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The Globe and Mail (Canada)
December 29, 2001
World's rebels chilled by bin Laden effect

MOSCOW -- Within the space of a few months, Chechnya's separatist rebels have suffered a dramatic reversal of their image on the global stage -- and they can blame Osama bin Laden for their plight.

For years, they were seen as freedom fighters whose human rights needed to be protected from Russian military abuses.

But since Sept. 11, the Chechens have increasingly been seen as terrorists and bombmakers who represent the sinister spread of Islamic extremism.

The same reversal of fortune is evident around the world today.

In one of the lesser-noticed outcomes of the Osama bin Laden saga -- and yet probably one of his most important legacies -- a host of Muslim rebel armies have unexpectedly found themselves on the wrong side of the global propaganda battlefield.

The result is more power for national regimes to attack their domestic enemies, especially Muslim rebels.

These regimes have shrewdly exploited the global mood to justify their crackdowns on domestic insurgencies. The consequence, paradoxically, could be a rise in domestic wars and political violence.

Mr. bin Laden's terrorist tactics have provided a pretext for military-style campaigns against Islamic separatists in Russia, China, Central Asia, South Asia and other regions.

The rise of the "antiterrorist campaign," as an all-purpose rationale for war, is strengthening military commanders and damaging the fragile peace processes and political dialogues that were under way in these regions.

Political leaders in most of these regions were already using their wars against Islamic rebels to help crush dissent and prop up their regimes. Now it is easier for them to pursue these tactics. They can gain foreign sympathy by portraying their wars as campaigns against terrorists. And there is much less international pressure to negotiate a peace agreement with rebel forces.

Chechnya is an example. The Kremlin has relentlessly exploited its clients in the Northern Alliance, the most significant anti-Taliban force in Afghanistan, to spread the propaganda message that the Chechens are terrorists and extremists with close links to the Afghan training camps of Mr. bin Laden.

This message has been constantly spouted by the Northern Alliance, even though there is little hard evidence of Chechens in the bin Laden network. Alliance commanders repeatedly proclaimed that large numbers of Chechens are rank-and-file fighters for the Taliban and Mr. bin Laden, equating them with the hundreds of Pakistani and Arab radicals who helped the Taliban.

The message was echoed in the world's news media, without verification. Yet few Chechens have been discovered among the thousands of Taliban prisoners captured in the fighting so far.

Most analysts now believe that only a handful of Chechens have ever had links to Afghanistan. But since the Northern Alliance was heavily dependent on Russian weapon supplies, it was probably not coincidental that the alliance was doing Russia a favour by trying to discredit the Chechens.

Since Sept. 11, the United States has muted its previous criticism of human-rights violations by Russian troops in Chechnya, including alleged mass murders, torture and other atrocities. Instead, it has allowed Moscow to portray the Chechen war as just another front in the international battle against terrorism.

U.S. President George W. Bush declared that some of Mr. bin Laden's terrorists are based in Chechnya, although he did not provide any evidence. And Russian President Vladimir Putin seized the chance to link Chechen rebels to Mr. bin Laden's terrorists, saying: "These people are virtually from one and the same organization. They were jointly trained in the same terrorist centres. They regard bin Laden as their teacher."

Mr. Putin's spokesman on the Chechnya issue, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, boasted that the U.S. campaign against terrorism has been "a good service" to Russia.

Islamic radical groups have gained support in autocratic countries in Central Asia and South Asia when other dissident groups have been largely crushed, leaving the Islamists as the only form of organized opposition. By portraying their opponents as terrorists, the regimes in these countries can seek a military solution to their domestic problems, rather than having to make compromises to deal with the underlying political issues.

In Central Asia, the global antiterrorism campaign has strengthened the authoritarian regimes of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where the U.S. military has set up bases or used local airspace for its warplanes.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov used the Sept. 11 attacks to justify his imprisonment of more than 7,000 Muslims over the past two years. Many were arrested for nothing more than praying or attending mosque.

After Sept. 11, the United States publicly condemned the largest Islamic rebel movement in Uzbekistan as a terrorist organization, boosting Mr. Karimov's power to crack down on Islamic activists in the country, whether they are terrorists or not. Washington has abruptly reduced its criticism of his human-rights violations, and Uzbek dissidents are afraid that Washington will stop pressuring Mr. Karimov to release activists from jail.

A similar trend is spreading across Asia. In China, for example, Beijing has cited the Sept. 11 attacks to justify its campaign against Islamic rebels in the restive Xinjiang region.

"China is also threatened by terrorism," Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan told the United Nations last month. He said the Xinjiang rebels are "trained, equipped and financed by international terrorist organizations." His government also declared that about 1,000 separatists from Xinjiang were trained in Afghan terrorist camps.

In Indonesia, the government began a lobbying campaign to persuade the United States that Mr. bin Laden's people were supporting Islamic militants on the island of Sulawesi, where hundreds of people have been killed in clashes between Muslims and Christians. "We will wage war on terrorism," Defence Minister Matori Abdul Djalil said.

There has been no evidence, however, of any al-Qaeda bases in Indonesia. Western analysts believe the Indonesian government is exaggerating the threat in an effort to persuade Washington to reverse its two-year-old ban on military sales to Indonesia.

In the Philippines, the government has switched tactics to portray a leading rebel group as a terrorist organization with links to Mr. bin Laden. Before Sept. 11, it called the group a bunch of bandits. Now, by linking the group to the Afghan-based terrorists, it has secured U.S. military help for its crackdown on the rebels.

And in the disputed Kashmir region on the border between Pakistan and India, the Indian government alleges that Islamic rebel forces are terrorists with links to Mr. bin Laden and the Taliban.

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