A SHORT HISTORY OF CHECHNYA AND CHECHEN TERRORISM
A SHORT HISTORY OF CHECHNYA AND CHECHEN TERRORISM
By Ben H. English
"A time will come when the whole world will go mad. And to anyone who is not mad they will say: 'You are mad, for you are not like us.'"
Some three years ago, I taught a high school Criminal Justice class entitled “Crime in America”. This course covered the types and trends of crime in our nation, and illustrated what someone working in our criminal justice system would most likely encounter in a future career.
In this course I also identified future trends in crime, including terrorism and mass killings. Examples of the Chechen experience were utilized to explain how monstrous this could be, and was chosen due to the high likelihood of it coming to our nation. On April 15th, 2013, that calculation was proven true in Boston.
Authorities have learned those involved in this hideous act supposedly originated from Chechnya. I say “supposedly”, as much of the Northern Caucasus Mountains serve as a fertile breeding ground for violent Islamic extremist groups. Whether they be Chechen, Ingush, or Dagestani; all three of these lands have been heavily involved in recent bloody separatist movements, have large Sunni Muslim populations, and share common borders.
The Chechens are the best known, due to their numerous brutal terrorist attacks in Russia over the past fifteen years. Chechen fighters have been very active in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and are respected for their tradecraft by our military forces. They consistently exhibit the best martial and technical abilities encountered there, and on several occasions have taken on the best we have in stand up gunfights. They are also well known for providing an expert instructor corps to other Islamofascist groups seeking more lethal capabilities.
To better understand your enemy, you need to be able to crawl inside his head and see the world through his eyes. Three major factors in this is to have a working knowledge of his past, what his goals are at present, and a basic understanding of human nature. With that in mind, consider the following:
What is now known as “Chechnya” is an area in the Northern Caucasus which had been in almost constant conflict since the Fifteenth Century. This strife has been mostly directed to rid the region of foreign occupiers, usually Russian. The beginning of this most recent series of conflicts began during the reign of Catherine the Great in the late 1700s.
Since then, whenever the Kremlin has experienced societal strife, these people have sought to remove themselves from the Russian yoke. Since strife has been often a way of life for the Russians, those opportunities have presented themselves on a fairly often basis.
Just as often, the Great Russian Bear has used a jackbooted heel to grind the Chechens back into the ground. We Americans cannot even begin to imagine the institutionalized brutality, cruelty, and unrepentant viciousness practiced by both sides during these episodes.
Their recent history is littered with bloody anecdotes. During World War II, the Chechens immediately declared their support for Hitler when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. It is said that during the Siege of Stalingrad, all of the Soviet bombers in the Caucasian theater of operations were unable to lend their support, as they were too busy trying the bomb the Chechens back into the Stone Age. Their capitol city of Grozny was turned into a smoking pile of ruins.
In 1944, Josef Stalin ordered the entire populations of Ingushtia and Chechnya deported to Siberia and what is present day Kazakhstan. An entire quarter of those populations died during this time, and they were not allowed to return to their homelands until 1956.
In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, bringing about yet another attempt for Chechen independence. In the preceding decades its Sunni Muslim majority had developed a strong streak of Wahhabism, which had been mostly forced underground during Soviet occupation. This added a new element to state of affairs.
Briefly, Wahhabism is a militant extremist branch of the Sunnis which first made its appearance some 200 years ago. In the 1920s, it was popularized by the House of Saud to bring factionalized tribes together and create the country now known as Saudi Arabia. From there Wahhabism was exported to Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and other countries. The most infamous Wahhabist known to the average American was Osama bin Ladin.
From 1994-1996, the Chechens and Russians fought what is usually called “The First Chechen War”. Bloody, chaotic and completely without quarter taken or given, it was also when Wahhabism rose to real prominence in this unhappy land. In the end, the Chechens managed to win against an emasculated and poorly motivated Russian military.
But it was a “win” mostly in word only. Once more, Grozny lay in crumbled heaps. Chechnya’s economy was nonexistent and there was no real infrastructure remaining. Kidnappings for ransom became rampant, reaching epidemic proportions.
In turn, the Chechens turned upon each other and began fighting amongst themselves. The line was formed basically between what was loosely referred to as the Chechen government, and the Islamic extremists. This line has ebbed and flowed ever since, with each side gaining the upper hand at different times.
In September of 1999, the situation changed drastically for the worse. A series of apartment buildings were bombed in the Russian cities of Buynaksk, Vologdonsk, and Moscow; resulting in 293 people killed and 651 injured. Almost all of these were civilian casualties. The blame for these catastrophic attacks was placed at the feet of Islamic extremists from Chechnya.
Swift Russian retribution followed. A former counterintelligence specialist in the old KGB and recent head of the FSB (Federal Security Service) had been appointed as prime minister just the month before, and he went after the Chechens with a calculated vengeance. His name was Vladimir Putin.
Coincidentally during this same time frame, an army of Chechen extremists launched an invasion on neighboring Dagestan. This was the beginning of the Second Chechen War, and a massive Russian air campaign was launched against those invaders as well as Chechnya itself. These air attacks included the first reported use of Fuel Air Explosives (FAE), a particularly ugly way of air-to-ground support. By December of that same year Boris Yeltsin resigned as the Russian president, and Putin was placed in that office.
In this war, things did not go near as well for the Chechens. In short order they were losing, and losing badly as the enraged Russian Bear savaged then from one corner of their country to another. Completely outclassed in every way on the conventional battlefield they turned to what they knew best; asymmetrical warfare. This choice would result in acts which would chill the heart of civilized man.
In late October of 2002, a group of some 40 to 50 Chechen terrorists took nearly 900 hostages in a large theater in Moscow. Known as the “Nord Ost Siege”, it began with the terrorists streaming up the corridors firing fully automatic weapons into the ceiling. Many of these terrorists were women, an unusual element for Islamic extremists but a trademark of the Chechens.
By the third day of the stand-off, several hostages had been murdered and action was deemed necessary by the Russian authorities. An incapacitating agent, believed to be Fentanyl, was pumped into the theater. It should be noted that Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than Morphine and is often the first choice for the pain suffered by some cancer patients. It is also known to have major side effects such as respiratory depression, and has an attendant high risk of overdose.
Once the Fentanyl was fully employed, assault units made up of the FSB, the MVD and Spetsnaz moved in. Unconscious and semi-conscious terrorists, many wearing suicide vests, were dispatched of quickly with a minimum of two rounds to the head. But some of the terrorists had access to gas masks, and a fire fight erupted in the theater which lasted for over an hour. In the end, 39 terrorists were killed as well as 129 hostages. The injured count was far more than that. Most of the hostages were found to have succumbed to gas inhalation, not gunshot wounds. Recriminations, conspiracy theories, and intrigues from this tragedy continue to reverberate even today.
But the worst was yet to come. After a series of smaller terrorist attacks, along with a constant dose of assassinations, suicide bombings, rape, plunder and simple cold-blooded murder, another headline grabbing atrocity occurred. It began on September 1, 2004, in the North Ossentian town of Beslan.
For Russians, September 1 marks the first day of return to school for their children. Known as the “Day of Knowledge”; students, parents, teachers and the community itself gathers in a holiday mood to usher in the new school year. Such an event was planned at Comintern Street School #1, which was directly situated across from their district police station.
But they had unexpected guests. Dozens of heavily armed Chechen and Ingush terrorists announced their presence by firing automatic weapons into the air. At first, many attendees mistakenly thought it was a Russian security exercise.
Before the terrorists had secured the area, eight people were killed and dozens were injured. The terrorists managed to take some 1200 hostages, and herded them into the school gymnasium. Any sort of resistance was not tolerated, and two fathers of students were quickly executed to make that point clear.
Then the terrorists gathered up some 15-20 other men they thought most likely to cause problems, led them into an adjoining corridor, and set off a bomb. Those who survived the blast were finished off by small arms fire. Only one man managed to survive and later escape. Other hostages were forced to throw the dead bodies out of the windows and wash the blood off the floor.
The terrorists informed authorities that for each terrorist killed, 50 hostages would die. Also, they stated that for each terrorist wounded, 20 hostages would be executed. The hostages were not allowed to either eat or drink, and the building itself was enclosed in a myriad of trip wires, IEDS, and high explosives. The captors said they would blow up the building if there was any attempt of rescue. The Russian government promised to not use force.
On Day Two of the siege, the terrorists released eleven nursing women and their infants. But the remaining hostages were still refused food and water, and were forced to stand without rest in the hot, tightly packed gym reeking of sweat, urine, blood and death. Many of them began to remove their clothes due to the heat, and several of the children fainted. Some of the hostages became so desperate for water they began drinking their own urine.
The Russians continued to try to negotiate, but the terrorists were becoming more and more irrational. Their lack of sleep, surrounding environment, and use of chemical stimulants had combined to make for a wholly paranoid and murderous state of mind. That night, negotiations were cut off by the captors.
Day Three brought a thread of hope; the lines of communication were reopened. An agreement was reached to remove the dead hostage bodies littering the scene, and to deliver the corpse of a dead terrorist.
As the medics approached, a loud explosion was heard inside the gym and the terrorists opened fire, killing two of the EMS personnel. Some 22 seconds later, a strange-sounding detonation occurred inside the building and the roof began to burn. More explosions were heard and portions of the gym’s walls began to crumble. Some of the hostages managed to escape through these breaches, only to be caught in the ensuing crossfire between the terrorists and government forces.
These responding forces consisted of an uncoordinated swarm of armed citizens, Ossentian militia, civilian police, MVD special units, the Russian Army, and crack Spetsnaz special purpose troops. So many different entities with widely varying levels of training and leadership lent to the maddening confusion. Many of the conscripted militia soldiers panicked and actually ran from the scene. Some of the police forces also lost complete control, even firing their weapons in the wrong direction.
At the same time, men of sterner stuff were braving the terrorist gunfire and storming the building in an attempt to save whatever innocent lives they could. Wild, clattering firefights broke out on the campus grounds as the terrorists lined up their hostages to use as human shields. Armored personnel carriers, tanks, and even helicopter gunships entered the growing debacle as the burning roof of the gym collapsed, killing yet another 160 people.
Some two hours later the authorities claimed to have control of the area, even as the noise of combat crackled around them. A small band of terrorists barricaded themselves in a two story building nearby, which was quickly obliterated by tank cannon fire and flamethrowers. Another group attempted to escape on foot and was caught out in the open by helicopter gunships, which summarily chopped them to pieces. One suspected terrorist was lynched without hesitation by a hysterical mob. For nearly twelve more hours, gunfire and explosions continued to be heard in the surrounding areas.
The final casualty figures from this bloody fiasco were sickening. 334 hostages lost their lives in those three days, and another 728 were injured. Many of them were small children, whose greatest crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time among those who had lost their collective sense of conscience a long time before.
The Second Chechen War was officially declared over in 2009. But one has to ask themselves if wars such as these are actually ever really “over”, or are they just a brief respite from a searingly barbaric conflict which has lasted for centuries. A barbaric conflict which has spilled over from Chechnya itself to an apartment complex in Vologdosnk, a theater in Moscow, a school in Beslan, the deserts and cities of Iraq, the mountains of Afghanistan, and now a foot race in Boston, Massachusetts.
There is no stamped expiration date on that Pandora’s Box labeled ‘Hatred’, as well as its attendant ingredients of wickedness and depravity. We have had our first, slightest brush with the Chechen style of terrorism on our own soil. With the knowledge of what has occurred in the past, along with the stated goals of our enemies in the present, one must conclude that it will not be the last or the most significant.