Archive for the ‘Caucasus’ Category
New York- I have a new article out in the June issue of the Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel journal on the decline, or perhaps dismemberment is a more apt term, of the Caucasus Emirate (CE) as an insurgent outfit in the Russian-controlled North Caucasus region. When I began researching the piece in the first days of this month, my original intent was distinguish Imarat Kavkaz as it is known endonymically and IS in the ideological battle for minds among salafists in the Russian Federation’s troubled southwestern republics.
By the time I put the finishing touches on it at 4 a.m. this morning, it seemed the CE was practically no more as an effective war-fighting group. First leaders at the jamaat level began to defect beginning in late 2014 then in rapid succession it happened at the vilayat level then the geographic core pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as I was racing against the deadline to finish. At the same time, the man rumored to be the late CE emir Kebekov’s successor, Magomed Suleymanov, was never confirmed publicly by any CE or CE-sympathetic outlets. One would think a new emir would have been proclaimed by now, especially in the face of such peer competition from IS on their home territory.
What sets the North Caucasus apart from other established IS wilayahs (governorates or provinces) outside the boundaries of the wannabe caliphate in Syria and Iraq is that the jihadis in the Russian Federation’s ragged periphery can claim to control no territory unless it were to be tracts of forest non-contiguous with population centers.
In Libya and perhaps some swaths of Sinai, local IS adherents may claim to administer small pieces of land. But the salafi-jihadi project in the North Caucasus was always more of an idea backed up with differing online maps. But there were no places in its vilayats that Russian or local security forces could not penetrate and engage the militants. Somewhat ironically, the only time this may have ever been the case was during the short-lived de facto independence of mostly secular nationalist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria that existed briefly in the interwar period between the first and second Russo-Chechen wars. The CE, or now I suppose its local IS branch, can make no such claims.
Though Moscow has secured Chechnya to a large degree (in relative terms) at great human and financial cost, the Kremlin and the Lubyanka may now have to contend with IS attacks in Russia proper. Russia has never had an effective counter terror strategy, it has only excelled at increasing homegrown radicalization which has brought attacks from Volgograd to the heart of the capital. The other situations to watch are in Georgia and Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus. Thus far Tbilisi and Baku seem to operating in a sort of quiet detente with the jihadis who are exiting their borders for Syria and Iraq. These South Caucasus jihadis don’t seem to be making an effort to overtly threaten their respective home governments.
Without collective international will and coherent decision making among relevant state actors, as we have seen on both sides of the Caucasus, IS will sadly continue to metastasize on both sides of the Caucasus range for the time being with its hollow proclamations of reaching jannah through grotesque martyrdom operations in lands far from home.
Barcelona- In the new issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review, (subscription required) I have an interview out with Ambassador Kaha Imnadze who represents the Republic of Georgia at the United Nations along the banks of New York’s East River . We spoke in early September on the heels of the NATO summit in Newport, Wales. We had a lot to discuss relating the Georgia’s signing of the EU Association Agreement earlier in the summer which acted as a veneer of raison d’étre for Russian’s invasion of Ukraine.
With Georgia already having two occupied regions where the overt presence of both Russian troops and intelligence agencies act as a shadowy reminder that this frozen conflict can reheat should Russian policy dictate so or a resurgent Georgian nationalism stumble into another fight that it cannot win on the battlefield.
Georgia occupies a unique place in the world in terms of both cartography as a mountainous land bridge between the Muslim and Orthodox worlds in broadest terms and geopolitically where it could potentially act as a robust diplomatic conduit between Iran and the West. Straddling vital energy routes, Georgia maintains amicable relations stretching from Washington to Tehran as if a fusion of its warm hospitality and realpolitik.
When asked how such a small nation can skillfully exploit its underappreciated diplomatic potential, Imnadze mentioned Georgia’s ancient history in relation to how it has lasted mostly intact for centuries.
Despite marauding powers hailing from Slavic, Turkic, Persian and other empires vying for power in a wider South Caucasus which acts as a natural land bridge between the Caspian and Black Sea regions as well as between the Middle East, Iranian plateau and Russia, for Georgians to have survived for so long in this contested environment, they seem to have in inherent diplomacy “in their DNA” as Imnadze put it to me.
One thing to remember is that Georgia’s democracy is very much a still evolving one. It’s just transformed from a presidential system to a parliamentary style democracy. The ex-president is running around Williamsburg for some reason. The parliament that was relocated out to Kutaisi is being at least partly moved back to its home in Tbilisi.
And though Moscow has pursued two largely different policies with regard to South Ossetia and Abkhazia–the former being a lightly populated space which has a thin veneer as a republic but is thought of a more of a glorified Russian base-building project while the latter has more palpable politics. Abkhazia is also possible to actually visit as an outsider on a tourist visa while what transpires in Tskhinvali is cloaked in mystery.
Despite Georgia’s challenges, it is comparatively a beacon of light when compared to its neighbors, Azerbaijan, Armenia, not to mention the violent republics of the North Caucasus to the north.
New York- I attended a Georgian diplomatic party marking the restoration of Georgian independence this week hosted by Ambassador Kaha Imnadze. Georgia was briefly independent from 1918-1921 following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the collapse of the Romanov dynasty. The Menshevik-led Democratic Republic of Georgia was ultimately subsumed into the Soviet Union as neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan became Soviet Socialist Republics and the Ottoman Empire crumbled giving rise to pragmatic Kemalism.
With badrijani and lobiani wafting through the air (unfortunately there was Pellegrino rather then Borjomi) and interesting discussions being had on the geopolitical primacy of the greater Black Sea region made for an interesting evening.
New York- I have an article out in this month’s edition of the CTC Sentinel about the evolution over the last two decades of the fight for the North Caucasus which has morphed a great deal. In my view, Syria has been a game changer with regard to Chechens and other ethno-linguistic nationalities from that region fighting with abundant documentation outside their homeland. I first encountered members of the Chechen community in Georgia in 2002. The stories of their under reported struggle fascinated me.
Personally, I was in an early career lull between 9/11 back here in NYC and covering the Afghan war yet before the Iraq would begin in 2003. I was roving around the Levant and the Caucasus in the summer of 2002 looking for original stories to cover on my own. Sure there were the mostly crude analogies to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan of a grass roots holy war being fought by righteous bearded guys against cruel, drunken Russian officers and their hapless young conscripts, but I wanted to meet ordinary people whose lives were gravely affected by the war that solidified Putin as the Russian Federation’s post-Yeltsin czar.
I’d wanted to meet Ruslan Gelayev (an infamous side-witching warlord present in northeastern Georgia at the time) and perhaps travel with his mujahideen unit onward to Ingushetia and Chechnya. I ultimately decided that the risk didn’t measure up to the reward, particularly in the case of being a freelancer with a story no one in the West much cared about anyway. I also wanted to make sure I was back in New York to document the one year anniversary of 9/11 which was of paramount importance at that time to me.
I settled for trekking around villages populated with refugees who had crossed from souther Chechnya in the autumn of 1999. I ended up staying in what I determined was basically a hostel for foreign volunteers heading northward through the ravines of the Greater Caucasus range to wage war against a dehumanized enemy. Russian soldiers and officers from various federal organizations like the OMON were portrayed as soulless cannon fodder in muj propaganda videos produced in the GCC which were used to draw attention to the fight for Chechnya among Arab audiences. These videos–some of which I were shown by Chechens in Tbilisi–painted the conflict as a righteous cause. The whole situation was a mess and Georgia itself was in a state of contained chaos back then.
One of the major points I have tried to make in my new piece is that propaganda has–over time–become a kind of new reality. From the fantasies of the Lubyanka to the web forum hosts of the Gulf, Chechens are other North (and South) Caucasians are now really, undeniably fighting abroad. I remember being at a terrorism conference in Washington in the mid-2000s and a young Marine officer stood up during a Q & A session and spoke of his unit having fought ‘Chechens’ in Iraq. But when pressed, he had no method of verifying this. Of course there are Chechens who are semi-indigenous to Iraq from their expulsion to the Ottoman empire–though that nuance was rarely, if ever, mentioned. Then there were the stories of Chechens fighting ISAF troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Army encountering Chechens in various battles in the FATA. But not one of these assertions was ever proven with even a shred of evidence.
Now, however, Chechens (many coming from the EU or those who were already present in the Arab world), Dagestanis, Azerbaijanis, Georgian Kists, Tatars and all sorts of other guys are indeed fighting in Syria. It is as if the FSB and GRU’s dream has come true…albeit over a decade too late. This situation serves several interested parties but in my view does a great disservice to the Chechens themselves. As a colleague and friend messaged me earlier this year: “[It is] sad what has happened to my people.”
When Chechen rebel officials were asking for the internationalization of the situation in their republic, they were ignored. When moderate Syrian rebels asked for a no-fly buffer zone along the Turkish border, they were ignored. Then when these places descend into nihilism, people condemn them devoid of context.
The Chechens were villains in poorly scripted Hollywood films and novels but the reality has always been they were mostly an embattled people consumed with the fight for their own homeland as a opposed to global salafi-jihad in general. A pillar of this sort of thing was the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (ie the Taliban) recognizing the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (the rebels).
This move of non-state diplomacy served to benefit neither party. The Taliban wanted to be recognized worldwide well beyond the just littoral states of the Arabian Sea and when their efforts were rebuffed, they recognized the ChRI government. Moreover, the late Aslan Maskhadov, who was then president of the ChRI, was less than thrilled with the Taliban recognition and apparently believed it to be a play by Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and Movladi Udugov to strengthen their position within a growing rebel schism.
The outside world’s contempt in the form of apathy for the horrors perpetrated in Chechnya with it relegated to an “internal affair” for Moscow to resolve struck me as simply sad. Interventionists patted themselves on the back for aleviating suffering the Balkans and lashed themselves (to a far lesser extent) for doing nothing in Rwanda, while they let the internal affair in the Caucasus fester for years.
In other news, my CTC Sentinel article on Syria from 2012 was cited The War Report: 2012, edited by Stuart Casey-Maslen, published by Oxford University Press and an interview I did with a top former Afghan police official was cited in Policing Afghanistan: The Politics of the Lame Leviathan by Antonio Giustozzi and Mohammed Isaqzadeh by Columbia University Press.
New York- The Sochi Olympics currently plod awkwardly ahead, the trendy stories have tended to be about the brand new, dilapidated hotels confounding journalists and athletes alike in this modern day “Potemkin village” and gay rights or lack thereof in the Russian Federation. These two themes have been largely dominating the spectrum of the ethical debate that has been surrounding the games for some time. Last week I decided to post my reportage on Buzzfeed (linked to screen grab I’ve posted below) along the “Administrative Boundary Line” that serves as the de facto border separating the ‘Republic’ of South Ossetia and the Republic of Georgia in the South Caucasus region.
In addition to all this mess, the games are also occurring under threat from Doku Umarov’s Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) which has ostensibly sought to garner world attention with a trio of bombings in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) which were automatically attributed to it by Russian security services. All in all, not an ideal location for a world sporting event meant to bring in prestige and hard currency.
Perhaps the most troubling ethical issue at present is that “Olympic Coastal Cluster,” transforming the village of Adler on the Black Sea is within walking distance to the banks of the Psou River. The Psou separates Russia proper from Russian-occupied Abkhazia which is internationally recognized as Georgia territory despite decades of quasi independence after a civil war there in the early 1990s. In internationalist speak, ‘occupation’ has been a dirty word for quite some time and is employed ubiquitously when describing the West Bank today and Gaza before the Israeli withdrawal in 2005.
Evidenced by the recent controversy over the actress Scarlett Johansson promoting Soda Stream, an Israeli company that operates a manufacturing plant on an Isaraeli settlement in the West Bank, ‘occupied’ is most often an electric term, at least when employed by activists decrying injustice in the post-war Levant. Within Georgia, Sochi-adjacent Abkhazia and South Ossetia that abuts the Russian-adminstered Republic of North Ossetia are commonly referred to as “occupied territories” to little effect outside the political spectrum of the immediate region.
This has partly to do with the incredible complexity of the the ethno-lingustic patchwork of the broader Caucasus region when compared with the binary Israeli-Palestinian dispute that is known across the world. And it is partly due to ignorance of the so-called “frozen conflicts” of the South Caucasus (unlike the hot conflict to the north). Alas, there has been no great global outcry to boycott the Winter Olympics that has managed to gather steam. Although some Abkhaz may be grateful from Russia’s protection from a militarily weak Georgia, aside from the export of gravel for flimsy construction projects, Abkhazia has almost nothing to benefit from Putin’s $50 billion-plus extravaganza practically on their shores.
The other under-emphasized ethical issue with the games is that they are occurring on land that the global Circassian diaspora claims is the site of their genocide exactly 150 years ago in the winter of 1864 when it is alleged the czarist forces ethnically cleansed the Circassian people from what is now Russia’s Krasnodar Krai.
Despite the best efforts of Circassian advocacy groups such as “No Sochi 2014” to bring attention to the horrors their people faced during Russia’s violent conquest of the Caucasus, other than write ups from a cadre of sympathetic journalists and historians, No Sochi has sadly gained little actionable traction such as a mass boycott of the event by participant countries. Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in then Soviet Moscow in reaction to the Soviet invasion of independent Afghanistan is looked upon today as a bout of foolhardy diplomacy.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of people who hoped some sort of mass global outrage would suddenly materialize after a hard fought grass roots campaign and perhaps at least deter the mainstream media from glorifying Putin’s vanity project just by their presence on the Black Sea coast, even if they are poking fun at hotel oddities.
New York- While concluding a nearly month-long research trip to the Republic of Georgia in October, on my final night in Tbilisi I met with an analyst from Georgia’s MFA to discuss current trends in Islamic militancy in the North Caucasus and how those trends are currently tied to the civil war in Syria. As we concluded our dinner at a traditional restaurant on Rustaveli Avenue, my contact informed me that a Chechen filmmaker called Murad Mazaev I once knew back in 2002 had died months earlier in northern Syria. I was taken aback and disturbed by this bit of information and sought to dig deeper once I returned to the United States.
My Georgian contact pondered that Murad may have died trying to work as a documentarian but it began to seem more and more like he died as a jihadi perhaps fighting for Jaish al-Muhajireen wa’l-Ansar, a constituent movement of ISIL or ISIL proper. Who knows? When I tried to contact his former filmmaking partner in Canada about the circumstances under which Murad died, he replied “why are you asking me about this?” (I think they had had a falling out years previously) When I tried to contact a Chechen friend of Murad’s in Stockholm looking for answers about what motivated him to leave the cold comforts of Sweden, no reply.
As I began working on an article on the topic for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, I decided to weave Murad’s tragic tale of refuge, asylum and ultimately doomed salafi jihad, into my work. Murad never struck me as the type to pick up arms. Sure he was a die hard Chechen nationalist and devout Muslim, but a jihadi abandoning his young family to seek martyrdom in Syria? That was hard for me to digest.
Murad and I had last been in touch in the autumn of 2010 via email. In his very broken English he informed me that he was living in Sweden but was not then currently still pursuing his dreams of becoming an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. He struck me as being enamored of the mujahideen when we first met, but still an erudite kid from Grozny who wouldn’t be very effective marching through a battlefield with a Kalashnikov rather than a camera,
Murad’s proudest achievement was making the world’s first Chechen-language film…and with genuine mujahideen from Ruslan ‘Hamzat’ Gelayev’s Pankisi-based unit as extras no less. It was partly through meeting Murad in Tbilisi nearly a dozen years ago that I became fascinated by the struggle for Chechnya and the oppressed people of the Caucasus who suffered wildly under the Czars, Stalin all the way to Yeltsin and Putin. Murad acted as my fixer in meeting the Chechen refugees inhabiting the Pankisi Gorge when it was making headlines around the world but few journalists were actually venturing there.
But in Chechnya as the war there has mercilessly ground on since it first began in the mid-1990s, the ideology powering the fight has transitioned from Sufi-inflected Chechen nationalism to destructive transnational salafism. No longer was merely an independent Chechen republic the goal, but the proclamation of an Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) spanning from the shores of the Caspian to the rocky beaches of the Black Sea.
When I was back in Pankisi in October to meet with members of the Gelayev family to find out their version of events surrounding the death of Ruslan’s son, Rustam in Syria in mid-August 2012, no one admitted to remembering Murad but when I mentioned Roddy their eyes lit up. Roddy’s parents, Robin and Stina Scott set up the Roddy Scott Foundation to teach English to the youth of Pankisi in their effusive son’s memory. Sadly, Murad sought to put Chechnya on the map in terms of global conscience but he was killed in Syria in what remain murky circumstances. From my canvassing of residents in Duisi, Jokolo and Birkiani, no one seemed to remember his contribution to collective Chechen culture.
What the deaths of Murad and Rustam do indicate is the significant fact that Chechens are now participants in a war outside the North Caucasus. For those of us who covered the wars on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq and war theaters elsewhere after 9/11 where Chechens were never proven to have fought, this feels like a sea change.
On another very grim note, I belatedly found out that someone whose work I really admired died in the Taverna du Liban attack in Kabul.
Alexandros Petersen who was a colleague of my colleague Rafaello Pantucci was murdered in the recent attack on the Lebanese restaurant in Wazir Akbar Khan. Petersen was an analyst of big-think Eurasian geopolitics in the style of Sir Halford Mackinder and authored The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West which I’ve had in my Amazon queue for some time now and been meaning to read. Now I must. Though I never had the pleasure of meeting him, we wrote for the same D.C. think-tank where I once served as an editor and analyst a few years ago. We are now less one brilliant person who went to great lengths to understand and explain the geopolitical trends shaping today’s world. For shame.
When I first heard about the Taliban operation in the Afghan capital, I recalled spending a fun evening at the Levantine hangout with journalist Jason Motlagh and another guy based in Bangkok who talked about his mission of interviewing Viktor Bout multiple time in a Thai cell before Bout was extradited to the U.S. for prosecution. The latter guy-whose name I don’t remember five years later-and another journo and I walked from WAK all the way back to Shar-e-Nau at about 2 a.m. and I, in a sort of gallows humor, half joked, “we couldn’t do this in Baghdad” (i.e. walk home in the middle of the night). That was back in 2009. Things got worse as that year went on with the attack on the UN compound that September and suicide bomb walls going up around the Indian embassy and so forth.
Are things arguably worse now in 2014? It’s tough to say from sitting here in the West. But I can say this much-I may go back to the old school routine of donning a shalwar kameez and beard when I go back to Afghanistan. Kabul has often been considered a world apart from the rest of Afghanistan in terms of its comparative cosmopolitanism in relation to life in the provinces but it is still Afghanistan. The Taliban want to let the world know that they retain the ability to strike at will anytime, anywhere in the country.
In other news, I have a photo contribution in the new issue of The Washingtonian in the article titled This Is Danny Pearl’s Final Story by Asra Q. Nomani. My image is that of Nomani and Pearl’s home in Karachi’s tony Defence Housing Authority (DHA).
New York- The other day I picked up The History of Armenia by Simon Payaslian somewhat at random off the bookshelf mainly to get some regional context for Georgian history during the Menshevik period and subsequent Bolshevik takeover shortly thereafter. Reading about Transcaucasia as a buffer zone between the Ottoman empire and the Russian imperial empire and the folding in of Western Armenia to the Turks, I recalled my visit to the medieval Armenian ruins of Ani today located in Turkey’s Kars Province abutting the border of the modern Armenian republic along the Akhurian River. I went to Ani and a number of other fascinating ancient sites around eastern Turkey while I killed time waiting for my Iranian visa to be processed back in Ankara.
It was at this time that I conceived the idea of the “Fabled City,” a photography project explore the lesser known interconnectivity of the ancient world in order to promote a healthy form of post-Cold War globalism in the present day. This idea died in an instant as I stood stunned in the ashes of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But I still have many of the images lying around as a kind of pre-9/11 detritus of memory. I thought I’d scan a couple of the prints and share them.
New York- Sitting in a cafe on a bitterly cold winter day, I’m doing some writing regarding a character in my as yet unpublished manuscript who I found out perished fighting jihad in Syria’s tragically beleaguered Aleppo Governorate in late May 2013. I was taken aback by the very idea that someone I once knew went to Syria to fight ideological warfare and quickly became cannon fodder for the very same Soviet weaponry that caused him to fleee his homeland of Chechnya for safety in neighboring Georgia at the outset of the 2nd Russo-Chechen war that began in the autumn of 1999. This story became part of a recent article I authored for IHS Jane’s in London. When I set out from Tbilisi in October for the Chechen/Kist villages of the Pankisi Gorge, I never expected learning something like this would be the end result.
How Chechen militancy has transmogrified from the struggle for national liberation to more generalized jihadism is a reflection of how the world has failed the people of the Caucasus as a whole and how radical Sunni doctrines encouraging relgio-polical violence have metastasized, subsuming a largely Sufi people to the point where a handful of them are drawn to Aleppo like moths to a flame. As a Chechen colleague said to me in a recent exchange, “it’s sad what has happened to my people.”
So now I’m in the midst of dusting off an old writing project and breathing new life into it by adding in a dark epilogue. If those nitwits at the National Security Agency parsed this particular blog in their endless big data mining project I might become even more a “person of interest” or some other bureaucratic catchphrase to further justify their vast invasion of privacy and the violation of journalistic confidentiality.
The people I encountered on my earliest forays into the “war on terror” are still somehow relevant. From a guy I met in 2002 becoming “martyred” in Syria in 2013 to Dr. Abdullah Abdullah–who I first photographed in November 2001 and later in August 2009–being the chief candidate for the Afghan presidency in the April election there in 2014, these stories and the people populating them don’t just simply fade away.
One of my favorite quotes from all the years doing this stuff was when I was at the Corbis photo agency here in New York in January 2002 and an editor there told me “Afghanistan is over” and that I needed to move on and look for the next story (did she mean Iraq?). Afghanistan was never, and is still not, “over.” In 2014 Afghanistan is still a major story. As is the legacy of 9/11, the Chechen conflict, and even Iraq in my stubborn view.