Chechen Jihad: Behind the Boston bombing, a distant, unknown war

The stories of Russian-born jihadists Dzhokhar and Tamerlane Tsarnaev, the men who attacked Boston earlier this week, are enmeshed with the jihadist movement in the north Caucuses—a conflict little-known in India.

Praveen Swami April 19, 2013 19:27:48 IST
Chechen Jihad: Behind the Boston bombing, a distant, unknown war

“The mujahid,” wrote the legendary jihadist Shamil Salmanovich Basayev, “never asks anyone for permission to strike with his sword; he just takes the sword in his hand. He will never waste his time explaining his actions; he is faithful to what has been predetermined by god."

Exactly ten years after Basayev wrote those words in the summer of 2004, a slight built young man from Hyderabad began an improbable journey that led him into the innards of the jihadist movement in Pakistan, Bosnia and Chechnya.  Muhammad Abdul Aziz, an electrician known to his friends as Gidda, and to intelligence services in half a dozen countries by the aliases Ukbah and Ashrafi, was a transnational jihadist before his time. He could prove to be a harbinger of the future of the jihadist movement in India.

Thus, as Indians contemplate the stories of Russian-born jihadists Dzhokhar and Tamerlane Tsarnaev—the men who attacked Boston to lethal effect earlier this week—it is worth understanding the conflict that made them. The story of Aziz shows that this distant war is closer to home than we might imagine.

For over a decade now, the lethal ambitions of the Chechen jihadist movement have been evident to the world. In 2004, the Riyad ul-Saliheen Martyrs Brigade, founded by Basayev, seized control of a school in the town of Beslan, sparking a hostage crisis which ended in the death of 334 people, including 186 children—the most murderous terrorist strike since 9/11. Earlier, in 2002, the Brigade took 800 people hostage at the Nord-Ost theatre in Moscow, leading to the death of 129 of them. In 2009, 29 were killed when the group bombed a Moscow-bound high-speed train; in 2010, a similar strike claimed the lives of 39 commuters.

Chechen Jihad Behind the Boston bombing a distant unknown war

This combination of photos provided on Friday, April 19, 2013 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, left, and the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, right, shows a suspect that officials have identified as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, being sought by police in connection with Monday's Boston Marathon bombings. AP

Put together, the organisation’s murderous record rivals that of Pakistan-based jihadist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad.

No one knows, yet, if the Tsarnaev brothers acted alone or on orders from a group—but intelligence services have flagged the growing role of Chechens based in the west in global jihadist causes. The globalisation of the Chechen jihad has irked its some of its leaders, who have solicited western support against Russia— but they have proved unable to influence events.

For years now, Chechen jihadists have played a key role in fighting alongside al-Qaeda in Pakistan. In Chechnya itself, brutal fighting goes on. Large scale operations targeting top commander Doku Umarov are underway, and early this year, veteran jihadist Khuseyn Gakayev was killed after days of pursuit by Russian special forces, backed by helicopters. Neighbouring Dagestan, the Tsarnaev brothers’ homeland, has seen suicide bombings, and the killing of traditionalist clerics by jihadists.

Like in India, complex political processes underpinned the growth of the jihadist movement, in the north Caucuses. In the 18th century, as Russia expanded into territories until then controlled by Iran and Turkey, it faced frequent resistance from local Muslim rulers. Chechen rebellion often broke out in times of crisis. In 1940, central Asian Islamists  allied with Nazi Germany in an effort to gain independence from the Soviet Union, sparking a prolonged insurgency.  The historian Ian Johnson has brilliantly documented the Central Intelligence Agency’s own subsequent flirtation with these jihadists, seeking to use them against the Soviets.

Even as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, a war for independence broke out between Russia and the newly-formed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Years of fighting followed, claiming the lives of an estimated 5,500 Russian troops. In the wake of a ceasefire with Russia, Basayev was appointed Vice-Prime Minister of the Chechen Republic by President Aslam Maskhadov. But in August 1999, he led an Islamist army to stage a coup in neighbouring Dagestan. Russian forces finally intervened, ending the de-facto independence of Chechnya.

The bitter fighting in Grozny in 1999-2000 reduced it, the United Nations reportedly said, to “the most destroyed city on earth”. Basayev himself was killed in 2006.

From mid-2008, though the jihadist movement in Chechnya began to gather momentum again. In November that year, jihadist leader Umarov declared himself the amir, or supreme leader, of a so-called Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus. Early in 2011, he gave an interview warning Russians: “God-willing, we plan to show them that the war will return to their homes.”

He kept his promise—and, as the Boston attacks show, unleashed forces perhaps greater than he anticipated.

The Hyderabad electrician was born of those forces.  The son of a police constable, Aziz’s political choices were shaped by the city’s highly-criminalised communal politics. Educated at the Anwar-ul-Uloom College in Mallepally, Aziz discontinued his studies in 1984 and apprenticed with an electrician. But he soon fell in with the gang of Mohammad Fasiuddin, from which many jihadists would emerge. The would-be jihadist cut his teeth in an anti-prostitution campaign targeting the Mehboob ki Mandi red light district. He also joined the Darsgah Jihad-o-Shahadat, a vigilante group set up by cleric Maulana Mohammad Naseeruddin.

Late in 1989, Aziz got a job in Saudi Arabia, where he worked as electrician with construction giant Bemco. He returned home on a vacation in December 1992, days before the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Embittered, he joined an Islamist group in Saudi Arabia. In 1994, he volunteered to fight against the Serbian forces in Bosnia. Aziz trained at Zentica along with jihadists from Europe, West Asia and Africa before being despatched to fight on the front lines.

In an August, 1994, interview to the Pakistani jihadist magazine, al-Sirat al-Mustaqeem Aziz said his decision to fight in Bosnia had been laid by the speeches of Abdullah Azzam — the Palestinian jihadist who was Osama bin Laden's ideological mentor and co-founder of the Lashkar's parent organisation, Markaz Dawat wal'Irshad. “I was one of those,” Aziz said, “who heard about the jihad in Afghanistan when it started. I used to hear about it, but was doubtful about its purity and imagination. One of those who came to our land [through audiotape?] was Dr. Abdullah Azzam. I heard him rallying the youth to come forth and go to Afghanistan. I decided to go and check the matter for myself. This was the beginning of my jihad.”

Back home in 1996—carrying a Bosnian passport, along with his two Indian ones, one in a fake name— Aziz found his desire for jihad un-stilled. In March that year, he travelled to Moscow and on to Shatoy, near Grozny in Chechnya. Aziz helped provide logistics support to fighters operating under the command of the Saudi Arabia-born jihadist Samir Saleh Abdullah al-Suwailem.

For his part, Aziz returned home to help assemble infrastructure for the growing jihadist movement in India. Helped with funding from his Saudi contacts, police allege, Aziz set about making plans to execute bombings across India. He was arrested by the Hyderabad police, but he jumped bail and worked for several years as a jihad financier before his arrest in Saudi Arabia.

In recent years, growing evidence has emerged that India is becoming enmeshed in the global jihadist project—attracting groups whose energies were, until just a few years ago, firmly focussed elsewhere.  Last year, Pakistani journalist Amir Mir revealed that al-Qaeda’s new chief in the country, Farman Ali Shinwari, had earlier fought in Kashmir. The scholar Tufail Ahmad has noted that al-Qaeda threats against India have become increasingly express. Last year, al-Qaeda ideologue Ustad Ahmad Farooq claimed that the killings of Muslims in communal violence in Myanmar “provide impetus for us to hasten our advance towards Delhi”.  In ongoing prosecutions involving a group of Bangalore men, the National Investigations Agency has alleged that the conspirators were motivated by global jihadist material.

The murderous attacks in Boston show events too far away for us to be bothered noticing can have a lethal impact on our lives. The story of Abdul Aziz shows that distant wars are sometimes much closer than we think.

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