Almost 12 years have passed since that “great tragedy,” the attacks of September 11, and the United States has yet again experienced a national tragedy. Albeit the dimensions are somewhat smaller, but the pain, fear, and anger are the same. America has again been caught off guard by foreign terrorists seeking to sow destruction and death.
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In September 2001 the terrorists were Saudis (15 out of 19) and Egyptian. This time, the culprits were two Chechen brothers, Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev. If it turns out that their motivations were religious, the context of their country of origin will not be coincidental. Until now there has not been any testament from the two, neither written nor filmed – which is generally common practice in the case of such attacks – nor has there been any claim of responsibility from Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri. Al-Qaida also tends to take responsibility for attacks to which it was unconnected at the operational level if it shares an ideological bond with those responsible. Despite this, it is very likely that there is a strong, ideological and operational connection between the attacks of 2001 and 2013.
Back in the early 1990s, Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan became a stronghold in the Caucasus region for the radical stream of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism. Mosques and madrasas were opened; training camps for young combatants were established to prepare them for the “jihad against the infidels.” Until this day, the teachings of Said Buryatsky, a charismatic, Wahhabist radical, are among the most downloaded files in Chechnya.
This radical Islamist movement was founded in the Arabian Peninsula and adopted by tribes that founded a kingdom in the 18th century that later became Saudi Arabia. This puritan, aggressive movement is considered by orthodox Muslims as heretic. Many approached it with suspicion and rejected it, but the situation changed once the “black gold” began to flow from Saudi Arabia’s soil. Thus the Wahhabists gained their much-wanted recognition, and began to send money to religious institutions around the world, including in Chechnya and Dagestan.
In addition to the money that began to emanate from Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s, “preachers” began to travel the world as well. Scholars, religious figures, and jihadist combatants trained in battles against the Soviets began to spread. One of them was Ibn al-Khattab, the well-known military commander of Saudi-Jordanian descent, who was killed by Russian forces in March 2002.
The spread of Wahhabism in Chechnya sparked a great deal of opposition within the local society, the strong ideals of which contradicted the traditional Islam practiced in the area, as well as the way of life in Chechnya and Dagestan. Fierce battles and political conflicts ensued in the 1990s, and continued after the war in Chechnya. The institutionalization of Wahhabism in Chechnya happened not without a significant amount of force, as its supporters fought both the Chechnyans and the Russians. Despite the efforts of current Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov to prevent his capital Grozny from becoming the “Dubai of the Caucasus,” the Wahhabist extremism attracts many youths from Chechnya and Dagestan.
Only recently, video clips were published featuring Chechen jihadists that traveled to Syria to fight against President Bashar Assad’s regime. Kadyrov came out with a statement that “no Chechen is fighting in Syria,” later altering his statement by claiming that those fighting in Syria were mercenaries.
The extremist propaganda is functioning as always, and a new generation in Chechnya has grown up with conflict and propaganda. This generation is attracted to the simple ideological base of Wahhabism, and to the murderous romance of the jihad its leaders are calling for. The members of this new generation go to Syria and Iraq. Some of them maybe go to the United States and other places in the world in order to join the “army of believers,” according to them. It is not impossible to rule out that the Saudis who flew planes into the World Trade Center and the brothers from Chechnya who set off bombs at the Boston Marathon subscribed to the same radical Wahhabist ideology.
Immediately after reports were published that the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were of Chechen origin, Kadyrov tweeted that “terror has no nationality.” Currently, his followers in Chechnya and Ingushetia will once again have to “deal with” the Wahhabist problem in Russia’s backyard. The question is if even a leader as powerful as Kadyrov can dismantle the Wahhabist institution fostering in the Caucasus for decades, receiving monetary and ideological support from Riyadh.
Ksenia Svetlova is a writer and analyst on Arab affairs for Channel 9, and has a doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Middle Eastern Studies.