I met Akhmed Zakayev in his north London home turned office in late August. He rose from his comfortable armchair to greet me like a silver-haired uncle in his beige cardigan surrounded by his two sons, one of whom acted as his translator. I found it surprising that this unassuming, devout Muslim is aiming to unseat Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strong man in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. As I write these lines, Kadyrov’s military forces are trying to punch holes through the front line in Ukraine. That Zakayev’s suburban London home should serve as a nerve center for his plan has a distinctly quixotic feel to it. But perhaps it’s also a testament to the story of London itself: All global capitals have attracted their share of exiles, activists and rebel leaders. Few people, however, have shown such resilience in the pursuit of their cause.
Chechnya is at the extreme southern tip of Russia. The Caucasus region, in general, is strategically important both for Russia’s security and for its valuable resources, oil and gas. Historically, Chechnya has long been fought over, since at least the days of Peter the Great in the 18th century. More recently, Russia fought two wars over Chechnya in the 1990s. “Ichkeria” was the name Chechen separatists gave their republic following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. After a brief war from 1994-96, the territory enjoyed de facto independence until the second Chechen war began in 1999. According to The Guardian’s foreign correspondent, Luke Harding, Zakayev was at the heart of events. In the foreword to Zakayev’s memoir, “Subjugate or Exterminate!” Harding writes, “he was variously a minister, a military commander, a negotiator, and a presidential candidate.” As tanks entered Ichkeria, Zakayev was severely injured in a car crash. After a period of hiding in Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Georgia, scuttling from one hideout to another, he sought asylum in London in 2004. There, he continued to act in a ministerial capacity until 2007, when he styled himself the prime minister of Ichkeria. Although he acted as head of the government-in-exile for Ichkeria, his state had ceased to exist as a reality on the ground.
By that point, Putin had installed Ramzan Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, as Chechnya’s leader, effectively turning Ichkeria into a paper republic that existed only on a handful of websites and documents and in the memories of an exiled Chechen diaspora. Moreover, the Russians successfully and systematically eliminated its leadership. By 2013, all of its presidents had been killed, from its founder, Dzokhar Dudayev, to Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, Aslan Maskhadov, Abdul Halim Sadulayev and Dokka Umarov. The only one left was Zakayev.
As the years passed, Zakayev never ceased hoping to reestablish this fabled Ichkerian republic. Now, as Putin’s invasion ravages Ukraine and creates power vacuums across its former backyard, Zakayev has sensed an opportunity. From London, Brussels and Kyiv, Zakayev travels to mobilize political support from anyone who will listen. He talks of building a “national” army, which to the outsider appears like any other volunteer militia made up of diaspora Chechens. To Zakayev, however, this is no mere militia but a nascent Grande Armée, which he hopes will unseat his rival Kadyrov and return him to Grozny with glorious fanfare. Yet, like many of the cross-border wars that have been waged in the wider Middle East, it is a wager that could easily backfire. In fact, it is a wager that has already backfired before in Chechnya’s recent history.
Earning the wrath of Putin has not stopped Zakayev’s relentless political activities. His mission is to keep the idea of the Ichkerian republic alive and to highlight Putin and Kadyrov’s many transgressions. As soon as he arrived in London, he teamed up with Russian exiles trickling in, united by their common political enemy — Putin. Of particular importance, as the British inquiry into the fatal poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko pointed out in 2016, was Zakayev’s friendship with both Litvinenko himself and another prominent Putin critic, Boris Berezovsky. The three had been on opposing sides of the Chechen conflict. Berezovsky was then a Russian oligarch who had acted on behalf of Moscow, while Litvinenko served as a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) intelligence officer. In later years, however, Litvinenko grew increasingly sympathetic to the Chechen separatist cause. As the inquiry noted, Berezovsky “financed Russian emigrés” and Litvinenko served on Zakayev’s security detail, as well as sitting on his war crimes commission that investigated Russian human rights violations.
Such alliances come with a heavy price. According to the British Foreign Office, in 2004, Zakayev and Litvinenko, who had become neighbors in London, had both their houses firebombed. The motives remained unclear. In 2002, The Times revealed that Zakayev’s name appeared on an FSB blacklist. In 2006, his friend, Litvinenko, was famously poisoned with the chemical polonium. The photos of his emaciated body splashed across the front pages of British newspapers attested to the lengths Putin would go to in pursuit of his enemies. Another Kremlin critic and friend, Anna Politkovskaya, who, according to the inquiry, also sat on Zakayev’s war crimes commission, was murdered in October 2006. In 2011, Britain’s Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) expelled an alleged Chechen hitman who had Zakayev in his sights. To this day, Zakayev has to inform the British security services of his movements.
While Zakayev views this struggle against Putin as “a holy war,” he has not found it easy to drum up political support for his cause. Little headway has been made over the years, despite constant lobbying in the capitals of Europe, counting on friends from the actress Vanessa Redgrave to former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to push the Ichkerian agenda. In the post-9/11 world, with Islamist terrorism seen as the number one security threat, Britain’s then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and other politicians preferred closer ties with Moscow, rather than the chaotic world of dissidents and separatists like Zakayev.
In light of the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, attitudes towards the Ichkerian cause have shifted. Members of Europe’s Chechen diaspora, motivated by opposition to Kadyrov, have begun making their way to Ukraine to fight. The Western press has expressed horror at the brutality of Kadyrov’s forces — exemplified by their role in the Bucha massacre of April 2022 — while also showing surprising sympathy toward bearded Chechen battalions fighting on the Ukrainian side, named after folk heroes like Sheikh Mansur and Dzokhar Dudayev, the founder of Ichkeria. These volunteer battalions wear the military patches of red, green and white with a black wolf at the center, signifying allegiance to Ichkeria. Formed by exiled veterans of the Chechen wars of the ’90s in Denmark, the militias have fought alongside the Ukrainian army since the Donbas conflict began in 2014.
With the wind seemingly in the separatists’ favor, Zakayev has upped his lobbying game. The former theater actor has been on a charm offensive, appearing on European media outlets, flying to Kyiv and meeting Ukrainian parliamentarians like Oleksiy Goncharenko and holding YouTube tête-à-têtes with him. He also donned military fatigues to set up a military unit of his own in September 2022. Harking back to his days as a former commander, Zakayev gave this unit a long and grandiose name: the Separate Special Purpose Battalion of the Ministry of Defence of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, or “OBON” for short. Zakayev is officially its commander-in-chief, and photos on social media show him marshaling his troops inside Ukraine, wielding the customary Ichkerian armband and Kalashnikov rifle.
OBON appears to be a relatively capable force. Film footage has emerged of a well-equipped battalion fighting alongside the Ukrainian army, retaking villages in the Kherson region in the summer of 2022. The presence of this military unit fighting alongside Ukrainian forces was intended to add further weight and legitimacy to Zakayev’s cause. The message he sought to convey was that they were a “national army” — an army-in-exile, akin to the Free French in World War II, who fought against the German forces and Vichy regime. The icing on the cake came in October 2022, when the Kyiv Post reported that 287 Ukrainian parliamentarians had recognized that the republic of Ichkeria was “temporarily occupied by the Russians.” It was a signal that Ukraine thought Kadyrov’s government was illegitimate. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Ukrainian president in turn recommended “that the Foreign Ministry look into the issue.”
Yet this apparent victory for Ichkeria was not necessarily a victory for Zakayev, nor even the separatists, but rather for the existence of Ichkeria as a national entity. Ukrainian parliamentarians and indeed outsiders must have asked who exactly led this Ichkerian separatist state. Due to the legacy of the Chechen wars of the 1990s, the separatists themselves were immensely divided. Ukrainian politicians have not only been courted by Zakayev but also other Chechen politicians claiming leadership of the self-styled republic. The problem was illustrated in November 2022, when Radio Liberty reported that representatives of the Chechen separatists held two separate congresses; one in France led by Dzhambulat Suleymanov and the other by Zakayev, who held his own conference in Belgium the next day.
Ukrainian politicians had to perform political arithmetic for this to make sense. They would have to entertain the idea that Zakayev, at least according to the Ichkerian constitution, was the prime minister incumbent, even though the last Ichkerian president, Dokka Umarov, had effectively abolished the republic in 2007, declaring it an “Islamic emirate” instead, which now included the entire North Caucasus. Moreover, a referendum held inside Chechnya in 2003, however farcical, had shown the territory to favor becoming part of the Russian Federation. Since no elections had been held on the part of the Ichkerian republic, how exactly were the parliamentarians meant to confer leadership onto one man?
If that weren’t enough, the Ichkerian leaders seemed to be countries apart politically, too. According to the Caucasian Knot online news website, Suleymanov wanted a “republic ruled by the Sharia Law (sic)” whereas Zakayev wanted a “secular Ichkeria” which, as he told me, doesn’t mean the abandonment of religion. There are also Chechens in the diaspora who believe in Umarov’s vision of an Islamic emirate. And the separatists disagree on more than that. What, for instance, will Chechnya’s relationship be with the West? Some, like Zakayev, while ambivalent about past Western behavior, still believe in pointing Ichkeria’s political compass in that direction. Others feel the West had abandoned their self-styled republic to its fate after 9/11 and were not so sure. Given the divisions within the Chechen separatists, one could not blame Ukrainian politicians for welcoming their contribution in fighting the Russians, while refraining from recognizing their political leaders. This is why Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seemed to kick the issue into the long grass.
Nor is Zakayev’s OBON a Chechen Grande Armée so much as a statement of intent. As already mentioned, other Chechen separatist battalions have also hoisted the flag of Ichkeria — and have fought alongside Ukrainian forces far longer than OBON has. Sheikh Mansur, a largely Sufi battalion, and Dzokhar Dudayev, a primarily nationalist battalion, have been fighting alongside Ukraine’s forces since the conflict in the Donbas started in 2014. They have no need to align themselves to Zakayev’s agenda: As Cerwyn Moore, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Birmingham, points out, they already have a far closer relationship with the Ukrainian government than Zakayev’s forces do. To complicate matters further, the son of the former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, Anzor Maskhadov, is now setting up his own “army of liberation,” according to news reports.
Zakayev, then, may be talking a great game, as leaders do in times of war. He certainly makes one feel his military unit is a national army of thousands, when in reality it probably consists of several hundreds; and that the Ukrainian Parliament’s recognition of Ichkeria amounts in effect to recognition of his own political legitimacy. But the reality, according to Moore, is that neither he nor the other separatist leaders threaten Kadyrov’s rule, for they remain “fragmented.” Moore, though, is not wholly pessimistic: “the fact that they are carving out even a sort of semi-virtual sense of identity under the umbrella of Ukrainian resistance to Russia is doing something quite powerful.” Kadyrov is no longer the only model of Chechen identity and governance: The separatists can also serve as an alternative, and that worries Grozny.
In spite of the separatists’ fragmentation, Kadyrov is rattled by their presence. The Chechen strongman has taken an uncompromising position towards Ukrainian resistance. Reuters reports indicate he wants to wipe out Ukrainian cities using tactical nuclear strikes, while also curiously waging jihad to save Russia against “satanism.” This may sound ludicrous, despotic and typical of a man known for bombastic rhetoric and Instagram posts. Arguably, beneath the bombast lies a realization that Putin’s downfall will most likely result in his own. Kadyrov knows that, if Putin falls, Birnam Wood will almost certainly come to Dunsinane — the separatist forces will be after him in Grozny. It is no wonder that Harold Chambers, an analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says Kadyrov has deployed his troops wherever separatist battalions operate. He has also directed his wrath at Zakayev specifically. In September 2020, the Caucasian Knot reported that Zakayev’s relatives gathered in the Chechen town of Urus-Martan to swear allegiance to Kadyrov. It also reported that Zakayev’s brothers, sisters and nephews had been detained. In November 2022, the same outlet reported that Kadyrov offered a reward for his compatriots “to kill Zakayev.”
The biggest problem for Zakayev and indeed the separatists as a whole is not how he rolls the dice against Kadyrov or Putin. It’s not even about achieving political unity or amassing an army capable of penetrating the Chechen mountains. For Zakayev’s wager to succeed, he has to defeat the real enemy — the legacy of Chechnya’s recent history. This legacy not only haunts him but also the Ukrainians and the international community as a whole. To the West, rightly or wrongly, the story of Chechen separatism is intertwined with jihadism. For the international community to back the separatists, having tasted the fruits of jihadism for the last 20 years, is simply unpalatable. The very fact that the same old warriors, including Zakayev, are still in the game today raises the question: Why should things turn out any differently this time round? Already, there are reports of Chechen jihadists returning from Syria.
The world has seen and experienced how the last roll of the dice turned out. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it resulted in the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic splitting into two. The Republic of Ingushetia decided to remain within the new Russia. Meanwhile, separatists led by the former Soviet air force Maj. Gen. Dudayev clamored for independence. That was understandable. Chechens had a history of resisting the Russian empire. The ghazawats (resistance) of Imam Mansur and Imam Shamil of the 19th century are part of their national story. Moreover, Josef Stalin’s brutal treatment of Chechens remained in their collective memory. His policy of punishing them for allegedly aiding the Germans in World War II led to an estimated 400,000 Chechens and Ingush being forcibly resettled or killed in the process. Dudayev was also familiar with the way the USSR controlled subject peoples: He had commanded the Soviet air fleet that served in the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s and expected war. And so, between 1994 and 1996, the First Chechen War unfolded. In its first six months alone, according to academics and human rights organizations, an estimated 40,000 civilians died.
Nonetheless, Dudayev succeeded in getting international backing and some recognition from the late Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Chechnya became a de facto independent state following the Khasavyurt Accord in 1996 negotiated by Zakayev. 1997 saw the Russia-Chechnya Peace Treaty, when Yeltsin, according to the New York Times, pledged “never to use force or threaten to use it in relations between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Ichkeria.’’ This was the first time the Russian president had used the name by which separatists called their republic. It was tantamount to its recognition. Neighboring Georgia followed suit and recognized Ichkeria too. With the involvement of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the road to independence seemed to be on solid footing. It was a major blow to Russian ambitions in the oil-rich region. But victory was bittersweet: Dudayev, Zakayev’s hero and mentor, was assassinated in April 1996. The self-styled republic had an interim president in Zelimkhan Yandarbiev until elections could be held in 1997.
There had been some indications that Ichkeria could become a democratic and independent nation state. The elections of January 1997, which included Zakayev, had been hard fought and bitter. And yet, Tim Guldiman, who led a team of 70 or so international observers from the OSCE, judged it to have been “free and fair.” By March, there was a constitution in place too. The result saw Aslan Maskhadov, viewed as a political moderate by the international community, come to power. All the candidates appeared to accept the result.
But even as Maskhadov took hold of the reins, cracks and divisions were already forming. The same debates and issues we see today occurred back then. Yandarbiev, for instance, had wanted to turn the country into an Islamic state in the short period when he was interim-president. Maskhadov denounced this. One presidential candidate, Shamil Basayev, was involved in taking a hospital hostage in Budyonnovsk, a town in southern Russia in 1995, in order to force the Russians to negotiate. It failed. One might have thought the presidential candidate had learned his lesson but, in 2004, he claimed responsibility for taking a school in Beslan hostage. This resulted in the deaths of its pupils when the Russian army decided to storm it. Basayev claimed, yet again, that it was a ploy to force the Russians to the table. With friends like these, who needed enemies?
The post-war “republic” was in dire need of money, investment and security, but kidnappings and banditry scared investors away. Even before the elections, six Red Cross workers had been murdered in their sleep. Of course, many like Zakayev accused the Russians of fomenting this lawlessness. Certainly, that is plausible. To the Russians, the idea of an independent Chechnya was unthinkable. It was in their interest to show the world that this upstart nation was wholly ungovernable, except under the wing of the Russian Federation. In December 1996, according to the BBC, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the last leader of al Qaeda, spent six months in Russian custody, having been caught without a valid visa in Chechnya. He was released by the Russians, with consequences that remain with us to this day. So it is not implausible that the FSB was active in furthering Russian political goals and trying their utmost to split the Chechen leadership.
Yet even if we assume the Russians were setting these traps, that is, after all, what an implacable foe does. In reality, it was the Chechen house that was divided by political infighting, then as now. The leaders simply failed to unite. The truth is many of these men had been ordinary mortals before the war. Zakayev had been an actor; Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, had been a construction worker; Umarov, the future president and emir of the Islamic Caucasus, was a racketeer. They had been brought together and forged by Dudayev’s political leadership during the war. Basayev, for example, went from selling computers in Moscow to commanding 11 battalions. So it went with many others. After Dudayev’s assassination, these men became political orphans without a clear sense of direction for their country. At the same time, they had an over-inflated sense of themselves as heroes of the ghazawat. Who wouldn’t? It’s not every day one takes on the might of the Russians and beats them. Even Imam Shamil didn’t do that; he spent his last days in exile in Kyiv and died in the city of the Prophet Mohammed, Medina, in 1871. So it wasn’t surprising that each political leader, publicly at least, considered himself the protector of Ichkeria, while racked with self-doubt in private.
It was in that critical period of political flux that the radicals arrived in Chechnya. Some of these rebel leaders allied themselves with Arab Afghans and others. After all, only a few years ago, these Arabs fought alongside the Afghan Mujahideen that beat the Soviet war machine. They appeared to be kindred spirits. The Arabs brought with them not only goodwill, military expertise and hard cash, but also a puritanical form of Islam known as Wahhabism or Salafism. Wahhabism seemingly provided clarity to some Chechen leaders who, only a few years ago, were non-devout. Moreover, Arab Afghans may not have been part of al Qaeda but they were certainly infused with a relatively new idea known as “global jihad.” To a Chechen layman untrained in the intricacies of the concept, this simply meant defending one’s homeland from the Russian invaders.
While global jihad was adorned with the language and iconography of Islamist fundamentalism, it was also revolutionary in outlook and led by charismatic figures. Global jihadists saw themselves as the modern equivalent of the A-Team. They were a foreign Muslim brigade that would go and assist oppressed Muslims wherever they were. At first sight, it was an immensely seductive proposition, appealing to the emotional sentiment of Muslims wanting to help their co-religionists. However, in practice, their fight could be against the “infidel” or oppressive rulers that subjugated the populace from practicing their version of Islam. And so they appeared in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, took up arms against rulers in Saudi Arabia, declared war against the United States or simply robbed a bank for the ummah, as happened on the streets of London. The global jihadists took it upon themselves to decide who to assist, when to assist and, above all, whose Islam was acceptable.
Understandably, such ideas were a recipe for disaster, wholly destabilizing by their nature. After all, which nation-state would want a transnational organization with a medieval conception of the world that decided you were an oppressor or an “infidel,” with an independent policy from your own? It is wholly unclear whether Chechen rebel leaders fully grasped this in the early days. One also has to wonder whether the present leaders understand this even today, with Chechen jihadists returning from Syria to join their ranks.
Nevertheless, for Chechnya’s leaders, global jihad muddied the waters between the premodern and modern Muslim worlds, between the offensive and defensive components of Islam’s martial tradition, between allegiance to a country and people and allegiance to the transnational Muslim community — the ummah.
The truth was many of these radical Arab Afghans were immensely charismatic. The first partisan to arrive was Emir Khattab, or Samir Saleh Abdullah al-Suwailim, a Saudi-Jordanian foreign fighter. Coming from a religious and well-to-do family, the young Khattab had been captivated by the bravery of the Mujahideen and traveled to Afghanistan in 1988. Abdullah Anas, an Afghan Arab and director of the Arab Services Bureau, who met him after the taking of Kabul in 1992, remembers him as “a man who had leadership and insights.” However, Khattab’s jihad in Afghanistan did not go well. He got caught up in the infighting between the various Arab factions in Jalalabad. Seemingly dissatisfied with his jihad in Afghanistan, he started an insurgency in Tajikistan to try to remove the Soviet-backed communist government. He failed miserably and lost several fingers in the process. It was then, according to Khattab’s brother, Mansur, that he was encouraged to go to Chechnya. He managed to get into the country in 1995 through Azerbaijan and decided to stay, due to an old woman telling him, “we want them [Russians] to quit our land so that we can return to Islam.”
Zakayev knew Khattab from the early days and remembers his contribution as consisting of small-scale ambushes aimed at disrupting communication lines. “Khattab,” he says, “had around five to six men growing to maybe eighteen men — many were Chechen.” They were partisans, not part of the regular army. Still, Khattab’s contribution earned him recognition and his star became ascendant. According to Julie Wilhelmsen, a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Maskhadov made him a brigadier general in 1996. Khattab, who had not severed ties with Saudi Arabia, unlike Osama bin Laden, could leverage the support of the kingdom’s heavyweight religious scholars like Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, Muhammad al-Uthaymin, Muhammad al-Farraj and others. With their support, he had access to the immense financial riches of the Gulf, turning him into a kingmaker.
Shamil Basayev, having had his presidential ambitions thwarted, teamed up with Khattab. With access to Khattab’s resources, he acted independently of Maskhadov’s political agenda. Their partnership proved disastrous for the Ichkerian republic; their relationship was not unlike that of Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, where the former behaved like a state-within-a-state. Even though Khattab claimed to be non-sectarian, he allowed Salafi scholars like Abu Umar to come and “correct” the beliefs of Chechen recruits who hailed largely from Sufi backgrounds. Courts and camps were set up outside of Maskhadov’s control. The graduates of these camps, convinced of their religious positions, became their enforcers and gave birth to an indigenous pipeline of future Salafi-jihadis.
Those fractures were exacerbated by the likes of Akhmad Kadyrov, who, with the acquiescence of the KGB, had trained as an Islamic jurist. He used the presence of Wahhabis to agitate against his political rivals, making the situation in Chechnya even more sectarian and volatile. Moreover, he paved the way for his eventual successor, Ramzan, to weaponize Sufism, or traditional Islam, to kill any form of political opposition against his rule in the name of destroying the Wahhabis.
The foreign proselytizers, “dawah” men and radicals introduced ideas wholly alien to Chechen culture, changing the religious topography of the region — especially among the young. Some were even appointed judges and tried to ban Chechen traditions and customs that went back centuries. Tensions boiled over in the summer of 1998, after the Wahhabi and jihadist factions tried to apply the Sharia on some local Chechens in the town of Gudermes. The locals refused to be punished and publicly humiliated. Open gun battles broke out, 20 were killed and the town of Urus-Martan became a no-go zone for Maskhadov’s forces. According to the director of the program on extremism at George Washington University, Lorenzo Vidino, Maskhadov issued a deportation order for Khattab, who just ignored it. It was no longer the Russians destroying the state from outside but the radicals within. So powerful had Basayev become that Maskhadov was forced to come to an agreement with him over the introduction of Sharia in Chechnya in 2002, writes Wilhelmsen. It was a sure sign the jihadists had gained a dominant position in the country and played into the hands of the Russians: It showed the world Ichkeria was a country of warlords, where only the Russian Federation could reestablish order.
The end game came when, in a repeat of Tajikistan, Basayev and Khattab aimed to expel the Russians from neighboring Dagestan. The problem was that Dagestan was part of the Russian Federation. The independence movement had gone beyond the borders of the Ichkerian republic. Basayev’s aim was no longer the presidency but the unification of the Caucasus under the Congress of Chechen and Dagestani people. Naturally, this was to be achieved under his own enlightened leadership and Khattab was to be the commander of an Orwellesque Peacekeeping Brigade. This might not be the global jihad of the al Qaeda variety, but it was in the same spirit. It was on one of those raids into Dagestan that the Second Chechen War broke out in 1999, resulting in the fall of the self-styled republic. It was a spectacular own goal. Even Mustafa Hamid, a famous Afghan Arab close to al Qaeda, said the invasion was as catastrophic as 9/11. The country had gone from a state to one existing only on paper.
Over the years, things went from bad to worse. Putin installed Akhmad Kadyrov in Grozny. Following the latter’s assassination, his son eventually succeeded him. Any hope of saving the republic was futile, as Basayev and Khattab’s invasion had changed the world’s perception of the Chechen cause. As one commentator, Michael Radu, remarked, the country went from “a small nation resisting victimization by Russian imperialism into another outpost of the Global Jihad.”
In a final act of self-inflicted harm, Basayev was appointed vice-president of Ichkeria in June 2006 by Dokka Umarov. Meanwhile, in 2007, Umarov confirmed the world’s fears: He tore up the republic’s constitution and declared it an Islamic emirate. Zakayev, now in London, refused to accept Umarov’s “unconstitutional” decision and denounced his extremism. But this meant little, since the state no longer existed. Instead, it earned him a death sentence in absentia from Umarov’s Islamic court. The republic was truly dead the moment Umarov renounced the presidency and relied on the fatwas issued in London and Amman by jihadi scholars like Abu Basir al-Tartusi and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
The ramifications of the Chechen conflict endure to this day. Although Khattab was assassinated by the FSB in 2002, he became a global internet legend. With the help of forums and websites, his exploits were amplified among the Muslim diaspora. The image of the long-haired Khattab, with his oiled beard, sporting either a black beret or gray spotted papakha and army fatigues, still adorns many a social media profile to this day. Young foreign jihadis in Syria adopted his name in homage.
For many young Chechens, he was also more than just an internet star: He was the new martial example to be followed. Khattab had changed Chechnya’s religious DNA. In the past, Chechens had joined the ghazawat which, as Moore puts it, “was like a Sufi anti-colonial war.” The warriors were Sufi devotees or “murids” of Sheikh Mansur or Imam Shamil. Both had resisted the imperial expansion of Catherine the Great or Alexander II. So infused was Sufism within the Chechen tradition that the wars of the 19th century became known as the Murid wars. The young men who fought alongside Imam Shamil belonged to the Naqshbandi Sufi order and others. Now the young had found a new “order” in Salafi-jihadism, embodied in the likes of Khattab. So it was not surprising that many Chechens became wandering warriors just like their hero, going as far afield as Syria to ply their trade, causing security analysts to wake up in cold sweats.
In Syria, too, the legacy of the Chechen conflict played its part. When the Bashar al-Assad regime — an ally of Russia — applied the same playbook to the 2011 protests in Syria, Chechen militants were among the earliest arrivals. Popular demonstrations and international sympathy were poisoned when Assad released Islamist hardliners from jail under an amnesty and foreign fighters started trickling in from the Turkish border. The newly released prisoners joined the uprising and promptly embroiled them in doctrinal religious issues. With the presence of foreigners, the country was turned into an outpost for global jihad in the eyes of the international community.
When Syrians demanded freedom from authoritarianism, the world understood. After hardline Islamists and Salafi-jihadis entered the fray, things changed. When they demanded the Sharia be applied, the position of the world shifted. The initial slogans uttered by Syrians themselves were no longer as important anymore. And so Assad was able to bomb the opposition into oblivion, using the same mantra the Russians had adopted a decade earlier in Chechnya: They were fighting “terrorists.” In the mix were contingents of Chechens born out of Khattab’s legacy, to whom Assad could point as evidence for this claim. Indeed, the Chechen Abu Omar al-Shishani became the poster boy for the Islamic State group. It mattered little that some of these Chechen jihadis stayed aloof from the intra-rebel infighting or never joined the Islamic State. Their mere presence buoyed Assad’s argument and helped to kill the uprising, filling the world with fear.
Today, Chechen jihadists make their way to Ukraine from the Syrian front. Once again, they entwine themselves with the separatists and muddy the waters. Already, photos and news reports have Rustam Azhiev, a leader of Ajnad al-Kavkaz, a Chechen jihadi group in Syria, joining the separatist ranks. True, Azhiev’s group is hardly comparable to the Islamic State. According to the Chechen jihadi expert Joanna Paraszczuk, the jihadi group fought Assad’s forces alongside al Qaeda affiliates. Al-Monitor reports that his group stayed neutral vis-a-vis the Syrian intra-rebel infighting. However, what is certain is that these Chechen jihadis bring with them their own traumas, ideas and politics, which are almost certainly Salafi-jihadi in flavor. Azhiev is not the devil incarnate and it would be unfair to depict him as such, but, as Paraszczuk has shown in an interview with him, he is a product of the Caucasus emirate and wants to see “divine law” implemented.
Zakayev, too, seems a prisoner of Chechnya’s bloody legacy. Ever the optimist, he tells me they can deal with all of these issues. “There will be a background check and if we see him coming with Wahhabi ideology, we know that the FSB has penetrated. If you want to help the Ukrainians that is fine. If you are a Mujahid, then you should fight for your country. If you want to help Ukraine you can come. We follow Ukrainian laws.” Yet, after meeting him, Azhiev is pictured with Zakayev on social media. In October, the Caucasian Knot reported Zakayev had appointed Azhiev to no less a post than deputy commander-in-chief of Ichkeria, promoting him to the rank of “colonel.” This apparent volte-face is, according to Moore, “a marriage of convenience.” Nevertheless, it seems to lend weight to the argument that history will repeat itself. After all, when the “prime minister” of Ichkeria, not unlike Maskhadov with Khattab, makes a deal with Azhiev — a product of the Khattab pipeline — what should one conclude? Zakayev must know this. He has written two volumes of memoirs, “To Subjugate Or Exterminate” and “Russia and Chechnya and the West 2000-2008,” showing how bitter infighting and a handful of radicals, combined with Russian machinations, brought down the nascent republic. Yet here he is, seemingly doing it all over again, like a prisoner of history.
How is Zakayev going to persuade the world to back the separatists with the presence of these grizzled veterans, with over a decade of asymmetric warfare under their belts? The memory of a young Chechen teenager, Dzokhar Tsarnaev, using homemade bombs to devastate the Boston Marathon in 2013 still lingers. If an untrained teenager can produce home-made bombs using a pressure cooker, what then could these Chechen jihadis do with their expertise? Why could they not source weaponry from the Ukrainian conflict? After all, according to the Economist, the Charlie Hebdo and Paris attackers carried out their assaults with weapons sourced from the civil war in Bosnia in the 1990s. Why couldn’t they point a British-made anti-tank weapon at the MI6 headquarters in London? The Real IRA did it in September 2000. The security implications for the international community, were these Chechen jihadis to become disgruntled, are a nightmare.
So it appears Zakayev is making bets in a burning house. While the war in Ukraine has certainly created an opportunity, the scars of the past weigh heavily on him and those he wants to back his cause. The very elements, the fissures and cracks that existed in the ’90s, still exist today; perhaps they are worse. Zakayev has to muster all his charm, passion and energy to convince the international community and Ukraine to put their faith in him despite all that has passed. They are asked to believe on trust that, eventually, his military unit will grow into a mighty force, capable of marching on to glory in Grozny. They have to take it on faith that peace, democracy and the republic will be restored; that the wolf shall sit with the sheep. They must take him at his word that there will be no repeat of Urus-Martan; that Salafi-jihadis like Azhiev will abide by the secular democratic vision of Zakayev; that this time things will be different. His backers will have to look into his eyes and decide whether he is a power-hungry but capable superman, a Chechen Garibaldi if you will, or a Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Should they take a chance on him, or stick with the known, albeit despotic, quantity in the form of Kadyrov? It’s a big ask.
Of course, Zakayev could simply walk away. Many Chechen veterans of the Ichkerian government have, and reside all over the world in quiet exile. Zakayev has fought the good fight. He has a nice suburban house in London, grandchildren, well-raised sons and daughters. He has everything a devout Muslim man might want in his 60s. But I don’t think he can do that, for he doesn’t make sense outside of his mission. He lives with the small Ichkerian flag on his desk, on the bookshelves laden with Chechen history, literature, lore, pictures of family, the mountains and the framed picture of his hero, Dudayev, who urges him forward.
His decision to fight, I suspect, has gone beyond his hero. His past is intimately connected to Chechnya’s bloody history. “Even as a kid,” Zakayev says, “I started to pray very early and I read books about our history.” He had wanted to become a mufti, an Islamic jurist, but the only way to become one was to be a KGB agent. Instead, he chose acting in theater. In the Soviet era, the arts were the only place where he could deal with topics related to his culture. The war changed all of that, “as if God heard my prayer,” he told me.
Zakayev then, can never go back to an ordinary life, for he has lived an extraordinary one. He has been an actor, a politician, a military commander, an exile, a writer — he is someone men want to kill. The fate of his country, the death of his comrades, the suffering of his children and family have all, in a way, welded his very being to this cause, so much so that, perhaps, he is unable to extricate himself from it because he knows nothing else. He reminded me of my 70-year-old workaholic father when I urged him to retire. He had made enough money to live comfortably. But he refused, replying candidly, “I can’t, son. I’ll die.” Zakayev is a version of that futile mystic who has to continue because the mission is not just about duty but about meaning, however tragic this may be.
So to ask Zakayev to simply give up the cause is to misunderstand who he is; it is to pronounce a death sentence. Giving up means to give up his life’s work, his hero, his God, his family and everything else. This is why, whether he’s able to unseat Kadyrov or not, matters naught. Even if all of Chechen history is against him, he will continue. There are probably many like Zakayev in the Chechen diaspora. Many more Chechens will likely go to their destruction in this bloody conflict, repeating the same mistakes. Ask them to just let it go and they will, like Zakayev, smile forlornly, as if they’ve heard that rebuke before, and reply, “I cannot explain it, it is my faith … for me it’s a holy war against the Russians … for me it’s jihad.” Though he means it one way, these words will not appease Western minds. If and when the war in Ukraine ends, the appetite for a re-run of the chaos of 1990s Chechnya will be, to say the least, minimal.
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