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Chechnya's warrior tradition

Guerrillas from Russia's longtime nemesis take their fighting skills to Afghanistan.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / March 26, 2002


Elusive, swift-striking Chechen guerrillas have been Russia's most ferocious and resolute internal enemy for almost two centuries, and dozens of Russian troops continue to die weekly in Moscow's latest 30-month-old campaign to subdue them. Some reports say US forces may now be squaring off against the same deadly foe in Afghanistan – hundreds of Chechen fighters who have embraced Al Qaeda's global jihad.

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"There are a lot of them, and they sure know how to fight," an un-named US officer told Agence France-Presse after US troops clashed with Chechen guerrillas in this month's "Operation Anaconda," aimed at corralling diehard Al Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan's eastern mountains. General Tommy Franks, commander of US forces, was more circumspect at a Moscow press conference last week. "The number of nationalities represented in the detainees we have is about 35 and, to be sure, the Chechen nationality is represented among those nations," he said.

Russian veterans say they are not surprised to hear the Americans are encountering hard-core Chechen fighters in Afghanistan, and finding the going tough. "Chechens are fanatical soldiers," says Viktor Putilov, chairman of the Union of Vityaz Veterans, an association of former spetznaz – special forces – troopers. "The first thing a male Chechen baby is given is a weapon, and they grow up believing a man's only destiny is to fight. Their great strength in battle is that they do not think of their own lives, or anyone else's."

But most experts who study the tiny, traditionally Muslim republic of Chechnya say they doubt its legendary warriors have joined Osama bin Laden's terrorist network in large enough numbers to become its "biggest single component," as some reports have claimed. For one thing, they say, most Chechens are not religious. "Islam did not strike deep roots among the Chechens, and has played only a slight role in their rebellions against Russian rule in the past," says Alexander Iskanderyan, head of the independent Center for Caucasus Studies in Moscow. "Religion is not the key to understanding Chechens; their painful past is."

Many experts agree that a history of bloody defeat, mass repression and bitter exile, combined with a martial culture in which boys become full-fledged soldiers at age 12, may have led significant numbers of young Chechen men to join Al Qaeda, seeking revenge not just against Russia, but the entire non-Muslim world. "The Chechens cannot forget or forgive the mass suffering they have endured, and which they continue to bear," says Svetlana Omarova, an expert with the Confederation of Repressed Peoples of the former USSR, a human rights organization. "This is not to offer excuses, but one must understand how profoundly offended this nation is. These are men who are used to fighting for a lost cause."

General Mikhail Yermolov, who led Russian forces in a ruthless 30-year campaign to crush Chechnya in the 19th century, called them "congenital rebels." Novelist Mikhail Lermontov, who took part in that struggle, was more admiring of the Chechens, writing in 1832: "Their god is freedom; their law is war."