As many as 600 people, many of them children, are dead, and hundreds more are injured. The two-day hostage crisis that ended in an 11-hour gunfight is the most horrific in a harrowing chain of terrorist attacks in Russia. Russian officials are saying al-Qaida did it. But the truth is far more complicated.
The current conflict in Chechnya goes back to the fall of 1991, when the tiny republic in the Russian Caucasus declared independence. It wasn’t a crazy thing to do. The Soviet Union, which once seemed indestructible, was falling apart (and collapsed completely by the end of the year). Russia itself had a convoluted structure, with 89 federation members, each belonging to one of five categories (region, autonomous region, ethnic republic, province, and two special-status cities) with different structures and rights within the federation. The Russian Constitution recognizes the right of federation members to secede—and Chechnya tried to claim this right.
The Chechens’ desire was perfectly understandable. As an ethnic group, Chechens had been mistreated by the Soviet regime, and the Russian empire before it, perhaps worse than anyone else. In 1944, the Chechens, along with several other ethnic groups, were accused of having collaborated with the Nazis and deported to Siberia. Their collective guilt established by the order of Stalin, on Feb. 23, 1944, more than half a million Chechens were forcibly herded onto cattle cars and sent to Western Siberia. As many as half died en route, and uncounted others perished in the harsh Siberian winter; the exiles were literally dumped in the open snowy fields and left to fend for themselves.
The Chechens were not allowed to return home until 1957 *. So by the time of perestroika, most Chechen adults were people born in Siberian exile. No wonder they didn’t want to live side by side with the Russians, who had mangled their lives. The last straw came in August 1991, when, during the failed hard-line communist coup, rumors spread that another deportation was in the works. Chechens overthrew their local, Soviet-appointed leader, and elected a new president on a nationalist platform.
Russia had no intention of recognizing Chechen independence. The Kremlin’s fears were understandable: With the Soviet Union crumbling, there was no reason the shaky Russian federation couldn’t follow. Granting independence to one region could set off a chain reaction. What’s more, an oil pipeline went through Chechnya, and a small amount of oil was produced in the republic itself, so losing Chechnya could have meant significant financial loss for Russia. President Boris Yeltsin declined even to negotiate with the Chechen separatists—a traditional Russian disdain for this Muslim people no doubt played a role in his decision—and simply let the problem fester for three years.
By the fall of 1994, Chechnya, which had been left to its own devices, had all the trappings of de facto sovereignty. It had its own armed forces, small but well-trained, called the Presidential Guard. It operated its own international airport, which Russia seemed not to notice, and it had effectively taken control of its oil production and exports. In October 1994, Moscow decided finally to put things right by staging an armed uprising in Chechnya. It was meant to look like a spontaneous rebellion of pro-Moscow Chechens, but it was so poorly planned that it failed, and several dozen participants were detained by the Chechens. All the supposed rebels turned out to be ethnic Russians employed by the secret services.
When the covert operation failed, Moscow decided to use overt tactics. The Russian defense minister at the time boasted he could take Grozny, the Chechen capital, in two hours. The war, which began on Dec. 11, 1994, lasted nearly two years, cost at least 80,000 Chechens and about 4,000 Russian soldiers their lives, and ended in military defeat for Russia. In 1996, Russia pulled its troops out of a virtually demolished Chechnya, leaving it to fester—again. For the next three years, Chechnya, whose infrastructure had been bombed out of existence, turned into a state run by and for criminals. In the absence of any clear legal status for the place or its residents, everything that happened there—from oil exports to kidnappings—was by definition illegal.
A shocking and important event preceded the Russian pullout from Chechnya. In June 1995, a group of rebels emerged from what seemed at the time to be a nearly defeated Chechnya and tried to take over the small Russian town of Budyonnovsk. Dozens of armed men ended up barricading themselves in the local hospital where the patients, including women with their newborns, became their hostages. Russian troops tried to storm the building but aborted the attack quickly. In the end, Moscow negotiated a cease-fire in Chechnya and let the terrorists get away in exchange for the hostages’ release. Immediately after Budyonnovsk, Russia started peace negotiations with the Chechen rebels, making the hospital siege probably the most successful act of terrorism in history. It is also the only large-scale hostage-taking that didn’t end in a storm.
The second war in Chechnya began in September 1999, following a bizarre and brutal series of terrorist acts. Two apartment buildings in Moscow and one in the south of Russia exploded, killing more than 300 people. Another building, in the town of Ryazan, was de-mined in time. At the same time, a group of Chechen rebels staged an incursion into the neighboring republic of Dagestan, taking over several villages there for a few weeks. In the last five years, several critics of the Putin regime, including a former senior secret services officer, have produced a fair amount of evidence indicating that the Russian secret services may have instigated or even carried out some or all of these attacks. If this were the case, it wouldn’t be the first time a country fighting a separatist movement tried to defeat it by funding a more radical terrorist wing in the hopes of undermining the more moderate separatists locally and discrediting them internationally. It also wouldn’t be the first time such tactics had failed. Usually the terrorist movements quickly take on a life of their own, and their federal masters and funders lose control.
The current Russian regime based its popularity on its harsh response to the terrorist attacks of 1999. Vladimir Putin, a virtual unknown who was appointed prime minister just before the first explosions, rose to political fame and power by taking a harsh stand and promising to bomb Chechnya into submission. The bombing has been going on for five years, but submission still seems unattainable. Chechen fighters have not only continued to battle the federal powers at home but have staged a series of increasingly shocking terrorist attacks in other parts of Russia (although the Chechen connection is, in most cases, presumed rather than proved). There have been explosions in Moscow and elsewhere, including a bomb in the Moscow subway; there have been two shocking hostage crises—over 800 people held for three days in a Moscow theater two years ago and 1,000 or more held in the school building this week. Russians, for their part, always seem to botch the rescue operations. In the Moscow theater, the military part worked fine, but 129 people died needlessly because no one had bothered to organize the medical end of the rescue. The details of this week’s bloodbath are not yet clear, but it is obvious that it involved a military and humanistic failure on the part of the Russians.
So, what does al-Qaida and international Islamic terrorism have to do with any of this? Probably very little. Chechens have plenty of reason to do what they do without outside inspiration. In addition, their tactics are very different from al-Qaida’s. Osama Bin Laden’s group generally aims for maximum casualties; the Chechens, at least when they have staged hostage-takings, have not seemed to have that goal. Al-Qaida explicitly targets Westerners; the Chechens, on the other hand, explicitly exclude Westerners from their list of targets; they target Russians and Russia-sympathizers. Finally, the Chechens’ demands, when they have made them, have always focused on the war in Chechnya to the exclusion of any religious or international agenda. They have consistently demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya—an unattainable goal in the current Russian political climate, but one that may look plausible to the Chechens because it worked after Budyonnovsk.
Russian intelligence has produced little or no evidence that al-Qaida is present in Chechnya. Russian officials claimed that there were Arabs among the hostage-takers, but this information has yet to be confirmed, and even if it is, it may mean only that foreign men have come to fight on the side of Chechens—something that has happened before and something that happens in every conflict, whether or not a major international organization is involved. On the other hand, it would be surprising if al-Qaida had no presence in Chechnya at all. Chechens are Muslims, and they are at war; representatives of virtually every Islamic organization have at one point or another sent missionaries and recruiters to the region. They have also sent money. Researchers of al-Qaida say that, in addition to its own organization, the terrorist network has a number of loose affiliates, essentially freelancers, who get occasional financial support. Most likely, some Chechen groups or individuals fall into that category.
But Russia’s terrorism problem is not international Islam. It’s a war that Russia started and has continued. Because of terrorism, this war has spread to engulf the entire enormous country.
Correction, Sept. 7, 2004: This article originally and incorrectly stated that Chechens were exiled in Western Siberia until 1976. In fact, they were allowed to return home in 1957. (Return to the corrected sentence.)