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Wednesday, August 25, 1999 Published at 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK

World: Europe

Analysis: The threat from Islamic militancy

Insurgents in Dagestan were frequently described as Wahhabis

By Eurasia analyst Malcolm Haslett

The summit in Central Asia of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has focused on the threat of Islamic militancy in the former Soviet Union.

Russia has been worried by the outbreak of fighting in Dagestan. Last week's reported bombing of Tajik territory by Uzbek jets is also thought to have been an attempt to hit at an armed Islamic group hiding in the mountains. And now Tajik fighters have taken several hostages in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

Many of these activities are blamed by officials as inspired by "Wahhabism" - the strict form of Islam which predominates in Saudi Arabia. But are Wahhabis behind all the unrest in the region?

There is plenty of evidence that Wahhabism does exist in the former Soviet republics. But the use of the word by official spokesmen has run out of control. Some of the militant groups inside the former Soviet Union are Wahhabis, but others - quite clearly - are not.

Holy war

The insurgents fighting Russian federal forces in Dagestan, for example, were frequently referred to as Wahhabis. But their leaders, we are led to believe, are the Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev and the shadowy Arab activist "Khattab".

Basayev, however, has never expressed any enthusiasm for Wahhabism or any other "imported" forms of Islam. Khattab, on the other hand, who is thought to be from Saudi Arabia itself may well be a Wahhabi.

[ image: Shamil Basayev has never expressed support for Wahhabism]
Shamil Basayev has never expressed support for Wahhabism
But what unites him and Basayev is not Wahhabism, but romantic notions of a worldwide - or at least region-wide - Islamic Jihad or holy war.

Similarly, the group attacked by Uzbek planes in northern Tajikistan on 16 August seems to have little if anything to do with Wahhabism.

It is thought this group is probably under the command of an Uzbek Islamist known as Juma Namangani, from the city of Namangan in the Fergana valley.

He reportedly fled Uzbekistan in the early 1990s to escape President Islam Karimov's clampdown on political and religious opposition, and became a field commander on the Islamic side in the Tajik civil war.

But the Tajik Islamists' main foreign support came, not from Wahhabi Saudis but from Shi'ite Iran.

'Enemies of stability'

Supporters of the Wahhabi theory point to the fact that one of the main sponsors of international Islamic militancy is the dissident Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden.

But the fact that he may have financed some activities within the former USSR does not mean that it can all be blamed on him, or on Wahhabism.

[ image: Osama bin Laden: Alleged sponsor of Islamic militancy]
Osama bin Laden: Alleged sponsor of Islamic militancy
Indeed the Uzbek authorities have in recent months ceased using the term Wahhabi to describe the Islamic militants they see as the enemy of stability.

Instead they tend to blame militant Islamic activities, including the bombs which killed 16 people in Tashkent in February, on a group called Hezb-i-Tahrir.

Again this movement does exist, and has offices in a number of places. But there is very little evidence that it had anything to do with the Tashkent bombs.

Wahhabism in the former Soviet Union does exist. In Dagestan, for instance, it is particularly strong in the Buinaksk region in the centre of the republic, and especially around the town of Karamakhi.

And they have become militant, thanks - they say - to the repressive actions of the Dagestani political and religious leaders.

A number of people have been killed in the last few years in clashes between Dagestani Wahhabis and the local police and non-Wahhabi Muslims.


Dagestani sources suggest many of the Wahhabis are young men tired of the corruption and self-interest of the established religious and political leaders, most of whom have held their jobs since Soviet times. The new, radical streams of Islam give them a sense of identity and a sense of purpose.

Thus the radicalism which now seems to be spreading among the former Soviet Union's young Muslims is as much due to local conditions as to imported ideologies.

Its roots, in other words, lie as much in disillusionment with the authorities as in new ideas from abroad. But that is something the authorities in these regions seem reluctant to admit.

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