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#17 - JRL 8475 - JRL Home
Date: Mon, 29 Nov 2004
Subject: re 8462-Ware/de Waal
From: "Tom de Waal" <tom@iwpr.net>
Re: Ware/Chechnya and Islam

Dear David,

I have been travelling and only just seen Rob Ware's letter on my Index on Censorship article in JRL 8460 on Beslan, Chechnya and Islam. I feel compelled to answer. My apologies for the late response.

First of all let me say that Rob Ware and I have corresponded many times in a friendly way. I respect his judgements on Dagestan (where I have not spent more than a few hours) and differ with him on Chechnya (where I believe he has never been, although my apologies if I have that wrong).

Rob actually misunderstands the thrust of my argument in the Index article. I never said that the North Caucasus is not now home to radical Islam (indeed much of the article is about that very thing); rather that it would be misleading to portray the Beslan attack as the work of international Islamists and that the Beslan phenomenon was basically home-grown.

The Chechnya I first visited in early 1994 was barely an Islamic society at all and comparable to most other post-Soviet "Muslim" regions in that respect. Dagestan was different but its Islamic traditions went much deeper. Chechnya's conversion to Islam was much more recent historically, its Islam more sui generis. My point is that had the war not happened and actively recruited thousands of young Chechens into militant resistance, Chechnya today would probably be similar to current-day Kabardino-Balkaria, where the number of active Islamist fighters is small, if growing, and "Wahhabism" often seems to be a convenient badge to label angry young men with a political or economic grievance.

As Rob points out (and I discussed in the article) there was an upsurge of interest in jihadi interest in Chechnya in 1997-9, although I would be very surprised if, as he says, there were ever "hundreds" of Arab fighters in Chechnya then.

Since 1999 however, traffic into Chechnya has been very limited across the mountains of Georgia or via Azerbaijan and Dagestan. The well known Islamists Khattab and Abu-Walid have been killed and it is hard for the rebels to maintain conspicuous Arabs in the mountain villages of Chechnya, where most of the fighters still live.

As for Basayev, he has always been very much a soldier-of-fortune and it is hard to believe that Islam, rather than revenge and a perverted sense of mission, is what drives him. He had the ruthlessness, the experience and the local knowledge to organize the attack. Very little money was required. Perhaps Basayev was boasting when he said it cost 10,000 US dollars, but I suspect not by much.

A small number of Arabs, limited financial backing and the propaganda on websites that are only ever seen outside Chechnya: I would suggest this means that calling Chechnya "a front in the war on terror" obscures more than it reveals.