Beslan: the real international connection

Western intervention helped to create the new ruthless cross-border terrorism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Commentators are desperately trying to make sense of what seem like senseless events in Beslan. But they are attempting to force it into political categories where it simply doesn’t fit.

Some have located the school siege in the broader bloody clash between Chechen nationalists and the Russian state. ‘There can be no denying the direct link between the Beslan tragedy and the war in Chechnya’, wrote Ahmed Zakaev, former deputy prime minister of Chechnya, in the UK Guardian. Others have rushed to blame Beslan on Russian President Vladimir Putin, arguing that the siege is a tragic blowback for his strongman tactics in Chechnya (1).

Yet taking hostage an entire school on the first day of term, surrounding teachers, parents and kids with land mines and high explosives, makes little sense as a nationalist strike against a military aggressor or as a tactic for weakening Russian rule in the Caucasus. Instead, like the Moscow theatre siege of 2002, the school siege looked more like a murderous stunt, an al-Qaeda-esque assault, designed to provoke fear and outrage rather than to realise any discernible political aim.

Too many want to understand Beslan through traditional political and military frameworks. But there is something new going on here. As British Brigadier Aldwyn Wight told BBC2’s Newsnight, the Beslan assault had ‘no political rationale’, and strikingly the hostage-takers exercised ‘no restraint’ when it came to taking casualties. The kind of violence visited on Beslan is not rooted in Chechnya or in any traditional nationalism; rather, like the attacks of 9/11, Bali, Madrid and elsewhere, this is a rootless terrorism, dislocated from political, military or national norms, with no clear motivation and little compunction about killing civilians. What has given rise to such terror?

It remains unclear who was behind Beslan. In keeping with other recent rootless attacks, nobody has claimed responsibility or explained why they did it. The Chechen authorities deny any involvement in what they describe as a ‘savage attack’; former Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, whom the Russian authorities accuse of masterminding the siege, today offering $10million for information that leads to his capture, has also denounced this attack on ‘defenceless children’ (2).

For obvious reasons, Russia is keen to situate Beslan within the international ‘war on terror’, effectively claiming that the siege was the work of al-Qaeda. Putin’s al-Qaeda talk is clearly opportunist; his aim is to distract from his repressive policies in Chechnya since a second war was launched there in 1999 (the first war having taken place under Boris Yeltsin from 1994 to 1996).

So Russian officials talk up the alleged mix of foreigners who took part in the attack. A North Ossetian spokesman initially claimed that 10 of the estimated 30 to 35 hostage-takers were Arabs; a Russian official said the hostage-takers were made up of Chechens, Ingush (from the state next to North Ossetia), Arabs, Kazakhs and Slavs. Yet now some argue that there were no Arabs, but rather that the dead hostage-takers’ charred faces were mistaken for dark skin. This morning Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s defence minister, is quoted as saying that not a single Chechen has been found among the 32 dead terrorists, raising questions about earlier attempts to explain Beslan as a straightforward ‘Chechen issue’ (3).

But then, the identities of the attackers are not enough to explain why this attack was so ruthless. If a few Arabs did take part in the siege, that alone could not explain the rise of the new terrorism, in Chechnya or anywhere else. There is no doubt that the Chechen separatist movement has become internationalised over the past decade, with Mujihadeen fighters and wannabe jihadists arriving from the Balkans, Afghanistan, the Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and even Britain and France; and this influx of jihadists has certainly helped to ‘Islamicise’ Chechen separatism.

There are clear links between the global Mujihadeen and Chechen separatists. It is suspected that Shamil Basayev, leader of a Chechen separatist group, played a part in organising, or perhaps sanctioning, the Beslan school siege. He, like other Chechen separatist leaders, is reported to be a veteran of the Mujihadeen training camps in Afghanistan. These were originally set up with American backing in the 1980s, to train Afghans, Arabs and others to take on the invading Soviet army; US officials estimate that between 1985 and 1992, 12,500 foreigners were trained in bomb-making, sabotage, urban guerrilla warfare and other military tactics in these CIA-sponsored camps.

As the Christian Science Monitor reported this week, ‘Ties between Chechen rebels and [Mujihadeen forces] stretch back to the first Chechen war (1994 to 1996)’. But it was only later, during the second war, that Mujihadeen elements started to exercise their influence. ‘By 1999, when Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev invaded Russian territory in Dagestan, prompting a second war, it became clear that Islamic radicals dominated Chechen rebel groups’, says the CS Monitor (4).

The influx of hundreds of jihadists did much to transform the Chechen conflict, as Loretta Napoleoni notes in Modern Jihad: Tracing the Dollars Behind the Terror Networks. She argues that in the vaccum created by the collapse of the Chechen state following the first war, Mujihadeen ‘warlords and armed groups blossomed….modifying Chechnya’s secular resistance into radical fundamentalism’ (5).

But the arrival of the Mujihadeen into Chechnya is a symptom of a far bigger problem. It is not that Arabs and others arrived in Chechnya and brought everything downhill; rather, the movement of such forces into Chechnya speaks to a broader global instability and collapse of state authority, which has nourished today’s disparate terror groups, from Afghanistan to Sudan to the Caucasus.

New terrorism a consequence of Western interventions

The missing link in the debates about terrorism, about the shift from the more politically-oriented violence of the past to the blindly ruthless attacks of today, is the West’s foreign interventions of the 1990s. It is by examining these that we can start to make sense of today’s seemingly senseless terror. Such interventions, particularly in the Balkans, did much to create the conditions for the rise of the new stateless groups that are so different from old-style nationalist movements.

The end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s gave rise to new rounds of Western intervention in the third world – interventions that were justified as defending beleaguered peoples against ruthless dictators and upholding human rights across the globe, rather than in the selfish, national interests of Western elites. From Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1993, to the dropping of bombs to bring ‘peace’ to the Balkans in the mid-90s, to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s Kosovo war of 1999, the battles over territory and influence that defined the Cold War period were replaced with new wars that would, we were told, liberate people from tyranny.

Yet for all its stated aims, humanitarian intervention powerfully destabilised the world order, undermining the institutions that had cohered the international order in the postwar period. At the heart of the new humanitarianism there was a distinct hostility to the sovereign nation state, which had been the building block of international affairs for nearly 50 years. The Clinton administration, king of the humanitarian age, made clear its disdain for the old idea of non-intervention in sovereign states’ affairs. In the early 1990s Clinton adviser Strobe Talbott outlined their preferred approach to world affairs: ‘Nationhood as we know it will be obsolete. All states will recognise a single global authority…. A phrase that was briefly fashionable in the mid-twentieth century – citizen of the world – will have assumed real meaning by the end of the twentieth century.’ (6).

In 1994, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights declared that ‘the mission of the United Nations to uphold human dignity and human rights globally transcends national borders’ (7). In the new world order, local state authority was out and global interventionism was in.

In undermining state authority, humanitarianism created the space for the rise of non-state actors – and it encouraged their movement across borders. This double impact of Western interventionism reached its zenith in the Balkans.

From the start of the 1990s, outside intervention in the Balkans internationalised local tensions. German recognition of the Croat and Slovene republics in 1991, Russian backing of the Serbs, American recognition of the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 and its support for the Bosnian Muslim side – all of this transformed Yugoslavia’s internal political differences into heated international issues, paving the way for a prolonged war. Western meddling ruptured Yugoslavia’s internal structures, while ensuring that external pressures were increasingly brought to bear on the region. As part of this destabilising process, the USA permitted the movement of Mujihadeen forces from the Middle East and Central Asia to fight alongside the Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs.

In 1993, as documented in David Halberstam’s seminal War In a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals, President Clinton gave a ‘green light’ to the arming of the Bosnian Muslims by Iran and Saudi Arabia, even though this defied a UN embargo against arming any side in the Yugoslav conflict (8). From 1993 to 1996 there was an influx of weapons and military advisers into Bosnia, largely organised by Iranian and Saudi officials. This opened the floodgates to the arrival of Mujihadeen fighters from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and elsewhere, to fight with the Bosnian Muslims. All of this took place under the watchful eye of a Clintonian policy of ‘no instruction’ – in short, such movements should not be interfered with and, if possible, should be encouraged by a ‘green light’ (9).

It is unclear how many Mujihadeen were active in Bosnia. Estimates vary from 600 to 4,000. According to the US House Republican policy committee, in a statement critical of the Clinton administration, issued on 26 April 1996, ‘eight flights a month packed with thousands of tons of arms and ammunition either originating in Iran or purchased and shipped with Iranian backing’ arrived in Zagreb destined for the Bosnian Muslims and also for Croats; and Iran played a role in ‘station[ing] from 3,000 to 4,000 revolutionary guards [Mujihadeen] in Bosnia’ (10).

The opening up of Yugoslavia to Mujihadeen forces wrote the script for future movements into Chechnya. Indeed, European intelligence officials claim that Bosnia, where some Mujihadeen forces set up training camps following the end of hostilities in 1996, has become a ‘one-stop shop for Islamic militants’, for those moving both to and from Chechnya (11).

As Loretta Napoleoni documents in Modern Jihad, in Chechnya in the early 1990s ‘the Islamist insurgency had relied mainly on foreign sponsors and domestic smuggling’. By 1995, after the Bosnian experience, Chechen forces were being assisted and armed by ‘the International Islamic Relief Organisation, a Saudi-based charity funded by mosques and wealthy donors in the Gulf’ and also by Pakistan. During this period, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Iran also played a role in ‘funding the spread of Islamist armed groups in the region’ (12). Iranian and Saudi officials seem to have taken the USA’s ‘green light’ to mean that the sponsorship of Mujihadeen forces across state borders was as legitimate in Chechnya as it was in the Balkans.

The West continued to allow the growth and movement of Mujihadeen forces in Europe towards the end of the 1990s. In the late 1990s, in the run-up to Clinton and Blair’s Kosovo war of 1999, the USA backed the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) against Serbia. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post in 1998, the KLA had been ‘provided with financial and military support from Islamic countries’, and had been ‘bolstered by hundreds of Mujihadeen…[some of whom] were trained in Osama bin Laden’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan’. There were links also between the Western-backed KLA and Chechen separatists (13).

The developments of the 1990s – away from a world organised around state sovereignty and towards encouraging the movement of both state and non-state forces across borders – did much to give rise to today’s peculiarly rootless, cross-border movements.

Since 9/11, the US State Department and European officials have fretted about the consequences of the movement of Mujihadeen forces into Europe. The State Department is concerned that Bosnia-Herzegovina has become a ‘staging area and safe haven for terrorists’, including ‘extremists with ties to bin Laden’. Some may now be looking at Russia after the Beslan school siege and asking what the hell they unleashed; they will no doubt support the Russian government’s condemnation of foreign and Arab extremists in Chechnya. Yet targeting individual Arabs and attempting to rein in those forces unleashed in the 1990s will do little to bring peace to these regions. The underlying problem is contemporary Western intervention and its corrosive impact, rather than handfuls of mad Arabs.

Western officials wring their hands over the atrocity in Beslan, carried out by a terror group that seems irrational and, as Aldwyn Wight says, without restraint. Yet such terror networks are the product of the West’s undermining of its own postwar international framework during the humanitarian era. The old national liberation and nationalist movements reflected a world organised around the principles of sovereign equality and state authority; today’s terror networks hold a mirror to the West’s self-destructive assault on state sovereignty and the integrity of borders in the post-Cold War world. Where the old world order, for all its vast faults, gave rise to movements that sought to create their own states, the new world order has encouraged the emergence of distinctly stateless groups, not tied to any specific community or political goal.

This goes some way to explaining why today’s terrorism seems so much more unrestrained and brutal than earlier political violence. Freed from responsibility to a distinct community, with little ties to national territory or political principles, today’s roving terrorist has fewer constraints on his actions – as we witnessed so devastatingly in Beslan. It is because these groups are free-floating agents rather than rooted political actors, reflecting the kind of Western intervention that revived their fortunes in the 1990s, that they can execute what appear to be unthinkable acts. In the absence of conventional political structures that might define and direct a violent campaign, the new terrorists have little compunction about killing or injuring. As Jonathan Tucker of the Monterey Institute of International Affairs has argued, because these terrorists ‘are not motivated by political ideology on the far left or right’, they are more likely to be ‘extremists…with an apocalyptic mindset’ (14).

The Mujihadeen was created and financed by the right in the 1980s, by the Reagan administration and the Thatcher government, to take on the Soviets in the Afghan war of 1979 to 1992 – that last gasp of the Cold War. In the 1990s, the baton was passed to the left; Mujihadeen forces effectively became the armed wing of Western liberal opinion, moving across borders to fight what politicians and liberal commentators in the West considered to be ‘good wars’, from Bosnia to Kosovo and also in Chechnya. It was the internationalisation of local conflicts by Western governments that encouraged the internationalisation of the Mujihadeen, transforming what had been a specific Afghan-based phenomenon into an effectively global force.

The same politicians and commentators who applauded the interventions of the 1990s – some of whom wrote glowing accounts of the ‘brave’ and ‘cool’ Mujihadeen in Western newspapers during the Yugoslav and Kosovo wars (15) – are as shocked as everyone else by the Beslan school siege. But perhaps, as well as condemning those who attacked innocent children and their parents, they should also interrogate their earlier support for ‘humanitarian intervention’ and their continuing support for Western interference abroad.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

Creating the enemy, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Our dead and injured children, Ahmed Zakaev, Guardian, 7 September 2004

(2) Minister unwilling to blame Chechens, Guardian, 8 September 2004

(3) Minister unwilling to blame Chechens, Guardian, 8 September 2004

(4) Al-Qaeda among the Chechens, Christian Science Monitor, 7 September 2004

(5) Modern Jihad: Tracing the Dollars Behind the Terror Networks, Loretta Napoleoni, Pluto Press, 2003

(6) ‘The birth of the global nation’, Strobe Talbott, Time, 20 July 1992

(7) Address of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 15 June 1995, United Nations

(8) War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals, David Halberstam, Bloomsbury, 2001

(9) See also Intelligence and the War in Bosnia 1992-1995, Cees Wiebes, Lit Verlag, 2003

(10) Iran-Bosnia Credibility Gap, House Republican Policy Committee, 26 April 1996

(11) US hunts Islamic militants in Bosnia, Daily Telegraph, 26 July 2004

(12) See Modern Jihad: Tracing the Dollars Behind the Terror Networks, Loretta Napoleoni, Pluto Press, 2003

(13) See Modern Jihad: Tracing the Dollars Behind the Terror Networks, Loretta Napoleoni, Pluto Press, 2003

(14) The proliferation of chemical and biological weapons materials and technologies to state and sub-state actors, Jonathan Tucker, Monterey Institute of International Studies, 7 November 2001

(15) See, for example, ‘Muj more fun if you’re a cool dude in Bosnia’, Observer, 7 November 1993

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