A Field Guide to Jihadi Dagestan and Chechnya

The Northern Caucasus of Russia have for decades been an "off-the-radar" safe haven for Islamic salafist terrorism. Tamerlan Tsarnaev's alleged terrorism in Boston has changed all that.
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The Northern Caucasus of Russia, comprising five Islamic Russian Republics (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia), have for decades been an "off-the-radar" safe haven for Islamic salafist terrorism. Normally, when we think of Al Qaeda, Mali, Afghanistan, Yemen or Somalia come to mind.

Tamelian Tsarnaev's alleged terrorism in Boston has changed all that. We can add the Caucasus to yet another dangerous place for the American homeland.

The forever unstable Chechnya and the jihadi-infested Dagestan (the largest of the Islamic Russian republics) have been thrust into the limelight as potential inspirational sources of Tamerian Tsarnaev's terrorism. Having returned in 2012 to visit the failed state of Dagestan and Chechnya for six months, Tsarnaev may have had more than mere familiar visitations at play. That is a pretty long time just to visit grandma. What took him back to the jihadi-ridden Russian republics which are notoriously ground zero for Islamic-bred terrorism throughout the Caucasus? The more we learn about the older Tsarnaev brother, the more evident it is that he professed adherence to a virulent form of Islamic political ideology. From whence gained is the question. On his own YouTube account were links to Islamic extremists and videos (now removed) under the name of "Amir Abu Dujana rabbanikaly" -- the name of a historical Islamic warrior as well as a name used by a Dagestani terrorist by the name of Gadzhimurad Dolgatov, who was killed by Russian security forces.

No one knows yet whether Tsarnaev and Dolgatov had any connection when they both were in Dagestan's capital Makhachkala. The Tsarnaev family is just another refugee family tragedy -- part of a larger Islamic Chechnyan diaspora which fled their homeland following the two bloody terrorist wars that befell Chechnya following the fall of the Soviet Union. Ironically, Chechnya has been largely pacified. It is next door, in Dagestan, where the real jihadi extremist groups have taken root. Finding these places on a map is hard enough. Ironically, until the Boston bombings little attention had been played to the northern Caucasus because whatever was boiling in that witch's brew of Islamic extremism had been directed against Russia -- a terrible saga of terrorism against Russian civilian targets and violent reprisal.

The Chechnyan conflict(s) has been well documented. But Dagestan now warrants attention. Even more than Chechnya. If one can measure just by the sheer violence alone, Dagestan is a far more dangerous country than Chechnya to the U.S. and largely terra incognita for the CIA and FBI.

Al Qaeda and the Caucasus Are Tied at the Hip

The connection between Al Qaeda and the Islamic separatists movements in the Caucasus is well documented:

  • The Hamburg cell of Al Qaeda, which formed the core of 9/11 hijackers, intended to join the jihad in Chechnya, but were diverted to Afghanistan.
  • Zacharias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty as one of the 9/11 conspirators, trained in Chechnya from 1996-1997
  • Even Ayman Al Zahariwi -- the notorious #2 leader of Al Qaeda (who is still at large) was actually arrested by the Russians when he was discovered trying to enter Dagestan in 1997, where he was sentenced to six months in prison. Zahariwi extolled the virtues of supporting the Dagestan and Chechnyan Islamic insurgencies in his book Fursan that Raya tar-Rasul (Knights Under the Prophet's Banner). He envisioned Chechnya and Dagestan posing a direct threat to the U.S. by creating a Mujahid Islamic "belt" stretching from the Caspian across Asia to Afghanistan and Indonesia


Following the First Chechnya War (1994-1996), Islamic extremists led by Shamil Basayev and Saudi-born Ibn Al-Khattab (subsequently killed by Russian forces in 2002) launched an insurgent terrorist campaign against the Russian-backed Chechnyan regime by declaring their intention to unite Chechnya and Dagestan under Islamic rule and expel Russia from the Caucasus. As part of a broader global jihad, Islamist terrorists joined Basayev and Al-Khattab's movement, most of who were affiliated in one degree or another with Al Qaeda. Ibn Al-Khattab (and his successor, Abu Walid al-Ghamdi -- another Saudi -- also killed later by Russian forces in 2004) enlisted all of the terrorism tools and virulent ideology they had learned from Bin Laden, and imported many of the Afghani adherents to Al Qaeda who had fled from there after the American invasion. Hundreds of European and Middle Eastern youths flocked to Chechnya to take up the struggle after 2001 to liberate Dagestan. Terrorist training camps abound in the unmarked border areas between Chechnya and Dagestan. The reprisals and counter-reprisals swept Dagestan and its neighbors in a deadly vortex of terror that impacted the civilian population in ways that are unimaginable. Terror financing has poured into the Caucasus, as well. The Russian FSB identified several charities, including Al-Haramain (a Saudi-based charity) with a former branch in Ashland, Oregon as having operated for years in Chechnya and Dagestan -- which financed Wahhabi based training for emigrant would be-Jihadists. Other front organizations were created in the U.S., including the Benevolence International Foundation, which was shut down by the FBI in 2002. Saudi money has supported a web of violent madrasses and clerics extolling the virtues of Wahhabi Islam.

Dagestan's Shariat Jammat and the Islamic Caucasus Emirates As one Caucasus jihadi leader has been picked off by the Russian FSB, others emerge to take their place. The most resilient of the clandestine Islamic jihadi forces to emerge in Dagestan during the turbulent of the past few years is known as the Shariat Jamaat. Its leaders have pledged allegiance to the global Al Qaeda/salafist movements with the goal of establishing a United Northern Caucasus "Emirate" front -- yet now another terrorist movement based in the Caucasus.

In 2011, the U.S. State Dept. designated the Islamic Caucasus Emirate -- a confederacy of these interlinked jihadist movements (including Dagestan's Shariat Jamaat) as a terrorist organization, citing the threat posed not only posed by it to Russia BUT ALSO TO THE U.S. (the "U.S." added without further public explanation on the official State Department press release issued by then-Assistant Secretary of Counter-Terrorism Affairs Daniel Benjamin). The decision took place 11 months after the group's leader -- Doku Umarov -- was added to the U.S. list of foreign terrorists following the group's attacks in 2011 against Moscow's Domodedovo International Airport and Moscow subway.

Is there a link between this U.S. decision, Umarov (or one of his deputies), and Tsarnaev's visit to Dagestan? We shall soon know.

In the first half of 2012 alone, there were over 185 terrorist attacks in Dagestan, making it the most dangerous place in Europe. The Islamic Caucasus Emirates has claimed responsibility for the wave of terrorism befalling Russia's major cities, and have quite a following on social media. Its weapon of choice has included the notorious "black widow" attacks orchestrated by female suicide bombers on security forces and police, as well as senior Russian officials, and transportation hubs in Moscow and St. Petersburg. So far, neither Shariat Jamaat or the Islamic Caucasus Emirates have claimed responsibility for the Boston terror attacks, and in fact, have publicly disavowed any association with Tsarnaev.

Are there others like Tsarnaev who are other "spiders" in a Caucasus Emirate terror network in the U.S. or did he act alone? Too early to tell.

But one thing is tragically certain: whether Tsarnaev was acting as a lone wolf or at the instigation of a Caucasus-based jihadi terror network, "Dagestan" warrants greater focus by U.S. authorities as another spawning ground for global terror and an Al Qaeda safe haven.