Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Boston Marathon Bombing and the Truth About the Chechen Threat

With the revelation that the two suspects of the Boston Marathon Bombing are ethnic Chechens, there has been a rush to learn more about the troubled North Caucasus region in order to find answers to some hard questions. But before people rush to judgement, it’s critically important to remember that this is a very complicated region, insurgency, and situation—and the "right" answer is often found in the nuances.

Although we don't hear about it much in the Western press, there is an active and very deadly insurgency taking place in Russia right now—less than 200 miles from the site of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.  It is where Chechnya fought two wars of independence against Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union—one of which resulted in a de-facto independent Chechen republic from 1996–1999.

The second (modern) Chechen War (1999–2006) made the career of Prime Minister-President Vladimir Putin, who was handpicked to be Mr. Yeltsin's successor and subsequently conducted a brilliant, yet brutal campaign to take Chechnya back. Most significantly, he changed the very nature of the conflict: before Putin, the Russians referred to the Chechen separatists as criminals, brigands and bandits; after Putin, the conflict was re-branded as an existential battle against international terrorists—a theme that was solidified even further after 9-11.

Since then, the once secular, democratic Chechen independence movement all but died, and the remnants metastasized into the Caucasus Emirate (CE), which has adopted many of the goals, ideology, and rhetoric of similar Muslim reactionary-traditionalist insurgency movements that desire a shari'a-based government. Spreading beyond Chechnya, the insurgency and its terrorist cells have spread to neighboring Russian republics, and the epicenter of the conflict is now in Dagestan, where the Boston suspects both lived for a short time before emigrating to the U.S.

As part of their battle against the Russians, the Chechens have been responsible for some of the most infamous terrorist attacks in history—the Beslan School Hostage Crisis of 2004 (over 300 dead, mostly children), or the rash of terrorist incidents in Moscow in 2002, culminating in the Moscow Theater Attack (Nord-Ost; 130 dead), and numerous train, airplane, and other terror attacks.

On the other hand, the Russians have consistently used indiscriminate methods to fight the insurgents and terrorists, and the number of missing civilians in the region is frightening. During the land battles, the carpet bombing used by the Russians reduced entire villages to dust—and the capital of Chechnya, Grozny, was declared the most destroyed city in Europe since World War II. Moreover, the characterization of all the fighters as "international terrorists" has lead to a misapplication of counterterrorist tactics that not only failed to quell the Chechen resistance movement while the wars were being fought, but have allowed it to regroup over the past few years.

Yet, what most people do not realize is that the Chechens, Dagestanis, Ingush, and other North Caucasus peoples have been regularly fighting the Russians ever since the first Russian patrols moved through their homelands in 1722—and almost continuously once the Russians occupied the North Caucasus in the 1800s. It was only after mass deportations (1860s and 1940s where millions were resettled and died) that there was a break in the fighting that lasted more than 15 years. Stalin so hated the Chechens and the Ingush that when he deported them, he had Chechnya erased from the map—as if it had never existed.

And Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, also happens to be the site where, 150 years ago, the Russians dispossessed the Circassians, another North Caucasus Muslim nation that fought against the Russians for just as long as the Chechens and Dagestanis. The Caucasus Emirate is fighting to reclaim all the former Muslim lands of the North Caucasus—which is almost the entire region between the Caspian and Black Seas. Vilayat Cherkessia is the name of the Emirate's military sector operating in and around Sochi.

This is not a simple conflict with easy answers, and the world of counterinsurgency warfare is riddled with paradoxes, like: the insurgent wins if he does not lose. And until the people of the North Caucasus stop being more afraid of their own police and security forces than they are of the insurgents and terrorists, the Caucasus Emirate will not lose.

Robert Schaefer is a U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Beret) and Eurasian Foreign Area Officer. For over 25 years he has served in a variety of special units and participated in virtually every U.S. overseas operation since 1990. He has extensive experience with counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations around the world and has lived and worked in many countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia as a diplomat and adviser to foreign governments and militaries. He is uniquely qualified to analyze the conflict in the North Caucasus because of his first-hand experience planning and executing counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations in the Caucasus region. LTC Schaefer is the 2001 recipient of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and the Office of Strategic Services Society's Award of Excellence as the U.S. Special Operations Command Person of the Year for his historic achievements with Russian airborne forces. He obtained his MA from Harvard University's Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia program, and is the host of National Public Radio's Memorial Day Special 2007–2012. He is a member of the Editorial Board for the Caucasus Survey, a consultant to several government agencies and a frequent commentator for news programs and seminars focusing on the North Caucasus insurgency. His critically-acclaimed book The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad (Praeger, 2011) won multiple national awards and was named to Kirkus Reviews "Best of 2011," and the "Top 150 Books on Terrorism and Counterterrorism" by the journal Perspectives on Terrorism.

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