MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin (search) depicts rebels in Chechnya as part of the international terrorist threat spearheaded by Al Qaeda (search). But analysts say the Chechen insurgency remains largely a nationalist movement aimed at winning independence from Russia.
Putin's frequent statements are widely seen as an effort to diminish Western criticism of the heavy-handed campaign to pacify the southern republic by linking the fighters to the main U.S. target in the war on terrorism.
The Russian president seized on an Internet claim of responsibility for the downing of two Russian planes last week from a group calling itself "the Islambouli Brigades" (search). The claim did not mention Al Qaeda, but in July, a group called "Islambouli Brigades of Al Qaeda" said it was behind the attempted assassination of Pakistan's prime minister-designate.
"It's a fact that explosions took place on board two Russian civilian planes," Putin said. "And if a terrorist organization claimed responsibility for this, and it is linked to Al Qaeda, then this confirms a link between certain forces operating on the territory of Chechnya and international terrorism."
Putin's goal, said Alexander Golts, military observer for the magazine Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, was "to put Russia in the ranks of those who fight against terrorism ... To say, 'Look, we are fighting the same enemy but on another front, in Chechnya.'"
"It's the best way to avoid any kind of criticism," Golts said.
Though the Chechen insurgents have received help from foreign fighters and turned more devoutly Islamic in recent years, analysts say the fragmented movement remains more focused on conflict with Russia than on "jihad" or "holy war" against America, Israel or the Western world in general.
"It's still nationalist," said Golts. "But in a situation where we are continuing this 10-year war with all its brutality, it's more or less natural that this resistance becomes open for all these wild ideas that come from the Middle East, with money, instructors and adventurers."
During and after the 1994-96 war, which led to the temporary withdrawal of Russian troops, a Saudi warlord fighting under the name Khattab emerged as a leading commander, and later helped lead an attack on a neighboring region — an attack that provoked Putin to launch a second Russian military campaign in 1999.
The numbers of Arabs involved in Chechnya were small — never more than 300 at the peak, according to Alexei Malashenko at the Carnegie Moscow Center — but they brought the experience and ideology of the 1980s jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and helped tap Arab sources of funds.
The Arab fighters, who largely observed strict interpretations of Islam, however, created friction with other Chechen commanders and the local population, who came from a more lenient Muslim tradition.
The uprising, which began after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as a purely nationalist struggle for independence, with roots extending all the way back to resistance against czarist armies in the 19th century, has since become more Islamicized, scholars say.
The ties with Islam are complex, involving shared ideology and experience even as financial support shrinks, according to Malashenko, an expert on the region.
"In the beginning, the conflict had no relationship to Islam," he said.
But in the past four years, "a certain part of the Chechens and Muslims from other regions of Russia more and more identify themselves with global jihad, more and more think that they are fighting not just against Russia," he said.
This is occurring, said Malashenko, even as the worldwide post-Sept. 11 efforts against terrorism shrink the flow of foreign fighters and money to Chechnya.
"There is sharing of experience," he said. "The use of women suicide bombers is not something the Chechens invented. This is Chechens using the experience of the Palestinians."