For good or ill, one of the effects of globalization has been to make the entire world seem a lot closer to us that it once did. On September 3, 2004, I sat and watched live on television as the Beslan hostage crisis ended in a bloody shoot-out that killed nearly a thousand people. To me and the millions who did the same, the Beslan massacre stands even above 9/11 as the prime example of the evil of terrorism and the innocence of its victims.

I do not intend to recount the morbid details of those three days. I instead intend to explain why it happened, and why the issue of Chechnya is more complicated than many suspect.

The area

Beslan is a small town in North Ossetia - Alania, a constituent Republic of the Russian Federation. This region of the world is no stranger to ethnic strife, the sad history of which is is not necessary to repeat in depth. To the south lies the Georgian province of Shida Kartli, which subsumes the old South Ossetian Autonomous Region. Rebels in this area wish to secede from Georgia and become an independent state, and Moscow is only too happy to offer assistance under the guise of 'peacekeeping'. Just over the border from Beslan in the east lies Chechnya, groaning under the pressure of federal military occupation. To the east and north lies Ingushetia, the population of which suffered deportation to Central Asia under Stalin.

The Chechens and the Ingush are closely related, and most are Sunni Muslims. Mateen Siddiqui, an American Muslim, has written -

Islam did not take root in the Caucasus until well into the 18th and mid-19th centuries, with the mountain regions last. However, when Islam finally did enter the hearts of the Caucasian mountaineers, it was impregnated with iron firmness, like the towering Caucasian ramparts themselves.

The resistance by local dervishes to Russian expansionism throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries furnished Islam and anti-imperialists with many heroes, such as Imam Shamyl, who was buried with the Prophet's Companions in Al-Madina and had spent most of his life leading a jihad against Moscow.

The Ossetians, on the other hand, have a long history of compliancy with Moscow and are regarded as good citizens. The majority are Christians. When Stalin deported the Ingush to Central Asia, he removed a part of Ingueshetia and made it part of North Ossetia, which it has remained attached to ever since. This remains a burning issue to this day, inflamed by clashes between Ossetians and Ingush when refugees fled South Ossetia after Georgia removed its autonomy.


The first war in Chechnya, started by Boris Yeltsin, ended in 1997 with what was essentially a Russian surrender. The Russians withdrew, and Chechnya descended into anarchy as no-one had the monopoly on the use of violence. As usually happens in this situation, criminals, smugglers and gangs moved in. As has happened in the 1990s ever since al-Qaeda was forged in Afghanistan in the '80s, Wahhabi and Arabic terrorists moved in as well.

Throughout the '90s, Wahhabi theocrats have travelled to wherever in the world Muslims were fighting each other or someone else, taking money, arms, and their fanatical interpretation of the faith with them. From Bosnia to Kosovo to Chechnya they move in, seeking to crush the tolerant pluralism of Sufism and install an intolerant theocracy. Their foul work is visible now in Iraq, headed by Osama's man on the ground, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In 1996, Osama's man on the ground in Chechnya had just touched down - Amir ibn al-Khattab, a veteran of the Tajik civil war and the Armenia-Azerbaijan war. He had been sent to do to Chechnya what the Taliban and Osama were doing to Afghanistan. He was killed in 2002, but not before igniting the Second Chechen War.

The Chechen national movement was fracturing in the late '90s, as the majority of locals rejected the foreign Wahhabis. The split was personified in the personal feud between Aslan Maskhadov, President of Chechnya, and Shamil Basayev, Prime Minister of Chechnya. Basayev pushed aggressive moves against Russia, and fell in with the Wahhabi crowd. Mashkadov has meanwhile declared that 'Arabs, Tajiks and other rogues have nothing to do here'. On the seventh of August 1999, forces loyal to Basayev and Khattab moved into neighbouring Dagestan and declared it an independent Islamic Republic. A second wave followed on September 5, 1999. Federal troops pushed them out, and the terrorists were unable to ignite ethnic conflict in Dagestan due to its diverse ethnic make-up which resulted in the lack of a sharp dichotomy as a basis of conflict.

Simultaneously, in a move which looked similar to the two-pronged Taliban attack against its foes in 2001, the Russian apartment bombings took place. This name is slightly misleading, as the first attack in Moscow happened in a mall. The second occured in Dagestan and was targetted against an apartment which housed federal troops. Three more bombings followed in Moscow and Volgodonsk, killing hundreds of people in total. The only thing that can remotely be considered a precedent in audacity and brutality was Basayev's hostage-taking operation against a hospital in 1995, which had resulted in the death of 150 civilians. Despite not usually being shy about such matters, Basayev has always denied orchestrating the bombings, leading some to believe the Russian government carried them out as an excuse to invade Chechnya again.

The Second Chechen War was soon underway, and when Grozny fell in 2000 the Chechen resistance movement fragmented. The core of Basayev's Wahhabi movement remained the Islamic International Brigade, commanded by Khattab's successor Abu Walid al-Ghamdi. Everything is co-ordinated by the United Forces of the Caucasian Mujahideen, which includes a council of supposed religious authorities who provide religious justifications for the actions of the Wahhabis (see fedayeen). There is a suicide-bombing wing (mostly made up of black widows, the widows of dead Chechen jihadis) and a sort of proto-secret police organization which executes collaborators.

Using money from the Taleban and al-Qaeda, Basayev's organization thrived and grew. In 2002, it carried out the Moscow theatre siege, at the same time severing links with the moderate Mashkadov and apoligizing to him for not informing him of the attacks. In June 2004, Basayev personally led a raid into Ingushetia, taking over three cities and with the purpose of stealing supplies from Russian troops and civilians, retreating back into Chechnya before reinforcements could arrive. Then, on August 24, black widow suicide bombers brought down two passenger airliners, killing 89 people. Further bombers then attacked a metro station in Moscow, killing ten. One day later, the Beslan school siege began.

Why Beslan?

This question can be interpreted two ways. The first is, 'Why would Basayev want to take hostages in a school?', and the second 'Why did he do it in Beslan?'

In answer to the first, we must look at the demands of the hostage-takers and the broader philosophy of the group they formed a part of. The broader philosophy of the group is revealed by an interview with one of Basayev's henchmen, Amir Ramzan, in 2003, in which he promises 'next year the war will seize the entire Caucasus from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea' (see source list for a link). In this interview he makes three particularly salient points -

  • The organization aims to create a caliphate in the Causcasus from sea to sea, so the primary aim of the movement is not independence for Chechnya.
  • Foreign support and foreign people form a large part of the organization, being the better-armed and trained part. They are Wahhabis.
  • 'I don’t believe we should separate Russian Government from the Russian people', hence Russian civilians such as those in North Ossetia, who have nothing to do with the war in Chechnya, are targets. OBL has said the same about American civilians.

Basayev's organization is essentially an extension of al-Qaeda. Mohammed Atta and the Hamburg cell originally planned to join the Chechen jihad when they went to Afghanistan in the run-up to the planes operation.

In this framework, the demands the hostage-takers made on the ground are relatively insubstantial. The withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya which they demanded was never going to happen, and the demands for prominent Chechen and Ingush politicians to attend the scene can be seen as a delaying tactic, or a hope they could be killed by detonating the bombs which were set up everywhere in the school.

The operation was rather a type of attack now familiar to students of al-Qaeda, an attempt to stir up ethno-religious conflict. North Ossetia, like the entire region, could explode into ethnic conflict if put under enough stress, and the extension of the situation in Chechnya into the rest of the Causcasus could only help Basayev. The Ossetians were clear targets as they are Christian, and had joined the Russian Empire voluntarily, hence being viewed with hatred by the local Muslims who were dying resisting the Empire. Last of all, Beslan is just a hop over the border from Chechnya.

There is no negotiation with Basayev. The tactics of taking children hostage in their school, positioning explosives around them and making them suffer tremendously, is perhaps the most poignant image the world has of the evils of terrorism inspired by the perversion of Wahhabism. It is crucial that we realise that whilst Basayev must be killed and his organization dismantled, moderate Chechens under Mashkadov must receieve the hearing that they deserve. Vladimir Putin should not be allowed to paint Chechnya as a nation of extremists when in fact the terrorists are an alien growth, one which will only grow whilst allowed to feed on the suffering of the local people.


"Second Chechnya War",
Dan Darling's article on Chechnya,
'What the intransigent are thinking' (interview with Amir Ramzan),
'Ruthless rebels who dream of an Islamic empire ',

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