by B. Raman
On June 22, 2004, over 200 well-armed persons simultaneously raided three towns in the Ingushetia Republic of Russia, adjoining Chechnya, and attacked police stations, government buildings and checkpoints with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. The Russian and the local security forces were totally taken by surprise. Ninety-five persons were killed, the majority of them members of the security forces and other Government officials, including the local Interior Minister.
2. The followers of the Chechen terrorist leader Shamil Basayev are suspected of involvement. The Ingushetia Republic has a total area of 2,682 sq. km., with an estimated population of 190,000, the majority of them ethnically Ingush and by religion Muslims. This population estimate does not include the large number of Chechen Muslims fleeing from the Russian campaign against terrorism in Chechnya and taking shelter in Ingushetia.
3. This is not the first act of jihadi terrorism in the Republic, but this is the first one to have seen the Chechens and the Ingush operating jointly against the Russians. Past attacks were carried out mostly by Chechen terrorist groups with no active involvement by the Ingush, who were more spectators than participants.
4.However, Russian official spokesmen have denied the participation of the Ingush and have alleged that the attacks were carried out by a mixed force of Chechens, Arabs from West Asia, Algerians and Pakistanis. Since 1999, there has been considerable involvement of Arabs of Chechen origin from West Asia in acts of terrorism in the Caucasus, but the Russian authorities do not make a distinction between Arabs of Chechen origin and other Arabs . The Pakistani involvement has been mainly from the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET).
5. The terrorists involved in the raids of June 22 operated more like a guerilla army than a group of terrorists. They launched lightning strikes, killed many, held control of the towns for a few hours and then quickly melted away, after having demonstrated to the local people their capability to strike at will and the inability of the Government security forces to anticipate and thwart their attacks. There are so far no reports of any acts of suicide terrorism on June 22, though in the past, suicide car bombings were the speciality of the Chechen terrorists.
6.On June 24, suicide bombers and armed groups launched well-cordinated and fierce attacks in five Iraqi cities—Mosul, Baquba, Ramadi, Falluja and Baghdad– killing over 100 persons—62 in Mosul and 40 in the remaining four cities. While the American troops and the Iraqi security forces collaborating with them were prepared for an increase in acts of terrorism by the foreign terrorists and in violence by the Iraqi resistance fighters before the hand-over of limited sovereignty to an American and UN backed Iraqi regime on June 30,2004, the intensity of the attacks, their spread over a wide geographical area and the co-ordination displayed by the attackers—whether terrorists or resistance fighters—took them totally by surprise.
7.The month of June has seen an average of at least one suicide car bombing per day in Iraq–the largest number in a single month. It has been estimated that since the beginning of this year, there have been about 60 suicide car bombings in the country. The majority of the bombings has been directed more against Iraqis perceived as collaborating with the Americans than against the Americans themselves.
8. There is no question of any linkage between the terrorist incidents of June 22 in Ingushetia and those of June 24 in Iraq. And yet, one has to underline certain common features of the prevailing situation in the Caucasus and Iraq, if one were to have a clear understanding of the state of jihadi terrorism in the world today.
9. The most noticeable common feature is the seemingly inexhaustible availability of suicide car bombers in the Caucusus and Iraq for operations against the Russians and the Americans respectively. It might not be an error to say that neither the Palestinian terrorist organisations and those allied to them nor the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have had so many volunteers for suicide bombing missions at their disposal as the Chechens have been having in the Caucasus since 1999 and the terrorists of Iraq since May last year.
10.In the Caucasus, practically all the suicide bombers have been Chechens, either of Russia or from West Asia. There has been no reported instance of the involvement of any non-Chechen suicide bomber.
11. In Iraq, the available evidence from the ground on the identity of the suicide bombers has been very weak due to the USA’s poor intelligence capability. During his regime, Saddam Hussein had ruthlessly supressed the religious fundamentalist elements, banned madrasas and put down the glorification of suicide terrorism even though he used to reward the families of the Palestinian suicide bombers operating against Israel. As a result, Iraq did not have the suicide jihadi culture during his time. It is very doubtful whether within a short span of a little over a year such a large number of Iraqis would have embraced suicide terrorism, whatever be their anger against the Americans.
12. Oral evidence from sources in Pakistan continues to indicate that the foreign terrorists operating in Iraq, from whose ranks the suicide bombers come, are mainly the Chechens of Afghan vintage, the majority of them Arabs of Chechen origin, who had come to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight against the Soviet troops. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988-89, they stayed behind and joined the various Pakistani jihadi organisations, Gulbuddin Heckmatyar’s Hizbe Islami and the Taliban when it was formed in 1994.
13. While many of these Chechens went to Chechnya post-1994 to fight against the Russians, the others stayed behind in Afghanistan and fought against the Northern Alliance till October 2001. They fought against the US-led coalition thereafter and then moved over to the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan in Pakistan. Since February last year, these Chechens, many of them of Saudi and Jordanian origin, have been moving to Saudi Arabia and Iraq in small groups to join in the jihad against the Saudi regime and the US-led coalition in Iraq.
14. The second common feature is the inability of the regimes set up by Russia in Chechnya and by the US in Iraq to win the support of the local people without which no counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency campaign can succeed. As a result, the entire campaign against the terrorists in the Caucasus and against the mix of foreign terrorists and Iraqi resistance fighters in Iraq is spearheaded by the Russian and American troops respectively.
15. In both the regions, the terrorist groups have come to be viewed as national liberation groups. The local people do not view terrorism as an evil. In the Caucasus, support to the terrorists is seen as an act of ethnic self-emancipation. In Iraq, it is viewed as an act of patriotism.
16. Against the background of such perceptions, the chances of the Russian and American troops prevailing seem very remote for the present. The almost total local hostility has dried up the flow of intelligence. Neither the Russians in the Caucasus nor the Americans in Iraq have a clear picture of the strength, nature and plans of their enemies. Consequently, they have been repeatedly taken by surprise and there has been no major successful act of prevention.
17. The sadistic brutalities committed by some sections of the US troops on their Iraqi prisoners during their interrogation were a reflection of their frustration and anger over their failure to break the will of the Iraqis and others captured and make them talk.
18. The Afghan war of the 1980s against the Soviet troops attracted around 6,000 foreign jihadis, who joined the Afghan mujahideen groups and their Pakistani supporters in their fight against the Soviets. The largest component of these foreign jihadis were Chechens— mainly Arabs of Chechen origin from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Chechen migrants from Turkey and Chechen deserters from the Soviet Armed Forces. They were followed by Arabs of non-Chechen origin and Muslims from other countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
19. When Osama bin Laden formed his Al Qaeda after the Afghan war against the Soviets, he kept it confined to Arabs of non-Chechen origin in order to ensure his own security and kept out of it the Arabs of Chechen origin because many of them had relatives in the West Asian security forces, particularly in Jordan. He feared that including them in Al Qaeda might enable these security forces to penetrate it.
20. These Arab dregs of Chechen origin consequently joined the various Pakistani jihadi organisations and other organisations such as the Jamaat al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad [Unity and Jihad Group] of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which has claimed responsibility for many of the acts of terrorism in Iraq. While the US and other Western intelligence agencies have paid considerable attention to identifying the Arab leaders and other members of Al Qaeda and smoking them out, similar attention has not been paid to identifying the Chechen elements and neutralising them.
21.Western sympathy for the independence movement in the Caucasus is coming in the way of the Western countries acting with equal determination against the Chechen terrorists, whether they are operating in the Caucasus, in the tribal areas of Pakistan or elsewhere. Russian evidence on the involvement of foreign terrorists in the Caucasus and of Chechen terrorists outside Russia is sought to be dismissed lightly just as they were dismissing lightly in the past Indian evidence of Pakistani involvement in international jihadi terrorism.
22. This mindset is likely to prove counter-productive and further aggravate the ground situation in Iraq. Moreover, if one day there is an act of terrorism involving the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), that is likely to come either from the Arab members of Al Qaeda or from the Chechen members of other organisations. The Chechen terrorists are as ruthless as the Arab supporters of bin Laden and would not have any qualms about using them, if they manage to acquire them. This is another important reason why immediate attention needs to be paid to neutralising the Chechen component of the international jihadi terrorism, instead of treating them with kid gloves under the false impression that they pose a threat only to Russian nationals and interests and not to American nationals and interests.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-Mail: email@example.com )