In 2001, as the United States and other allied military forces attacked Taleban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, numerous soldiers, journalists and Afghans allied to the Americans relayed stories of a fearless and deadly opponent, incomparably worse than any other enemy: the Chechen. Such reports have never gone away, despite no Chechen having ever been captured or definitively identified in Afghanistan during this time. In the first dispatch in a special two-parter, Christian Bleuer discusses the history of Chechens in Afghanistan – both real and imagined – while also analysing the reasons for the many mistaken reports.Resistance leader Imam Shamil, an ethnic Avar and hero to many Chechens, surrenders to Russian forces in August 1859, (finding pictures of Chechens in Afghanistan is difficult) painting by Alexei Kivshenko, 1880
A second dispatch will look at how difficult it is to identify Chechens and how the word ‘Chechen’ may just be used to mean ‘unidentifiable foreign Muslim’. It also looks at the appropriation of the name by other jihadi fighters because of the fearsome and brave connotation of this ‘brand’.
On the night of the 14-15 April 2016, American and Afghan military forces attacked what they described as the house of a suspected al-Qaeda operative named Abu Abdullah in Logar’s Kharwar district. Citing an “Afghan interior ministry incident report,” The Wall Street Journal noted subsequently that, in addition to taking two captives, coalition forces killed seven Chechens. The accompanying commentary (see here) uncritically repeated a narrative (1) that has been regularly promoted in the media:
Extremist members of Chechnya’s rebel movement adhere to ideas tied to jihad and the creation of an Islamist state. Afghan and foreign officials say as many as 7,000 Chechens and other foreign fighters could be operating in the country, loosely allied with the Taliban and other militant groups.
Local reporting by Pajhwok News, sourced to the Logar governor’s spokesman, was slightly different, naming the targets as “Taliban Commanders Mullah Saber, Mullah Sabawon and Mullah Bashir,” but also noting the presence of Chechens – in this case, three Chechen women who were allegedly killed. Khaama Press also reported the incident, noting that “[f]oreign insurgents fighting the Afghan forces is not new as scores of militants from Chechnya and other countries are routinely reported killed during the fight with the Afghan forces,” with the caveat that “[t]he anti-government armed militant groups have not commented regarding the report so far.”
Why not ask the Russians?
What was missing from the reporting by foreign and Afghan journalists was any sign of an attempt to ask the Russian Embassy in Kabul about a report that American and Afghan forces had just killed seven Russian citizens. In fact, it does not seem that any media outlet working in Afghanistan has ever done this, despite journalists publishing hundreds of reports on Russian citizens (ie Chechens) fighting and dying in Afghanistan.
There is a way to remedy this, and journalists in Pakistan (see here) did exactly this in May 2011 after Frontier Corps soldiers shot dead five suspected suicide bombers at a checkpoint in Quetta. Pakistani media outlets immediately reported on the incident, citing police officials who claimed that all five (two women and three men) were Chechens. The Russian Foreign Ministry immediately sought answers, and then spoke to Pakistani journalists about the mysterious travellers from Chechnya. The end result was the conclusion that the five travellers were not Chechen and had also not been armed (see here).
The Russian Foreign Ministry identified three of the victims as non-Chechens from Dagestan in southern Russia, and the seven-months pregnant woman who died as Olga Shroeder, a Siberian native who had recently converted to Islam, dropped out of university and married a Dagestani man twice her age. The fifth was a citizen of Tajikistan. This group was certainly suspicious (no Pakistani visas in their passports), and the Russian media quickly identified two of the Dagestanis as ‘Wahhabis’ with ties to militants in the North Caucasus. Olga Shroeder, for her part, was noted for her social media enthusiasm for Sayyed Buryatsky, a now dead half-Russian, half Buryat Buddhist who converted to Islam and made a name for himself as an anti-Russian militant in the North Caucasus. (2)
Speaking to the Russian Embassy, it had been easy enough to determine who they were, and who they were not. And it was quick: the travellers’ ‘Chechen’ identity was revealed as nothing of the sort in under two weeks. In Afghanistan, by contrast, there appears to be an enthusiastic media boosting of reports of Chechen insurgents and terrorists fighting and dying throughout Afghanistan. Reports of Chechens in Afghanistan go all the way back to 1994 and cover every period since then up until the present day.
The first Chechens in Afghanistan
The first Chechens to visit in Afghanistan in any significant numbers were those serving in the Soviet military in the 1980s occupation, of whom 47 died in Afghanistan, with zero desertions to the mujahedin. Later, 170 of these Chechen veterans of the war in Afghanistan would die in the course of the two Russian-Chechen wars (1994-1996, 1999-2000). (3) The most prominent of them was Dzhokhar Dudayev, who had served as a Soviet air force Major General in Afghanistan, leading bombing campaigns against mujahedin in 1986-87 in western Afghanistan. He later became the president of the (unrecognised) Chechen Republic of Ichkeria until Russian forces killed him in 1996.
The next Chechens to visit Afghanistan were the group of men who accompanied the Chechen terrorist, Shamil Basayev, to Peshawar and then on to Khost province in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region in 1994. The United States State Department claimed this number to be several hundred and that they had gone on to form a part of al-Qaeda’s 055 Brigade. (4) But according to the Egyptian Abu Walid al-Masri (AKA Hamed Mustafa, an al-Qaeda linked figure who later headed al-Jazeera’s media operations in Afghanistan), Basayev only sent six of his men for training to a camp in Afghanistan where al-Masri was based. Of these, five would die fighting Russia in the First Chechen War. Basayev himself stated that 12 of his men were eventually trained in Khost, but that he had attempted to fly in 50 additional Chechens – all of whom were stopped at the airport in Karachi and immediately deported at Russia’s request. The start of the war in Chechnya in December 1994 ended the travels of Chechens to Afghanistan. The next notable Chechen visit to this region – but not Afghanistan – was in 1998, when Chechen Defence Minister Ruslan Gelayev attended the World Muslim Congress in Pakistan. (5)
Ahmed Rashid very briefly mentioned Chechen fighters in his book, “Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia”, published before 9/11. He did not connect them to the Taleban, however, but rather to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and to then al-Qaeda deputy chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kandahar where, according to Rashid, Chechens, black American Muslims and others clustered around al-Qaeda circles. (6) However, intense scrutiny since then (that is to say, after 9/11) has not identified any Chechens or black American Muslims in al-Qaeda at this time in Afghanistan. (7)
Various other claims of a Chechen presence in Afghanistan during the 1990s have been made retroactively (ie, after 9/11), and usually alongside outlandish claims and obviously incorrect analysis – for example an alleged al-Qaeda chemical and nuclear materials stockpile near Herat. (8) A faulty line of reasoning often employed is that tens of thousands of Chechens fled the First Chechen War and therefore Chechens must have contributed considerably to terrorist networks worldwide. This statement from the Middle East Briefing of the Orient Advisory Group based in Washington and Dubai (see here) is a good example:
At the time of the First Chechen War (1994-1996), an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 young Chechen men fled the fighting and took refuge in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt and other ungoverned regions of Eurasia. Over the ensuing two decades, they became a backbone of Al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations. (9)
This analysis assumes that the young men – or at least a significant proportion of them – who fled Chechnya were not refugees, but terrorists (or soon to be terrorists) who desired to fight in places such as Afghanistan. In fact, many of these men went through refugee screening and the asylum process in various countries (mostly Turkey and Europe), and still live there. A prominent example is the 30,000 strong community of Chechens in Austria (see here and here), who were not lured to foreign battlefields in any numbers until the Syrian conflict commenced. Other Chechens followed traditional, centuries old ties to Turkey and to the Arab world, especially Jordan, Syria and Iraq (where Arabised Chechen communities still live). Reasons for this included: seeking education (secular and Islamic), pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, or the region being simply the easiest place for a Chechen refugee to go (Turkey is very close and there are many Russian-speakers there). (10) Afghanistan obviously held no appeal on any of these grounds.
The Chechen embassy in Afghanistan
It is a later event that most writers cite as proof of Chechens’ large-scale presence in Afghanistan: the recognition of Chechnya’s independence by the Taleban in January 2000 and opening of a Chechen embassy. Two scholars who research Chechnya’s international militant and terrorist connections focused on the perceptions that this event generated: “The importance of this relationship lay with the fact that it heralded the beginning of the association of the Chechens with the extremist ideology of the Taliban within the international community.” (11)
The recognition of Chechnya’s independence did not pass without notice: the Russian government was outraged, and journalists and United Nations personnel in Kabul immediately set off to locate the ‘embassy’. The Russian government had already been involved in Afghanistan for a few years supporting anti-Taleban forces diplomatically and militarily, with weapons and materiel. A few months after the Taleban’s recognition of Chechnya’s independence, the Russia government openly threatened to bomb the Taleban, accusing it of supporting and training Chechen terrorists – accusations that the Taleban denied. (12)
This episode seems clear enough: Taleban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel stated publically that “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has decided to accord immediate recognition to the government of an independent Chechnya,” and that a Chechen embassy had been opened in Kabul in January 2000. (13) However, recently revealed private correspondence between Chechnya’s foreign minister and president from this time reveal (14) that the ‘Chechen embassy’ was unauthorised and without any support from the official separatist government in Chechnya (soon to be in exile).
The Chechen who opened the embassy was Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who served at the time as a roving Chechen envoy to the Muslim world. A previous Chechen foreign minister (Movladi Udugov) had sent ‘emissaries’ to Afghanistan to make contact with the Taliban in 1998, but nothing came of this visit. Yandarbiyev then visited in 1999 and lobbied Mullah Muhammad Omar for official recognition of Chechnya – which was eventually granted in January 2000. Chechen foreign minister Ilyas Akhmadov was only informed of this recognition when a Russian asked him about it during a public appearance at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. Akhmadov was unprepared for the question, only offering his opinion that it was merely diplomatic recognition, and nothing else. Akhmadov then made a phone call to Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, who only had three minutes to talk as he was fighting the Russians for control of Chechnya’s capital city, in the Battle of Grozny. Akhmadov, at first angry as he thought the Chechen president has sent Yandarbiyev on a diplomatic trip to Afghanistan without informing him, quickly realised that Yandarbiyev was on a completely unauthorised mission. President Maskhadov stated that he was not even sure where Yandarbiyev was, and that he only had a vague memory of him visiting Afghanistan.
This is plausible as the Chechen president and foreign minister were trying to gain diplomatic recognition for their independence from the United States and European countries, not from the Taleban. That is why President Maskhadov had sent his foreign minister to the United States (where he was rebuffed by the State Department (15)). Both Maskhadov and Akhmadov had been the victims of an attempt by Yandarbiyev to push power in the Chechen separatist movement towards the Islamist radicals (the military defeat at the hands of the Russians in the winter of 1999-2000 was the beginning of the trend towards the dominant Chechen moderates being marginalised (16)). As noted by Mark Kramer:
The Chechen president had deep misgivings about the timing of the announcement, which he saw as “playing into Russians’ hands” and tarnishing the Chechens’ standing in the international community. Moreover, he and Akhmadov correctly sensed that Yandarbiyev’s persistent overtures to the Taliban had been designed to marginalize the more moderate elements around Maskhadov. (17)
In the end, the unauthorised Chechen mission to Afghanistan accomplished little for either the moderate or the Islamist elements in the Chechen separatist movement. The Chechen presence was minimal and not entirely cordial. In one anecdote, as noted by Wahid Muzhda (a former Taleban foreign ministry employee), officials from the Taleban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice rudely lectured the Chechen delegation on how the democratic elections in Chechnya violated Islamic law. (18)
The Russian campaign to connect Chechnya to Afghanistan
A Russian threat to bomb the alleged camps in Afghanistan in 2000, which was made publically and loudly by many Russian government officials, can be interpreted in two different ways. The first is the obvious: the Russian government was angry that a foreign government had granted diplomatic recognition to a separatist force within the Russian Federation, and was concerned that Chechen insurgents and terrorists were being trained in Afghanistan. The second is that the Russians were making so much noise because, as Maskhadov and Akhmadov believed, the Russian government saw this as an opportunity to portray the Chechen separatist government as extremists backed by the Taleban – a foreign Islamist force.
The relations between the Taleban and Russia were already bad, as Russia was supporting Ahmad Shah Massud’s anti-Taleban forces, and nothing changed after the excitement over the Taleban’s recognition of Chechen independence. Between this event and the start of the American-led war in Afghanistan, the only time Chechens in Afghanistan were mentioned prominently (outside Russia), was when Arif Ayub, the Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, argued (privately) that supporting the Taleban was a threat to Pakistani interests, namely its good relations with Saudi Arabia and China, while citing hundreds of Chechens as being among a long list of foreign fighters serving with the Taleban. (19) By 2002, the Russian government’s top envoy to Afghanistan was claiming that up to 300 Chechen families had been living in the Shahr-e Naw and Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhoods of Kabul. Yet of this alleged number, there is only one Chechen (an ethnic Chechen from Georgia) who has openly claimed (see here) to have fought as a jihadist in Afghanistan at any time since the withdrawal of Soviet troops.
Russia’s attempt to connect Chechen separatism to Afghanistan and al-Qaeda was a failure, as western and Muslim governments continued to condemn Russian abuses in the war in Chechnya, rejecting Russian claims that all of its opponents in Chechnya were terrorists connected to a global Islamist force (20) (note: this was before the Chechen terrorist attacks at a theatre in Moscow in late 2002 and on a school in Beslan in 2004). However, al-Qaeda’s attacks on 11 September 2001 gave Russia an opportunity to reframe its enemies – and it was very successful in doing so. As argued by Zbigniew Brzezinski, “…after 9/11, the Bush administration officials adopted the Russian view that the Chechen resistance was really part of an international terrorist movement, alleging (falsely as it turned out) that Chechen fighters were battling alongside Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq.” (21) The United States secured Russia’s acquiescence to military bases in Central Asia, as well as a broad range of support in its fight against al-Qaeda and the Taleban. (22) In return, the US gave Russia what it wanted: the US government began to make references to Chechens as part of al-Qaeda, while repeating the Russian claim that there were many Chechen fighters in Afghanistan. (23)
The Northern Alliance promotes the Chechen myth
Former Chechen foreign minister Akhmadov has completely rejected the notion that Chechens were with the Taleban fighting in Afghanistan, arguing that the Russian government used its then ally, the Northern Alliance, to make what were false claims:
Putin was trying to make his war in Chechnya look similar to the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Since Moscow had supplied the Northern Alliance for years, it was not problematic [for Putin] to have them regularly “discover” Chechen fighters in Afghanistan. This was a small thing for the Northern Alliance to do to repay their patron but it had a huge impact. Suddenly we Chechens were viewed as America’s enemies. (24)
Brian Glyn Williams, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, (25) and Russian journalists (26) also cite Northern Alliance (officially: United Front) leaders as promoters of the belief in large numbers of Chechens in Afghanistan. It also was not strictly ( see here) a phenomenon that occurred after the start of the US-led war in late 2001. The earliest sources where Northern Alliance sources tell reporters and researchers that they are fighting Chechens occurred in late May 2000, a few months after Russia loudly claimed that Afghanistan was sheltering Chechen terrorists. In this case, the anti-Taleban Islamic State of Afghanistan government’s embassy in Tajikistan told ( see here) Russian journalists they could confirm a “large group” of Chechen militants in Afghanistan. Later, in October 2000, Massud’s forces claimed they were fighting “Uighurs, Uzbeks and Chechens” near Taloqan, saying they had been flown in from a base near Kabul. (27)
The post-9/11 American discovery of Chechens in Afghanistan
In the early months of Operation Enduring Freedom, US Special Operations Forces and CIA officers were relying heavily on their Northern Alliance hosts for intelligence. As for the belief of Afghan fighters in the identity of their enemies, a New York Times reporter in Afghanistan noted that “The phrase ‘Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis’ was uttered so often that it seemed to have been drilled into the mind of every alliance soldier.” The same reporter then asked to see the prisoners that the Northern Alliance guards were advertising as ‘Arab, Chechen and Pakistani’, but found that “in fact the group appeared to be almost entirely from Pakistan.” One Canadian journalist who had previously reported from Chechnya was particularly interested in finding Chechens in Afghanistan. But he came to a dead end. American Taleb John Walker Lindh gave him a hurried interview and stated briefly (see here) that he had met Chechens in the past, but that “Here, in Afghanistan, I haven’t seen any Chechens.”
American soldiers and CIA officers, in contrast, were far more gullible, for several reasons. The main reason is that their leaders were telling them they were fighting Chechens in Afghanistan. In late November 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld briefed journalists (see here) on the battle for Kunduz, claiming he would not allow foreign militants and terrorists to be evacuated in any sort of negotiated deal:
And if they’re looking for any kind of conditions whereby the foreigners — there’s Chinese in there, there’s Chechens in there, there’s Arabs in there, there’s Al Qaeda in there — any idea that those people should be let loose on any basis at all to leave that country and to go bring terror to other countries and destabilize other countries is unacceptable.
Notably, Rumsfeld did not mention the many Pakistani fighters who were actually in Kunduz, as Vice President Dick Cheney was, at this time, busy acquiescing to President Musharraf’s request to evacuate Pakistani advisors from there – a request that was granted at the top level of the US government. It was worried that a slaughter of Pakistani ISI officers in Kunduz would worsen Pakistani-America relations yet further and possibly even result in upheaval in Pakistan. (28)
In March 2002, US Major General Frank Hagenbeck commented authoritatively on the Chechen presence while emphasising the foreign nature of the foe in Afghanistan, as Agence France-Presse reported ( see here):
“We know the history of the Chechens. They are good fighters and they are very brutal,” Hagenbeck said.
The general said he has heard of reports out of the Pentagon that a unit of 100-150 Chechens had moved into southern Afghanistan.
Hagenbeck said US intelligence was exchanging information with foreign counterparts to help fight the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but he would not say if there had been any specific exchanges with Moscow over the Chechens.
US General Tommy Franks, the overall commander of the war against the Taleban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan also spoke on the matter (see here) in early March 2002, stating that his forces has killed between 100 and 200 foreign fighters, including “Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks” in the Shahikot Valley in Paktia. Later, he said “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.” Notable is that there were no Chechens represented after detainees were identified (29) (even after detainee numbers increased ten-fold), and that General Franks was in Moscow when he commented on the Chechens. One Russian military affairs analyst, asked about the reports of Chechens in Afghanistan, said there were probably a few there, but that, “sometimes I wonder if the Americans don’t emphasize the presence of Chechens in Afghanistan just to please Moscow.” (30)
Another analyst, the head of the Institute for Caucasian Studies in Moscow, offered a cynical explanation for the sudden American enthusiasm for seeing Chechens everywhere in Afghanistan: they were attempting to discredit any Afghan resistance by painting them as being controlled by foreigners. This may have been the case, but Americans on the ground certainly believed they were fighting Chechens. In CIA officer Gary Schroen’s memoirs of leading CIA and SOF forces in northern Afghanistan in late 2001, a local Afghan told him they were fighting Chechens, something that Schroen did not question, just as he did not question the intelligence provided by Bariullah Khan, a Northern Alliance commander, that in one instance they were up against “a key al-Qa’ida position, manned by Arab, Chechen, and Uzbek IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) terrorists.” (31)
The low-ranking Northern Alliance soldiers themselves also believed they were fighting Chechens. In one small battle, three unidentified insurgents charged Schroen, an American soldier identified as ‘Craig’, and 60 Northern Alliance soldiers, all of whom held the high position on top of a hill. Schroen described what happened next:
Then, one of the Afghans watching the three men steadily cross the open ground shouted, “Chechnya, Chechnya!” The cry was picked up by the others. “Chechnya!” A wave of panic and fear, so intense that Craig could feel it physically, swept through the line of men on the hilltop. (32)
The 60 Afghans and the two Americans then fled from these three fighters after failing to hit them with their gunfire. The three ‘Chechens’ took the hilltop and proceeded to mock the Afghans until the US Army team called in an airstrike on them. They were vaporised in a subsequent airstrike and no identification was made.
Scepticism is offered, but brushed aside
While the Russian government was adamant that Chechens were in Afghanistan, independent Russian analysts were very sceptical. In late 2001 The Moscow Times surveyed (see here) a range of experts and researchers who focus on Chechnya or Afghanistan. When asked if they believed there were large numbers of Chechens in Afghanistan, only one agreed (and he argued that the Chechen embassy in Afghanistan and Putin’s subsequent threat to bomb alleged Chechen camps in Afghanistan was the necessary proof). (33) Chechen separatist media were even more sceptical, rejecting any notion of their compatriots being in Afghanistan, noting the inability of the American or Afghan forces to “produce even one Chechen as proof of the ‘participation of hundreds and thousands of Chechen fighters’ in the war in Afghanistan.” For its part, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) told the media (see here) that, leading up to late 2001, hundreds of Chechen fighters travelled to Afghanistan to join the Taleban and al-Qaeda.
The Russian media was mixed in its support of the (both Russian and American government) narrative of Chechens being in Afghanistan. Newspaper articles did appear, uncritically relaying reports of Chechens being captured or killed in Afghanistan (see for example here and here) but Russian reporters on the ground in Afghanistan were encountering a problem: they could not find any Chechens, dead or alive. For example, Russian journalist Alexander Khokhlov collected many stories, but no proof. Another journalist with long experience reporting on Chechnya, Andrei Babitsky, travelled to Afghanistan in winter 2001-2002 and could find no trace of any Chechens. He noted that “All the Russian journalists in Afghanistan received instructions to find Chechens, but we inspected all of the jails, asked all of the [Afghan] field commanders – in vain.” Carlotta Gall, a journalist with extensive experience reporting on Chechnya, also failed to find any Chechens in early 2002 despite Afghans telling her that they were holding prisoners from Chechnya.
Another Russian journalist, Yuri Kovalenko, asked this question:
How has it happened that among the several thousand foreign fighters taken into prison in Afghanistan, not a single Chechen has been discovered? There are likewise none among the 500 prisoners in the hands of the Americans, including those interned at the Cuban base at Guantanamo…Not one Chechen has been found among the 3,000 fighters imprisoned in the dungeon of Shibirgan…
One US publication, the Terrorism Monitor of the Jamestown Foundation, sought answers (see here) to the Chechen question from the US government for several months, but never received an answer.
Many American news reports from this time are, on average, far less sceptical, in most cases they just relay the claims from the US military, Northern Alliance soldiers or unidentified sources without any sort of confirmation or questioning. In one instance, a source inside Kunduz told CNN that 60 Chechens drowned themselves in the Amu Darya rather than surrender. A quick look at a map begs the question, why 60 Chechens, instead of fighting to the death at the Kunduz airport, would break out of the containment by Afghan and American forces, safely cross the Khanabad River without drowning and hike 40 km to the Amu Darya to commit suicide. The stories from this era all have an element of the absurd, with Chechens vanishing without a trace – as opposed to Uzbeks, Arabs, and Pakistanis.
No Chechens, but the myth lives on
Any notion of a significant number of Chechens being in Afghanistan, not only in 2001 but subsequently, has been comprehensively analysed by one American researcher who focuses on Chechnya, Brian Williams, who makes his case in his recent 2015 book. After regular field research in Afghanistan and over a decade of researching the topic (including visits to Uzbek and Tajik Northern Alliance fighters), he addresses all the claims and roundly rejects the notion of Chechens being in Afghanistan. (34)
By 2013, Williams wrote that:
To date, no Chechen has ever been captured, interviewed, nor has there been any evidence of one being killed in this region. Significantly, no Chechens were ever captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay by Coalition troops. In addition, in all my years of tracking on line martyrdom epitaphs I have never seen one of a Chechen in Afghanistan or Pakistan. (35)
Since then, this author has found one single ‘martyrdom’ mention of an identified Chechen linked to Afghanistan (see here), that of Saifullah Shishani, who died in Syria, but whose epitaph claimed he had, at some unspecified point in the past, fought in Afghanistan. In addition, there is a single instance of Afghan security forces naming a killed Chechen – but in this case (in Baghlan province in May of this year) identified as Chechen only by nom de guerre (‘Omar Chechen’) and no subsequent information or confirmation provided (see here).
As for revelations of foreign detainees in Afghanistan, in 2014 AAN pieced together (see here) the identities of the foreign detainees at Bagram – a long-held secret. Among the names was one single citizen of Russia. However, he was not a Chechen, but an ethnic Tatar, Ikrak Hamidullan (he was subsequently taken to the United States and put on trial in a military court (see here).
The question then is no longer “Are there many Chechens in Afghanistan?”, but “Why do so many people still believe there are in 2016?”
Military Battlefield Reports of Chechens
Working hand-in-hand with many foreign journalists in Afghanistan are representatives of the American and other coalition militaries. Many journalists quote and cite the US military, and on the issue of Chechens many of them just repeat what the military tells them (unlike other controversies where journalistic scepticism is the norm). In ISAF-NATO’s own media departments, and particularly in ISAF press releases, the Chechens live in large numbers. A survey of ISAF press releases (36) in 2010 reveals the following (underlining added):
…combined Afghan and coalition security forces killed more than 20 armed insurgents, including Arab, Chechen and Pakistani fighters.
… Afghan and coalition security force killed more than 20 armed insurgents, including Arab, Chechen and Pakistani fighters, during the latest deliberate clearing operation against Haqqani Network foreign fighters camps…
… while pursuing a Taliban commander who is responsible for smuggling Pakistani, Chechen and Arab fighters and improvised explosive device materials…
… Afghan and coalition security force killed more than 20 armed insurgents, including Arab, Chechen and Pakistani fighters…
Afghan and coalition forces killed 23 armed insurgents, including Arab, Chechen and Pakistani fighters during the operation.
Other military news sources, like the Office of the US Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (see here; or here), or Afghan military and police reports (excerpts here), can be cited saying the same thing.
When non-military news outlets and wire services report on Afghanistan, they regularly cite or quote US military commanders, many of who claim to be fighting Chechens. But American commanders are not the only ones making Chechen claims. For example, in November 2015, The Washington Post relied on a German Brigadier General for information when they reported that Chechens had participated in the recent fighting in Kunduz. A search of news archive results in news stories with the same components: coalition military commanders say they are fighting foreigners, including Chechens.
However, US commanders are not always so certain about Chechens, and occasionally make cautious statements. Reporting (see here) to a US Senate committee in October 2015, the overall commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, was pressed by a senator to provide a number for foreign fighters in Afghanistan. He would not – or could not – provide a definitive answer, merely repeating “There are reports,” “we have seen reports,” and mentioning “reports” of Chechens in the mix, notably in the north. And in May 2013, one media outlet reported that “[c]lose to 1,000 insurgents, including Arab and Chechen fighters allied with al Qaeda, launched a series of counter strikes against U.S. and ANSF positions in Sangin and Helmand provinces beginning Monday,” though they did note that the American Major General who briefed reporters refused to identify the nationality of any of the foreign fighters.
From academics to analysts: Chechens are everywhere
Analysts, researchers and academics often like to say that journalists’ work lacks rigour. But many researchers with experience in the region have also uncritically reported the presence of Chechens in Afghanistan in various scholarly publications (37) and think tank reports (38) over the last decade. References to Chechens have even appeared in UN reports (39) and made it into documents intended for US lawmakers and government officials to read. (40) None of them make any more than an off-hand reference, and none offer any convincing analysis or evidence. Still, it remains journalists who are on the frontlines of relaying reports of Chechens. From Kunar to Kunduz, foreign reporters regularly report Chechens on the battlefield, with some stating it as fact without any doubts or reservations (see two good examples here and here).
Chechens are fearless fighters; therefore fearless fighters must be Chechen
Numerous American soldiers claim to have fought Chechens in Afghanistan, painting the image of a super-soldier insurgent. One journalist reported on Chechen fighters in Afghanistan, quoting various Special Operations Forces soldiers speaking in dramatic terms:
Chechens are a different breed. They fight till they die. They have more passion, more discipline and less regard for lives. A few of them could have just given up but decided they needed to die.
What I always appreciated was their lack of tether. They will transplant anywhere. I don’t think they ate or were even clear as to why they fight, wherever it is, but they’re fighting most of the time. It’s just a fire in their bellies. It’s what they do.
The same journalist, however, cautioned that this reputation “may have led many in the U.S. military and intelligence to inflate the Chechens’ true numbers on a battlefield.” Indeed, other soldiers he quoted were not so sure. One admitted that misidentifications were common, while another remarked that “It was a pervasive rumor at the time. But I never saw a Chechen. In fact, I’m not sure anyone did.”
Technical military skills = Chechen
One Special Operations Forces soldier argued that Chechens were notable on the battlefield for their discipline, skill and, strangely, their tendency to wear expensive North Face brand ski jackets. Often, soldiers are certain they are fighting Chechens based on the fact that the foes they met on the battlefield were skilled and fearless and therefore must have been ‘Chechen’, as if only Chechens fighters have these attributes. This trope is even picked up by counterinsurgency experts, who see battlefield combat skills by insurgents as a sure sign that Chechens must be there, fighting in person or at least in an advisory role. (41) As the private intelligence firm Stratfor wrote in a short 2005 analysis: “The Chechens in Afghanistan are the insurgency’s elite fighters.”
Others, like two AAN guest authors (see here), note, much more critically, the habit of soldiers to see Chechens as the source of technical military skills. One of them, Antonio Giustozzi, added elsewhere, “The tendency among US officers was to attribute sniping skills to foreign volunteers, particularly Chechens.” (42) Similarly, a former Force Recon Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan somewhat sceptically noted the same, especially in Iraq:
The Chechen jihadist fighter has achieved near-legendary status in the last decade-plus. “Chechen” has become synonymous with “militarily competent jihadist.” Any time coalition forces have met jihadists on the battlefield who maneuver and shoot well, they are presumed to be Chechens. In 2005, the effective insurgent snipers in Iraq were all presumed to be Chechens.
This is not just an idea that is generated and sustained at the lower levels of the US military. It is believed at command levels as well. For example, one soldier argues this:
Having been there, I can say without any reservation that from at least 2007-2008, there was no evidence of Chechens in Nangarhar, Nuristan, Konar, or Laghman provinces despite over 100 reports of their presence often trumpeted by the CJTF [Combined Joint Task Force]. It’s very easy and comforting for commanders to blame every moderately well coordinated and “successful” insurgent attack on mythical “Chechens” rather than local fighters.
Those other, less sceptical, American and coalition soldiers never explain why they believe that, after Afghanistan having been at war since 1979 and Afghans having undergone training by the Soviet, Russian, American, European, Pakistani and other militaries, there should not be an Afghan who can shoot straight. Furthermore, the various accounts by British officers in the First and Second Anglo-Afghan Wars made it very clear that there was a generous, indigenous supply of Afghan snipers. This is not a skill that Afghans are, by nature, incapable of. (43)
But the idea that only Chechens can shoot straight is not just an American soldier story. This idea extends into the ranks of other ISAF militaries and to Afghan soldiers as well. According to CIA officer Gary Schroen, the Northern Alliance soldiers also believe this. Schroen wrote:
In every battle they had fought with the Taliban, there had been rumours and reports that a group of Chechens was fighting with the Taliban. They were reported to be fanatical, fierce fighters, well trained and experts with their weapons. After one particular tough engagement a few days earlier, a number of dead among the Karzai forces had been found to have been killed by a single shot to the head. This was incredible to the Afghans, none of whom actually aimed their weapons but rather trusted Allah to guide their bullets. They thought that such accurate fire had to be the work of the Chechens. (44)
Of course, this was not the first time Afghans had misidentified their enemy, as the mujahedin of the 1980s relayed stories of fighting a plethora of nationalities from communist countries allied to the Soviets. The most absurd was their 1980 claim that 10,000 Cubans had been deployed to Afghanistan. Two years later, the mujahedin claimed to have had a particularly hard and unsuccessful fight near Paghman against Cubans – who, they claimed, were superior to Soviet soldiers. This led an exasperated western diplomat working on Afghanistan to argue that the mujahedin had likely just fought against elite Soviet airborne troops, and had thought Soviet soldiers who had darkened their faces for night-time operations must have been Cuban. (45)
Deliberate misidentification of Chechens
While high-ranking American officials and military commanders may have played along with a non-existent Chechen presence in Afghanistan to gain the cooperation of Russia, and while lower-ranking US soldiers may be just repeating what they have been told by their superiors or by Afghans, there may be a part of the ISAF/NATO military forces that was deliberately spreading disinformation about Chechens as part of an information warfare campaign. For example, in the summer of 2007 in Helmand, unknown people distributed a pamphlet (see here) to local ‘tribal elders’ that announced:
We criticize the decision of Mullah Mohammad Omar. We don’t accept any other commander. If they continue on this path, we will leave the movement. We only want to carry out jihad against Americans and this is our wish. And we will fight until the end against foreign troops. But the decision of the leadership council in Quetta was a wrong decision. They want to appoint Uzbeks or Chechens instead of a Taliban commander. And Mullah Mohammad Omar, you should know that Pashtuns never want to be slaves. We will not accept a Chechen or Uzbek commander. It is still unclear whether Uzbeks and Chechens are good Muslims. Death is better than accepting their commands. If this happens, we will stop and leave everything to Mullah Omar.
One of the Taleban spokesmen rejected the veracity of information in the pamphlet, while a more neutral observer, Ahmed Rashid, said,“I think there’s a huge disinformation campaign – probably being carried out by NATO and the Americans – in order to present Mullah Omar in a light in which he is seen as being just a tool of Al-Qaeda and foreigners.”
Distributing pamphlets and trying to control information, perceptions and behaviour in warzones are the responsibility of the US military and CIA Psychological Operations groups. The leaked US military PSYOPS manual describes a tool called ‘Black Products’ that would fit the style of the above pamphlet (see here, Appendix A-1 to A-3):
Products that purport to emanate from a source other than the true one are known as black products. Black products are best used to support strategic plans…. The presumption of emanating from within an opponent country lends credibility and helps to demoralize the opponent by suggesting that there are dissident and disloyal elements within their ranks.
Regarding the US Army, both the 2nd and the 7th Psychological Operations Groups were deployed to Afghanistan around this time, but they do not openly communicate what they are doing, nor does the CIA’s equivalent. The Afghan government could also be responsible for this pamphlet. It is also possible that some Taleban fighters genuinely thought Chechens were being deployed as Taleban commanders, and decided to print their own objections in pamphlet form.
Canada, however, is more open about its information warfare. One Canadian media outlet published an article (see here) on the Royal 22nd Regiment’s operations in Kandahar in 2007, which included these passages:
“The Chechens are hard core. They are the best we face,” said the soldier, a Montrealer who works in a secretive cell devoted to what the Canadian battle group calls Information Operations and what other armies sometimes call Information Warfare.
“We’re dealing with all kinds of insurgents. With Chechens, Egyptians, Saudis, Pakistanis, guys from the Yemen. It isn’t one group more than the next.”
“Most Afghans dislike the Taliban, so imagine what they think of foreign fighters,” the sergeant said. “For the foreigners, unlike the Afghans, the war is not about nationalism. The foreigners have an ideology and that ideology is Islamic fundamentalism. They try to use that to control the Afghans.
The American military manual on information warfare clearly includes how to manipulate the media for strategic uses; it is possible that the Canadians here were using a similar playbook.
Afghan government, military and media reports of Chechens
Afghan media outlets are far more active than foreign journalists when it comes to reporting on Chechens. A search of Afghan media outlets, Tolo News for example, in both English and Persian returns numerous reports of Chechens in Afghanistan in the last few years, usually as part of a list of foreign fighters (search returns in English; in Persian). Pajhwok also published regular stories about Chechens in similar fashion. A survey of these articles shows that the sources of reports of Chechens are usually coalition military sources, Afghan security forces and local Afghan officials. The articles cite these officials uncritically, relaying the long list of foreign nationalities – including Chechens – fighting and dying in Badakhshan, Nangarhar, Logar, Faryab, etc. (46) In a two month period in early 2016, the Afghan Ministry of Defence spokesmen were particularly active in informing reporters that Chechens and other foreign fighters were active in Afghanistan. (47)
The narrative is clear: Afghan security forces are fighting a war against a foreign invasion – and Chechens are part of that force.
Surprisingly, it is also possible to find quotes like this from Taleban commanders. In 2011, Afghan officials put Mullah Habib, a Taleban commander in Kunduz, on television sometime after he surrendered, identifying him as an al-Qaeda loyalist. Mullah Habib admitted that his network employed Chechen, Pakistani and Arab fighters, and he repeated the government line (see here): “I have realised that foreigners are working to destroy our country and the war has no benefit. I joined the peace process in the interest our people.” However, the report did not offer the caveat that this Taleb was in government custody and may just have been so compliant due to having been freshly interrogated – or worse – similar to how captured American soldiers in Iraq have condemned American policies and renounced the war in video messages.
This narrative of foreign blame is also emphasised at the highest levels of the Afghan government. In 2006, Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, then the speaker of the Upper House of the Afghan Parliament and the chair of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, blamed the continued war on three factors: the actions of ISAF/NATO troops, incompetent provincial officials and outside interference that manifests in foreigners among the insurgents – including Chechens. Three years later, then Defence Minister Rahim Wardak informed parliament (see here) that “4,000 Chechens, Chinese Muslims and Pakistani fighters had stolen into Afghanistan to carry out terrorist activities.” More recently, both President Ashraf Ghani and Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum have spoken on national TV and to newspapers about the Chechens and other foreign fighters who threaten Afghanistan on the battlefield. In a speech in March 2016, Ghani stressed that the war was being imposed on Afghanistan by outsiders, including Chechens:
The main element in this war is Al-Qa’idah, which is neither an Afghan element nor is Afghanistan the reason of Al-Qa’idah’s war. Another element of the war is Da’ish. It is a matter of pride for us today that Afghanistan is the only country, where Da’ish is on the run. They are escaping from Nangarhar today and Afghanistan will be their grave. We can regard extremist groups from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Chechnya, Xinjiang and other places as the third factor of war in Afghanistan. They also have no attachment to our country. (48)
Dostum and his commanders fighting in the northwest also make similar claims about foreign fighters, blaming Chechens, Uzbeks and Pakistanis. (49) Dostum is rare in Afghanistan – he is an Afghan who has actually been to Chechnya (in late 2015), where he met Chechen President and Putin vassal Ramzan Kadyrov, emphasising that both men were in a struggle against “international terrorism.” It is notable that in late 2001, by contrast, Dostum rejected claims that Chechens were among the many foreign fighters he had captured. (50)
Case studies of the Afghan conflict that aspire to some sort of objectivity and neutrality do indeed reveal an important foreign component to the continuing war in Afghanistan – that being, of course, the various groups and individuals in Pakistan and within its security structures (as well as comparatively small numbers of foreign, non-Pakistani fighters). However, these case studies also reveal important local motivations for why Afghans would become insurgents: anger at the presence of a foreign and non-Muslim, American-led army, predatory Afghan government officials, civilian casualties, local political factional struggles, a desire to boost one’s social standing, monetary incentives, a basic desire to fight, criminal activities, religious and ideological motivations, etc. (51) However, if one wants to blame outsiders (beyond looking at Pakistani state support) for the continuing insurgency in Afghanistan, Chechen and other foreigners become a convenient tool.
The Afghan people
Beyond the Afghan government, military and journalists, there are many Afghans who also believe that Chechens are, or were, in Afghanistan. Speaking to many Afghans about the destruction from the recent years of war, Slavomír Horák, a Czech researcher with a focus on Russia and Central Asia who went to Afghanistan for field research in 2002, found the question of Chechens did arise. Horák was sceptical, and he found that some locals gave a similar narrative: that the Taleban had committed atrocities, but that no Afghan would do such a thing, therefore foreigners accompanying the Taleban were to blame. In one interview, an Afghan said that they could recognise a Pakistani, but that the other foreign fighters who spoke a language they could not understand must be Chechen. (52)
Horák cites a social anthropologist who studies post-conflict societies, and argues that the attempt by local people to blame outside foreigners for atrocities is a form of a truce: they often know exactly who the perpetrators were, but they need to blame an absent outsider for the crimes committed in order to preserve the peace – in combination with the disinclination to blame someone from one’s own group (eg, someone of the same ethnicity). In this line of reasoning, the Chechens serve as a ‘scapegoat.’ (53)
More generally, Afghan denial that fellow Afghans could be responsible for killing Afghans was a feature of the rhetoric surrounding the beginning of the suicide bombing trend in Afghanistan. This was especially true at an early point, when foreigners would be blamed in place of the Afghans who were actually responsible. (54) As one Afghan-American journalist (see here) argued, “I don’t think the Taliban are a primarily Afghan movement. […] …many of the suicide bombers, for example, have not been Afghan. They’ve been Chechens. They’ve been Arabs. They’ve been Pakistanis.” These same viewpoints can be found repeatedly, including on the part of both the Afghan leadership (see here) and the Afghan people (see here ).
This dispatch analysed the phenomenon of Chechens being misidentified and misreported in Afghanistan, including the motivations for doing so (deliberately or accidentally). In the next dispatch, the author will look at the difficulties involved in actually attempting to identify Chechens. After all, they look like other north Caucasians, and Muslims from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and also can speak Russian. Moreover, ‘Chechen’ is a useful brand; identity theft by those keen to expropriate their terrifying battlefield image is also a factor in this tale.
Christian Bleuer is an independent researcher based in Central Asia. From September-December 2015 he worked in the AAN office in Kabul. He can be reached at [email protected].
(1) For example, see the articles cited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn in the “Chechens in Afghanistan” website: see here. For more recent examples, see: Examples: Rob Taylor, ‘Insurgents increasing in east Afghanistan, but army sees gains’, Reuters, 8 July 2013, (see here); Shamil Shams, ‘Who is fighting in northern Afghanistan?’, Deutsche Welle, 07 October 2015; Omar Al Saleh, ‘On the front line of Afghanistan’s battle with ISIL’, Al Jazeera, 25 January 2016. For an extreme example, see: Bill Roggio, ‘Arab, Pakistani, Chechen, and Uzbek fighters’ spotted in Logar’, The Long War Journal, 30 May 2013.
(2) ‘MID Rossii: troye ubitykh v Pakistane inostrantsev okazalis’ urozhentsami Dagestana’, Kavkazskiy Uzel, 24 June 2011; ‘V Pakistane opoznayut rossiyan, ubitykh politseyskimi: tsel’ ikh poyezdki byla sovsem ne mirnoy’, News.ru, 2 June 2011; Yuriy Syun and Igor Petrov, ‘Said Buryatskiy pozval v Pakistan: Opoznayut ubitykh politsiyey rossiyan’, Kommersant, 2 June 2011,
(3) ‘Chechenskiye «shuravi» 25 let spustya’, Kavpolit, 22 February 2014;
‘Spisok chechentsev, pogibshikh v 1980-kh v Afganistane’, Vaynahi, 13 May 2015.
(4) The 055 Brigade was al-Qaeda’s contribution in the field to the Taleban army.
(5) Cerwyn Moore and Paul Tumelty, ‘Foreign Fighters and the Case of Chechnya: A Critical Assessment’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 31 (2008), 424.
(6) Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Yale University Press 2000, 136.
(7) The list of Americans of any race or ethnicity in al-Qaeda is well known (as a starting point, see for example: ‘Category: American al-Qaeda members’ on Wikipedia). The only black American to be identified is Sharif Mobley, an-Qaeda suspect imprisoned in Yemen, and he is far too young to have been in Afghanistan at this time. On the very limited phenomenon of Americans in al Qaeda, see: J.M. Berger, ‘Al Qaeda’s American Dream Ends’, Politico Magazine, 23 April 2015.
(8) As an example, see the claim of an al-Zarqawi training camp for Chechens near Herat, accompanied by information about al-Qaeda chemical and nuclear material being stockpiled in the vicinity: Sean M. Maloney, ‘Army of darkness: The jihadist training system in Pakistan and Afghanistan, 1996–2001’, Small Wars & Insurgencies 26 (2015), 530-531.
(9) ‘Chechens Re-Emerge as Leading Global Jihadis’, Middle East Briefing, Orient Advisory Group, 13 January 2014.
(10) Cerwyn Moore and Paul Tumelty, ‘Foreign Fighters and the Case of Chechnya: A Critical Assessment’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 31 (2008), 416, 425.
(11) Cerwyn Moore and Paul Tumelty, ‘Foreign Fighters and the Case of Chechnya: A Critical Assessment’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 31 (2008), 424.
(12) Ian Traynor, ‘Russia threatens to bomb Afghan terror camps Russia’, The Guardian, 25 May 2000; ‘Russia threatens Afghan air strikes’, BBC News, 24 May 2000; Brian Glyn Williams, ‘Shattering the al-Qaeda-Chechen Myth (Part II): Exploring the Links Between the Chechen Resistance and Afghanistan’, Chechnya Weekly 4 (2003), 1-2.
(13) Thomas D. Grant, Current Development: Afghanistan Recognizes Chechnya, American University International Law Review 15 (2000), 869-870.
(14) Ilyas Akhmadov and Nicholas Daniloff, Chechnya’s Secret Wartime Diplomacy: Aslan Maskhadov and the Quest for a Peaceful Resolution, New York, Palgrave Macmillan 2013, np.
(15) Thomas D. Grant, Current Development: Afghanistan Recognizes Chechnya, American University International Law Review 15 (2000), 881.
(16) See, for example: Robert W. Schaefer, The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus from Gazavat to Jihad, Santa Barbara, CA, Praeger Security International 2010.
(17) Mark Kramer, ‘Preface’, in ibid.
(18) Robert D. Crews, ‘Moderate Taliban?’, in The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan, Robert D. Crews and Amin Tarzi, eds, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press 2008, citing Wahid Muzhda, Afghanistan wa panj sal sulta-ye Taleban, Tehran, Nashr-e ney 1382 , 55.
(19) He stated in January 2001 that in Afghanistan there were numerous foreign fighters, including 500 Arabs, 500 Chechens, 100 Uighurs, 100 Uzbeks, 100 Tajiks, 100 Bengalis, 100 Moros and 5,000 Pakistanis. See: Tim Judah, ‘The Taliban Papers’, Survival 44 (2002), 74.
(20) See, as one of many examples: Emil Souleimanov & Ondrej Ditrych, ‘The Internationalisation of the Russian-Chechen Conflict: Myths and Reality’, Europe-Asia Studies 60 (2008), 1202.
(21) Zbigniew K. Brzezinski, ‘Foreword’, in Ilyas Akhmadov and Miriam Lanskoy, The Chechen Struggle: Independence Won and Lost, New York, Palgrave Macmillan 2010, xiii.
(22) Fiona Hill, ‘“Extremists and Bandits”: How Russia Views the War against Terrorism’, PONARS Policy Memo No. 246, Brookings Institution, April 2002, 1-3; Simon Shuster, ‘How the War on Terrorism Did Russia a Favor’, Time, 19 September 2011.
(23) Brian Glyn Williams, ‘Shattering the al-Qaeda-Chechen Myth (Part II): Exploring the Links Between the Chechen Resistance and Afghanistan’, Chechnya Weekly 4 (2003), 1-2.
(24) Ilyas Akhmadov and Miriam Lanskoy, The Chechen Struggle: Independence Won and Lost, New York, Palgrave Macmillan 2010, 200-201.
(25) Brian Glyn Williams, ‘From “Secessionist Rebels” to “Al-Qaeda Shock Brigades”: Assessing Russia’s Efforts to Extend the Post-September 11th War on Terror to Chechnya’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24 (2004), 26.
(26) Alexander Khokhlov, ‘Zachem amerikantsy skupili v Afgane plennykh chechentsev? Po $8-10 tysyach za golovu’, Izvestiya, 23 July 2002.
(27) V.V. Naumkin, Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle, Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield 2005, 96, citing Sulton Khamadov, ‘Mezhdunarodnyi kontekst-afganskii faktor’, in Religioznyi extremizm v Tzentralnoi Azii: problem i perspectivy, Dushanbe, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe 2002, 147. For more on allegations that significant numbers of Chechens were based in Kabul, see: Alexander Khokhlov, ‘Zachem amerikantsy skupili v Afgane plennykh chechentsev? Po $8-10 tysyach za golovu’, Izvestiya, 23 July 2002, (see here).
(28) Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, New York, Viking Press 2008, 92; Michael Mora, ‘The ‘airlift of evil’: Why did we let Pakistan pull ‘volunteers’ out of Kunduz?’, MSNBC, November 2001.
(29) For a full list of, and information on, detainees, see: Andrei Scheinkman et al., ‘Detainees: Citizens of Russia’, The New York Times, no date. Cross-referencing these names with the Russian media will reveal all nine as non-Chechens.
(30) Fred Weir, ‘Chechnya’s warrior tradition: Guerrillas from Russia’s longtime nemesis take their fighting skills to Afghanistan’, The Christian Science Monitor, 26 March 2002. A variety on this Russian theme was offered by a military analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center: ‘The West is interested in dragging Russia into the war now as the ground operation is unfolding. The publications that link bin Laden to the Chechen rebels are to demonstrate to the world that Russia and the West are jointly opposing Islamic terrorism.’ See: Nabi Abdullaev, ‘Are Chechens in Afghanistan?’, The Moscow Times, 14 December 2001.
(31) Gary Schroen, First In: How Seven CIA Officers Opened the War on Terror in Afghanistan, New York, Random House 2005, 139, 331.
(32) Ibid, 281.
(33) See also: Fred Weir, ‘Chechnya’s warrior tradition: Guerrillas from Russia’s longtime nemesis take their fighting skills to Afghanistan’, The Christian Science Monitor, 26 March 2002.
(34) Brian Glyn Williams, Inferno in Chechnya: the Russian-Chechen wars, the Al Qaeda myth, and the Boston Marathon bombings, Lebanon, NH, ForeEdge 2015, especially chapter 7 (‘The Chechen Ghost Army of Afghanistan’).
(35) Brian Glyn Williams, ‘On the Trail of the ‘Lions of Islam’: Foreign Fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 1980-2010’, Orbis 55 (2011), 236.
(36) Examples cited: Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs, ‘Afghanistan Command Provides Details of Recent Operations’, Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System, 16 August 2010; ISAF Joint Command, ‘More than 20 insurgents killed in Haqqani clearing operation’, Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System, 14 August 2010; ISAF Joint Command, ‘IJC Operational Update, July 10’, Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System, 10 July 2010; ISAF Joint Command, ‘Afghan and coalition forces disrupt Haqqani operations in K-G Pass’, Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System, 15 August 2010; ISAF Joint Command, ‘Afghan, international forces disrupt Haqqani and Taliban networks’, Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System, 23 June 2010; ISAF Joint Command, ‘Afghan, coalition forces round up hundreds in August’, Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System, 1 September 2010.
(37) A few examples on many: Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, Princeton University Press 2010, 260-266; Kersti Larsdotter, ‘Regional Support for Afghan Insurgents: Challenges for Counterinsurgency Theory and Doctrine’, Journal of Strategic Studies 37 (2014), 149; Sean M. Maloney, ‘Army of darkness: The jihadist training system in Pakistan and Afghanistan, 1996–2001’, Small Wars & Insurgencies 26 (2015), 525-531.
(38) Seth Jones, Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, Santa Monica, RAND 2008, 43; Deirdre Tynan, ‘Tajikistan: An ever-more fragile state in a brittle region’, International Crisis Group, 28 January 2016; ‘Tajikistan: The Changing Insurgent Threats’, Crisis Group Asia Report N°205, 24 May 2011.
(39) Example: ‘Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team pursuant to Security Council resolutions 1267 (1999), 1988 (2011) and 1989 (2011) concerning linkages between Al-Qaida and the Taliban as well as other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with the Taliban in constituting a threat to the peace, stability and security of Afghanistan’, UN Security Council, 21 December 2011, 12.
(40) Examples: ‘US CENTCOM’s Unclassified Executive Summary: U.S. Central Command Investigation into Civilian Casualties in Farah Province, Afghanistan on 4 May 2009’, United States Central Command, 18 June 2009, 4; John Rollins et al, ‘Al Qaeda and Affiliates: Historical Perspective, Global Presence, and Implications for U.S. Policy’, Congressional Research Service, 25 January 2011, 8.
(41) David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, Oxford University Press 2009, 55-6, 84.
(42) Antonio Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov, and laptop: the neo-Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, New York, Columbia University Press 2008, 151.
(43) A search for ‘jezail’ (the Afghan musket rifle) in any book about the Anglo-Afghan Wars (particularly the first one), will return numerous examples of Afghan sniping skill.
(44) Gary Schroen, First In: How Seven CIA Officers Opened the War on Terror in Afghanistan, New York, Random House 2005, 281-2.
(45) Associated Press, ‘Cubans fighting in Afghanistan?’, 20 October 1982. See also: Bruce J. Amstutz, Afghanistan: The first five years of Soviet Occupation, Washington, NDU Press 1986, 179.
(46) Examples: Mahbob Shah Mahbob, ‘Panjabi, Chechen fighters sneak into Batikot’, Pajhwok, 23 August 2014; Gul Muhammad Tanha, ‘Chechens, Uzbeks among 15 killed in Warduj’, Pajhwok, 29 October 2014; Abdul Maqsood Azizi, ‘Taliban pressure Daesh commander into fleeing Logar’, Pajhwok, 28 July 2015; Qutbuddin Kohi, ‘Dostum to Taliban: Surrender or face consequences’, Pajhwok, 4 April 2015.
(47) ‘Afghan government vows to eliminate Taliban’, BBC Monitoring Afghanistan news, 19 April 2016, citing Ariana TV, 17 April 2016; ‘Punjabis and Arabs among foreigners fighting in Afghanistan – defence ministry’, BBC Monitoring Afghanistan news, 13 April 2016, citing Khaama Press, 13 April 2016; ‘Afghan morning headlines: Fight against insurgents, security’, BBC Monitoring Afghanistan news, 2 April 2016, citing Ariana TV, 1 April 2016.
(48) ‘Warning to militants, Taleban reject peace talks’, BBC Monitoring Afghanistan news, 8 March 2016, citing speech by Ashraf Ghani to graduates of an Afghan military academy, broadcast on all main Afghan TV channels on 7 March 2016.
(49) ‘Afghan first vice-president may meet Taleban commanders for peace talks’, BBC Monitoring Afghanistan news, 7 March 2016, citing Ariana TV report on 5 March 2016; Ahmad Shah Erfanyar, ‘Gen. Dostum seeks military assistance from Russia’, Pajhwok News, 2 September 2015.
(50) Brian Glyn Williams, ‘Shattering the al-Qaeda-Chechen Myth (Part II): Exploring the Links Between the Chechen Resistance and Afghanistan’, Chechnya Weekly 4 (2003).
(51) I base this on many dozens of studies of the Afghan insurgency. See, for example, the many books, articles and reports collected in previous and the forthcoming Afghanistan Analyst Bibliography: (see here).
(52) Slavomír Horák, Afghánský konflikt, Prague, Public History 2005, 100-101, 136-137, 148. Note: one interviewee said that unidentified people told them that the foreigners were Chechen.
(53) Slavomír Horák, Afghánský konflikt, Prague, Public History 2005, 137.
(54) ‘Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan (2001-2007), UNAMA, 1 September 2007, 64-67.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020