Could Chechnya’s one-time thorn in the side be just what they need to make the move toward independence?
During the Russian invasion of Chechnya in the 1995, a Jordanian (though he identified as both Jordanian and Saudi) named Ibn al Khattab quietly slipped into the country under the guise of being a reporter. His goal was not to report about the Chechen War, but rather to fight in it. With him he brought an impressive jihadi resume, and the highest of connections.
Ibn al Khattab began his mujahideen career in the late 1980s, fighting with in Afghanistan against the Soviet Army. It was in Afghanistan that al Khattab met Osama bin Laden, becoming a close follower of the al Qaeda founder. After the withdrawal of Soviet forces, al-Khattab traveled to Central Asia to fight in the Tajik Civil War. After seeing on television Chechen fighters praying before going into battle, al Khattab felt compelled to fight along side them against the Russians. By then, he was an experienced and respected fighter, even having lead an Arab unit in Tajikistan.
Once in the Caucasus, Emir Khattab (or Khattab, as he was known by then) used his influences to secure funding for the fighters. It has been reported that Khattab set up training camps in the Caucasus, much like those used by al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He is also said to have taken Chechens back to Afghanistan to train, including Chechen commander Shamil Basayev.
While in Chechnya, Khattab produced videos to aid in fundraising, and acted as an intermediary between the fighters and the charities that funneled funds to aid the insurgency.
One of the most well-known of these charities was al Haramain. Al Haramain was an NGO founded in Saudi Arabia. Its stated purpose was to distribute food and aid to poor Muslims around the world, but it also operated as a front to funnel money to various al Qaeda-linked organizations. In 2010, an Oregon man was convicted of tax fraud related to a donation to Checnhya. Pete Seda, the man who founded al Haramain’s US branch, was charged with failing to report $150,000 the charity sent to help fund the Chechen insurgency, via Saudi Arabia. Although that conviction was overturned, Seda plead guilty in 2014 to tax fraud stemming from his work with al Haramain. The US government has since declared al Haramain a terrorist organization.
Another well known charity-slash-terror funding organization is Benevolence International Foundation. Originally founded in Saudi Arabia, BIF was at one time one of the largest Islamic charities in the US, as well as having offices in nearly 20 countries. During a 2002 raid on BIF’s Bosnian offices, authorities found material offering proof the organization was funding al Qaeda. And as with al Haramain, BIF’s director, Enaam Arnaout was charged with financing terrorism. Like al Haramain, the US government designated BIF as financiers of terrorism.
After the end of the Chechen Wars, Saudi money began to show up elsewhere in the Caucasus. Religious school teaching Wahhabi doctrine began to spring up, most notably in the Pankisi gorge. Finding the source of the backers of these schools is difficult to uncover but it’s believed Saudi-backed charities are part of the funding.
In the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, Saudi Arabia guaranteed the security of the Games during a meeting with Vladimir Putin. Prior to that, Caucasus insurgents were threatening to attack the Games. Two months prior, a pair of suicide bombers linked to the insurgency struck Volgograd in separate attacks. The Sochi Olympics went off without incident, leaving few to wonder of the Saudis really did have a hand in keeping the insurgents at bay.
In recent months, however, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya have been building relations. On the surface it may seem strange that Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and Sufi Chechnya are cozying up, especially since Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s security forces have been at the forefront of the fight against the insurgency.
One school of thought is that Russia is using Kadyrov to repair relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia. It is entirely plausible, given Russia’s recent support of Iran – a rival of Saudi Arabia – during nuclear negotiations. Iran and Russia are viewed by many as international pariahs, whereas Saudi Arabia, despite a raft of human right violations, is welcome in most international political circles. There could be a second reason for Kadyrov’s new found friendship with Saudi Arabia. Kadyrov could be making a move away from Russia, to establish more independence.
In the past year, Kadyrov has been taking many steps in what appears to be in defiance of the Kremlin. Following the December terror attack in Grozny, Kadyrov ordered the houses of the perpetrators’ families to be destroyed, a move that the Kremlin chastised. A month later, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down outside the Kremlin. Those charged with the crime had close ties to Kadyrov, leading many to believe he played a part in the murder. During recent security operations in Stavropol by local police, Kadyrov publicly announced he would not tolerate this and told his own security forces to shoot any foreign service members, including Russian. This is all in addition to a well-known mutual dislike for FSB, a feud which spawned the infamous incident of Kadyrov ordering the doors of the local FSB building welded shut after they refused his men.
One reason for Kadyrov to make friends with Saudi Arabia has to do with economics. In an interview in June, Kadyrov announced that Chechnya has as much oil as Saudi Arabia, saying it hasn’t been capitalized due to “chronic underinvestment.” He all but said it was Russia’s fault, citing Rosneft’s command of Chechen oil reserves, and Russia’s refusal to grant Chechnya licensing.
If Kadyrov is indeed looking to break free from Russia, gaining economic independence is the beginning. If he can lure Saudi investors – and get the necessary licensing – he might be able to build up the Chechen economy, one that sees nearly a 22% unemployment rate.
Beyond economics, Kadyrov seems willing to do anything to secure his republic against any threat, internal or external. Though effective in anti-terror operations in the region, effectively quashing the insurgency, his kadyrovtsy aren’t an army. One line in a Jamestown article regarding Chechen-Saudi relations and Islamic State may offer a veiled explanation: “the Chechen government is prepared to cooperate with anyone to prevent the group’s emergence in the North Caucasus.” If Kadyrov is willing to partner with Saudi Arabia – the very country funding the Chechen insurgency, many of whom support IS – to fight IS, what else are they willing to partner for? As Kadyrov keeps straining at his Russian leash, acquiring a wealthy and powerful partner could be just the thing that leads to Chechen independence.
Of course Ramzan Kadyrov will be fully aware of what happens to those who defy the Kremlin. Russian soil is soaked in the blood of dissidents. Is Kadyrov so important in keeping terrorism out of Russia that Russia is willing to look the other way, as it has in previous incidents? Or will Kadyrov finally take one step too many? Ramzan Kadyrov, like Putin, will keep pushing until someone pushes back. Except for Ramzan, that might mean a bullet to the head.