In a world where the Islamic State is emerging as the West’s greatest threat, Chechnya should not be ignored as a nexus of Islamic terrorism.
When two of the three attackers in the Istanbul Airport massacre were identified as Chechen, the American public seemed confused; the Islamic State is supposed to be in the Middle East, not Chechnya. Yes, there had been the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings, carried out by two half-Chechen brothers, but these attacks had been the only two carried out by Chechens in recent history.
However, Chechen terror stretches beyond these two occurrences and has been endemic in Russia for the last 16 years, during and following the Second Chechen War. In 2000, two Chechen women drove a truck with explosives into a Russian special forces building. According to the University of Chicago’s Suicide Attack Database, there have been 86 attacks in Russia by Chechen separatists, killing 782. Now, the Chechens’ expertise in guerilla warfare, perfected against Russia, is being applied with the same ruthlessness to the Islamic State’s missions. Included in this number is the high profile 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, when 912 people were held hostage by Chechen rebels and 130 people died.
Chechens are angry; their society has been oppressed by Russia for over twenty years and Islam is central to their culture. But for some Chechens, the Russian stage is too small and the Islamic State’s calls of radicalization–attractive to those disenfranchised–hits a button. According to Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the North Caucasus republic, nearly 500 Chechens had left for the Islamic State by December 2015. However, as revealed by the Istanbul Airport massacre, many Chechens may not be in Syria or Iraq but support the Islamic State nonetheless.
While these numbers may seem trivial in comparison to the 19,000 to 25,000 Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, it is not the numbers that make the Chechens’ involvement in the Islamic State dangerous, but their skills. Unlike other foreign fighters, over 20 years of violence against Russia have made the Chechens extremely dangerous. Non-traditional warfare is their speciality and their battle toughness is well-documented as evidenced by the fact that the mastermind behind the Istanbul Airport Attack, Akhmed Chatayev, is an ethnic Chechen. Omar al-Shishani, who was considered the head of the Islamic State’s Syrian operations and one of its best fighters, was an ethnic Chechen. While American and French fighters are used as symbols of the Islamic State’s violence, Chechens have the experience to be more dangerous than any other nationality.
How should America deal with the Chechen problem? There is no true solution.
America has minimal ability to gather intelligence in Chechnya as it has limited to no intelligence assets in place and no ability to hinder the movement of fighters to the Middle East. So, the government’s best chance is to focus on counterintelligence efforts within the Islamic State, targeting high profile leaders as they did with Shishani as well as Chechen units within Syria and Iraq.
But moreover, when the Islamic State has been reduced to an insurgency group again, the world should be more intent on Chechnya. Every fighter who leaves the Islamic State will come back even stronger and more intent on Chechen freedom than ever before.