Islamists, Black Widows, and Warlords. Oh My!


by John Tyler Connoley

September 15, 2004


"They're Moslems. Why don't you just say it, they're Moslem terrorists. Why keep calling them Chechen Rebels?"


Those were the words of a friend as he listened to the news anchor recounting the horrors of the hostage taking at a Russian school. He was incensed at the media for obscuring the fact that these were Islamists on a mission against infidels.


Later, I came across a commentary critiquing the western world for not realizing the global terrorist threat posed by Islamists. The commentator connected the Chechen terrorists, along with Iraq and Iran, to the Islamist vision of a great Moslem empire. All the Chechen terrorism perpetrated in the last fifteen years was explained as Islam gone awry.


It's becoming common to lump Islam, Islamists, and terrorists in the same category. As if all Moslem terrorists are Islamists. However, as the situation in Chechnya demonstrates, it's often more complicated than that.


Chechnya and Russia have been at war off-and-on since the 1790s, when Catherine II conquered the Chechen people and annexed the north Caucasus. However, the most recent conflicts were sparked by the collapse of the Soviet Union. When other former soviet republics claimed their independence, so did Chechnya, writing a constitution and holding elections. Chechnya was essentially a new nation between 1991 and 1994, but Moscow continued to claim it as part of Russia, probably because Russia’s major oil pipeline from the Caspian fields passes through it.


The Chechen separatist movement that grew up in response to Moscow's claims was not essentially Islamist. The separatists were a motley crew that included Islamists, but also included warlords, former military men, bandits, and peasants. Each of these groups had its own agenda and none of them could claim a majority of the Chechen population. What they had in common was a desire for Chechen independence coupled with a hatred of the Russian government. During the early nineties, Chechens carried out several terrorist attacks on Russian targets, with no indication that a single group was coordinating them.


Then, in 1994, Boris Yeltsin, fearing further secessions and seeking to cauterize an old wound, invaded Chechnya. Unprepared for urban guerrilla warfare, the Russian army suffered heavy casualties and killed many civilians. A long, protracted occupation ensued, and stories of rapes and other atrocities soon followed. By the time the defeated Russian troops withdrew and a peace deal was brokered in 1996 most major Chechen cities were in ruins. Yeltsin promised de-facto autonomy, but this meant little to people who had fought for outright independence and who now felt they had new grievances against Russia.


Terrorist actions escalated, and in 1999, after a series of mysterious apartment bombings, President Putin once again sent troops into Chechnya. The first war had been fought primarily by conscripts, and it was thought that a new volunteer army more prepared for urban conflict would be able to prevail. But, again, the fighting was bloody and protracted, and the Russian army eventually retreated. A peace deal was again brokered, but without promises of independence -- and the terrorism continued.


One of the most striking aspects of the Chechen terrorism that began in the late nineties and continues to this day is the large number of women who carry out attacks. During the nineties, female suicide bombers became more common than male. When a theatre was taken hostage in 2002, the hostage takers were half women. The planes downed last month were likely blown up by two Chechen women, and the terrorists at the school also included women. These female terrorists have come to be known as Black Widows, because many of them lost husbands and children during the Chechen wars.


Of course, it would be unwise to characterize the current Chechen uprising as a movement of angry mothers and wives, just as it would be wrong to characterize it as entirely Islamist in nature. However, it seems clear that Islamists, warlords, and other interested parties have been able to use the anger of some Chechen widows as an entry point for getting them to sacrifice their lives for "the cause." Women who feel they've lost everything at the hands of the Russian military are prime targets for separatist propaganda. It is not Russia's soft stance toward Chechen terrorists that's fueled the fire -- just the opposite. The harder Russia fights against terrorism, the stronger it becomes.


After the first Chechen war, Russia squandered an opportunity to build up Chechnya and to address ancient grievances. At that time, the majority of the Chechen people could have been persuaded to turn against the small pockets of terrorists. Fortunately, the same is true today. In the recent Chechen election, the vast majority of those who voted chose to remain part of Russia. While the majority of Chechens are Moslems, they don't necessarily agree with the Islamists, and they don't want to return to rule by despotic warlords. However, if Putin responds to the most recent attack with yet another extended war against Chechen guerrilla factions, it will certainly turn more young people to the terrorist cause.


The answer to global terrorism is not to declare groups of people the enemy, but to find better ways to keep most people on the side of peace and against the terrorists. With the brutality of the attacks on that Russian school, we have a great opportunity. Let's not squander it by advocating yet another unwinnable military war on terror.


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