Chechnya's separatist rebellion grows into regional Islamist insurgency

Russia's heavy-handed tactics have helped transform a separatist rebellion in Ingushetia into something potentially worse: a radical Muslim insurgency that has spread across the region, draws support from different ethnic groups and appears to be gaining strength.
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 30, 2009

SUNZHENSKY, RUSSIA -- Her face wet with tears and framed by a black shawl, Madina Albakova sat in her ransacked living room and described how she had become another teenage widow here in Ingushetia, the most volatile of Russia's Muslim republics.

The details emerged between sobs: the arrival of the security forces earlier in the day, her husband's panicked attempt to flee, the gunfire that erupted without warning. He was a law student, barely 20 and "so beautiful," she said, but the soldiers planted a rifle next to his body and called him an Islamist rebel. Then they took everything of value -- the family's savings, a set of dishes, even baby clothes, she said.

Such heavy-handed tactics by the Russian security forces have helped transform the long-running separatist rebellion in Chechnya, east of Ingushetia, into something potentially worse: a radical Muslim insurgency that has spread across the region, draws support from various ethnic groups and appears to be gaining strength.

Moscow declared an end to military operations in Chechnya in April, a decade after then-President Vladimir Putin sent troops into the breakaway republic. But violence has surged in the mountains of Russia's southwest frontier since then, with the assassination of several officials, explosions and shootouts occurring almost daily, and suicide bombings making a comeback after a long lull. On Sunday, a popular Ingush opposition leader was fatally shot, months after the slaying of Chechnya's most prominent human rights activist.

The insurgency is a key reason Russia has been reluctant to support sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program; diplomats say the Kremlin is worried Tehran might retaliate by setting aside sectarian differences and backing the rebels in Muslim solidarity. Washington, meanwhile, is concerned that the area is becoming a recruiting ground for militias in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

At least 519 people were killed in rebel attacks and clashes with government forces from May to September, up from 299 during the same period last year, according to a study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The fighting is concentrated in the largely Muslim eastern part of the North Caucasus, an area the size of Oregon with 14 million people from as many as 50 ethnic groups.

After a brief calm following two wars, militant attacks have spiked in Chechnya, as well as in nearby Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. But the violence has been worst in Ingushetia, the smallest and poorest of Russia's provinces, where rebels and security forces compete in brutality and even rights activists carry guns.

A few hours after the soldiers killed Albakova's husband, Movsar Merzhoyev, in this rural district on Oct. 9, a car bomb exploded several miles away in what appeared to be a failed suicide attack. Over the next week, gun battles here left 11 suspected militants and three police officers dead.

Ingushetia has been on edge since June, when a suicide bomber hit the convoy of the republic's president, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, putting him in a coma and killing three bodyguards. Two months later, as Yevkurov was returning to work, another suicide attack leveled the police department of Ingushetia's largest city, Nazran, killing at least 24 people and injuring 200 others.

Russia has long blamed violence in the region on Muslim extremists backed by foreign governments and terrorist networks, but radical Islam is relatively new here. In the 1990s, it was ethnic nationalism, not religious fervor, that motivated Chechen separatists. That changed, though, as fighting spilled beyond Chechnya and Russian forces used harsher tactics targeting devout Muslims.

In 2007, the rebel leader Doku Umarov abandoned the goal of Chechen independence and declared jihad instead, vowing to establish a fundamentalist Caucasus Emirate that would span the entire region. After Moscow proclaimed victory in Chechnya in April, he issued a video labeling civilians legitimate targets and reviving Riyad-us Saliheen, the self-described martyrs' brigade that launched terrorist attacks across Russia from 2002 to 2006.

A major figure in the recent violence is Alexander Tikhomirov, a young preacher known here as Sayid Buryatsky who joined the rebels last year after converting to Islam in his native Siberia and studying in Egypt.

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