Thursday, January 27, 2011

Russia's New Age Terrorist

by Praveen Swami, Telegraph
Back in 2004, the Russian jihad commander who founded the organisation which carried out this week’s murderous attack in Moscow set about writing an inspirational manifesto for his followers.

He turned, bizarrely enough, to the Brazilian New Age novelist Paulo Coelho for inspiration.

“In late March of last year,” Shamil Basayev wrote in the preface of The Book of the Mujahid, “I had two weeks of spare time when I got hold of Warrior of the Light: A Manual. I wanted to derive benefits for the mujahideen from this book and this is why I rewrote most of it, removing some of the excesses.”

I haven’t seen a word about Basayev or his book in the hours of footage and acres of text that the Moscow attack has generated. There are two reasons why it ought to have been there.

First, the attacks in Russia make clear that the jihadist movement isn’t something that, as optimists contend, breeds in failed states and can be kept there by well-aimed missiles. The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism at the University of Maryland has recorded that Russia saw 1107 attacks between 1991 and 2008, resulting in 3,100 fatalities; the trend is headed north.

The second point is less evident.

Russia’s jihad has its roots in the 18th century, when its empire began to expand into territories until then controlled by Turkey and Iran. Local rulers resisted Russia’s advance; the rebellions took various ideological hues. In 1940, for example, Chechen fascists allied with Nazi Germany.

In 1991, as the Soviet Union crumbled, the Chechens began another war for independence. Russia lost an estimated 5,500 troops before Aslam Maskhadov, the president of the Chechen Republic, signed a ceasefire and sought to buy off Basayev by appointing him vice-prime minister. But in August 1999, Basayev led an Islamist army to stage a coup in neighbouring Dagestan. Russian forces intervened, ending Chechnya’s de facto independence.

In 2002, jihadists from Basayev’s Riyad ul-Saliheen Martyrs Brigade – named for Yahiya Ibn Sharaf al-Nawawi’s compilation of religious texts, the Gardens of the Righteous – took 800 people hostage at the Nord-Ost theatre in Moscow; 129 died. In September 2004, the Brigade seized control of a school in the town of Beslan. The ensuing hostage crisis ended in the death of 334 people, including 186 children.

Basayev himself was to be killed in 2006 – but the jihadist movement in Chechnya soon gathered momentum again. In the summer of 2008, there were a series of suicide attacks. In November, 2008 , Doku Khamatovich Umarov declared himself the amir, or supreme leader, of a so-called Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus. He later gave an interview warning Russians: “God-willing, we plan to show them that the war will return to their homes.”

He did. In 2009, 29 were killed when the group bombed a Moscow-bound high-speed train. In the summer of 2010, there were the attacks on the Moscow subway. Russian forces have hit back – but, as the latest bombings make clear, their war against the jihadists is far from over.

This is not because Russia hasn’t killed and captured enough jihadists. It is because the jihadist movement embedded itself in the historical consciousness of its audience, offering solutions that democratic political life doesn’t appear to hold out.

This brings me to my second point: our failure to comprehend the political strategies that underpin the resilience and growing reach of the global jihadist movement, and to combat them.

Few minutes pass between major terrorist attacks and expert commentary that it has something to do with al-Qaeda. The label is useless and dangerous: useless because it tells us next to nothing bar the fact that some people in the Brigade have something to do with Osama bin-Laden’s lieutenants and dangerous because it panders to the illusion that we can reduce the jihadist movement to a fairy-tale ogre which we can slay.

Like other revolutionary movements, of either the Right or Left, jihadism is in a state of constant evolution – often, as Patrick Porter has pointed out in his must-read book Military Orientalism, learning from the systems of knowledge of its adversaries. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who proclaimed that the “language of war is killing,” was quoting, almost verbatim, from the writings of Carl von Clausewitz. In his recent statements, Osama bin-Laden has borrowed the language of the environmental movement and New Left. Basayev, of course, read an author beloved of Oprah fans.

There is a fascinating passage in the Book of a Mujahid; fascinating because of the murderous actions to which it must be compared. The mujahid, Basayev wrote, “recalls the words said by the Prophet Isa [Jesus]: ‘Love your enemies,’ and he obeys this precept, for a mujahid knows that any person, until the very moment of death, has the chance from Allah to get on the Straight Way. And by the mercy of Allah, your worst enemy may happen to become your brother.”

I’m guessing the man who blew himself at Moscow’s airport had read the book, though he quite clearly had an unusual interpretation of Jesus Christ’s message.

From this, the lesson is simple: pious lectures about religious tolerance, or understanding the real message of Islam, whatever it might be, will do nothing to stop jihadism. Not one word of this message will be disputed even by the most crazed suicide-bomber. The suicide bomber chooses to die not because he hates his enemy, but because he sees himself as an altruist: his blood and that of his victims, he believes, will bring redemption.

The jihadist cult of death will lead, inexorably, to hell. But the fight against it will not be won by guns alone. It needs the emergence of real political alternatives – and sadly, there just aren’t any in sight.

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