The Chechen Resistance and Radiological Terrorism

The Chechen Resistance and Radiological Terrorism

Want to dive deeper?

Visit the Education Center

Jeffrey Bale

Senior Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


Within the territories of the Former Soviet Union (FSU), there are diverse extremist groups with paramilitary components that might end up resorting to acts of terrorism. Fortunately, only a few of those organizations would be likely to have recourse to Chemical, Biological, Radiological, or Nuclear (CBRN) terrorism. Of these, the most likely culprits are the foreign mujahidin who have flocked to Chechnya to continue waging their jihad against unbelievers, perhaps aided by certain factions of the Chechen separatist movement with whom they have forged operational alliances.

The Transformation of the Chechen Resistance Movement in the Mid-1990s

In order to determine the extent to which the Chechen resistance movement poses a radiological or nuclear terrorist threat, one has to try and distinguish—at least in a general way—between the different components of that movement. Alas, this is far easier said than done, since the variegated Chechen resistance forces are riven by factional disputes rooted in extended family, lineage, clan (teip), and tribal confederation (tukum) membership, diverse regional interests, personal loyalties to rival warlords, adherence to different Islamic brotherhoods, degree of religiosity and/or national sentiment, and willingness to negotiate with the hated Russians over the final status of Chechnya. Given the existence of such a wide variety of distinct and often incompatible loyalties and motives, it is difficult if not impossible to generalize about Chechen attitudes toward radiological or nuclear terrorism.

This is all the harder because various protagonists in the current war in Chechnya have a strong vested interest in oversimplifying, either by exaggerating or minimizing, the complex and diverse motives of the Chechens. For example, both the Russians and foreign Islamists have consistently exaggerated both the transnational and the strict Islamic nature of the Chechen struggle, albeit for different reasons. The Russians have done so in order to portray their brutal military actions in Chechnya as part and parcel of the global "war on terrorism," an effort that has only become more pronounced in the wake of the 11 September 2001 al-Qai'da terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. In doing so, they seek to mute international criticism and obtain at least tacit support for military operations, no matter how ruthless. Not surprisingly, the Islamists have also emphasized the Islamic dimension of the conflict in order to link it to their own worldwide struggle against supposedly anti-Muslim "infidels" (Arabic pl. kuffar), as well as to take some of the credit for Chechen military successes against a better armed and numerically superior Russian army. In marked contrast, many Chechens and their foreign sympathizers have downplayed the intolerant religious aspects of that resistance effort in order to portray it as a justified "national liberation" struggle against foreign oppression and thereby garner Western support. Alas, these overly simplistic and propagandistic characterizations are neither entirely false nor necessarily mutually exclusive, since during different phases the conflict has tended to conform in a rough sense to each of these characterizations.

The general consensus seems to be that in the early 1990s, the Chechen resistance movement was essentially a secular, nationalist movement with irredentist aims, even though it endeavored to mobilize further popular support by adopting a patina of Muslim symbolism and rhetoric, but that from 1996 on it underwent an ever-increasing process of radical Islamization and internationalization. Over time the so-called "national radicals," who in 1990 had advocated the creation of a sovereign republic, the restoration of traditional Chechen clan institutions such as the Council of Elders, and the cessation of anti-religious persecution by the government were superceded by others who promoted—whether out of conviction or for purely instrumental reasons—the creation of an Islamic state.[1]

Although this characterization is in general accurate, the actual situation on the ground has been considerably more complex than it suggests. Neither Islam nor strict fundamentalist forms of Islam are entirely alien to traditional Chechen society, primarily because the secret Naqshibandiyya and Qadiriyya Sufi brotherhoods functioned as an effective organizational structure and religious leaders such as Shaykh Mansur Ushurma, Qazi Mullah, and Imam Shamil all played decisive roles in waging successive anti-Russian wars of resistance between 1785 and 1859. As a result, during the long period of Soviet rule and religious repression following the return of the deported Chechens to their homeland in 1956, a Sufi-based "parallel Islam" continued to be practiced in secrecy.[2]

Even so, the overwhelming majority of the Chechens has never been particularly fond of strict fundamentalist forms of Islam. Hence, Islam has, until recently, remained largely ceremonial. According to Anatol Lieven, the Muslim religion had "essentially become an aspect of Chechen national tradition and national pride, rather than a central motivating force in its own right."[3] And so it may have remained, had various internal and external factors not set the stage for an Islamic revival in Chechnya.

As Lieven rightly notes, "it often happens that when an ethno-cultural group which has gradually adopted one formal religious allegiance—however intermingled with earlier pagan beliefs and practices it may be—is attacked by others, such a group develops an even stronger allegiance to that religion, particularly to forms of it that serve to strengthen is military and cultural powers of resistances."[4] This is precisely what seems to have happened in Chechnya in the mid-1990s. Islam played no role at all in Dzhokar Dudayev's October 1991 pre-election political program, and for the first two years after coming to power he explicitly ruled out the creation of an "Islamic republic." In 1993, as domestic opposition to his rule grew dramatically, he began summoning and regularly consulting with traditional, religiously-sanctified "councils of elders" in order to provide a façade of democracy and popular legitimacy for his government. At around the same time, new Islamic courts began to be established by groups of Islamists in some mountain fastnesses of Chechnya. Even though the early attempts by such militants to impose strict shari'a-mandated punishments were not welcomed by most locals, they later tried to set up similar courts in the lowlands and cities as well. In 1994, in the face of an imminent Russian invasion, Dudayev began consciously adopting the symbolism and rhetoric of political Islam to rally the support of the Chechen nation. As he himself noted, "Russia forced us to take the path of Islam."[5] In the end his appeals to Islam in order to mobilize resistance forces, at first adopted as a calculated and rather cynical political tactic, helped to transform the Chechen resistance movement from what Leon Aron describes as a "primarily secular movement of national liberation…[to] what increasingly looked like part of the worldwide jihad…"[6]

According to Aron, it was in 1996 that Chechen resistance leaders and their troops first began "switching their traditional allegiance from the Sufi branch of Islam to a radical interpretation of Wahhabism that celebrate[d] death, suicide and mass murder as weapons against the infidel."[7] Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the very same year that Saudi-backed Wahhabis began "flooding the Caucasus with preachers, money, and arms."[8] Some top Chechen guerrilla commanders, including Shamil Basayev, even began forming Islamic "associations" (jamaats) that functioned both as military detachments and fundamentalist religious communities. Their stated aim was to conquer neighboring Dagestan and conjoin it with Chechnya into a larger Islamic state, a task they actively prepared for despite the signing of the August 1996 Khasavyurt agreement and the subsequent withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. In April 1997, the first court-imposed Islamic execution was publicly televised, six months before former Soviet general and new Chechen political leader Aslan Maskhadov reluctantly declared the country to be an Islamic republic. Two years later, he admitted that he had hoped for a respite in the conflict after the 1994-96 war, but that the ever-growing chorus of calls for holy war, liberating the Caucasus, and flying the green banner of Islam over the Kremlin convinced him that a new war was inevitable and ultimately forced his hand. It is perhaps indicative that this new Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (CRI), which was soon beset by an erosion of central authority and a remarkable spate of nearly 1,100 kidnappings for ransom, was recognized only by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Indeed, the Chechen resistance struggle was increasingly being embraced by Islamist militants elsewhere. Between 1997 and 1999, several hundred Arab volunteers, including many veterans of the 1979-88 anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan or the abortive fights against the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo, arrived in Chechnya to join a new anti-Russian jihad. One of these was the Saudi or Jordanian citizen Samir ibn al-Suwaylim, who arrived from Afghanistan at the head of an al-Qai'da contingent known as the al-Ansar Mujahidin (named after the original Medinan ansar—or "supporters" —of Muhammad, who came to his aid after his forced "emigration" [hijra] from Mecca), adopted the nom de guerre Khattab (which was almost certainly inspired by the name of the second "rightly-guided" khalif, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab), and quickly became Basayev's top operations commander. Moreover, al-Qai'da increasingly championed the Chechen cause in its public pronouncements and covertly provided funding for it. Tangible logistical and operational collaboration also increased. Several Chechen fighters were recruited into bin Laden's bodyguard corps and his elite 055 Brigade, foreign al-Qai'da members increasingly joined elements of the Chechen resistance, and Khattab even established training camps inside Chechnya, which allegedly provided training to between 1600 and 2500 fighters. The broader geopolitical reasons for bin Laden's interest in the Chechen conflict were outlined by one of his top lieutenants, the former Egyptian terrorist leader 'Ayman al-Zawahiri (who in 1996 was arrested and temporarily imprisoned while trying to enter Chechnya, but was then inadvertently released by Russian authorities who never learned his real identity):

    The liberation of the Caucasus would constitute a hotbed of jihad…and that region would [then] become the shelter of thousands of Muslim mujahidin from various parts of the Islamic world, particularly the Arab parts. This poses a direct threat to the United States…If the Chechens and other Caucasian mujahidin reach the shores of the oil-rich Caspian Sea…[t]his will form a mujahid Islamic belt to the south of Russia that will be connected in the east with Pakistan, which is brimming with mujahidin movements in Kashmir.[9]

Al-Zawahiri added that control of the Caucasus would further fragment the Russian Federation, and thus ultimately help to topple a key U.S. ally in the war against Islam.

Meanwhile, Chechnya had become a hotbed of violence, criminality, and fanaticism that was perhaps bound to boil over and precipitate a new war. In 1998 Chechen guerrillas launched several surprise attacks on high-ranking Russian commanders and officials, both inside and outside of Chechnya, and in 1999 their bellicose interventions in Dagestan and Georgia provoked a second Russian invasion of Chechnya. In August 1999, 1,200-2,000 fighters under Basayev and Khattab invaded Dagestan from Chechnya with the goal of establishing an "Islamic Republic of the North Caucasus," but they were soon repelled by local militias and Russian troops with the enthusiastic backing of most of the local Dagestani population, which had no desire to live in a strict fundamentalist state under Chechen control. During this same period, at least 100 Arab fighters affiliated with al-Qai'da joined hundreds of Chechens in the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia, where they divided their time between helping the Chechens fight the Russians and organizing operations directed against America and its European allies. It was this combination of provocative actions, above all the Chechen incursions noted above, which caused new Russian leader Vladimir Putin to authorize a new Russian invasion of Chechnya and undertake a costly, indecisive war that has persisted until the present day.

It is clear, then, that the Chechen resistance struggle has undergone an overall process of internationalization and radical Islamization since the mid-1990s. However, the vast majority of the Chechen people did not transform themselves overnight and en masse from a tribal people with multiple allegiances and a relatively loose adherence to Muslim customs into fanatics of the Wahhabi or Salafi stripe.[10] The imminent threat and harsh nature of Russian invasion may have caused a number of Chechen fighters to re-embrace Islam as a symbol of national resistance and make instrumental use of it to rally popular support and boost social solidarity and morale, but this "religious turn" cannot have been welcomed by many others who, thanks to personal temperament or circumstances, were essentially secular nationalists, only nominally religious, or perhaps even irreligious.[11] The sudden arrival of dozens of non-Chechen Islamist volunteers of the most arrogant, rigid, and inflexible sort must have further alienated many native Chechens, if the example of Afghanistan is at all indicative. (In Afghanistan, a deep and abiding native resentment gradually developed towards such foreign mujahidin, who tended to treat the locals with contempt and all too often adopted an air of self-righteous superiority.) Yet just as it proved more and more difficult for the Afghan tribal fighters to openly resist their haughty foreign guests, since as time wore on the Taliban became more dependent militarily upon al-Qai'da than bin Laden and his associates were on them, so too in Chechnya the apparent adoption of a more radical version of Islam by leading military commanders and warlords, however genuine or instrumental, made it very difficult for moderate and secular Chechens who were concerned about both the independence of their homeland and their own personal safety to resist the trend toward Islamization openly. On one occasion in July 1998, for example, local Chechens in Gudermes fought a pitched battle against Chechen Islamists led by the brutal warlord Arbi Barayev, who was endeavoring to destroy a Sufi shrine. In the course of 2001, Islamist extremists assassinated many local Chechen leaders, including government functionaries and moderate Muslim clerics. A mark of just how difficult it had become for regular Chechens to resist this radicalization process was the sudden ostentatious display of newfound piety and Islamic garb in 2003 by their titular leader Maskhadov, who had first opposed this "religious turn" and then gone along with it only reluctantly, so much so that he was generally viewed by outside observers as a voice of reason and moderation in Chechnya.[12] Yet even he now felt it necessary to wrap himself in the mantle of extremist Islam in order to avoid any further hemorrhaging of his own authority and influence, especially over key commanders like Basayev and radical elements among the younger generation of Chechen fighters.

Some observers have therefore sought to distinguish between separate components of the Chechen resistance. For example, a Russian journalist known for her sympathies toward the Chechens, Anna Politkovskaya, has sought to draw a distinction between "pro-Western," "pro-Arab" (i.e., Islamist), and essentially apolitical, revenge-seeking "third force" field commanders, who she feels constitute the majority.[13] In contrast, Thomas de Waal divides the movement into an extreme Islamist faction, a moderate Muslim faction, and a faction of so-called "political radicals."[14] Both of these schemes seem beset by problems, and it may well be that attempting to draw such analytically clear-cut and possibly artificial distinctions is futile, since the complex situation on the ground is both fluid and constantly shifting. Perhaps the most that one can conclude, as Aron has done, is that during the past ten years Chechnya has undergone a process of "Palestinization" whereby the older nationalist elements of the resistance movement have been displaced or supplanted by certain key Islamist commanders and a younger cohort of militant Chechens that has chosen to rally around them.

Chechen Terrorist Formations and the Potential for Radiological Terrorism

The principal figure whose activities must be considered in any serious evaluation of Chechen terrorism, radiological or otherwise, is undoubtedly Shamil Basayev. Ironically, although he later adopted Islamism and became the principal military leader of the Islamist elements of the Chechen resistance movement, he admitted that he had earlier been an "all-Soviet" kid and an admirer of prominent secular revolutionaries who fought in national liberation struggles, such as Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Giuseppe Garibaldi.[15] In August 1991 he joined over 100 other Chechens to defend Boris Yeltsin on the barricades in Moscow, but soon after returned to Chechnya to support Dudayev's independence bid. Between late 1991 and mid-1994, he honed his fighting skills by participating in military campaigns in Nagorno-Karabakh and in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, where he led a battalion of several hundred men, a number of whom later became key commanders in the Chechen war against Russia. It must have been during this tumultuous period, whilst fighting alongside fellow Muslims, that he became a convert to Islamism, and between April and July 1994 he traveled to Afghanistan to visit al-Qai'da guerrilla camps near Khost, possibly to obtain further military training.

Since those days he has had a long and ever-growing record of military successes against Russian troops, which makes it clear that he is not only brave and tough in the traditional Chechen manner but also a commander of real boldness and brilliance. So successful has he been, in fact, that some conspiratorially-minded commentators have argued that his effectiveness is attributable to the fact that he was secretly trained in special operations techniques by the Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti (FSB: Federal Security Service) or the Special Forces (Spetsnaz), and that he is in fact a covert Russian operative and provocateur.[16] However implausible this may be, there are four reasons why he is of particular importance and concern in this context.

First, Basayev seems to have been either directly or indirectly involved in most of the most prominent acts of Chechen terrorism between 1991 and the present. In November 1991, he and two friends hijacked a Russian aircraft shortly after it took off from the airport at Mineralnyye Vody, forced it to fly to Ankara, and demanded to hold a press conference that he used to protest Russia's information blackout on developments in Chechnya. In June 1995, he led 200 Chechen fighters in a raid on the southern Russian town of Budennovsk, 100 miles from the Chechen border, and seized control of the hospital and nearly 2,000 hostages. After several failed attempts by Russian Spetsnaz to rescue the hostages, Basayev negotiated their release in exchange for safe passage to Chechnya. In January 1996, Chechen leader Salman Raduyev led 250 "Lone Wolf" fighters (including several Arab volunteers) in a raid on the Dagestani town of Kizlyar, where he seized over 2,000 hostages before fighting his way home through a Russian military cordon, but the actual military commander was Khunkar Israpilov, a veteran of Basayev's Abkhaz Battalion. In the fall of 1999, Basayev-led Islamist forces in Dagestan carried out several terrorist attacks, including the bombing of a Russian army barracks in Buinaksk, and in September of that same year over 300 civilians were killed when seven large apartment complexes in Moscow and other cities were bombed, purportedly by "Chechen bandits" acting under the direction of Basayev and his deputy Khattab.[17] During the spectacular hostage seizure operation carried out at Moscow's Dubrovka Theatre in October 2002, FSB wiretaps recorded conversations between Movsar Salamov (the leader of the Chechen terrorist group that carried out the attack)[18] and Zelimkhan Yandarbayev (Maskhadov's predecessor as Chechen president), in which Salamov said that his fighters were acting under the orders of Shamil Basayev, who had allegedly been present during preparations for the operation. In the same conversation, Salamov also claimed that individuals who were willing to die had been selected for the mission, and that "about 100 Kamikazes" outside the theatre were ready to act in support of the hostage-takers.[19] Finally, from 2000 until the present day, during which time Basayev served as the overall military commander of Chechen forces, Chechen Islamists have carried out several "martyrdom operations," i.e., suicide bombings. One such attack took place in May 2003, and was possibly timed to coincide with that same week's al-Qai'da-sponsored terrorist bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca. The most high profile was perhaps the 5 July 2003 detonation of two bombs by female "martyrs" at an open-air rock concert in Moscow, which killed 16 people and wounded several dozen others.

Second, virtually all of the Chechen groups listed as terrorist organizations by Russia and the United States seem to have operated under Basayev's direct or indirect control. The two Chechen groups identified on the FSB's February 2003 list of terrorist groups are the Majlis al-Shura of United Mujahids (Consultative Council of United Holy Warriors), which was headed by Basayev, and the Congress of Peoples of Dagestan and Ichkeria, a joint organizational front whose co-leaders were Basayev and Movladi Udugov. Both were composed of Islamist radicals, and Andrey Babitskiy has suggested that they were, respectively, the military and political wings of the very same organization; according to Udugov, however, they no longer even exist.[20] On the U.S. State Department's list from the very same month there are three Chechen terrorist groups listed, all of which allegedly took part in the October 2002 Moscow theatre raid. Yet curiously, none of them correspond exactly to those on the FSB list. These are the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment (SPIR), the Islamic International Brigade (IIB), and the Riyadus-Salikhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Shahids (shahid being the Arabic term for "martyr"). The SPIR was commanded first by Arbi and then by Movsar Barayev before their deaths, and it had previously claimed responsibility for carrying out various assassinations in 2001. The IIB was founded by Basayev and Khattab, and consisted of Arab as well as Chechen fighters. The Riyadus-Salikhin Battalion was also an organization led by Basayev, and on 20 November 2002 he issued a warning that it would henceforth target various European bodies and NATO because of their allegedly hypocritical pro-Russian stances. It may be, however, that most of these organizations were not so much separate formations as Basayev-led front groups with overlapping cadres that drew from the same pool of dedicated fighters. According to the Chechen website Kavkaz, both the SPIR and the IIB were integrated into the armed forces of the CRI after the theatre seizure, whereas the Riyadus-Salikhin Battalion remains under Basayev's command.

Third, Basayev has functioned as the de facto leader and champion of the indigenous Islamist elements within the Chechen resistance movement, and has welcomed and at times tangibly collaborated with foreign mujahidin who have gone to Chechnya to wage their "holy war." Several hundred international volunteers are now reportedly active in Chechnya and neighboring states in the Caucasus, and many of them are allegedly linked to al-Qai'da or its affiliates. In addition, over the years the Islamist forces in Chechnya have received financial aid from Muslim "charities" sponsored by Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, and Pakistani Islamist parties. Among these extremist financial backers are Saudi front organizations, such as the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) and the Islamic World League, Saudi charities such as the al-Haramayn Foundation and the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), the Jamaat-e Islami party in Pakistan, the U.S.-based Benevolence International Foundation, and of course bin Laden and his associates.[21] Although the Russian authorities have undoubtedly exaggerated the role played by foreign terrorist sponsors in financing the Chechen resistance, there is no doubt that such financing has been substantial and of considerable importance to cash-strapped Chechen fighters.

Finally, in the past Basayev has frequently tried to blackmail the Russian government by threatening to use radiological, chemical, or biological weapons as well as to attack and destroy Russian nuclear facilities. During 1995 and 1996, for example, he made a series of threats to detonate radioactive containers in Russian cities, to target nuclear facilities in Russia, and even to explode a nuclear device. To support these ominous threats, he displayed containers of radioactive materials at a conference in Shali, which probably contained cobalt-60, cesium-137, or strontium-90, and told a Russian television network where to find a container of cesium-137 he claimed to have buried in Moscow's Izmailovskiy Park. None of his threats appear to have tangibly affected the behavior of the Russian authorities, except perhaps to fuel their intransigence and harden their resolve, and after the 1996 ceasefire Basayev stopped making them. Other Chechen leaders later occasionally repeated these warnings in times of crisis, including Aslambek Abdukhadyev and Salman Raduyev, but the repeated failure of Chechen commanders to make good on their CBRN threats suggests that despite international fears they were essentially part and parcel of a psychological warfare campaign being waged against the Russian government and populace. This does not mean, however, that they would have been unable to detonate a container filled with radiological material if they had really wanted to.[22]

If one looks at the chronology of these threats to use CBRN materials, it can be seen that they generally preceded the post-1996 process of Islamization described above. Indeed, such warnings were first issued by Dudayev in 1991, right after he declared Chechnya to be independent. Basayev and others did not get into the act until 1995, before the "Islamist turn" really took off in Chechnya. This might lead casual observers to conclude that there is no link between the spread of Islamism in Chechnya and the future threat of radiological and nuclear terrorism. Such a conclusion would be premature if not entirely unwarranted. Although there has been a noteworthy decline in the frequency of Chechen public threats, since 1999 there has been a steady increase in the number of reports indicating that Chechens have been carrying out surveillance on sensitive Russian facilities, presumably in order to attack them or access them and thereby acquire dangerous materials. If these reports turn out to be true, which is not yet certain, this would suggest that the Chechens and their foreign allies are in the process of making a transition from proffering empty threats to carrying out concrete actions.

What, then, is the likelihood that Chechen fighters will carry out acts of radiological and nuclear terrorism, and which Chechens and/or foreign volunteers are most likely to do so? One potentially troubling scenario has been envisaged by Simon Saradzhyan. He believes that Chechen military leaders, perhaps irrespective of their ideological predispositions, might resort to carrying out radiological or (weapons of mass destruction) WMD attacks once they become sufficiently exasperated or desperate. Indeed, he seems to believe that they have already reached this state of mind.[23] According to this scheme, the most likely causative factor for future unconventional attacks would be the growing conviction among Chechen leaders like Basayev and Maskhadov that they will never be able to expel Russian troops through the use of conventional military tactics. In the absence of all other military options, they may therefore feel it necessary to up the ante. The problem with this scenario is that if they did so they would risk exposing themselves and indeed all of Chechnya to an unimaginably horrible retaliation by the Russians, possibly including an attack with tactical nuclear weapons. In the final analysis, how many Chechens would really be willing to risk total annihilation in order to hasten the departure of the Russians from their homeland? One could imagine them taking such a risky and extreme action if the Russians were already on the verge of annihilating them, but other than as an absolute last resort this scenario seems rather unlikely.

One may object that the Russians were previously pressured to make concessions in the wake of high profile Chechen terrorist actions and military successes. After all, they agreed to negotiate with Basayev in Budennovsk and felt constrained to pull out of Chechnya following the sudden recapture of Groznyy by Maskhadov's forces in 1996. On the other hand, the Russian government has adopted an even harder public line every time the Chechens have threatened to carry out acts of CBRN terrorism in Russian cities. Surely Basayev, who personally conveyed many of those threats, must be aware of how ineffective and counterproductive his prior nuclear and radiological blackmail efforts turned out to be. Any act of catastrophic terrorism on Russian soil by Chechens would likely infuriate the Russians and result in a devastating counterstrike against Chechnya, which may well suffice to dissuade normal Chechen patriots and nationalists from carrying out such an action.

However, one can easily envision another possible scenario, one that is perhaps even more worrisome. It seems probable that the radical Islamist components of the Chechen resistance movement would be more likely, for ideological reasons, to have recourse to radiological or nuclear terrorism than the traditional nationalist or moderately religious components. Furthermore, foreign jihadists fighting alongside the Chechens are arguably even more likely to do so than native Chechens, who would obviously be very concerned that using such methods might provoke a massive Russian retaliation that could end up devastating their homeland, annihilating their own population, and preventing Chechnya from ever achieving real independence. Foreign Wahhabis and Salafis may have few if any such qualms, however, since waging an international jihad against unbelievers, possibly leading to martyrdom, is their principal concern. Just as al-Qai'da members were never greatly concerned about how their terrorist activities inside Afghanistan and elsewhere might affect their hapless Afghan hosts, so too the international Islamist volunteers fighting in Chechnya do not seem overly concerned that their provocative actions might negatively impact the local population by precipitating harsh Russian crackdowns. For example, it was their failed 1999 attempt to create an Islamic republic in Dagestan that soon after prompted the Russians to re-invade Chechnya, thereby leading to further misery for hundreds of thousands if not millions of Chechens. Indeed, as is often the case with terrorist groups, provoking crackdowns in order to drive more and more victimized civilians into their own ranks appears to be a key component of their overall strategy in Chechnya.

These foreign mujahidin are by definition convinced that they are fighting in the service of a grand and divinely-sanctioned higher calling, as opposed to something as mundane and parochial as the political independence of Chechnya, which they view as at most a stepping stone to achieve their broader agenda. As Stephen Schwartz has pointed out, they see the conflict in Chechnya as a "crusade of the forces of kufr [unbelief] (Christianity, Judaism, Communism, atheism) against Islam" in its totality.[24] Here a useful comparison might be made between proclaimed Muslim support for Chechnya and the instrumental, often cynical way in which various Arab governments and Muslim militants have embraced the Palestinian resistance struggle. For decades all sorts of states and non-state actors have sought to exploit the suffering of the Palestinian people in order to further their own agendas, not for the sake of the Palestinians themselves. This may be why no neighboring Arab state has ever offered to provide a permanent home for displaced Palestinians—it seems that their own political goals, such as diverting attention from their own failures to substantially improve the lives of their own citizens (in part by intentionally fueling and then posing as champions of the anti-Israel struggle), are better served by prolonging rather than relieving the misery of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have been consigned to squalid refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. Since these Islamist foreign fighters are not primarily interested in the fate of Chechnya, they may not feel constrained from carrying out attacks that might lead to catastrophe for the Chechens themselves.

However, even if they decided that carrying out such an attack was a good idea, they would still have certain other obstacles to overcome. One of the practical problems that initially confronted foreign jihadists in Chechnya was that they themselves lacked personal contacts inside the FSU with disgruntled military personnel, poorly-paid scientists, and organized crime groups (including the Chechen mafia), contacts who might be in a position to facilitate their own acquisition of dangerous radiological materials or WMD. Some al-Qai'da-linked operatives must have therefore felt it necessary to forge closer and closer alliances with native Chechen supporters who might already have such contacts. Over time they have probably succeeded in making contact with some useful insiders in Russia who, for ideological or more likely purely mercenary reasons, might be willing to help them.

The most worrisome scenario, then, is that militant foreign Islamists linked to international terrorist networks like al-Qai'da will eventually acquire such materials with the help of some of their Chechen followers and allies, and that if they succeed they will decide to employ them at some future point against their "infidel" enemies. Whether their chief targets end up being the Russian nemeses of the Chechens or their own proclaimed enemies in the hated West—or perhaps both—remains to be seen. This is a possibility that should not be ignored or minimized by the world's security services, since even if the actual probability of such a radiological terrorist attack using Russian materials remains a matter of dispute among experts, the eventual human consequences could prove to be very significant. Should such groups ever manage to obtain actual nuclear devices, the results could be even more catastrophic.

* This NTI Issue Brief has been drawn in part from a longer essay that was originally prepared as part of a larger study designed to assess the potential sources of radiological terrorism in Russia. The author would like to thank Cristina Chuen, Cory Johnston, and Victor Mizin at CNS for their help with Russian source materials and translations.


[1] For the "national radicals," see John B. Dunlop, Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1998), pp. 90-1.
[2] Sebastian Smith, Allah's Mountains: Politics and War in the Russian Caucasus (London: I. B. Tauris, 1998), p. 77.
[3] Anatol Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (New Haven: Yale University, 1998), p. 363.
[4] Anatol Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (New Haven: Yale University, 1998), pp. 355-6.
[5] Daniil Kobyakov, "Nuclear, Chemical and Radiological Terrorism Threat in the Context of Conflict in Chechnya," Fall 2001 graduate student research paper, MIIS, p. 10, citing Aleksey Malashenko and Dimitriy Trenin, Vremya Yuga: Rossiya v Chechne, Chechnya v Rossii (Moscow, 2002).
[6] Leon Aron, "Chechnya: New Dimensions of the Old Crisis," AEI Online, 1 February 2003.
[7] Ibid. Wahhabism is a fundamentalist doctrine with an activist political agenda named after Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), who promoted an unusually rigid but nonetheless idiosyncratic variant of the already very strict Hanbali school of Sunni jurisprudence and thence cleverly allied himself to the House of Sa'ud. Today Wahhabism is the official doctrine of the Saudi Arabian monarchy, and it is assiduously promoted by both the government-controlled religious establishment and by Saudi-backed international organizations (such as the Rabitat al-Alam al-Islami, or Islamic World League) and ostensibly "private" Saudi charities.
[8] Stephen Schwartz, The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror (New York: Doubleday, 2002), p. 215.
[9] Dore Gold, Hatred's Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2003), p. 137.
[10] Salafism is another fundamentalist doctrine with political overtones, and the movement it inspired was known as the Salafiyya movement. It was originally developed in the late 19th century as part of an effort by Egyptian intellectuals (above all Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida) to reconcile traditionalism with pragmatic reformism, but was gradually transformed into an extreme fundamentalist doctrine and, ultimately, one of the principal currents of contemporary Islamism. The name Salafi, which derives from the Arabic verb salafa (to precede), refers to the original companions of Muhammad, who are collectively known as al-Salaf al-Salih (the "virtuous forefathers" of the faith). In the present context, a Salafi is an uncompromising traditionalist who demands that all Muslims follow the exemplary, pious, and uncorrupted behavior of Muhammad and his trusted original companions. Unlike Wahhabism, it is not named after a specific person or associated directly with a particular regime. Indeed, extreme Salafi Islamists – like bin Laden and his jihadist followers – are generally bitter rivals and opponents of the Wahhabis, who they view as lackeys of the hypocritical, impious, U.S.-backed Saudi monarchy.
[11] See, e.g., Anssi Kullberg, "Chechen Majority Opposes Islamism," The Eurasian Politician 5 (April 2002).
[12] As recently as 1999, Maskhadov had bitterly criticized Saudi meddling, said there was no place for anti-Sufi Muslim sects in Chechnya (i.e., Wahhabis and Salafis), and declared that he would not tolerate anyone who sought to trample underfoot centuries-old Chechen traditions or desecrate the names of local saints. Quoted by Gold, Hatred's Kingdom, p. 139.
[13] Paul Goble, "Russia: Analysis from Washington – Making Distinctions in Chechnya," RFE/RL Features, 3 October 2001.
[14] David Chazen, "Chechen Rebel Divisions," BBC News, 26 October 2002.
[15] See Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal, Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (New York: New York University, 1998), pp. 260-2.
[16] For conspiracy theories surrounding acts of Chechen terrorism inside Russia, including alleged collaboration between FSB operatives and Basayev, see Olga Nedbayeva, "Conspiracy Theories on Russia's 1999 Bombings Gain Ground," Agence France-Presse, 28 July 2002, cited on But cf. note 17.
[17] It should be pointed out that there is some circumstantial evidence suggesting that these bombings were "false flag" provocation operations carried out by the FSB itself. The situation still remains very murky, even after several years of investigations. See, e.g., the English-language anti-FSB polemic by Yuri Felshtinsky and Alexander Litvinenko, Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within (New York: S.P.I, 2002), especially chapter 6.
[18] Movsar Salamov was originally identified as Movsar Barayev, nephew of Arbi Barayev, in news accounts. However, in June 2003 the Russian procurator's office revealed that the man in question was in fact Salamov, not Barayev's relative and successor. See Valeriy Chalikov, "Spokoynoye rassledovaniye," Vremya novostey, 3 June 2003, in Integrum Techno,
[19] Oleg Rubnikovich, "Seychas oni uznayut nam tsenu," Gazeta, 1 November 2002. According to other sources, what Salamov actually said (in his own language) was "100 Wahhabis." It should be noted, however, that the use of the term "Wahhabis" in this context is not at all precise. Most of the Chechen Islamists and the foreign volunteers fighting alongside them are not really Wahhabis, in the sense that they are adherents of the state-sponsored religion in Saudi Arabia, but rather jihadist Salafis. Many Russian commentators likewise use the term "Vakhabit," carelessly and imprecisely, as a kind of shorthand for "Islamist." Only Saudi government operatives and loyal followers of al-Wahhab's doctrine can legitimately be designated as Wahhabis.
[20] Compare Babitskiy, "Vklyucheniye Gosdepartamentom SShA v spisok terroristicheskikh organizatsiy trekh chechenskikh grupirovok," Radio Liberty, 1 March 2003; and "Yastrzhembsky passed old stuff to Washington,", 16 May 2003.
[21] The activities of the various Saudi organizations and charities are well-known. The Pakistani link is outlined in Vinod Anand, "Export of Holy Terror to Chechnya from Pakistan and Afghanistan," Strategic Analysis [New Delhi] 24:3 (June 2000), pp. 539-51.
[22] Chechen groups have decided on several occasions to forgo opportunities to make use of radiological or even nuclear materials. For instance, in the well-known case of a low-level radioactive source left in Moscow's Izmailovskiy Park in 1995, the material was not used for a Radiological Dispersal Device or "dirty bomb." In a potentially far more devastating plot developed at the time, Islam Khasukhanov, chief of staff of the Chechen armed forces and a former officer in the Soviet Navy who had served as a deputy commander on a nuclear submarine, planned to hijack a Pacific Fleet Russian nuclear submarine. A group of seven persons of Slavic origin were to board the submarine and place explosives in the torpedo, battery and reactor compartments as well as near the warhead of one of the missiles. The Chechens did not choose to implement this plan, however, which was not discovered until 2002. Grigoriy Sanin and Aleksandr Zakharov, "Konteyner iz Izmailovskogo parka blagopoluchno evakuirovan," Segodnya, November 25, 1995, p. 5; "Chechenskiye boyeviki planirovali zakhvat rossiyskoy atomnoy podvodnoy lodki," NTVRU Website,, February 4, 2002; Andrey Ostrovskiy, "Ataka na Primorye," Vladivostok,, February 6, 2002; "Maskhadov's Staff Left Without Its Chief," Kommersant, April 23, 2002, in FBIS Document CEP20020423000247.
[23] Simon Saradzhyan, "Russia: Grasping Reality of Nuclear Terror," Discussion Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, March 2003, pp. 24-6.
[24] Stephen Schwartz, The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror (New York: Doubleday, 2002), p. 216.

Stay Informed

Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.

Sign Up

The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index


The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index

“The bottom line is that the countries and areas with the greatest responsibility for protecting the world from a catastrophic act of nuclear terrorism are derelict in their duty,” the 2023 NTI Index reports.

Tutorial on Nuclear and Radiological Security

Teaching Tool

Tutorial on Nuclear and Radiological Security

Nuclear and radiological security aims to ensure nuclear and other radioactive materials are secure from unauthorized access and theft, and that nuclear facilities are secure from sabotage.


My Resources