Dying For the Independence of Chechnya – Suicide Terrorism as a Rational Strategy in the Context of Chechen Resistance to Russian Occupation

Dying For the Independence of Chechnya – Suicide Terrorism as a Rational Strategy in the Context of Chechen Resistance to Russian Occupation

On June 6th, 2000 Khava Baraeva, cousin of the Chechen field commander Arbi Baraev, committed suicide by blowing up a truck in a Russian police station in Chechnya. It was the first of a series of suicide attacks carried out in the name of Chechen independence between 2000 and 2004. This article attempts to explain why Chechen terrorists chose to employ suicide attacks during this time. It will apply Robert A. Pape’s theory of suicide terrorism , which is lined out in his work “Dying to Win: Why Suicide Terrorists Do It” (2006). In a threefold argument this article will show that Chechen terrorist decided to apply suicide terrorism as a rational strategy in their struggle for national liberation. Opposing the idea that suicide attacks are the outcome of Islamic fundamentalism this article will claim that the decision to stage suicide attacks was based on the experience of other terrorist groups and the Chechen resistance themself.

1. Learning from others- and from experience

In his account on suicide terrorism Robert A. Pape argues that the increase of suicide attacks over the last thirty years can be explained by their effectiveness. Terrorists learned that, in certain situations, suicide attacks are a useful tactic to coerce opponents. This article argues that Chechen rebels acted according to this logic and learned about the effectiveness of terrorist tactics in different ways.

Media reports of links between the Chechen rebels and international terrorist organisations are somewhat dubious. The Chechen resistance usually stressed that their movement is one of Chechen independence, rather than an international struggle of Jihad. The Russian authorities on the other hand, are keen to present the Chechen’s as part of a global terrorist network, which needs to be fought in connection with the global war on terror. Figures published on the amount of support Chechen fighters received by Al-Qaeda and other organisations therefore have to be treated with care. We can note, however that there is some link between Chechen rebels and other terrorist organisations. Chechen rebels received resources from other organisations which utilised suicide attacks as part of their tactics, at least to a limited extent.

There is evidence that foreign terrorist organisations have had significant influence on some of the leaders of Chechen resistance. A crucial role here is played by Shamil Basayev, the Chechen field commander known to be the brain behind most Chechen acts of terrorism. In 1994, he and twenty of his ‘best men’ were trained in camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, together with members of terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda.

Samir bin Salekh al-Suweilem, known as Khattab, equally had a big influence on the strategic choices of some Chechen rebel groups. Having been a field commander in Afghanistan before, he joined the Chechen movement in 1995 and “immediately went to work training green Chechen recruits in guerrilla warfare”[1] and became an important force in the Chechen resistance. Equally the ideological leader of many Chechen rebels, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev had ties to organisations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

During the first Chechen wars the Chechens themselves, and especially Basayev, could see the effectiveness of terrorism. The event at Burdennovsk, where Basayev and other rebels took an entire hospital hostage, was a very successful terrorist operation. Terrorist tactics were proved to be successful, and very influential on the public will.

2. “Freedom is primary […], Shari’a comes second”

James Hughes (2007) suggests that over the years the Chechen case has increasingly become a religious war, rather than being a nationalist struggle for independence. There are however indicators that between 1999 and 2004, when most suicide attacks were planned and took place, the conflict was still largely about Chechen independence, and that this was also the motivation for the attacks.

In an interview with Azeri TV in July 2000, Shamil Basayev stated “the main reason [for the resistance] is that we want to live freely and independently of Russia and the Russian empire”[2]. Asked in an interview in 2005 whether religion would be a motivation for the Chechen struggle, Basayev replied:

No.  For me, it’s first and foremost a struggle for freedom.  If I’m not a free man, I can’t live in my faith.  I need to be a free man.  Freedom is primary.  That’s how I see.  Shari’a comes second“.[3]

In 2000 when the first suicide attack took place, the conflict in Chechnya had been underway for nine years. The desire for Chechen independence can be traced back to the beginning of the 19th century. While obviously we have to be careful with statements issued by a figure such as Basayev, they nevertheless point at the fact that the struggle for independence is the main motivation behind the use of suicide terrorism. When announcing that he would form a group of suicide terrorists in September 1999, Basayev stated that their goal would be the “liberation of the Caucasus”[4]. On the same occasion he made it clear that this was in relation to Russian occupation – he said he would send suicide attackers only if Russia continued to bomb Chechnya. The timing of the first attacks demonstrates this. They took place in June 2000, only a month after the resistance was forced to leave Grozny and shifted to guerrilla warfare in May 2000. The occupation of Chechnya, manifested by the siege of Grozny, triggered the suicide attacks, which Basayev had prepared since September, at the time the start of the second Chechen war became apparent. The Chechen suicide attacks can be seen as a measure of last resort trying to achieve Chechen independence “and not just to kill civilians senselessly”[5]. Chechen rebel commanders consciously employ suicide attacks. In the wane of a new wave of attacks in Summer 2009, the current “Emir of the Caucasus Mujahedin” Dokka Umarov stated:

I am their commander and I order them to do something or not to do it. No one will take this route [of suicide terrorism] without my order.”[6]

Chechen rebel leaders have full control over their suicide bombers and employ them as a strategy against Russian occupation. Even though Islamic ideology is important in the context of Chechen suicide attacks, it served only as a compliment to a nationalist agenda.

3. Targeting Russia’s Democratic Process

From a contemporary perspective, it is difficult to see how Chechen attacks on Russia, a country widely understood to be undemocratic, fits with the understanding of terrorists targeting democracies .The picture looks different though, if we look at the years 1999 – 2004 in which the decision to employ suicide attacks as part of the Chechen resistance was made. Up until 2004, Freedom House listed Russia as a “partly free” country. Even though in the years before 2004 Russian elections were already seen as influenced by the presidential administration, democratic processes nevertheless played an important part.

The timing of the suicide attacks suggests that the terrorists who applied them aimed to influence the democratic processes in Russia. Twelve of the nineteen Chechen suicide attacks Pape analysed took place between May and December 2003. In March of the same year, the Russian government staged a referendum on Chechen independence. The absence of suicide attacks around this date can be explained by the attempt of Chechen rebels to not give the referendum any credibility. They rejected the referendum, and doubted its legitimacy as reports on the rebels’ website show. However the attacks do seem to be directed against the Chechen presidential elections, which took place in October 2003 and the Duma elections which took place in December.

The manifestation of Russian power by the instalment of a Chechen president will naturally have caused strong opposition from the resistance movement. This is as well suggested by statements published on the rebels’ website kavkazcenter.com. While underlining the claim to Chechen independence, they recognise that Russia wants to use the elections as “proof its four-year long war with Chechens is over”[7]. For the Chechen aim to achieve independence it is naturally to oppose the idea the war is over and that Russia has achieved stability in Chechnya. Another statement published by the rebels states “’elections’ in Chechnya this coming October cannot be democratic, since they will actually be held during a wartime”[8]. The suicide attacks staged by the Chechens in 2003 aimed on showing the public that the war in Chechnya was still ongoing and that Russia’s occupation of Chechnya was illegitimate.

4. Conclusion

Robert A. Pape’s theory of the strategic use of suicide terrorism serves us well to explain why Chechen rebels started to use suicide attacks as a tactic. The Chechen rebels, led by Shamil Basayev made a conscious decision to use suicide attacks to coerce the Russian Federation. The attacks had concrete, nationalist aims and were applied to fight the Russian occupation of Chechnya, with the ultimate goal of Chechen independence. Islamic fundamentalism, while important in the Chechen resistance, was supplementary to the aim of national independence. We can assume that by utilising suicide attacks, the Chechen rebels drew from their own experiences, as well as from the experiences and know-how of international terrorist organisations, in particular of Al-Qaeda. The timing of the suicide attacks show that the democratic processes in Russia were a target. Suicide attacks were used only if they were of use to coerce the Russian government and to intimidate the Russian public. They followed a strategic logic.

Niklas Kossow


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[1] Murphy, 2004, p. 36

[2] ANS TV, 2000

[3] Koppel, 2005

[4] quoted in Kalmykov, 1999

[5] Souleimanov, 2007, p. 267

[6] Prague Watchdog, 2009

[7] Islam Online, 2003

[8] Kavkaz Center, 2003b