly joined the opposition in an attempt to take Grozny. The army successfully reached the Chechen capital, but was destroyed by Chechen troops. The coup had failed.[31] On December 9, 1994, Yeltsin issued a decree for the “disarmament of all illegal armed units,” and on December 11, 30-40,000 Russian soldiers invaded Chechnya.[32]

The first war introduced as a major player to the Chechen struggle Shamil Basayev, a field commander who had earned the label “terrorist” in 1991, when he had helped hijack a plane flying between Russia and Turkey; the act was merely a political stunt, and the temporary hostages on the plane all were eventually released unharmed.[33] Having gained notoriety in the Caucasus for his support of the Abkhazians in their separatist struggle against Georgia, Basayev came to Chechnya with substantial combat experience and brought with him one of the most well-trained and combat-ready fighting forces in the Chechen conflict.[34]  In the spring of 1994, Basayev and his top fighters went to Afghanistan to train in the Amir Muawia training camps. He also went to Pakistan, and met the leaders of two Islamist organizations: Harkat ul-Ansar (HUA) and Tablighi Jamaat (TJ). Basayev and his men joined the TJ organization. He then returned to Chechnya in July, 1994 and became one of the most critical military commanders in organizing assaults against the Russians.[35] The conflict became personal for him when many members of his family, including his wife, child, sister and uncle were killed by a Russian bomb. After this Basayev vowed to kill any Russian pilot he captured, a promise he apparently upheld.[36] Acts of terrorism intended to accelerate the turn of Russian public opinion against the war became the tactic for which Basayev was perhaps best known.[37]

Basayev also played a critical role in introducing to the Chechen struggle a new breed of warrior from abroad that would forever change the political dynamics of Chechnya. Realizing that the Chechens needed training in guerilla war tactics in order to have any chance of defeating Russia’s much larger and more powerful army, Basayev sent for help from Saudi-born Omar ibn al-Khattab, who had already become legendary fighting against the Russians 20 years previously, in Afghanistan.[38] A radical Islamist and devotee of the Wahhabi school, Khattab first became notable in Chechnya during the last days of the first war after he and eight other mujahidin travelled secretly to Chechnya through Dagestan to form a small reconnaissance-fighting band that launched several brutal assaults on the Russians.[39] In 1996, a video showing Khattab cutting off the heads of Russian soldiers was circulated among Islamic organizations in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan in order to recruit more former foreign fighters to Chechnya.[40] Islamic jam’ats that recruited unemployed Chechens and trained them in war tactics in anticipation of future conflict while also teaching the Wahhabi faith began to appear in Chechnya in the last days of the war.[41] In September 1996, Khattab founded the Training Center for the Armed Forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, which officially operated under the command of the Chechen armed forces but in actuality was completely independent, operating as Khattab and his Wahhabi mujahideen’s personal base and training center.[42]  The encroachment of these radical Islamists would soon give rise to a new competing ideology in Chechnya that was antagonistic not only to Russia but also to the existing leadership structure in Chechen society.

There is little to suggest that Basayev was initially interested in establishing an Islamic state in the North Caucasus, based on his statements in early interviews. In later statements after the first war, however, he declared himself a warrior of Islam who no longer feared death and boasted that he was the first to establish Shari’a courts in Chechnya.[43] Lieven, who interviewed Basayev on several occasions, noted that over the course of the first war, Basayev’s appearance had changed, and the commander had grown a long bushy beard resembling a “Mujahid of old.”[44] Several other Chechen leaders such as chief propagandist Movladi Udugov and Yandarbiev also adopted Islamism as the movement progressed. Wilhelmsen writes, “On a general level, the strengthening of religious faith during a war is effected by a well-known mechanism: when in trouble, people turn to God. In the Chechen case, however, Islam was not only a source of comfort on the personal level; it also became politicised and served as a means of interpreting and organising an extreme situation.”[45] Shari’a courts and punishments began to become more prevalent in the areas of the south controlled by the separatists from about 1995 onwards, but Lieven argues that this was largely due to military considerations. He writes, “This was partly a matter of individual psychology: men who have been under continual bombardment for months on end and have seen their comrades fall around one by one may well seek comfort in religion in the belief that their struggle is divinely inspired, But in forces with no military organization and no formal code, the need for military discipline also played a part.”[46] Shari’a provided an effective means of discipline at times when motivation was low.

Dudayev’s statements during this period on occasion made references to religion, but only with regard to spiritual guidance and not policy. In an interview with a Ukrainian newspaper he stated, “Russia is ill with a horrific disease: racism, whose symptoms are extreme cruelty, insidiousness and a lack of spiritual values. Everything that Satanism has ever accumulated over this land, which is full of sin, is presently manifested in Russia… Russia is the only country in the world that has no spiritual values and no faith.”[47] When asked about whether or not the Russo-Chechen struggle could be characterized as a struggle between Islam and Christianity, he said, “Nonsense. The aggressor does not have the army of Christ. It is an obscure military mass, ready to kill, burn and rape without any faith. Anyway, you can see how ‘Orthodox’ Russia adheres to the commandments of the Christian faith.”[48] Such statements do not discount the importance of religion to the Chechens but at the same time avoid labeling the conflict a religious struggle. Smith argues that though many Chechens, including Dudayev and future president Maskhadov, “were often quite ignorant, in an academic sense, about their faith” and engaged in practices forbidden to Muslims, including drinking alcohol, the traditions of the Sufi brotherhoods served to bolster morale and encourage ethnic identity and, over the course of the war, religion observance among the Chechens became stronger.[49] “Religion played a crucial supporting role to the resistance, although this was not by any means a religious war of Moslem versus Christian. Morale-boosting chants of ‘Allah Akhbar’ (God is Great) as they went into battle were standard, but many Chechens were only non-practicing Moslems at the start of the war.”[50]

Radicalization in Chechnya: 1996-1999

The interwar years were a critical period in the development of Islamic radicalism in Chechnya. Chechnya had suffered significant destruction during the first war and in the aftermath of victory had failed to create the structures of statehood. Gilligan describes Chechnya after this war as a “failing state” that was “politically fractured and economically deprived.”[51] Wood argues that Chechnya’s plight was in large part the result of its unresolved status as well as Russia’s failure to meet its obligations to the country it had virtually destroyed.[52] Tishkov paints a slightly different picture of the cause of Chechnya’s plight, arguing that the “illusion of a ‘great victory’ limited efforts at restoring public order after the war” while Russia’s provision of free electricity and gas to the region was seen as war reparations.[53] The economy struggled during this period. While 20,000 people had been employed in Chechnya’s refineries prior to the war, by 1997 there were only 9,000.[54] Standards of living dropped precipitously, basic health needs were not being met, the transportation system had collapsed, and most of the population still had little means of communication.[55] State taxes ceased to be collected during the interwar years, and thus by 1999 the state treasury had not gotten the oil revenues it had expected would sustain it.[56] Crime, meanwhile, was a lucrative industry during this period, especially human trafficking.[57] These conditions provided a context amenable to radicalization.

In 1996, Chechnya had held a presidential election in which 16 candidates, including Yandarbiev, Basayev, and moderate Aslan Maskhadov, initially ran. Basayev’s campaign platform, which called for the establishment of a peaceful Islamic state in which Islam would serve to protect the poor, failed to compel voters.[58]  Maskhadov garnered 59.3% of the vote, while Basayev came in second with 23.5%.[59] It seems therefore that, at least in 1996, the Chechen mindset still favored the moderate, secular movement over Basayev’s Islamism.[60] The radical faction in Chechnya was gaining momentum, however, while Maskhadov failed to create the structures of statehood. Russell describes Maskhadov as ineffective at controlling the warlords in Chechnya and setting up state-like institutions, which further turned public opinion in Russia against the Chechens. Meanwhile, Khattab’s friends and allies began taking important government positions, and by 1998 Maskhadov began to worry about the increasing influence of the Wahhabi movement. In May, he removed several of the Wahhabi leaders from their positions.[61] Violence eventually broke out in July 1998 between the Wahhabis and the secular National Guards, who in fact had the support of the Sufi Naqshbandi and Qadiri orders. Maskhadov declared on state television that Wahhabis were enemies attempting to seize the state and start a civil war in Chechnya. Eventually, the secular leader banned Wahhabism and ordered that Khattab’s forces leave the republic, an order Khattab ignored.[62] Chechen researcher Vakhid Akaev writes, “In early 1999, the tension between the authorities and the opposition increased. Maskhadov faced fresh accusations of having deviated from Dudayev’s path, including numerous violations of the constitution in Chechnya, failure to observe Shari’a law, lack of interest in creating an Islamic state, and concessions to the hated Russia.”[63]

The rising power of the Khattab faction put increasing pressure on Maskhadov to expand the role of religion in the government. The Wahhabis began to fill the structural void of the Maskhadov regime; outside Islamic organizations provided educational support and promoted social welfare in war-ravaged Chechnya. The Wahhabis became particularly popular among the poor highlanders, who had been impoverished since the collapse of the Soviet Union.[64] “Once these foreign fundamentalists, with their money, war tactics, and outside connections, became more established in Chechnya, calls for Shari’a and the establishment of an Islamic Caucasian Emirate became louder.”[65] In an interview with Sanobar Shermatova at Khattab’s house in 1998, Khattab stated: “I am neither a mercenary, terrorist nor hero. I am a Muslim, a simple mujahid who fights for the glory of Allah. Russia oppressed the Muslims, therefore I came in order to help my brothers free themselves from Russia. They fought against Muslims in Bosnia, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. I help my brothers.”[66] The key to Khattab’s success was not just in importing foreign fighters and combat experience to Chechnya; he was also able to lure some Chechen leaders to adopt Wahhabism and join his movement. According to Schaefer, the motive of these leaders was to gain a “better mobilizing ideology for the war of independence” as well as to ensure funding from Islamic sources abroad.[67] Under this pressure, in February 1999, Maskhadov introduced Shari’a law “with the aim of undercutting his opponents in his struggle for power,” according to Tishkov, who regarded the decision as a “surrender to the radical Islamists.”[68] On July 3, 1999, the Congress of War and Resistance Veterans passed a resolution in support of the Wahhabis, which included a “universal agreement among all the war veterans and the patriotic forces for the cause of strengthening the Islamic state.”[69]

Russians have often sought to portray Maskhadov as united with the radicals who gained power during the interwar years although, as Cornell argues, this view does not match reality: “The extremist-terrorist dimension of the conflict in Chechnya is a distinctively alien phenomenon grafted upon the Chechen struggle. It is the result of war, and not, as Moscow argues, its cause.”[70] As evidence, he cites Maskhadov’s warning the Russians about some of the extremist’s terrorist plans in order to enlist their help in combating them.[71] As in Afghanistan, Cornell argues, radical Islamism did not emerge as a powerful force until the devastation caused by war. Chechnya lost a comparable portion of its population to Afghanistan in the first war with Russia and a high number of those that survived suffered significant physical and emotional trauma.[72] This context for radicalization would only worsen when the second war with Russia began in 1999.

Nationalism or Jihad? The Second Russo-Chechen War, 1999-2009

In September 1999, over 300 Russians were killed by a series of bomb explosions in several apartment buildings in Moscow. On September 16, then-Prime Minister Putin expressed on television his attitude to the Chechens he held responsible for the attack: “Wipe them out in the shithouse (mol’chit v sortire).”[73] Khattab and Basayev’s incursion into Chechnya’s neighboring republic Dagestan in August 1999 provided the initial justification for the second invasion, though the terrorist attacks in September helped turn Russian public opinion much more in favor of a second war, even though proof of responsibility for the attack was not found.[74] Russia’s response was brutal and fairly indiscriminate: Far from targeting terrorists, the force of the Russian military was unleashed on the Chechen population at large.[75] Since the 1994-1996 war, the Russian military had reformed and was much more combat-ready by 1999.[76] The second war would not only rectify Russia’s humiliation after the first war, but would also help to bolster the image of the Putin regime as the new leader consolidated power.[77] For Chechnya, the campaign would accelerate the pace of radicalization while wreaking havoc on the population.

Especially in the wake of September 11, Putin sought to portray the second war as a campaign against Islamic terrorism, focusing in statements almost entirely on the fundamentalist radicals in Chechnya. He also played into the existing divisions within Chechen society by “Chechenizing” the conflict, even propping up a pro-Moscow ethnically Chechen leadership in the republic headed by Akhmad Kadyrov. Interestingly, Kadyrov had once been the mufti of Chechnya and, in the first war had declared jihad against Russia.[78] Violence peaked in April 2001 and over the course of the Chechen insurgency the Republic of Ichkeria gradually faded away. In 2002, the Chechen Madjlis-Shur (War Council), headed by Maskhadov, decided to revise the Chechen constitution such that Article 1 now read: “The Chechen Republic of Ichkeria is a sovereign, independent Islamic law-based state, founded by the self-determination of the Chechen people. The source of all adopted decision is the Qur’an and Sunna.”[79] In March 2005, Maskhadov was killed in an attack, providing an opportunity for a leader more aligned with the religious faction to rise.

His successor, religious leader Sheikh Abdul Khalim Sadulaev, still initially portrayed the war with Russia as nationalist with a “somewhat more Islamic flourish” although in the summer of 2005 he allowed Basayev, who Maskhadov had removed from power after the Beslan massacre, to be his deputy prime minister.[80] His tenure in office was brief before he was killed in action in June 2006. His successor, Doku Umarov, proclaimed the Caucasian Emirate (CE) on October 31, 2007 and declared himself Emir.[81] The Republic of Ichkeria virtually ceased to exist, while the continued insurgency became centered on the new CE.[82] Umarov openly admitted that he had opposed establishing an emirate but had realized it was best for the movement after much prayer and contemplation.[83]

The Role of Islamic Doctrine

There is little evidence that, in the early stages of the Chechen secessionist conflict, Islam was the primary motivation for the conflict. The early Chechen leadership, particularly Dudayev, explicitly stated that the intention was to establish a secular Chechen state. Although Dudayev did at times reference Islam in campaign slogans and took his oath on the Koran, his statements indicate that the role of religion in the new Chechen state would be decided later, depending on the interests of the Chechen people. The original constitution made no references to Shari’a law and the original framing of the conflict was as a nationalist struggle, not a jihad. Hughes notes that, of the 60 presidential decrees, four acts, and 47 orders during the second half of 1992, none advanced policies that seemed intended to Islamize the state.[84] Dudayev’s comments in interviews regarding the role of religion critique the Russians for their lack of religion and spirituality, yet again only place religion in the position of spiritual guide within the nationalist struggle. It is worth noting that nationalism itself is contrary to the ideology of Wahhabi Islamism, as it places the nation in a position superior to the faith. In addition, religious leaders did not initially head the cause of Chechen separatism. In fact, there is evidence that Dudayev and other leaders were not especially devout and engaged in practices that were inconsistent with some Islamic rules. Tishkov writes, “Dudayev was never seen praying; there were no Islamic symbols in his home or offices; and he never went to a mosque. On the other hand, he never missed a premier at the Groznyy drama theater.”[85]

Some groups within Chechnya advocated for the establishment of an Islamic state, and they pressured secular leaders to demonstrate their support of the Islamic faith. After ignoring calls from some Chechens to replace the constitution with the Koran, Dudayev finally gave a speech in 1993 addressing the concern:

The Qur’an and the imamate are holy causes, and we should not use those words in vain. There is a time for everything. There are many Muslim countries in the world, but few of them live in strict observance of Shari’a law. Besides, as we know only too well, not every Chechen is a Muslim. The roots of Islam have been badly damaged here by the communists. I respect your insistence but I find it premature. If we declare the rule of the Shari’a today, tomorrow you will demand that the heads and hands of offenders be cut off, giving little thought to the fact that the day after tomorrow, it will be a rare man, even in this assembly, who keeps his head and hands. You are not ready for that, nor am I. So let us put our souls in order according the Qur’an, and our lives according to the constitution.[86]

It is important to note Dudayev’s inclusion of non-Muslim Chechens in this speech. Even those who did not practice the faith could be included in the nationalist struggle. It is is also notable that Dudayev made these statements at a time when the goal of the new Chechen republic was to garner the support of the international community and expressing an interest in establishing an Islamic state, if that had been his intention, might have seemed a poor political choice. Islam became one of the primary factors in the conflict only after the devastation of the first war. Specific tenets of the Islamic faith, however, do not appear to be the primary driver of conflict.

Islam as a Structure

There is much stronger evidence in Chechnya for Islam providing organizational structure and institutional power that was able to outcompete other potential sources for mobilization. Much of Chechnya’s clan-based social structure had been destroyed during the Soviet era, while Islamic institutions, especially the Sufi brotherhoods, had survived. Even secular leaders like Dudayev learned that religion could be a powerful tool for building legitimacy in Chechnya. He aligned himself with the Kunta Hajji tariqa[87] and by 1993, he began increasing his use of Islamic language in order to garner to support from religious factions within the Republic.[88] Wood writes, “Given the numerical weight of Dudayev’s more traditionalist support base, religious slogans proved an irresistible tool for sidelining the opposition, and a vital means for Dudayev to mobilize his constituency in a crisis.”[89] In 1991, he turned to the Qadiris for political support and in 1993 he announced that Islam would be the state religion during a standoff with parliament.[90]

By this point, however, the secessionist movement was well underway.

Despite its initially minor role in the Chechen separatist movement, eventually Islam became the central driving force in the continued conflict with Russia. There are four general reasons for this trend: 1.) The secular leadership was unable to establish functioning state-like structures in Chechnya following the attainment of de facto independence. 2.) Islamic institutions were able to provide support for the Chechen population when the secessionist government was unable to do so. 3.) Radical Islamists from abroad were able to provide military support to the rebels, bringing training and resources that the Chechens did not have. 4.) The conditions of war and devastation drove Chechens to oppose the secular leadership and thus turn to the only organized competing ideology: Islamism. All of these reasons are related either to the structure and capacity of Islamic organizations or to the absence of organizations able to successfully compete for Chechen support. Islam became a salient feature of Chechen mobilization not as the secessionist movement was gaining momentum, but instead when it was struggling. Neither Dudayev nor Maskhadov were successfully able to establish effective state-like structures in Chechnya, while the Wahhabis were able to usurp the responsibilities of the government in providing welfare and education in the areas under their control.

External support was critically important to the rise of Islamism in Chechnya. Shamil’s appeals to Islam drew in fighters from abroad who were familiar with tactics of asymmetrical warfare and able to train Chechens who had been discouraged by the devastation of the first war. The Islamists in Chechnya had more funding than the secularists, were able to pay fighters a wage and could compensate the relatives of those who had been killed. Wahhabism also provided a powerful ideology to a movement that perhaps was otherwise not sufficiently compelling after the mass destruction of the first war. Radicalization did not cause the war, but instead was a cause of war, as several scholars have argued. It provided a cause and structure where there did not seem to be another alternative. In that sense, Islam outcompeted other potential mobilizing frameworks. While the secularist movement collapsed in Chechnya, the Islamist insurgency continued, culminating in the establishment of the Caucasian Emirate. By 2009, when Russia announced the conclusion of its counterinsurgency campaign, the vision of the remaining rebels in Chechnya bore little resemblance to the movement Dudayev had championed.


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[1] Andrei Zolotov Jr. “Irritable Putin Offers Reporter Circumcision.” The St. Petersburg Times. Nov. 15, 2002. <>

[2] Schaefer, The Insurgency in the North Caucasus, 72

[3] Swirszcz, “The Role of Islam in Chechen National Identity,” 75

[4] Interview with Dudayev, Official Kremlin International News Broadcast, 12 Aug. 1992 in Hughes Chechnya, 66

[5] Katrien Hertog, “A Self-fulfilling Prophecy: The Seeds of Islamic Radicalisation in Chechnya,” Religion, State and Society, 33, 3 (2007), 240

[6] Hughes, Chechnya, 22.

[7] Ibid., 24

[8] Hughes, Chechnya, 24.

[9] Carlotta Gall and Thomas De Wall, Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (New York: NYU Press, 1998), 92.

[10] Hughes Chechnya 24.

[11] Anatol Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999): 364.

[12] Gall and De Wall, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, 93-94.

[13] Gall and De Wall, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power,  99.

[14] Wood, Chechnya: The Case for Independence, 51.

[15] Ibid., 52.

[16] Gall and De Wall, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, 103-104.

[17] Konstitutiia chechenskoi respubliki, Grozny, 12 Mar. 1992 in Hughes Chechnya,  65-66

[18] German, Russia’s Chechen War, 59.

[19] Interview with Dudayev, Official Kremlin International News Broadcast, 12 Aug. 1992 in Hughes Chechnya, 66.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Hughes Chechnya 66.

[22] Ibid., 66.

[23] Ibid., 67.

[24] Dzokhar Dudayev interview by Ahmad al-Khumaysi in Grozny. “Dudayev Interview on Russian Ties, Events,” Al-Ittihad Al-Usbu’i. Nov. 27, 1991. Foreign Broadcast Information Service.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Hughes Chechnya, 69.

[27] Ibid., 63.

[28] Sebastian Smith Allah’s Mountains: The Battle for Chechnya (London: IB Tauris, 1998): 129.

[29] Ibid., 135.

[30] Ibid., 136.

[31] Ibid., 139.

[32] Ibid., 143.

[33] Paul J. Murphy, The Wolves of Islam: Russia and the Faces of Chechen Terror  (Dulles: Potomac Books, 2004) 13.

[34] Ibid., 15.

[35] Ibid., 16-17

[36] Murphy, The Wolves of Islam, 20

[37] Schaefer, 131-133.

[38] Murphy, The Wolves of Islam, 19

[39] Bryan G. Williams “Allah’s Foot Soldiers: An Assessment of the Role of Foreign Fighters and Al-Qa’ida in the Chechen Insurgency,” Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State, Moshe Gammer (ed.) (London: Routledge, 2008): 161

[40] Murphy, The Wolves of Islam, 26.

[41] Williams, “Allah’s Foot Soldiers,” 164.

[42] Murphy, The Wolves of Islam, 39.

[43] Julie Wilhelmsen “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Islamisation of the Chechen Separatist Movement,” Europe-Asia Studies, 57, 1 (2005): 37.

[44] Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, 36.

[45] Wilhelmsen, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” 38.

[46] Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power 365.

[47] Interview with Dudayev, “Dudayev Explains Chechen Cause,” Holos Ukrayiny Apr. 22, 1995. Daily Report. Central Asia. Foreign Broadcast Information Service. Apr. 28, 1995.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Smith, Allah’s Mountains, 154.

[50] Ibid., 154.

[51] Emma Gilligan. Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009): 24.

[52] Wood, Chechnya: The Case for Independence, 81-82.

[53] Tishkov, Life in a War-Torn Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 183.

[54] Wood, Chechnya: The Case for Independence,  85.

[55] Tishkov, Chechnya: Life in a War-Torn Society, 189

[56] Ibid., 188.

[57] Wood, Chechnya: The Case for Independence,  85-86.

[58] Murphy, The Wolves of Islam 29-30.

[59] Wood, Chechnya: The Case for Independence, 88.

[60] Williams, “Allah’s Foot Soldiers,” 163.

[61] Murphy, The Wolves of Islam, 41.

[62] Murphy, 41-43.

[63] Vakhid Akaeyev 1999, “Religious-Political Conflict in the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria,” Political Islam and Conflicts in Russia and Central Asia, 54 in Tishkov Chechnya: Life in a War-Torn Society, 178.

[64] Swirszcz, “The Role of Islam in Chechen National Identity,” 76.

[65] Ibid., 76-77.

[66] Sanobar Shermatova, “Tak Nazyvaemy Vakkabity,” 409 in Williams, “Allah’s Foot Soldiers,” 165.

[67] Schaefer Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus 167.

[68] Tishkov, Chechnya: Life in a War-Torn Society, 195.

[69] In Tishkov, Chechnya: Life in a War-Torn Society, 193.

[70] Cornell “The War Against Terrorism and the Conflict in Chechnya: A Cause for Distinction,” The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, 27 (2003): 180

[71] Ibid., 180.

[72] Ibid., 181-182.

[73] Wood, Chechnya: The Case for Independence, 97.

[74] Ibid., 98.

[75] Ibid., 99.

[76] Dmitri V. Trenin and Aleksei V. Maleshenko, “Russia’s Restless Frontier: The Chechnya Factor in Post Soviet Russia,” (Washington: Carnegie Endowment, 2004): 111.

[77] Hughes, Chechnya, 110.

[78] Cornell, “The “Afghanization” of the North Caucasus: Causes and Implications of  a Changing Conflict,” Russia’s Homegrown Insurgency: Jihad in the North Caucasus, DTIC Document (Army War College Strategic Studies Inst Carlisle Barracks, 2012): 131.

[79] Zaiavlenia presidenta chechenskoi republiskii ichkeria, Abdul-Khalima Sadulaeva, Feb. 13, 2006 in Hughes, Chechnya, 104.

[80] Hughes Chechnya 106.

[81] Sergey Markedonov “The North Caucasus in Russia and Russian in the North Caucasus: State Approaches and Political Dynamics in the Turbulent Region,” Russia’s Homegrown Insurgency: Jihad in the North Caucasus, DTIC Document (Army War College Strategic Studies Inst Carlisle Barracks, 2012): 109.

[82] Cornell “The ‘Afghanization’ of the North Caucasus,” 138.

[83] Schaefer, Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus 237.

[84] Hughes, Chechnya, 67.

[85] Tishkov, Chechnya: Life in a War-Torn Society, 169.

[86] Ibid.

[87] Swirszcz, “The Role of Islam in Chechen National Identity 75.

[88] Cornell “The ‘Afghanization of the North Caucasus,” 129.

[89] Wood, Chechnya: The Case for Independence, 129.

[90] Ibid.