This publication is now archived.
Chechens are an ethnic minority living primarily in Russia’s North Caucasus region. For the past two hundred years, they have generally been governed by Moscow, though they have had varying degrees of de facto autonomy. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chechen separatists launched a coordinated campaign for independence, which resulted in two devastating wars and an ongoing insurgency in Russia’s republic of Chechnya. Militants in and around Chechnya continue to agitate for independence, though the death of separatist leader Shamil Basayev in July 2006 weakened the separatist movement. However, violence in the North Caucasus has escalated since 2008, and Moscow experienced its most serious attack in six years with the bombing of a metro station in March 2010.
Who are the Chechens?
The Chechens are a largely Muslim ethnic group that has lived for centuries in the mountainous North Caucasus region. For the past two hundred years, Chechens have resisted Russian rule. During World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin accused the Chechens of cooperating with the Nazis and forcibly deported the entire population to Kazakhstan and Siberia. Tens of thousands of Chechens died, and the survivors were allowed to return home only after Stalin’s death.
Has Chechnya ever been independent?
Chechnya has experienced several brief periods of de facto independence. In January 1921, four years after the Russian Revolution, Chechnya joined Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, North Ossetia, and Ingushetia to form the Mountain Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. But the following year, the Soviet Union seized control of Chechnya and turned it into a Soviet province called the Chechen Autonomous Oblast. In January 1934, Soviet officials merged the Chechen Autonomous Oblast with the neighboring Ingush Autonomous Oblast, largely to dilute each region’s ethnic identity.
During World War II, as German forces moved into the Soviet Union and toward the North Caucasus, many ethnic minority groups subject to Soviet and Russian rule for generations seized on the opportunity presented by the war to try and break free. German forces never reached Chechnya, but Chechen nationalist Khasan Israilov led a revolt against Soviet rule which lasted from 1940 to 1944. After Soviet troops crushed the rebellion, Stalin accused the Chechens of collaborating with Nazi invaders. In 1944, Stalin disbanded the Chechen-Ingush republic altogether and forcibly deported the entire Chechen population to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Chechens were not allowed to return to their homeland until 1957, when Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, restored the province amid de-Stalinization.
What is the post-Soviet history of violence in Chechnya?
In the early 1990s, following the Soviet collapse, separatists in the newly formed Russian Federation Republic of Chechnya started an independence movement called the Chechen All-National Congress. Russian President Boris Yeltsin opposed Chechen independence, arguing that Chechnya was an integral part of Russia. From 1994 to 1996, Russia fought Chechen guerillas in a conflict that became known as the First Chechen War. Tens of thousands of civilians died, but Russia failed to win control of Chechnya’s mountainous terrain, giving Chechnya de facto independence. In May 1996, Yeltsin signed a ceasefire with the separatists, and they agreed on a peace treaty the following year.
But violence flared again three years later. In August 1999, Chechen militants invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan to support a local separatist movement. The following month, five bombs exploded in Russia over a ten-day period, killing almost three hundred civilians. Moscow blamed Chechen rebels for the explosions, which comprised the largest coordinated terrorist attack in Russian history. The Dagestan invasion and the Russian bombings prompted Russian forces to launch the Second Chechen War, also known as the War in the North Caucasus. In February 2000, Russia recaptured the Chechen capital of Grozny, destroying a good part of the city center in the process, reasserting direct control over Chechnya. Tens of thousands of Chechens and Russians were killed or wounded in the two wars, and hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced. Since the end of the second war, Chechen separatist activity has diminished, and the July 2006 death of separatist leader Shamil Basayev--in an explosion many see as the work of Russia’s internal security services--seems to have stifled the movement. Since 2008, however, violence has markedly increased in the North Caucasus, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Incidents of violence rose from 795 in 2008 to 1,100 in 2009, and suicide bombings quadrupled in 2009, the majority of which occurred in Chechnya.
Which terrorist groups operate in Chechnya?
Information about groups linked to the conflict in Chechnya is hard to confirm, but experts say the struggle is between local separatists--a loosely organized group with semi-independent commanders--and the Russian army. According to the U.S. State Department, the Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade (IIPB) is the primary channel for Islamic funding of the Chechen guerillas, in part through links to al-Qaeda-related financiers on the Arabian Peninsula. The United States also defined the Chechnya-based Special Purpose Islamic Regiment (SPIR) and the Riyadus-Salikhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Martyrs as terrorist entities in February 2003.
Chechnya’s long and violent guerrilla war has attracted a small number of Islamist militants from outside of Chechnya--some of whom are Arab fighters with possible links to al-Qaeda. Among the Islamist militants, the most prominent was Basayev, Russia’s most wanted man. Basayev fought for Chechen independence for more than a decade, and was the mastermind behind the worst terrorist attacks on Russian soil. On July 10, 2006, Basayev was killed in an explosion in neighboring Ingushetia. His death cast doubt on the future of the Chechen separatist movement, and allegedly led to the surrender of five hundred militants. Four months later, Russian security forces killed Abu Hafs al-Urdani, the Jordanian-born commander of foreign fighters in Chechnya. Since then, violence in Chechnya has ebbed, though terrorism in the areas of Dagestan and Ingushetia has increased.
What major attacks are the Chechen groups responsible for?
The most notorious and devastating attack came in September 2004, when Basayev ordered an attack on a school in Beslan, a town in North Ossetia. More than three hundred people died in the three-day siege, most of them children. There were thirty-two militants, though only three or four were Chechens. All but one of the militants were reportedly killed during the siege. Since then, violence has generally targeted individual officials and government offices rather than large groups of civilians. Attacks include:
- An August 1999 bombing of a shopping arcade and a September 1999 bombing of an apartment building in Moscow that killed sixty-four people.
- Two bombings in September 1999 in the Russian republic of Dagestan and southern Russian city of Volgodonsk. Controversy still surrounds whether these attacks were conclusively linked to Chechens.
- A bomb blast that killed at least forty-one people, including seventeen children, during a military parade in the southwestern town of Kaspiisk in May 2002. Russia blamed the attack on Chechen terrorists.
- The October 2002 seizure of Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater, where approximately seven hundred people were attending a performance. Russian Special Forces launched a rescue operation, but the opium-derived gas they used to disable the hostage-takers killed more than 120 hostages, as well as many of the terrorists. Basayev took responsibility for organizing the attack, and three Chechen-affiliated groups are thought to have been involved.
- A December 2002 dual suicide bombing that attacked the headquarters of Chechnya’s Russian-backed government in Grozny. Russian officials claim that international terrorists helped local Chechens mount the assault, which killed eighty-three people.
- A three-day attack on Ingushetia in June 2004, which killed almost one hundred people and injured another 120.
- Street fighting in October 2005 that killed at least eighty-five people. The fighting was in the south Russian city of Nalchik after Chechen rebels assaulted government buildings, telecommunications facilities, and the airport.
- An attack on the Nevsky Express, used by members of the business and political elite, in November 2009 killed twenty-seven people.
- In March 2010, two female suicide bombers detonated bombs in a Moscow metro station located near the headquarters of the security services, killing thirty-nine people. Islamist Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov claimed responsibility for the bombing; he had also claimed responsibility for the derailment of the Nevsky Express.
- Two days after the metro station bombing in March 2010, two bombs exploded in the town of Kizlyar, in Russia’s North Caucasus, killing at least twelve people.
Are there links between Chechen groups and al-Qaeda?
Experts say there are several ties between the al-Qaeda network and Chechen groups. A Chechen warlord known as Khattab is said to have met with Osama bin Laden while both men were fighting the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Alexander Vershbow, a U.S. ambassador to Russia, said shortly after September 11, 2001, "We have long recognized that Osama bin Laden and other international networks have been fueling the flames in Chechnya, including the involvement of foreign commanders like Khattab." Khattab was killed in April 2002.
Zacarias Moussaoui, who was convicted for his involvement in the September 11 attacks, was reported by the Wall Street Journal to be formerly "a recruiter for al-Qaeda-backed rebels in Chechnya." Chechen militants reportedly fought alongside al-Qaeda and Taliban forces against the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance in late 2001. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan was one of the only governments to recognize Chechen independence.
Russian authorities, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have repeatedly stressed the involvement of international terrorists and Bin Laden associates in Chechnya--in part, experts say, to generate Western sympathy for Russia’s military campaign against the Chechen rebels. Russia’s former defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, claimed that a videotape of Khattab meeting with bin Laden had been found in Afghanistan, but Russia has not aired the tape publicly.
Julia Jeffrey contributed to this report.