The United States government is currently debating how hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to arm and train the so-called moderate rebels in Syria belonging to the Free Syrian Army. The CIA got involved in the program reluctantly, and a poorly planned and executed strategy has led to the conclusion that this is a failed program.
The FSA was never a reliable partner force and America should have known better, but in the United States we have these debates in a relatively open and public manner, with peer reviews and checks and balances of government at play. Despite this, around the world and here at home, America is often derided as an evil imperialist power that arms terrorists and pursues sinister agendas at the behest of our corporate masters.
Interestingly, countries like Russia don’t have this problem. Negative reporting about the government gets Russian journalists shot, poisoned, or disappeared. The international press is not immune either. One American journalist told me that they don’t run stories that could be damaging to the Russian government because the last time they did that their news agency was kicked out of Moscow for seven years. This results in an interesting situation where rather moderate actions by the United States are condemned and mass protests are organized, but non-democratic countries with horrible human rights records like Russia can pretty much do whatever they want without a peep from most journalists and activists.
America supports proxy forces around the world, but should we interprete the silence about Russian military and intelligence operations as confirmation that Moscow doesn’t run proxy forces themselves? In order to cut through the haze, and see if Russia has their own proxy forces at play in the ISIS conflict in Syria and Iraq, let’s take a look at past examples of the Russian government colluding with Islamists.
Godless commies pray with Wahhabis
The staunchly atheist USSR would not support religious movements or religious extremism of any kind, would it? Marxism was first introduced to Iraq in the 1920s; one of the first communist circles to pop up was in Basra in 1929. This centered around the personality of Petros Vasili as the leader of the Liberal Association, or the anti-religious party. Fluent in six languages, including Russian, Vasilis led an interesting life traveling throughout the Middle East, never staying in one place for very long, and enjoying some interesting connections to Soviet trade agencies in Persia.
In Basra, his party proposed “a radical democratic program aimed at the promotion of freedom of ideas, words, and actions; a secular state” (Salucci, 10). But the atheist dogma of Marxism didn’t fly well with the locals, who took no interest in abandoning their Islamic roots. “That was the last time the Iraqi communists came out with anti-Islamic propaganda” (Salucci, 11), demonstrating that Soviet Marxists and their proxies have often compromised their ideology to fit pragmatic reality, with communism eventually being re-invented in Iraq as the Baath Party.
Traveling forward in time, we see the Russians playing footsie with Islamists, giving up on the idea of trying to sell Muslims on Marxist ideas. The Islamic Revival Party was formed in 1990 in former Soviet states such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as Chechnya and Dagestan. These were all areas that had achieved independence from Russia or desired it. The Islamic Revival Party followed Salafi principles, and like Wahhabis, wanted to return to a “pure” 7th-century version of Islam that supposedly existed during the time of the prophet Mohammed.
The Islamic Revival Party and its offshoots were effective at Islamizing large swathes of post-Soviet space. The end state of Salafi and Wahhabi doctrine in these regions was to divide and conquer, effectively dividing Muslims between radicals and moderates. In short, the Islamic Revival Party acted as a spoiler force, destroying any chance of secular nationalist movements, which called for greater autonomy from Moscow. The Islamist movement confronted government forces in Tajikistan, Dagestan, and Chechnya. What started out as nationalistic movements for independence became Russia’s pre-9/11 War on Terror.
The best part? The Islamic Revival Party was a creature of, and a creation of, the Russian intelligence services. By introducing radical Islam, the Russian government was able to cast a new narrative, one about cracking down on international terrorism.
Odd personalities, strange connections
Geydar Dzhemal is one of many interesting characters who float around in what are ostensibly anti-Putin Russian Islamic groups. Pals with Russian fascist Alexander Dugin (another suspected FSB/GRU asset), Dzhemal attended the institute for oriental languages at Moscow University, a known clearing house for KGB spooks. He was supposedly kicked out of the university for bourgeoisie nationalism, but then somehow landed a job at a Soviet publishing house. By 1990, Dzhemal became the deputy chairman of the Islamic Revival Party. He was also an open supporter of Chechen Islamic extremism, but has yet to come under any serious scrutiny by Russian authorities.
Another player in the game was Adam Deniyev, a Wahhabi in Chechnya. He was also “the most powerful pro-Moscow official in Chechnya to have been assassinated during the course of the war.” The brother of a FSB officer, Deniyev was known as one of the first to inject Wahhabi ideology into Chechnya in the late 1980s. Deniyev met his end in 2001 when he was killed by a bomb outside of Grozny. He was also an early member of the Islamic Revival Party.
Arbi Barayev is another colorful character, a butcher who fought and led the Islamist movement through both of the Chechen wars. He was also a Russian intelligence asset, at least up until he was killed by Russian GRU paramilitary operatives in a curious incident which is alleged to have been a sort of turf war between the GRU and Barayev’s handlers in the FSB. Barayev’s reign of terror is nearly legendary at this point, as his group of bandits (called the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment) trolled across Chechnya beheading foreign aid workers, assassinating Chechen government officials, and conducting kidnappings.
One of the more chilling accusations came when the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment kidnapped four British telecom employees. In a contemporary history of Russia’s intelligence services, Jonathan Littell claims that the FSB outbid the British telecom’s figure for ransom money, so Barayev ordered his hostages beheaded. The snuff film that Barayev’s goons made of the 1998 beheadings made international recognition of an independent Chechnya nearly impossible.
Is any of this starting to remind you of ISIS yet?
However, it is none other than than the de facto leader of the Chechen insurgency himself, Shamil Basayev, who was a “longtime GRU agent” according to President Maskhadov of the Chechen Republic. Basayev is said to have come to the GRU’s attention in 1991 when he sided with Boris Yeltsin during the failed communist coup staged against the newly formed Russian government. Moscow leveraged Basayev as a proxy soldier in their dirty little wars in Russia’s near abroad, where he led a battalion of mujahideen fighters. Yeah, we’re told that Putin invented “hybrid warfare” in Ukraine, but that is only because 20-year-old journalists just discovered irregular warfare. This is a old game, and the Russians play it well.
Basayev fought as an irregular in Nagorno-Karabakh and then in Georgia in 1992, receiving training and equipment from the GRU. Basayev was also known for committing war crimes. “One hundred Georgian soldiers were herded into the central stadium in Gagra where they were beheaded and their heads used as footballs in a soccer match,” according to Paul Murphy. Leading pro-Chechen Islamist forces in the First Chechen War, he then went on to launch an invasion into Dagestan with his friend Ibn al-Khattab (whom he had met during his Nagorno-Karabakh days) in a failed attempt to help out Wahhabi extremists fighting government forces.
Then in 1999, a series of bombings swept across Russia, killing hundreds of people. Some of the bombs detonated inside Russian apartment buildings. Basayev and al-Khattab caught the rap, blamed for the bombings even though it is widely suspected that they were actually carried out by the FSB to justify what would become the Second Chechen War.
Basayev again fought against the Russians in the Second Chechen War. The best quote about his role is as follows:
“Basayev managed to radically change the world’s perception of the Chechen cause, from that of a small nation resisting victimization by Russian imperialism into another outpost of the global jihad. In the process, he also significantly modified the very nature of Islam in Chechnya and Northern Caucasus, from a traditional mix of syncretism and Sufism into one strongly influenced by Wahhabism and Salafism—especially among the youth. With Wahhabism came expansionism.” —Michael Radu
Who was Basayev really? It was openly acknowledged in Russian government newspapers that he was a GRU operative during the Nagorno-Karabakh and Georgian conflicts. Did he part ways with the GRU when he took his brand of Islamism to fight for Chechen independence? Or was he always a puppet of the Russian intelligence services? Whatever the case, he played his role perfectly for Russian politics, taking the fall for the apartment building bombings, recasting the Chechen conflict as a Wahhabi terrorist operation, and setting the stage for Putin to become the president of Russia. Don’t forget that last point, Putin was the director of the FSB during this time frame…
Ibn al-Khattab was killed by a poisoned letter in 2002, the postage paid for by the FSB. Basayev was killed in an explosion in 2006. Perhaps they had both outlived their usefulness.
Next, we will take a look at some of the Georgian and Chechen jihadists who traveled to Syria and joined the ranks of ISIS, as well as examine their convoluted backgrounds and supposed connections to Russian intelligence services.
Salucci, Ilario. A People’s History of Iraq.
Featured image courtesy of america.aljazeera.com