North Caucasus Specialization
In the last two decades, the nature of the conflict in the North Caucasus has changed. What began as a struggle for Chechen national independence from Russia has now essentially turned into a holy war to establish an Islamic state throughout the region.
The original conflict in the North Caucasus is many hundreds of years old. The Caucasian mountains form a natural border between the Russian steppe in southern Russia and the countries south of the mountains. For Russia, the North Caucasus is an important buffer zone against a possible attacker from the south.
Russia began its conquest of the North Caucasus in the 1780s and it became a bloody and protracted process. The inhabitants of the valleys stubbornly resisted but were eventually forced to give up in the face of supremacy. Russia began to colonize the low-lying areas, but in the mountainous regions, resistance continued.
In 1834, Imam Shamil succeeded in uniting many of the small mountain peoples, including the Chechens, in a common struggle against Russian rule. It was the prelude to a war of more than 20 years, in which Russia only gained the upper hand after heavy losses.
During the Soviet era (1922-1991), the territories of North Caucasus constituted various administrative units within the Soviet Republic of Russia.
The Chechen War
In connection with the collapse of the Soviet state at the end of 1991, the Chechens took the opportunity to declare independence. Due to the political chaos that prevailed in Moscow at the time, it took several years before the Russian government took any greater interest in the uprising. Meanwhile, lawlessness spread in Chechnya.
At the end of 1994, Moscow launched a military operation to quell the Chechen independence struggle. Contrary to all official predictions, the war was protracted and very bloody, and in the long run a burden for the then president Boris Yeltsin. In the run-up to the 1996 presidential election, Yeltsin forced a ceasefire and recalled Russian forces.
The rule of the republic was handed over to the Chechens themselves during the transition period, but it did not lead to peace and quiet for the civilian population. Life in Chechnya continued to be marked by kidnappings, murders, assaults and firefights between armed gangs.
When Chechen rebels at the end of the summer of 1999 occupied several villages in the neighboring republic of Dagestan and announced that they intended to proclaim an Islamic republic, Russia intervened militarily again. The rebels were driven out of Dagestan and the Russian military continued into Chechnya after some terrorist attacks in Moscow in September 1999.
After extensive bombing of Chechnya, Russian troops captured the capital Grozny, crushing most of the resistance on the ground, but a few thousand rebels escaped and continued to make pinpoint maneuvers against the Russian troops. Now the rebels are changing tactics. More resources were invested in carrying out terrorist acts, both in Chechnya and in other parts of Russia.
Two attacks attracted special attention: the storming of a theater in Moscow and the hostage drama at a school in the city of Beslan in southern Russia. During the attack on the Dubrov Theater in 2002, more than 800 people were taken hostage by around 50 young Chechens, both women and men. At the time of the release, 130 people and all the terrorists died. Even more people lost their lives when terrorists from the North Caucasus surrounded a school at the start of school in the city of Beslan in 2004. Over a thousand children, teachers and parents were held captive for several days. During the release, 330 people were killed in shootings and explosions. Many of the victims were children. A Chechen rebel group later claimed responsibility for the attack.
Inside Chechnya, Russian purge continued and fighting began to wane. In 2007, the Russian government considered the situation in Chechnya to be so calm that the government of Chechnya could be handed over to a pro-Moscow Chechen government, led by Ramzan Kadyrov. Two years later, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the operation in Chechnya over.
Under the surface, however, the violence has continued with sporadic attacks on Russian interests as well as constant reports of abductions, torture and murders that are never solved.
The conflict is Islamized
During the Chechen wars, the rebel side had been supported by foreign Islamists waging war in the name of God (jhadists). Not only did they share their combat experience but also began to spread radical ideas among the Chechens and in the neighboring republics. In Chechnya, there was also a small group of young men who had studied religion in Saudi Arabia and had become adherents of a strict form of Islam called Wahhabism. Some Wahhabis engage in extremism and terrorism. The Chechen Wahhabis established a center in Chechnya and began recruiting young men to fight for Islam.
Together with other opposition groups in Chechnya, they began to dream of establishing an Islamic state throughout the Caucasus. The collapse that affected society after the dissolution of the Soviet Union contributed to this. For common people, society’s institutions stood for chaos and violence rather than security. Corruption was widespread and the rule of law was eroded. State security forces regularly abused civilians without being held accountable for their actions. Contributing to the dissatisfaction was the fact that the people of the North Caucasus could not appoint their own leaders in general elections and that Russia under Putin’s rule had become increasingly centralized. The North Caucasus felt alienated from the decisions made in Moscow.
Among Muslims, interest in alternative societal models, based on Islam and traditional administration of justice, grew. In the eastern part of the North Caucasus, these ideas were particularly evident and parallel Muslim institutions were created alongside the regular authorities.
The violence is spreading
While the situation stabilized in Chechnya, the violence spread to the neighboring republics of Ingushetia, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, where various acts of violence claimed hundreds of lives.
In October 2007, the Chechen rebel leader and war veteran Doku Umarov declared the Islamic State Emirates Caucasus. According to Umarov, the emirate included Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia (see map).
Umarov claimed that his movement had links to the terrorist network al-Qaeda and to put pressure behind its demands, Umarov’s group carried out several spectacular attacks inside Russia. Umarov carried out two coordinated suicide bombings in the Moscow metro at the end of March 2010. The attacks claimed about 40 lives and injured at least 100. Umarov also claimed to be behind the suicide bombing of Moscow airport Domodedovo in January 2011. Up to 40 people died in the bombing and many more were injured.