If you are a typical American citizen, you probably have never heard of the republic of Chechnya until the early morning of April 19, when it was first reported that the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings were of Chechen descent. Soon after, there were myriad reports posted concerning Chechnya and its connections to Islamic terrorism.
However, although many of these reports do accurately capture the picture of Islamic jihad in Chechnya, they do no justice to questions concerning whether Chechnya is an actual threat to the United States and, if so, why.
Chechnya is not a threat yet because they have their own problems with Russia. But if violence erupts again in Chechnya – or if Chechen militants see larger, strategic reasons for exporting violence to the United States – it would be a seriously severe threat.
So what is the state of Chechnya today, and should the United States be concerned?
CHECHNYA CURRENTLY is completely under the control of Moscow, which has given President Ramzan Kadyrov authoritarian powers and total control to rule Chechnya as a ruthless warlord. He is a brutal leader. Bribery, mass killings, missing people, kidnapping, drug trafficking, the sex trade and Wahhabist Islam are rampant within Chechnya.
But Moscow keeps Kadyrov in power because he eliminates, with almost no provocation needed, any threats to Moscow, which of course would be threats to his power. It is understood that any threats made to Moscow will be mirrored by Moscow’s threats to remove Kadyrov from power. To keep personal power, Kadyrov keeps an authoritarian lid on Chechnya to prevent any attacks. With few exceptions, he is largely successful.
To back up this authoritarian control, Moscow pumps billions of dollars annually into Chechnya, hoping to provide a materialist and consumerist culture that will make it seem futile to attack the hand that provides food. Russia seems to hope that by buying Chechnya out and making its economy appear booming, the lure of Wahhabist influence will not be so appealing. In short, Russia is trying to make Chechnya the Abu Dhabi of the Caucasus
However, Russia is mistaken: You cannot buy out those individuals who want to be a part of the Chechen jihadist network, whose ultimate goals are to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate, or world-state, dominated by fundamentalist Islam under a theocratic-authoritarian government, where Shari’a law is the law of the land. These are the individuals we should be concerned about, and they cannot be bought out by any amount of money.
If the Boston bombers are connected to any larger group concerning Chechnya, this is the group – and if they have set their eyes on America, then we should be gravely afraid. But it is unlikely, based on the current evidence.
JIHADIST CHECHENS are found scattered throughout the world, fighting against the United States in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan, and recently they have been reported in the Syrian civil war. Why would this small percentage of Islamic radicals attack the United States? These individuals believe, with most other jihadist camps, that the United States is the main reason for the oppression of Islam worldwide, and that the U.S. government is the reason Islam is not the world’s dominant power. Even though we are not a threat to Chechnya, these few are a threat to us because of this belief: To establish an Islamic caliphate, the United States must be destroyed.
There are two potential groups of violent actors in Chechnya right now: the Chechen nationalist movement, and then the Chechen jihadist movement. The Chechen nationalist movement is, for all intents and purposes, diminished. Even the majority of the Chechen population that once supported this cause are worn out from 20 years of violence, and now, only want the appearance of peace and some stability and prosperity.
The religious Wahhabist element does not want peace and security or stability and prosperity. They want an independent Chechnya to create an Islamic caliphate that extends to all areas the Prophet Muhammad ever had any interest in. These people are the real threat, and they are the ones usually found on our foreign battlefields. Ours is not a threat from Chechnya, but rather from Islamists.
What we should really fear is the “perfect storm” – some event causing the two sides to join forces. Right now, they fight against each other, and Chechnya has always been on the verge of an ethnic civil war. Russia knows this, which is why they give so much power to Kadyrov and tolerate his cult of personality. This will not last; eventually he will be overthrown, and violence will return.
There is a very small percentage of Chechens that ought to concern the United States. Who they are can be predicted based on certain indicators. They are brutally fierce warriors who usually do not back down from a fight. They usually do not like to use suicide bombings (though this is slowly changing) because they believe that it is cowardly and does not bring as much honor to their nation as does standing their ground until the last possible moment.
CHECHNYA IS A culture in which honor and family name are crucially important. It also is a culture in which military and martial arts are highly prized, recognized and rewarded. It is a culture in which boys are taught to remember how, and by whose hands, their male ancestors were killed – if necessary and opportune, they will remember these facts for sinister purposes.
Strategically, however, we should not fear, nor be frightened by, Chechnya or the average Chechen. The Chechens in general are a loving, humble and very hospitable people – a people I have grown to love and respect after 10 years of research. We should not discriminate against Chechens and must not associate the attack in Boston with their nation. Most of them respect the United States, and we should respect them.
We must not judge an entire nation based on two individuals who have some Chechen ties. We should be concerned with radicals worldwide, and some of those do live in Chechnya. Ours is a battle against fundamentalists, not Chechnya.
(The writer is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Regents University.)