Dangerous but Distinct Fronts in Terror Fight


Categories: Publications,Security

Philadelphia Inquirer

Cambridge, United Kingdom — At Saturday’s G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin are certain to celebrate their recent successes in the global war on terrorism: the June 7 killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, and the July 10 liquidation of Chechen separatist Shamil Basayev.

At first blush, the similarities between Zarqawi and Basayev appear significant. Both used Islam to inspire followers and legitimize violent force. Both led dynamic insurgencies embracing comparable military tactics. Both appear to have been betrayed by inside sources. Yet critical distinctions between Chechnya’s indigenous rebels and Iraq’s foreign jihadis remain. Bush and Putin face dissimilar adversaries animated by distinct values and dramatically different agendas.

Zarqawi and Basayev manifested two ideologically and politically distinct faces of Islamic militancy. That distinction turns on the relationship between politics and religion. For Basayev’s rebels, Islam is inherently communitarian. It defines ethnic and cultural identity. It reinforces notions of Chechen nationhood. It animates violent opposition to Moscow’s historic dominance and a drive toward political self-determination. Rather than threatening a global conflagration, Basayev’s Islam mobilized a discrete population for limited, localized ends.

For Zarqawi’s jihadis, Islam is radically cosmopolitan. It subsumes ethnic and cultural identity. It eschews Iraqi nationhood in favor of establishing a regional caliphate. It champions violence against Kurds, Shiites and moderate Sunnis in a drive toward social and theological purity. Rather than promoting self-determination, Zarqawi’s Islam catalyzed burgeoning Arab resentment for unlimited, globalized ends.

Zarqawi’s jihadis are predominantly foreign. Leaders mobilize manpower through transnational networks, recruiting disaffected Muslims in the Middle East, Europe and beyond. Most are loners, leaving their families and homelands to fight in mixed international units. Their struggle is globalized yet atomized. Despite cooperating with Baathists and other Iraqi Sunnis, al-Qaeda’s forces fight for a millenarian ideology rather than a discrete community.

By comparison, Basayev’s rebels are overwhelmingly indigenous. Recruiting is largely spontaneous, with volunteers from Chechnya and adjoining Russian republics fighting on a seasonal or semi-seasonal basis. Their struggle is localized and highly personalized. Despite limited assistance from a tiny and rapidly diminishing cohort of Arab volunteers, the Chechens continue fighting for readily identifiable ethno-nationalist ends.

Those ends do not legitimize Chechen terrorism, especially in cases where civilians are the intended targets. Nor do they eliminate prospects for closer military cooperation between local rebels and global terrorist syndicates. Nonetheless, these distinctions illuminate critical differences between militant Islam’s variants. Absent a common spiritual idiom, Chechen rebels share more with the Tamil Tigers than they do with al-Qaeda. Shamil Basayev was Chechnya’s Che Guevara, not Russia’s Osama bin Laden.

Recognizing the two faces of militant Islam has important implications on how to frame and fight the global war on terrorism. It also carries important implications for U.S.-Russia relations. In Iraq, an assertive U.S. military posture is necessary to curb the transnational terrorist threat and provide conditions necessary for domestic institutional development. Defeating Zarqawi’s global insurgency requires a local solution. Only authentic Iraqi leadership will mobilize the nation against foreign jihadis. To ignore that reality risks consigning Iraq to protracted civil conflict.

In Chechnya, that analysis is reversed. Russia’s aggressive military campaign fuels a cycle of violent repression and armed reprisal. Rather than negotiating with moderate separatists, the Kremlin controls a criminalized and increasingly coercive indigenous elite. Ending Basayev’s local insurgency requires a global solution. Only authentic U.S. leadership will persuade Russians and Chechens to pursue a meaningful political dialogue. To ignore that responsibility risks the imminent emergence of a failed state within the sovereign boundaries of a nuclear superpower.