From Nationalism to Islamism: Separatism in Post-Soviet Chechnya (Part Three)

Below is Part Three of this series on separatism in post-Soviet Chechnya. Part One and Part Two are available at Foreign Intrigue as well. This article concludes the series.

Thank you for reading.

Eric Jones
Foreign Intrigue


What explains the evolution of the conflict in Chechnya from one largely motivated by nationalism borne of perceived historical injustices, domination by foreign powers, and external influence most recently by the Russian-dominated Soviet Union to one where recruits fighting on behalf of separatism and independence are motivated more by a sense of religious duty? At its core, has the nationalism that defined the early post-Soviet separatist movement been replaced by fundamentalist Wahhabism imported from places such as Saudi Arabia? Maxim Barbashin explores the idea that ethno-social factors dominate the insurgency:

Is the Chechen conflict ethno-cultural? There can be no doubt in it. Russians and Chechens (I mean those Chechens who have not gone through the modernization processes pressed by the Soviet authorities), hold different cultural norms and archetypes. Is this conflict ethno-economic? Of course it is. The expression about the contradictory interests with regard to Chechen oil and the Caspian oil pipeline has already become an axiom. The same can be said about any conflict—religious, territorial, status, irredentist, etc. (Barbashin, Maxim U. “Informal power structures in Russia and ethno-political conflict in the Northern Caucasus”. Chapter 1. Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder. Taylor and Francis. 2007.)

What exactly accounts for the new Islamist separatism in Chechnya? Among the most important external forces that significantly altered both the character and the motivation of the insurgency leadership in the lead-up to the second Chechen war were international Islamist actors. These Islamist forces, dominated largely by Wahhabist ideology and represented by leaders such as Basayev and al-Khattab, would prove to be the underpinning and foundational mechanism that defined the Chechen separatist campaign in the second Chechen war.

North Caucasus regions map, Northern Caucasus. Map photo courtesy of Peter Fitzgerald.

North Caucasus regions map, Northern Caucasus. Map photo courtesy of Peter Fitzgerald.

The co-opting of the Kadyrov clan at the outset of the second Chechen war would prove to be instrumental in Russia’s ability to fracture and subdue separatist forces in Chechnya. While some analysts have assessed that the nationalists were marginalized from power through incompetent management of the interwar period governing structures, a more detailed analysis drives this point home further. As the incompetence of the Chechen government grew during the interwar period, funding streams that supported the nationalists who won a hard fought victory against the Russian military in the first Chechen war slowly dried up or were re-directed towards Islamist factions. This incompetence eroded the sense of trust that the Chechen populace had in their nascent government. This erosion opened a gap for international groups to fill. These international groups, sustaining deep funding and logistical relationships, aptly filled the vacuum that was left by the inability of the nationalists to govern in the wake of the victory over the Russian military.

The Wahhabists that eventually would come to dominate the separatist movement were international in both scope and character. The goal of the original separatists that emerged in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union was based in the establishment of an independent Chechen state. However, by 1999 the government was reeling from lack of sources of income. No real industry or energy resource management existed to produce income for the de facto Chechen state. As the Chechen population grew restless with high unemployment, the Islamists came to fill the gap. The motivations of the Islamist groups that would comprise the foundation of the newly evolved insurgency were international.

Ibn al-Khattab represented the international reach of the Chechen insurgency in the second conflict. Al-Khattab was born in Saudi Arabia and took on the cause of the Chechen separatists in the North Caucasus. Carlotta Gall, writing for the New York Times in 1999, described al-Khattab as Saudi-born and 30 years old. Gall goes on to state that while al-Khattab denies involvement in the Dagestan apartment bombings that came to symbolize (in many ways) the catalyst for the second Chechen war, he spoke of his ferocious animosity towards the Russian government and military. In particular, what is especially noteworthy in Gall’s article is the mention of al-Khattab’s relationship with fellow Islamist Chechen separatist leader Shamil Basayev:

“Khattab denies any connections with the explosions in Russia. But he never misses an opportunity to pledge to fight Russia, and to help Muslims separate from Moscow in the republics of the North Caucasus — including Chechnya, where there is strong sentiment for independence, and Dagestan, where it is much weaker.

In a rare interview in the Chechen capital, Grozny, Khattab said his only aim was to help free his fellow Muslims from Russian rule. Since his arrival in the Caucasus in 1995, he has trained scores of young fighters in guerrilla warfare, and in particular in the art of mountain ambushes. During Russia’s 1994-96 war against Chechens seeking independence, his units were widely credited with conducting two ambushes on Russian columns that killed as many as 100 soldiers each.

After that war ended in an uneasy truce in 1996, with Chechnya’s status left in limbo until 2001, Khattab did not abandon the battlefield. Last year he led an attack on a Russian brigade based in Dagestan, which had been accused of committing atrocities against Chechens during the 1994-96 war.

In August, Khattab linked up with the Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev for more strikes into Dagestan, provoking Russia first into bombing what it said were guerrilla bases in Chechnya, and then into sending its forces in.” (Gall, The New York Times, October 17, 1999)

In many ways, al-Khattab was responsible for adjusting the separatist conflict from one dominated by fighters from the North Caucasus to one of international jihad. Al-Khattab, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation forces during the 1980s, first entered Chechnya in 1995. His participation in setting off the second war was documented by Moshe Gammer:

“At the beginning of August 1999 a large number of Chechen and other foreign (i.e. non-Daghestani) ‘Wahhabis’ commanded by Shamil Basayev and Emir Khattab invaded the villages of Ansalta, Rakhata and Echeda in the Tsumada raion in the Western, mountainous part of Daghestan.” (Gammer, Moshe. “From the challenge of nationalism to the challenge of Islam: the case of Daghestan”. Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder. Taylor and Francis. 2007.)

Young Warriors of the Caucasus Resistance: Cadets of the Ichkeria Chechen national guard (1999). Photo courtesy of Natalia Medvedeva.

Young Warriors of the Caucasus Resistance: Cadets of the Ichkeria Chechen national guard (1999). Photo courtesy of Natalia Medvedeva.

What followed al-Khattab was an adjustment of the character and composition of the insurgency. Non-Chechens would arrive to serve under the command of al-Khattab, battling the Russian military for control of Chechnya. However, the ultimate goal of the group would alter the fundamental purpose of the Chechen separatist campaign itself. The creation of the Caucasus Emirate permanently changed the entire character of the separatist movement. Instead of the driving inspiration being one of a nationalist motivation to establish an independent Chechen state free from the control of Moscow, the campaign became one based in religious fundamentalism and conjoined to an international movement to establish a pan-Caucasus caliphate. The introduction of this strain of fundamentalism was most urgently observable in the Wahhabist influence in the conflict. The introduction of the Caucasus Emirate had great impact upon the Chechen separatist movement, diffusing the previous power structure and introducing Islamist control:

Chechen militant leaders such as Shamil Basayev — who claimed responsibility for the attack that killed pro-Russian Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov and the Beslan school siege, both in 2004 — was killed by Russian forces in 2006. Before Basayev, Ibn Al-Khattab, who was widely suspected of being responsible for the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia, was killed by the Russian Federal Security Service in 2002. The deaths of Basayev, Khattab and many others like them have fractured the militant movement in the Caucasus, but may also have prompted its remnants to join up under the Caucasus Emirate umbrella. (“The Caucasus Emirate.” Stratfor Global Intelligence. April 15, 2010)

The impact that the rise of the Caucasus Emirate had on the relationship between Chechens and the separatist movement is unknown. However, with the death of Doku Umarov in 2014 and the domination of the Kadyrov government, separatism in Chechnya has been relegated to battling for the attention. On December 4, 2014 militants of the Caucasus Emirate launched their most audacious attack in recent years, attacking strategic locations in the Chechnya capital, Grozny, and leaving dozens dead.




Kadyrov’s grip on power and his ability to quell dissent and maintain stability in Chechnya has resulted in increased support from the Putin regime. This support, largely financial and rhetorical, has resulted in Kadyrov’s near total domination over ever sector of Chechen society. As such, the separatist movement has been impacted greatly by Kadyrov’s clannish control of the region and the reinforcing component of Russian support for his continued rule.

Geopolitical interests have conflated in the region more recently. For Moscow, maintaining stability (and control) of Chechnya is paramount. With energy resources, Islamist violence, and nationalism conflating in the region, in many ways Chechnya acts as a fulcrum for both stability and wider insurrection in the Caucasus. As Chechnya goes, so go Dagestan, Ingushetia, and the wider North Caucasus. In this respect, Russian interest in keeping the violence manageable and a controlling mechanism in place serve to ensure that Russian dominance over the North Caucasus and its influence over the South Caucasus are not eroded by either a catalyzing event such as those which occurred in 1999, or the steady erosion of Russian control as occurred throughout the later years of the of the Soviet Union.

Signs of separatism returning to Chechnya have been clouded by intrigue surrounding the relationship of Ramzan Kadyrov and the Russian security services have emerged in recent months, particularly in the wake of the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Kadyrov has recently strengthened his personal security forces. The relationship between Kadyrov and the Russian intelligence services in particular has elicited raised eyebrows and curiosities from around the world. In the wake of the Nemtsov murder, Russian news media have floated reports that Kadyrov himself ordered the assassination. Kadyrov has responded by stating his willingness to testify in the murder inquiry. The future of Chechnya’s separatist movement may revolve around Kadyrov’s relationship with the Kremlin, in particular with President Putin. Kadyrov continually heaps effusive praise on the Russian leader and reinforces his loyalty to Putin personally. Given Kadyrov’s poor relationship with many officials in Moscow, Putin’s removal as president of the Russian Federation would almost certainly catalyze a fracture and rift between the Chechen leader and Moscow. The result could be a renewal or reinvigoration of the Chechen separatist movement.


(Featured photo courtesy of Mikhail Evsafiev and Wikmedia Commons)

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: