Wednesday, 20 January 2010

THE EVOLUTION OF JIHADISM IN RUSSIA

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By Dmitry Shlapentokh (1/20/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The underpinning ideas of the North Caucasian resistance have undergone several stages of transformation, from a purely nationalistic Chechen movement to an internationalized Islamic jihad. The movement now seems to be going through yet another evolutionary phase, this time for more pragmatic purposes. Due to the enforced Russian surveillance of religious Muslims, the jihadists are now seeking to downplay and adapt their appearance and behavior for the purpose of becoming better equipped to conduct terrorist operations.
The underpinning ideas of the North Caucasian resistance have undergone several stages of transformation, from a purely nationalistic Chechen movement to an internationalized Islamic jihad. The movement now seems to be going through yet another evolutionary phase, this time for more pragmatic purposes. Due to the enforced Russian surveillance of religious Muslims, the jihadists are now seeking to downplay and adapt their appearance and behavior for the purpose of becoming better equipped to conduct terrorist operations. BACKGROUND: There is an assumption that jihadists, including those engaged in jihad in the Russian Northern Caucasus, are rigid fanatics and live and fight according to a fixed medieval creed. This is a wrong assumption. Similar to other radicals and revolutionaries of the past, such as the Bolsheviks for example, Russia’s jihadists are constantly evolving, and their tactics are constantly tested against reality. Instinctively, they follow the well-known Marxist-Leninist dictum that “practice is the major criteria of truth.” In the beginning of the North Caucasian resistance, it was mostly related to Chechens, who at that time were largely inspired by nationalistic animus. By the beginning of the Second Chechen War, a new trend had evolved. At that point, nationalists became increasingly replaced by jihadists, who discarded nationalism as a dangerous, non-Muslim creed and replaced it with universalistic jihadism, which in a way was a replica of the famous Marxist slogan “Proletarians of all countries unite!” The change was not so much a result of internal ideological evolution but of realities on the ground. On the one hand, the North Caucasian resistance had received an influx of mujahideen from all over the Muslim world. And for them, it was not Chechen independence and its incorporation into the international community that actually mattered. For them, the Chechen struggle was a fight of Muslims against infidels. For many, it was the final triumph of the global Caliphate, once again looking like the Islamized form of a communistic ideal society in the end of written history, as visualized by Marxists. While the influence of foreign jihadists played an important role in fostering the universalistic jihadization of the resistance, they were not the only, and most likely not even the major reason for this. Indeed, some observers even assumed that the numbers of foreign fighters would decline over time, mostly due to the cooperation of foreign governments with Russia. The most important reason for the universalistic jihadization of the Chechen resistance was domestic. After the 2004 Beslan terrorist attack, Moscow had engaged in a steady “Chechenization” of the conflict. The Kremlin installed the Kadyrov clan—first the father, Akhmad, and after his assassination in 2004 his son Ramzan—and made Chechnya increasingly autonomous from Moscow on paper. Moscow also provided Ramzan Kadyrov with huge subsidies that allowed him to rebuild war-torn Grozny and make some visible improvements to the lives of average Chechens. This policy was successful in certain respects; Kadyrov was able to draw quite a few nationalistic-minded members of the resistance to his side, who were of course worn out by the open-ended conflict. The percentage of ethnic Chechens in the resistance units declined, and they became increasingly ethnically heterogeneous. At that point nationalism, the battle cry of the early stage of the resistance, became irrelevant. It could hardly provide the glue to keep these members of the resistance together. And at that point, universalistic “jihadist internationalism” became the most appropriate ideology. Logically, in 2007 Doka Umarov, the president of the virtual Chechen republic, had promulgated the creation of an “emirate” and emphasized that he and his mujahideen were fighting for an Islamic state and were part of a worldwide jihad. And their enemy was not just the Russians but the enemies of Muslims all over the world. IMPLICATIONS: The stress on enlisting dedicated Muslims and using them in terrorist activities outside the North Caucasus, in the Russian heartland, became a daunting task. Following Dubrovka (2002) and Beslan (2004), Russian authorities increased their surveillance over the mosques and any informal meetings of Muslims in Russia. Even reading the work of Said Nursi, who is a comparatively moderate Turkish theologian whose work is legal in Turkey, could create problems. People with distinctly Muslim appearance, women in hijab and men with beards who assiduously attended the mosque, and especially Russian converts, increasingly attracted the authorities’ attention. The Russian tactics were successful in the sense that they were able to prevent terrorist acts in the Russian heartland. In this situation, the jihadists started to employ a different tactic, which could be called a “de-Islamization” of the jihadists. The point of this new tactic is that jihadists could, and even should, forsake the external attributes of the believer, if this is essential for successfully conducting a terrorist operation. The idea behind the new tactic is that military/terrorist successes are more important than formally following the dictums of Islam. The new trend started to emerge several years ago. The author of an article published in Kavkaz Center argued that a leader of the mujahideen hardly needed to behave as a good Muslim. He could drink liquor, forsake dietary restrictions, etc. Still, if he is a successful military commander, he should be obeyed and valued by the rest of the mujahideen. Another recently published article on Kavkaz Center went even further. The author stated that not only could non-Islamic behavior be tolerated but even encouraged for those mujahideen who lived amidst infidels and who are preparing terrorist acts or intelligence gathering. Such a mujahideen, the author of one article stressed, should understand that he would be under constant surveillance by Russian officials and, as it was implied, the Russian populace. Thus, he should do his best to blend in among the Russian population. He should not attend a mosque or at least demonstrate no particular religious zeal. He should also refrain from a distinctly Islamic look and do nothing to attract attention. He should not even keep a religious book in his home, as this could create problems for him in case of a search. Instead of books, he should use the Internet to find appropriate texts. This is the right way, the article insisted, because it leaves no trace. The mujahideen should be very cautious in choosing people with whom he wishes to engage in terrorist operations. The members of the group should see each other only when they undertake operations. At the same time, they should minimize other types of socialization and know as little as possible about each other. This would prevent them from harming each other in case of arrest. CONCLUSIONS: Despite the doctrinal rigidity, the members of the Islamic resistance are constantly changing their goals and tactics in response to the changing reality. And this explains their recent stress on actual “de-Islamization” of the members of the underground. Indeed, this trend should be taken seriously; it may be helping many members of the Islamic resistance to actually create terrorist cells in any place in Russia’s heartland. AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend.
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