THE GEOPOLITICS OF SEPARATISM: GENESIS OF CHECHEN FIELD COMMANDERS
Viatcheslav Avioutskii, Associate researcher, Centre de Recherches et d’Analyses Géopolitiques (Paris VIII university), lecturer in geopolitics, Ecole Supérieure De Management En Alternance (ESM-A), Marne-la-Vallée (Paris, France)
Hayder Mili, Independent researcher specialized in Islam in the Northern Caucasus, lecturer, Ecole Supérieure De Commerce De Paris (ESCP-EAP) (Paris, France)
Paradoxically, one of the main actors of the Chechen conflict, the guerrilla, is also the least known and studied. This apparent lack of analysis stifles, in our opinion, the better understanding of its functioning, its motivations and particularly its structure. The guerrilla far from being a coherent entity does not correspond to any party, political movement or classic military formation. Its contours are indistinct and blurry, adherence is often symbolic, membership numbers can vary considerably, the line of command is not hierarchically clear, its cohesion is based more on local (village solidarity) than on a clear and well-defined political project (even if Islam is definitely a factor of cohesion and discipline within its ranks).
The guerrilla which at the end of 2002 was composed of over 70 “field commanders,” 20 of which held the higher ranks, is the representation of an infinite atomization of Chechen society. The latter has rarely acted or reacted as a united group throughout the history of its relations with Russia. We know that many divisions define Chechen internal geopolitics, of which religious and clan cleavages are the most important.
Clan solidarity seems to be the main factor in Chechnia politics. It is a known fact that the first Chechen president, Djokhar Dudaev, had initially favored members of his clan by offering them various high-profile positions within the administration. His opposition would also constitute itself following clan opposition.
Religious solidarity expressed itself through the historical opposition between two Sufi mystical orders, the Naqshbandiyya and the Qadiriyya, which all Chechens belong to since birth. The followers of the Qadiriyya who more often than not belong to “mountain clans” were the driving force behind the rise to power of General Dudaev in August-September 1991. Lately, another opposition force has arisen, between Sufi Islam and Wahhabi Islam which first appeared in the Northern Caucasus in 1995.
Up until 1991, a Chechen regional group, called “peaceful Chechens” or “Terek Chechens” (Terkkhoys), held the power at Grozny. During the Soviet period, it is the Terkkhoys who were appointed to high responsibility posts in Chechnia by the communists who thought them more loyal than their mountainous brethren. It is true that the Terkkhoys, since the beginning of the 19th century, had laid down their arms and opted for peaceful coexistence with Russia while settling on the right bank of the Terek River. This Chechen group, from which the last Chechen Soviet leader came, represented only 7% of Chechens and its traditional hold on power in the Republic was historically contested by the rest of Chechens.1
The persistence of these three principal splits within Chechen society explains in part the survival, even during the Soviet period, of “forbidden areas” or “dark zones” which were not under any ideological, administrative or economic control from Grozny. The Russian or Chechen regional leaders of the C.P.S.U. would generally limit themselves to condemning archaic practices as part of village life without daring to intervene in the functioning of clan or Sufi structures. The “black holes” in the Soviet system would shape Chechen mentality to the point where not only did the clan and Sufi solidarity fail to disappear but they actually reinforced themselves, most notably during the exile to Kazakhstan and particularly after 1957 and the return to Chechnia.
It is imperative to contextualize the appearance of the phenomenon of the field commanders as the culmination of a fragmentation process of Chechen society, this process has developed following an uneven pace throughout Chechen history.
Profiling the Guerrilla
The term “field commander” was first used in the Russian press to designate independent commanders who participated in the Abkhazia war of 1992. Semantically this term is linked to another neologism, boevik, which can be defined as a paramilitary fighter, member of an illegal armed group. For the Russians, this phenomenon was a new one and the term was a rehashing of the one used to designate IRA paramilitary fighters.
The term “field commander” does not itself make sense, either in Russian or in English, simply because any commander present on the frontlines is in essence a “field commander.” This term is used to designate leaders of a paramilitary formation or criminal armed group. In the post-Soviet space weakened by ethnic conflicts (Tajikistan, Chechnia, Georgia, etc.), organizations of this kind are not uncommon. Lately the Russian media when reporting on conflict areas (Afghanistan, Somalia, and Colombia) has also referred to these kinds of informal leadership as field commanders.
In the Chechen context however a field commander is someone who leads an “illegal” armed group of fighters whose numbers vary between several dozens and several hundreds. During the interwar period, some of these groups numbered in the thousands. Generally, membership is determined by the financial capacities of the leader, however in a war-torn society where unemployment may reach 90%, the number of volunteers can only increase.
For the Russian government, these formations are illegal, but they are tolerated and even used by the successive governments of Dudaev and Maskhadov.
Funding for these groups comes mainly from two sources, internal and external. Internal funding comes essentially from what can be best described as a “war tax” imposed on the population of each commander’s respective territory. Depending on their importance, certain field commanders participate in drug trafficking, using Chechnia as a “crossroads” of sorts for illegal trafficking of all kinds. During the 1997-1999 period, commanders like Bassaev, Gelaev, and Raduev also participated in the splitting of oil revenue. The amount and nature of these revenues, have led some to speculate that the commanders have placed the funds in western and Middle Eastern banks, where they are in turn used to purchase weapons and ammunitions to support the war effort. The purchases are done through intermediaries specialized in international arms trafficking.
The external source is of a different nature. It consists mostly of private sources, i.e. Islamic charities and organizations which have been present in Chechnia since 1995. Certain sources also mention the role of the secret services of Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This financing is well organized and consistent, which could be an indication of direct state involvement as the Russians have previously claimed.
The Chechen guerrilla has received an important logistical support from such transnational structures as the Taliban movement, al-Qa‘eda, and the Muslim Brothers. We must be careful however not to overestimate the role of the so-called “Islamist Internationale,” as most of the evidence for its involvement comes from Russian sources which naturally have a distinct vision of the conflict.
The Rise of the Field Commanders
It is important to understand the nature of Russo-Chechen relations the roots of which can be traced to the numerous attempts on the part of Tsarist, communist and contemporary Russia to annex by force this rebel region. In the context of this conflict, the Russians were historically at odds not with Islam (Shari‘a tribunals were tolerated by the Tsars and by the Soviets in the 1920s), not with ethnic nationalism (an autonomous Chechen unit was created by the Bolsheviks), but with a warrior culture which Moscow altogether rejected from the onset. This warrior culture was in direct opposition with the values and principles of Russian Orthodox society who could not accept an economy based on pillaging and slave-trading. Throughout Chechen history, the warrior traditionally performed political functions; the clan chief more often than not was also the military commander.
During the Soviet period, an example of a well-organized Chechen guerrilla is that of Hassan Israylov and Mayrbek Sheripov from 1940 to 1944. This rebellion was effectively ended with the deportation of all Chechens to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in February 1944. The leaders of the guerilla have been inspired by the example of the Finnish resistance to the Soviet army, vastly superior in numbers and equipment. The two leaders of the guerrilla controlled a large part of mountainous Chechnia. According to NKVD sources, the guerrilla was comprised of 54 armed groups. According to estimates, its numbers varied from several hundred to several thousand fighters. Already at the time, the guerrilla had a precise political objective, the creation of an independent Chechen state.2
It is important to remember that the Chechen military formation, the National Guard of Chechen National Congress, was created with the initiative of General Dudaev in the spring of 1991. Several hundred “national guards” were professionally trained and constituted an efficient military force in August 1991. This force would be decisive during the coup d’etat and the subsequent destitution of the communist leader of Chechnia Doku Zavgaev. The “neutrality” of the garrisons of the Soviet army stationed in Chechnia can be explained by the fact that the National Guard was well-armed, the weapons came from a weapons cache dating from World War II. In November 1991, the units of the Russian Ministry of the Interior arrived in Chechnia to disarm the National Guard. They were immediately “blocked” by the very same “guards” at the Khankala airport, and opting to avoid conflict, they agreed to leave.
The National Guard would eventually become the base of the Chechen army which would in turn constitute the base of the guerilla in 1994-1996. However, some of these “guards” would quickly move beyond their military allegiance and assume a more political role in Chechen society. Many of the commanders in the National Guard such as Shamil Bassaev and Ruslan Gelaev would increasingly become more and more autonomous of the power center in Grozny controlled by general Dudaev. During the 1992-1994 pre-war period, this autonomy would see them transform themselves into powerful field commanders with great influence on the Chechen political scene.
The first combat appearances of Chechen “volunteers” were those that took place in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh starting in spring 1992.3 Shamil Bassaev is said to have participated in several battles fighting side-by-side with Azeris within the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. If Shamil Bassaev himself has confirmed this information, there have been no independent verifications.
The Abkhazian war which began in 1992 was the key moment for the field commanders’ “structuring.” A unit of Chechen volunteers was immediately dispatched to Abkhazia. It is also probable that a Chechen branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood also dispatched a group of volunteers. The members of the organization proclaimed their duty to help their Muslim brethren to raise “the green flag of Islam” and “oust the infidels from their homes.”4 Fighting side-by-side with other volunteers from the Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus (Kabardins, Cherkesses, and Abazins) and Cossacks, the Chechen fighters led by Shamil Bassaev supported the Abkhazians from 1992 to 1993.
Upon his return to Chechnia, Bassaev does not dissolve his unit, the “Abkhazian Battalion,” choosing instead to integrate it within the Chechen armed forces. He stays however vaguely under the command of president Dudaev. The latter is increasingly weakened by internal quarrels and opposition to his rule in the Nadterechniy District. In 1993, Djokhar Dudaev controls only Grozny and surrounding areas. His armed forces are also disintegrating; his control is limited to the presidential guard, an elite formation created out of the National Guard.
The month of December 1993 is an important date for what can be termed the “political genesis” of field commanders. During an attempted coup d’etat, better known as the “putsch of the field commanders,” the commanders of military units (“Abkhazian Battalion,” Special Forces, the Shali Tank and Armored Personnel Carrier Regiment) take over Chechen television. It was the first concrete political action of the field commanders. In fact, after the destitution of the prime minister at the time Iaragi Mamodaev and the expulsion of his clan which controlled the oil branches of the power structures, the field commanders attempted to fill this void by trying to nominate their candidate (director of the Grozny refinery Adam Albakov) for the post of prime minister. The “putschists” acted in the name of the committee of national concord which included Shamil Bassaev, the ex-military commander of Grozny Khamzat Khankarov, the leader of the Shali regiment Saypuddin Isaev, head of Special Forces Salman Chechaev.
The field commanders, soon joined by Ibrahim Suleymenov and the anti-Dudaev opposition, organize a show of force in Grozny by parading their armored units on Mansur square in Grozny. Dudaev however refused to bow to their demands, and after the talks the field commanders withdrew their units.5 The rift grows between those forces loyal to Dudaev and the more or less independent military formations. As a result, the latter, who would see themselves excluded from the plundering of easy oil revenue, would come to constitute a third force in the intra-Chechen conflict between the partisans and opponents of Dudaev’s regime.
A fourth power appears during this period, led by Ruslan Labazanov who was able to tactically maneuver in between several camps. After a failed attempt to destitute Dudaev, Labazanov establishes himself in Argun, south of Grozny. Another field commander Ibrahim Suleymenov takes control of the Vedeno District.
The entry of federal troops into Chechnia constitutes a new step in the structuring of Chechen field commanders. After the battle of Grozny, Dudaev’s armed forces imploded and fragmented themselves into many small distinct groups. Each unit was in charge of a specific sector. Their link with Dudaev was kept only to supply themselves with weapons and ammunitions, and to get their pay. Some twenty field commanders now operated completely independently from the center.
From Field Commander to Warlord: 1997-1999
During this period, three field commanders rise to the “rank” of warlord. Often on the basis of clan solidarity, they build various strongholds over which Grozny had almost no control. Each warlord imposes his discipline, introduces and enforces his rule, charges taxes and insures the “protection” of the population under his control. The warlords constituted then the main political force. They in turn rely on the ideologues of the regime (Movladi Udugov and Zelimkhan Iandarbiev) to form an opposition to Maskhadov (Congress of the Peoples of Daghestan and Chechnia).
Such renowned field commanders as Bassaev or Gelaev are promoted to ministerial positions in Maskhadov government which enabled them to control an economic branch outside their respective strongholds.
During the interwar period, the guerrilla led by the field commanders effectively settled in certain areas in Chechnia. During this period the four most influential field commanders are Salman Raduev, Shamil Bassaev, Ruslan Gelaev, and Arbi Baraev. Shamil Bassaev’s territory comprised a large part of the Vedeno, Shali, Shatoy, Achkhoy-Martan, and part of Urus-Martan districts. Salman Raduev controlled a territory whose geographical locations include the Nozhay-Iurt District and the villages of Samashki and Iandyrka, and Gekhi-Chu in the district of Urus-Martan. Ruslan Gelaev based himself mostly in the Grozny area and in the Argun District. Baraev was limited to the district of Urus-Martan.
The Field Commanders after 1999
It is difficult to establish with certainty the geographical implantation of the field commanders during the second war. Some of them were either eliminated or arrested by the federal forces, others were grievously wounded, while others migrated or simply switched to the federal side. The geopolitics of the guerrilla evolves constantly.
For example, in 1999, on the eve of the federal troops’ entry into Chechnia, some fifteen field commanders were each in control of a particular area of Chechnia. Shamil Bassaev and Khassan Dolguev (2,500 men) were in control of Vedeno and Shali. Dolguev died in December 1999. Killed in October 1999, Ruslan Khaykhoroev (500 men) was in charge of Bamut and the Achkhoy-Martan and Sunzhenskii districts. Elkhoev with 50 combatants was implanted near Bamut. The warlord Baguraev had control over Stanitsa Isherskaia situated north of the republic. Ruslan Gelaev (500 men) held sway over most of Grozny’s suburbs, Urus-Martan, Shatoy, Komsomolskoye and Achkhoy-Martan. Before his arrest in 2000, Salman Raduev (600 men) was in control of Gudermes and Novye Gordali. Wahid Murdashev and the Iamadaev brothers controlled Gudermes and Novogroznenskii before joining the federal forces in November 1999. Sultan Geliskhanov with his 150 combatants was the authority in the district of Nozhai-Iurt. The Saudi warlord Khattab (550 men) ruled over Serzhen-Iurt, Shali and Vedeno. Arbi Baraev’s (killed in December 1999) “Wahhabi” detachment of 200 fighters occupied Urus-Martan and Bratskoye. Turpal-Ali Atgeriev (200 fighters) had his base in Stanitsa Shelkovskaia, north of Chechnia. Atgeriev was arrested in October 2000. Khattachev with his 300 fighters was in charge of Urus-Martan. Magomed Aslutdinov (100 combatants) controlled the Kenkhi village. Abalaev with a detachment of 150 fighters occupied the village of Zandak.6
Most of the current information on field commanders is, for obvious reasons, unavailable. The information at our disposal is from 2001, and probably comes from FSB sources.
In 2001, Chechnia was divided into 6 zones: the Western, Southern, Center, Vedeno, North-Eastern, Northern, and South-Eastern sectors.
The western sector includes the Achkhoy-Martan District and the western part of Grozny was controlled by Ramzan Akhmadov, member of a large family composed of six brothers, of which one by the name of Rizvan was killed in July 2002. Akhmadov was also under the authority of the groups controlled by Kiri, Khousseïn and Umarov. The southern sector (Urus-Martan District and the western part of the Shatoy District) was put under the control of Aslambek Adulkhadjiev. This long-time friend of Bassaev’s had participated in the Abkhazian war (1992-1993) as well as the raid on Budennovsk (June 1995). He was apparently killed in August 2002. Abu Dar, a Saudi field commander operated in the central sector (the Shali and Argun districts and the southwestern part of Grozny). The field commanders Khamzat and Abu Yakub were responsible for the Vedeno sector. The northeast sector (Gudermes and surroundings) was the zone controlled by the field commander Abu Umar. This Saudi citizen, an expert in explosives, is thought to have met bin Laden during his time fighting in Afghanistan against the Russian army. He is one of the few in the guerrilla to have a high level in Islamic studies (ihtiad) which gives him certain notoriety within the separatist movement. The southeastern sector (Nozhay-Iurt, the eastern part of the Vedeno and Kurchaloy districts) was the base of another Arabic field commander Abdul Al-Walid. After the death of Khattab in the spring of 2002, Al-Walid became the undisputed leader of “Arab volunteers” within the guerrilla.7
All these field commanders, including an additional 30 of lesser importance were members of the Shura council led by Shamil Bassaev and commander Khattab. Ruslan Gelaev operated more or less independently, as a “free agent” of sorts. Unlike most other field commanders, he has not been put in charge of any particular zone. The Russian government tried to set up negotiations with Gelaev in early 2000. However, these talks did not succeed. He is still one of the most active field commanders, in October 2001 Ruslan Gelaev led an incursion into Georgia and Abkhazia and was trying to advance toward Karachay-Cherkessia. In August 2002, his fighters entered Ingushetia and fought briefly against Russian troops stationed there. Geographically his bases are situated in the Pankissi Gorge where he was in conflict with Bassaev who had also elected to control the area.
As for Aslan Maskhadov, at the start of 2002, only three field commanders remained under his control: the independentist defense minister Magomet Khambiev, Wahid Aydamirov and the interior minister Aydamar Abalaev. Wounded in November 2000, Khambiev is no longer active and has little influence within the guerilla. Abalaev, Maskhadov’s last remaining ally and his only representative on the field was killed in May 2002.
The Islamist Connection
The Chechen guerrilla and its field commanders are not composed exclusively of Chechens. There are fighters not only from all over the Caucasus (Ingush, Daghestanis, Karachays), but from Middle Eastern countries, Southeast Asia and even China (Uighurs). However, it is the Arabic volunteers who have garnered the most media coverage, exemplified by the Russian media’s seeming obsession with commander Khattab. It is important to remember that while Khattab was an important part of the guerrilla, there are other field commanders of Arabic and Pakistani origin who are pursuing the war effort.
Abu Abdullah Jafar is a Pakistani field commander of Pashtoon origin who is thought to be affiliated with the terrorist group Al-Badr. He is also suspected by the Russians to be the main link between the external sources of funding and the Chechen guerrilla. Like Khattab, he is a veteran of the Afghan war and it is possible that he may have been in contact with Osama bin Laden.
Abu Dar is a Saudi citizen and a representative of the Islamic Charitable organization Al-Harameyn. He was in charge of a unit composed entirely of Arab fighters, and was thought to have died in an ambush near Serzhen-Iurt where his unit was encircled. He is however still alive and is one of the most active field commanders.
Abu Umar was one of Khattab’s closest aide and he participated in the raid on Buynaksk in 1997. He is also suspected of being the mastermind behind the bomb attack on Volgograd in 1998.
Abdul-Walid was Khattab’s top lieutenant and has now taken his place as the unofficial leader of all middle-eastern mujahedin.
Abu Bakr Aqeedah was an Egyptian field Commander who was killed during the raid on Buynaksk (Daghestan) on 22 December, 1997.
It is important to point out that most if not all the foreign commanders use aliases, rendering their positive identification impossible. There are also many reservations to be had about the so-called “arabization” of the conflict as presented by the Russian media. Clearly, the Arabs or Pakistanis are not in charge, most important decisions are approved by Chechen rebel authorities like Shamil Bassaev or Aslan Maskhadov. However, it is also true that the current conflict has taken a new “foreign” direction, as witnessed by the increase in the number of volunteers and the radicalization of the resistance and its “jihadist” component.
A Tactical Alliance? The Recomposition of Separatist Forces
One of the latest and most important developments concerns the recent alliance between the president-in-exile Maskhadov and the field commander Shamil Bassaev. Many analysts were at a loss to explain this apparently contradictory association between the “moderate” and Islamist camp. It is important however to keep in mind the context of this alliance and the events that lead to it.
The roots of this alliance can be traced back to the start of the second war, when Russian troops invaded Chechnia in October 1999 and forced an increasingly isolated Maskhadov to side with the Islamist camp out of sheer necessity. Indeed, many of his old associates had, since 1998, left Maskhadov to join Bassaev’s opposition movement.
In June 2002, in a well-publicized press conference broadcast live on Al-Jazeera and on Movladi Udugov’s Internet site, the alliance was made official. Bassaev and Maskhadov had organized a meeting of all the remaining field commanders, and confirmed they shared common goals and common ideologies. The impact of this decision has been the discredit of Maskhadov as a potential negotiator for the Russians.
As it stands, Maskhadov is now officially commander-in-chief of the guerrilla, while the military commander remains Shamil Bassaev.
Maskhadov's centralization of commanders under his authority included the reinstatement of Commander Ruslan Gelaev whom he had previously dismissed in an official statement for his independent action in Georgia, stating that he had acted alone and had no affiliation with Maskhadov’s administration. Gelaev is currently one of the main field commanders operating alongside Shamil Bassaev, and seems to have foregone any “neutral” stance. In November 2002, Maskhadov had initiated talks with Gelaev in order to integrate him further into the military structure of the guerilla.
Another development, which seemed completely out of character, was the increasing use of “Islamist rhetoric” by Chechen officials who were otherwise known as “moderates.” Case in point, upon the official announcement of his alliance with Shamil Bassaev, Maskhadov declared the conflict a jihad against the Russian “infidels” and called on Muslims worldwide to join the Chechens in their struggle. These declarations were a first for Maskhadov, who in many interviews had rejected the idea that the conflict was a jihad, however many if not all the field commanders have since the start of the second war declared jihad, the objective of which is to establish an Islamic state in Chechnia. Other moderates, or potential negotiators, have also made similar declarations, such as Ruslan Gelaev who in 2000, had a similar discourse.
The Chechen problem is of an ethno-political nature; therefore its solution must be a political one. However, the apparent unity of the Chechen leadership, that is Aslan Maskhadov allying himself with not only Shamil Bassaev but Zelimkhan Iandarbiev and Movladi Udugov, speaks not only of the radicalization but indeed of the jihadization of the conflict. An isolated Maskhadov had little choice but to join the Islamists for his political survival, paradoxically he may now be more isolated than ever, as there is only one field commander still loyal to him. Indeed his role seems to be rather limited within the structure of the resistance. This alliance has also had an impact on the prospect of peace, and does not give much hope that negotiations can ever begin as the many declarations and uncompromising stance of the field commanders (including Maskhadov) can attest to. The idea that the Russians were facing two groups (moderates and Islamists) more or less distinct from one another is no longer valid.
1 See: Iu.D. Anchabadze, N.G. Volkova, Etnicheskaia istoria Severnogo Kavkaza. XVI-XIX veka. Documents for the series “Narody i kul’tury,” Issue XXVII, Narody Kavkaza, Book 1, N.N. Miklukho-Maklay Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Academy of Sciences of Russia, Moscow, 1993, p. 78; Nezavisimaia gazeta, 15 May, 1997.
2 See: GARF (State Archives of the Russian Federation), rec. gr. 9478, inv. 1, f. 41, sheet 244. Quoted from: “Repressirovannye narody. Chechentsy i ingushi. Dossier No. 1,” Shpion (Moscow), No. 1, 1993, p. 18.
3 See: Nezavisimaia gazeta, 1 April, 1992; Ekspress-Khronika (Moscow), No. 34, 18-24 August, 1992.
4 Ekspress-Khronika, No. 35, 25-31 August, 1992.
5 See: Severniy Kavkaz (Nalchik), No. 51, 18 December, 1993; Nezavisimaia gazeta, 18 December, 1993; Nezavisimaia gazeta, 21 December, 1993.
6 See: Sergeant (Moscow), No. 13, 2000, p. 8.
7 See: O. Petrovskiy, “‘Lysiy’ sozdaet v Chechne novuiu armiiu,” Ytro.ru, 28 March, 2001.