Military Adventurers and Modern History, Issue Ten
Ibrahim Moiz, full rights reserved
After a busy spring I have resumed service. This month features military adventurers from three new arenas – Jordan, Bosnia, and Chechnya. I shall for the record reiterate that these are not hagiographies but profiles of the military adventurers in question; that is to say, they are not necessarily endorsements, but rather explorations of said chaps. There are some military adventurers I loathe, and others I admire, and yet others who are rather ambiguous in my opinion. I begin and end the article, as ever, in the Name of Allah without Whose decree neither leaf is moved nor land conquered.
Habis Mujalli. Jordan. The early Jordanian state was a complex mixture of royal centralism and clan interest, military discipline and partisan politics, Arabian gallantry and British fealty, and – most strikingly – transnational ambition and Jordanian particularism. Built in the Levant’s harshest eastern sector off the back of a British-backed bedouin revolt, the Jordanian crown was especially reliant on its British-founded but essentially Arabian military, one whose claims to Arabo-Islamic nationalism not infrequently came second to its essential dependency on outside, non-Muslim, powers. Few figures epitomized and influenced Jordan’s contradictions so thoroughly as its daring bedouin military commander, Field Marshal Sheikh Habis Rufaifan Khadra Mujalli, whose military career went from fighting the recently founded Israeli state to fighting its Palestinian opposition, with a ruthless loyalty to the Hashimi crown its common point.
Habis hailed from a notable Transjordanian clan near Karak, which would spawn several leading servants of the Jordanian regime including several prime ministers. Always proud of his desert roots, he was in some ways the typical recruit in the Jordanian army during the 1930s. At that point Transjordan was a British protectorate to an even greater extent than its Hashimi neighbour, Iraq, and the army was in effect an Arabian paramilitary division for the British empire. Cobbled together from the ground up by a British commander, Bagot Glubb, it largely drew on the Transjordanian clans from the arid eastern Levant, seen as more loyal to Hashimi monarch Abdullah I bin Hussein than the rest of the Levant. Glubb, a fatherly if patronizing partner to the Arabs, never forgot his ultimate commitment to British imperialism.
Britain’s main conflicts in the region during the period involved the controversial and charismatic mufti of Jerusalem, Amin Hussaini. This populist notable assisted first the 1936-39 Palestinian revolt, which largely involved peasants and preachers in the Holy Land, and when that was repressed he escaped to Germany as their client in the Second World War. In spring 1941 Hussaini assisted a pro-German coup by Iraqi nationalists against Abdullah’s nephew in Baghdad, Abdulelah bin Ali. It took British help, directed from Transjordan under Glubb’s leadership, to help quash the revolt and restore the crown. Not surprisingly, there was no love lost between Abdullah – who saw the British empire as a guarantor of a rule that he hoped would eventually extend over the entire Levant – and Hussaini.
In the circumstances, Hussaini’s hostility to Britain was more realistic. London supported the Transjordanian monarchy, but had no intention of letting it rule the entire Levant to become an uncontrollable partner. In 1917, as they had conquered the Levant, Britain had promised the Zionist movement in Europe a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Thus in the 1940s, as it prepared its withdrawal from the region, Britain had to juggle the interests of several vassals – the Hashimi monarchies of Iraq and Transjordan, its separate protectorate in monarchic Masr, and the Zionist movement. In the final analysis, it was the latter that they preferred.
Hussaini – who, in spite of his ruthless ambitions, was genuinely the most popular leader at the Palestinian grassroots and led a putative government-in-exile – led one among several loosely organized Arab militias in a six-month war against the Zionist militias. That culminated with the defeat of the former and the declaration of Israel as a newly independent state in May 1948. The fledgling Arab states now swooped in with their own hastily assembled militaries. Yet – with the partial exception of Masr, which retained the Ghazza strip in southern Palestine – none made any impression except the Jordanian army under Glubb’s command.
The Arab officers under Glubb’s tutelage performed impressively. Most notably, Abdullah Tal rescued the beleaguered Muslim garrison in East Jerusalem, but Habis Mujalli also had his first taste of serious command. With eastern Jerusalem under Muslim and western Jerusalem under Jewish control, the northwesterly road leading out of Jerusalem assumed strategic importance, since it linked the Israelis to supplies from their capital Tel Aviv. Habis led a force, comprising both Jordanian troops and Bedouin fighters, that took control of this road and the fort commanding it. In spite of several major Israeli attacks, the Jordanians held out and soon Israel abandoned any hope for East Jerusalem. Along with the remaining West Bank of the Jordanian river – including such towns as Nablus, Ramullah, and Ramleh – this was incorporated into Jordanian control.
Glubb’s decision to leave the Jordanian campaign at that was widely resented by Palestinians and even Abdullah himself, but – satisfied with a public humiliation of the British commander – the Jordanian monarch contented himself with incorporating the Palestinians into his realm. If he could not have the entire Levant, he was satisfied with both banks of the Jordan river. The situation also ultimately satisfied Britain, who could leverage two competing vassals – Israel and Jordan – against each other, a situation that would prevail through the 1950s. This was in turn helped by Israel’s provocative border probes.
Abdullah’s priority was extending Hashimi influence into Syria – in which pursuit he also sent troops to southern Syria when Israel probed into the Houly valley during spring 1951. Sensing his influence on the upswing, the Jordanian monarch was in buoyant mood on a trip to the Aqsa mosque in July 1951. Habis Mujalli, who had by now been promoted to captain his praetorian guard, anxiously hovered about as Abdullah jostled among worshippers. In an irritated retort that reflected the pristine eloquence of his forebears, Abdullah snapped, “Don’t lock me up, Habis” – Habis meaning in Arabic one who locks up – and Habis hurriedly withdrew. Moments later, an assassin had shot Jordan’s founder dead.
Habis and the enraged guards killed the assassin on the spot, but his identity bespake the unresolved tensions still bubbling in the Hashimi realm. Mustafa Ashou was a Palestinian refugee who had found work in Jordan; like many compatriots, he understandably suspected that Abdullah had undermined the Palestinian cause in favour of his own ambitions. He was also suspected to have been hired by the Hashimis’ archrival Amin Hussaini, the mufti then based in Cairo. The following years would see increasing tension between such Palestinians – who, along with the Jordanian middle class, were increasingly drawn toward republican ideologies opposed to the monarchy – and Transjordanian clansmen such as Habis who were loyal to the crown. It was such tensions that Abdullah’s grandson Hussein bin Talal, who took over the following summer, would have to manage in addition to Jordan’s now more defensive stance with regard to its neighbours.
Hussein’s ascension coincided roughly with the ouster of the rival Masri monarchy to a republican military junta. By the mid-1950s, Gamal Abdel-Nasser had secured himself as its dictator, and in addition as a serious threat to colonial aspirations in the region. In the prevalent mood that gripped Masr and much of the Levant by the late 1950s, Jordan’s dependence on Britain rendered it an obvious colonial lackey. In fact Hussein was not inimically opposed to the anticolonial stance at first – he very publicly sacked Glubb and even unsuccessfully urged Jordanian involvement in the Masri war against Israel, Britain, and France – but in the final analysis, his regime’s safety took priority. He was urged in this direction by his family – his mother, Zain bint Jamil, and her brother Nasir, who took over the praetorian guard – as well as by conservative quarters such as the Mujalli family.
By the late 1950s, Jordan hoped to get both Britain and the increasingly assertive United States in its quarter. Sulaiman Nabulsi had just been voted in as prime minister at the helm of a broadly pro-Masr cabinet, and with Glubb’s ouster the army command had gone to Ali Abu-Nuwar, an ambitious veteran of the Palestine war. Though both had rejected Hussein’s wish to fight in the 1956 war, they were considered dangerously close to Masr and thus a threat to the monarchy. In April 1957 Hussein sacked Nabulsi and then, quite theatrically, Abu-Nuwar – whom he accused of having plotted a coup and exiled to Syria. There Abu-Nuwar was joined within days by his successor, Ali Hiyari, who defected and accused Hussein of having contrived a drama to get Western support. Unfazed, Hussein promoted Habis Mujalli to serve as army commander – a genuine royalist with contempt for such revolutionary fervour as was gripping the region at that point.
If the Abu-Nuwar affair had been contrived, threats to the monarchy certainly were not as republican ideologues and army officers throughout the region conspired to bring down the Western-backed monarchs. The union of Masr and Syria into the United Republic during February 1958 was contrived by, and emboldened, such officers. Hussein and his Iraqi cousins tried to match it with a far more feebly received union between their countries just days later, but it was clear that this was more an attempt to one-up the republicans than genuine proactive union. By the summer Hussein, credibly suspecting assassination attempts and a coup plot by army officer Mahmoud Rousan, had called in a British force to safeguard the palace against further threats.
Hussein’s fear was well-founded; in July 1958, the union came apart with emphatic savagery when a military coup led by Abdul-Karim Qasim, an Iraqi veteran of the Palestine war, murdered the Iraqi monarchy. Ironically, Qasim’s brigade had been ordered to proceed westward from its Baqubah base to protect Jordan; instead, he stopped at Baghdad and effected a coup. It was accompanied with savage mob violence over which the mutineers had no control; in addition to lynching regent Abdulelah bin Ali and hated prime minister Nuri Saeed, they also summarily murdered two Jordanian ministers, both of Palestinian origin, who had been in Baghdad at the moment: Ibrahim Hashim, a former prime minister who had also governed the West Bank, and Sulaiman Tuqan. The only survivor was Habis’ second-in-command in the army, Sadiq Sharaa, who watched the horror from an inn window.
A shocked Hussein bin Talal tried to seize control of the situation; he announced that with his cousins dead, he was now in charge of both Iraq and Jordan, with Habis Mujalli in charge of their militaries. But any royalist influence in Iraq had been bloodily purged, and Britain was unwilling to support a risky Jordanian attack on Iraq. Exasperated, Hussein’s uncle Nasir bin Jamil and Habis contented themselves with rounding up suspected republicans in the army. Their suspicions reached as far as Habis’ own second-in-command, Sadiq Sharaa, although they could not yet move against him.
Now clearly under republican threat, Hussein took some comfort in his cooption by the United States. Regarding the embattled monarch as the “Brave Young King” against radicalism, Washington furnished Jordan with military support. This was welcomed by both the prime minister Samir Rifai and by the leading military officers – Habis Mujalli, Sadiq Sharaa, and Nasir bin Jamil. However, Sharaa – who had good links to the United States after spending some years there – was encouraged enough to overplay his hand. Even while Hussein was touring the United States in spring 1959 – at the same point as Iraq was suffering a United Republic-backed mutiny – his sergeants-in-arms at home, Habis and Nasir, arrested Sharaa for having planned a coup.
It was only years later that Sharaa confessed to planning a coup, and at first prime minister Rifai tried to exonerate him. Without a professional officer like Sharaa, he argued, the army would sink into a morass of competing tribal cliques. By arguing on this line, Rifai jeopardized his own position in palace politics. Both Nasir bin Jamil and his sister, the dowager Zain, insisted on Sharaa’s dismissal, and in May 1959 Habis himself delivered an ultimatum that forced the prime minister to resign. The beneficiary was Habis’ cousin, Hazzaa, a staunch royalist and longstanding rival of Rifai.
With the dismissal of both Sharaa and Rifai – who had advocated a cautious coexistence with Jordan’s Arab neighbours – the hardline royalists were on the upswing. Their stance was far closer to that traditionally taken by Britain, which looked askance at regional republicanism. There was no principle in the stance taken by such figures as Nasir bin Jamil, a brutal and unsavoury character; he had no problem with military domination in politics – but only as a servant of the royal family to which he belonged, not its rival. And thus they were constantly on the lookout for pretexts to attack either Baghdad, where their cousins had been brutally extinguished, or Damascus, which was now a front for Cairo.
An opportunity came in October 1959, when Iraqi Baathists – including a young street thug called Saddam Hussein – attempted to assassinate Abdul-Karim Qasim, leaving him badly injured. Sensing vulnerability, Nasir urged an attack on Baghdad that, similar to 1941, would restore the monarchy. But on this occasion, Britain was unwilling to countenance such a policy. In summer 1960, a more successful assassination attempt put Jordan again on the warpath, when prime minister Hazzaa Mujalli was assassinated by a Palestinian shopkeeper called Salah Fourani.
The Jordanian establishment was incensed at Hazzaa’s murder – none more so than his cousin Habis. They imprisoned a merchant called Zakaria Tahir, accusing him of financing the murder, but blamed the entire plan on Syrian spymaster Burhan Adham. For Habis, Nasir bin Jamil, defence minister Akif Fayiz, and even Hussein – who snarled at the British ambassador that he could not be satisfied until the culprits were torn apart in the same way that they had slain his prime minister – the option was clear: an invasion of Syria to wrest it from Masr’s control. Habis readied the troops on the western border – commanded by, among others, his Mujalli cousins Abdullah and Atif – for the assault, but once more Western refusal to support such a conflagration thwarted their plans. Not until the next summer, when they killed one of Tahir’s kinsmen in revenge, were the Mujallis satisfied.
His loyalty to the crown explains Habis’ long stint as army commander – by the point he stepped down in October 1967, he had served over ten years. Habis’ command ended on a sour note, when the West Bank was lost to Israel in the six-day war. Rubbing salt to the wound was that the Jordanian army had not been in charge of its own campaign; rather, in line with a hastily assembled joint defence pact, they were put under the charge of a Masri commander, Abdel-Monem Riad, who would liaise between them and Cairo. In his own right a capable enough officer, Riad lacked local knowledge and was ultimately subservient to a wildly politicized, inaccurate stream of propaganda coming from Masri headquarters that bore no resemblance to the military situation. He repeatedly turned down his Jordanian staff’ advice in favour of Masri orders, and on one occasion Habis’ clansmate Atif was so exasperated that he flung his headdress to the ground and stomped from the command tent.
The very failure of the Masr coalition rendered cooperation between the Arab states more necessary, and so the royalist camp were in decline by the point Habis resigned as army commander. He was promoted to the relatively ceremonial defence minister’s position, and watched as his successor Amer Khammash – in line with Masri and Syrian policy – supported the Palestinian militants, or fidayin, who, long mistrusted by the Arab capitals, were now proving effective hit-and-run attackers in an attritional border war.
The watershed had been the battle of Karameh in spring 1968, when Palestinian commander Yasser Arafat famously stood down an Israeli assault on a Palestinian camp. Though Jordanian troops grudgingly pointed out that the role of the Jordanian field commander, Mashhour Haditha, had been at least as important, the Palestinians’ resilience provoked widespread admiration and considerable hype, with even Hussein bin Talal shedding his earlier inhibitions to proclaim that everybody in Jordan were fidayin. In turn the emboldened fidayin became more assertive, and in seeking to construct a base on the border with Israel developed into an unstable “state” within the Jordanian state; it was not lost on royalists that mostly leftist extremists within the fidayin ranks, though not Arafat and his dominant Fatah group themselves, were increasingly advocating the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy. Finally, fidayin raids gave Israel pretexts to launch traditionally devastating raids into Jordanian territory.
Habis Mujalli and other royalists such as Nasir bin Jamil watched these developments with mounting unease. As tension increased, Hussein signalled a policy shift by promoting his uncle to army commander in place of Khammash. In defending his family’s interests against dissidents within Jordan, Nasir was in his element, and by hook or crook escalated the conflict. Both Habis and Nasir served on Hussein’s secret council of advisors tasked with limiting fidayin influence; by 1970, their strategy was clearly one of escalation.
Violence between the army and the fidayin in summer 1970, accompanied by Iraqi threats, forced Hussein to replace Nasir as army commander with Mashhour Haditha, the celebrated Karameh veteran who was well-respected by the Palestinians. He also promoted to prime minister Abdul-Munim Rifai, the brother of former prime minister Samir; both appointments were meant to placate Arafat. Yet as Arafat and Hussein “reconciled”, the hardliners within their coalitions escalated, and when Hussein survived an alleged assassination attempt at Amman in September 1970 the army swung into action. Though Rifai and Mashhour both resigned, Hussein was unconcerned and brought out the hardliners. In turn the Palestinians announced a “revolutionary” government, largely comprising longstanding Jordanian dissidents including Mahmoud Rousan, who had plotted a coup twelve years earlier. Hussein, meanwhile, announced military law and brought Habis Mujalli out of “retirement” to serve as governor-general in charge of the army. Having begun his career fighting against Israel, Habis was now ending it fighting the Palestinians.
The short, bloody campaign of September 1970 ended with a thumping Jordanian victory. Not only were the Palestinians crushed, but a Syrian invasion in their support was also soundly routed by the instrument Hussein had long craved – an effective airforce. Viewing their triumph with grim exhilaration, the Jordanian royalists were in no mood to let up. In spite of a ceasefire which their opponents largely honoured, a new Jordanian cabinet – led by Wasfi Tal, a Palestinian veteran of the 1948 war who particularly championed the regime’s interests – continued to quietly advance. By July 1971, the last vestiges of Palestinian militia in Jordan had been extinguished.
Jordan’s royalists did not too much mind the fact that the Arab world, including their traditional royal allies in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, were galled at the war. For the next few years, however, Amman largely remained in political isolation among the Arab states. Habis played a tangential role in a redemptive episode, when a small Jordanian unit rushed to the assistance of Syria and Masr in the 1973 war, but its effect was so minor that it hardly changed attitudes.
In his retirement, Habis took to recollecting his military years with some satisfaction. A regular member of Hussein’s senior advisors until he passed away in 2001, he did not mince his words at Israel; the brutal rightwing Israeli general-turned-politician, Ariel Sharon, was a uniquely loathed bane for the Arabs, but Habis dismissed him disdainfully – claiming, plausibly, that he had captured him in 1948 and considered him of no consequence. Nonetheless, Habis’ defining career path was neither opposition to Israel, nor opposition to the Palestinians, nor to any single Arab regime. Rather it was a career marked by unflinching, ruthless loyalty toward the interests of the Jordanian crown; Habis would fight against anybody who appeared to threaten Amman.
Naser Oric. Brigadier Naser Oric. Bosnia.
The bloody breakup of the Yugoslavia federation in the 1990s saw a wave of ethnic cleansing, genocidal atrocity, and assorted war crimes that hit Bosnia, the westernmost successor-state, hardest from the lot. The violence – largely precipitated by Bosnia’s neighbours, the Serb-ethnonationalist Yugoslav regime in Belgrade and the Croat-ethnonationalist regime in Zagreb – saw tens of thousands of mainly Muslim Bosnians or Bosniaks expelled or killed in what became the most infamous war of post-World War European history. The fact that the United Nations and European Union, failed to back up their rhetoric and essentially blockaded Bosnia meant that its defenders were forced to resort at various points to unlikely champions of questionable repute – whose own notoriety became vastly exaggerated in an attempt to equivocate between the different sides in the war. This was nowhere better epitomized than in the case of Brigadier Naser Oric, the brash policeman-turned-commander who led the siege of the important border town, Srebrenica, for most of the war.
For much of the Cold War, Yugoslavia had been viewed with grudging respect by both East and West as a neutral actor of some ability. Founded by anti-Nazi communist militias from the Second World War, it had nonetheless – unlike its neighbours in Eastern Europe – avoided the embrace of the Soviet Union in the war’s aftermath and become a fairly functional, if flawed, multiethnic federation between several different ethnolinguistic groups. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, an increasingly moribund regime’s narrative was challenged by ethnonationalists of various stripes – among them Croatian nationalists, Serbian nationalists, and even Albanian irredentists who wanted to attach Yugoslavia’s smallest, Albanian-majority Kosovo province to Albania.
In this respect Bosniak politics was mainly unusual for its aversion to ethnopolitics. This Muslim-majority western province included Bosniaks as well as a hefty number of ethnic Croats and Serbs; moreover, unlike the other Muslim-majority province Kosovo it had no neighbouring state on which to fall back. Leading Bosniak intellectuals such as the Islamist Alija Izetbegovic and the secularist Adil Zulfikarpasic tended to adhere to non-ethnic ideologies that saw no contradiction between their Muslim background and coexistence. Unfortunately, ethnopolitics was rampant elsewhere in Yugoslavia. It was whipped up in particular by Slobodan Milosevic, who took over in 1989 and reinvented himself from communist bureaucrat to blustering Serbian ethnonationalist. Milosevic’s rabble-rousing chauvinism, initially directed mainly against the Kosovar Albanians, was to bring Yugoslavia crashing in the 1990s. In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia violently broke away; in spring 1992, a largely reactive Bosnia followed suit.
In order to retain as much of its former territory as possible, Milosevic’s regime in Belgrade promoted Serb irredentists in Bosnia – led by Raduvan Karadzic, a sinister doctor with a flair for the barely-veiled threat – and supported their attempt to break away from Bosnia and form their own statelet, the so-called Srpska republic. In the process, Bosnia’s mixed population would have to be violently remanaged to expel non-Serbs from the areas that Srpska claimed.
Naser Oric was somewhat typical of Bosniak citizens, if not of their leaders, in that politics did not overly concern him. Ironically enough, indeed, he had begun his career very much as a professional in the Yugoslav establishment, working as a security guard and police officer. In fact, Oric served as Milosevic’s bodyguard at Kosovo in summer 1989, where the Yugoslav dictator whipped up Serbian chauvinism in his most infamous speech. Nor did Oric have much compunction about working in an interior ministry thereafter. In spring 1991, when Milosevic’s opponents – led by Vuk Draskovic, who shared Milosevic’s Serbian chauvinism but not his propensity toward violence – demonstrated, Oric participated in the crackdown. He was not particularly concerned about ideology or principle; foremost a man of action, it was this quality that would make him invaluable to the Bosnian cause.
In spring 1992 Bosnia declared independence. Within weeks Karadzic’s Srspka enclave, heavily equipped by Belgrade and bolstered by ethnically Serbian defectors within Bosnia, challenged them and made an attempt at their own independence. In the process Serbian militias inside Bosnia, who had long prepared for this moment, began “cleansing” operations to expunge their areas from non-Serbs, with Muslims targeted for especial savagery. Across Bosnia’s eastern border, paramilitaries also poured in from Serbia to join in.
Naser Oric had been working as a police officer in Srebrenica, the border town in the Drina valley that marked the easternmost extent of Srpska ambitions. He had not missed the recent polarization or its implications, and had some weeks after Bosnia’s independence withdrawn into the countryside to prepare a militia for this strategic town placed on the border between Bosnia, Serbia, and the Srpska project. Sure enough, in April 1992 a gaggle of Serbian militias converged on and seized Srebrenica. As elsewhere, the Muslims were targeted for special slaughter, but the Serbian townsmen also found their property vulnerable to the attackers’ plunder.
In May 1992, Oric pounced. The Serbian militia commander for Srebrenica, Goran Zedic, was killed in a roadside ambush before the Bosniak fighters around the town attacked. They caught the Serbian garrison entirely by surprise and quickly seized the town. This was a sharp blow against Milosevic and Karadzhic’s aspirations; the retention of a sizeable Bosnian enclave in the borderlands disrupted their operations, and so the surrounding Serbian forces – now mustered in a makeshift Srspka army led by Ratko Mladic – laid siege to Srebrenica.
In spite of the hardships that ensued, morale in the town improved. Part of this owed to Oric’s strutting charisma; while he was soon coopted into Bosnia’s army, he was to practical purposes independent, and mustered a bravado that heartened the defenders. The Bosniaks would never leave Srebrenica whatever the pressure, he was fond of announcing: they would not follow the fate of the Palestinians.
Certainly Oric’s contribution should not be underestimated. The Serb campaign in the Drina valley uprooted hundreds of villages and expelled hundreds of thousands of mainly Bosniak residents; over fifty thousand entered Srebrenica. In order to replenish supplies, Oric would take repeatedly to mounting raids into Serb-controlled territory. The most notable such raid came in early 1993, at a point when the United Nations’ mission was just entering Bosnia. Scores of Serbs – mostly fighters, but perhaps a dozen civilians – were killed in this particular sweep, and their houses looted for food.
There was no equivalence between such desperate raids, in which the overwhelming majority of casualties were fighters, and the systemic expulsion, rape, and slaughter of mainly civilian Bosniaks by Serb militants. Nonetheless, Serbian propaganda seized upon this to vilify Oric as a murderous butcher, and to this day it is common to find accounts of the war, attempting to flex their neutrality, displaying Oric as the Muslim equivalent of Serbian war criminals.
This was compounded by the United Nations mission’s own dislike of Oric. In typical fashion too late to actually achieve anything besides damage control, the United Nations was already irritated at Bosnia’s subversion of an arms embargo that would have left it to the fickle mercy of better-armed neighbours in Belgrade and Zagreb. European states had largely been content to let the Bosnian war peter out – it was a painfully realistic necessity to retain Christian Europe, preached Britain, while France questioned Bosnia’s right to be counted as a European country – and it had largely been the energy of a United States spying a vacuum in the Balkans that had pushed Western countries into any action. Even so, this action was grudging and its executors, largely Western European officials and officers resentful at independent Bosnian actions, were quick to pounce at anything that might appear objectionable on Sarajevo’s end.
In the bombastic Naser Oric they found plenty to criticize, much of it failing to take into account the circumstances in which Srebrenica had held out. One such criticism was his link to the black market – as if legitimate trade could flourish under a siege – and another his breakout raids. But fundamentally, United Nations officials and officers, and any number of journalists in this period, seemed to have disliked Oric’s comportment and what he represented: Bosnians who would not lie down as perfect victims awaiting their international saviours, but fight.
The dislike was nowhere stronger than with Philippe Morillon, the French commander of a peacekeeping force. He tried to match Oric’s popularity – apparently moved at seeing the plight of the Srebrenica residents, he proclaimed, to suitable applause from foreign observers, that he would never abandon them. His dislike for Oric was such that, years later under oath, he would partially credit the infamous slaughter of some eight thousand Bosniaks by Ratko Mladic’s troops to Oric’s conduct in preceding years, clearly ignoring the vast disparity in scale and nature.
Neither Oric nor Morillon were around to see Srebrenica through to the bitter end. This had partly to do with events in the broader region; in 1993, war broke out between Bosnia and a Croatia that, having hitherto supported Sarajevo, made secret contact with Mladic in order to partition Bosnia between them. This shifted the bulk of the conflict away from eastern Bosnia and up to the north and west. After this particularly bitter war-within-a-war, which the United States brought to an end in 1994, Sarajevo and Zagreb again joined forces and in 1995 planned a major campaign – indeed the war’s last major campaign – set for autumn 1995.
It was in this hullabulloo that, in May 1995, Oric was summoned to participate in the preparation. He left his second-in-command Ramiz Bekirovic in charge, yet neither Bekirovic nor the paltry United Nations force – a battalion of Dutch troops – could withstand a full-fledged assault by Mladic that finally burst through Srebrenica’s defence in July 1995. Waxing arrogant, Mladic celebrated his feat by rounding up every Bosniak man and boy he could find – over eight thousand fully told – and, a stone’s throw away from United Nations peacekeepers who had clearly dishonoured their earlier promises, butchered them en masse.
Pride precedes a fall, and the joint Bosnian-Croatian assault that autumn broke the back of Mladic’s forces in Bosnia. The United States, now indisputably the favoured broker, arranged the Dayton Accord in December 1995 where Bosnia was to accept a trimmed, weakened independence – with an autonomous Serbian region that to this day thumbs its nose at Sarajevo – in return for peace. A few years later, Washington would intervene decisively in the Serbian war in Kosovo, extending the Nato mandate eastward and establishing itself, over both Russia and Europe, as the primary state broker in the region.
The publicized horror of the Yugoslav war and the newfound taste for international justice procedures meant that a public trial was held by the International Criminal Court for crimes in the Yugoslav wars, foremost Bosnia. While Sarajevo had no systemic criminals to boast in the nature that its neighbours had had, political expediency demanded an appearance of equity, and so Naser Oric was summoned to the court.
In the years after Srebrenica’s fall his villainy had been inflated beyond recognition in pro-Belgrade accounts, which attacked him as a bloodthirsty fundamentalist bent – in a neat projection of their own crimes – on ethnically cleansing the Serbs before – rather than departing for a routine military exercise – fleeing the town at the last moment (the latter claim has been repeated over and over with malicious glee by no shortage of reporters). This was the only way that such a crime as the Srebrenica massacre could be remotely justified, and – to their discredit – useful idiots such as Morillon, putting their personal dislikes before any semblance of justice, did their best to add to the prosecuting case.
Nonetheless Oric, who had cheerfully bluffed his way through war, bluffed his way through court. In the years in between the conflict and his summons, he had retired to run a fitness club in Tuzla, and had the occasional brush with the law. He took his trial in good humour, and was eventually exonerated and cleared of charges. Though the result will never satisfy the many quarters who wished for a Muslim villain to match Bosnia’s neighbours, the widespread popularity enjoyed by Srebrenica’s longstanding defender in his homeland is testament enough.
Doku Umarov. Chechnya.
In both its absurd premise and frequent abuse an arguable prelude to the Washington-led war on terror, the Russian reconquest of Chechnya in 1999-2000 and the counterinsurgency that dominated the came to merge in rhetoric, justification, and analyses many of the same assumptions about a “war with radical Islamic militants” that underlaid its Western counterpart. This included, with the realization that a total war was unfeasible, the hopeful split of opposition into “Islamists” and “secularists”, and – where that failed, as in most places – splitting the former camp by sects. Yet the career of as seasoned a Russian bane as Engineer Brigadier Abu Usman Doku Khamatovich Umarov, emir of the Ichkeria insurgency and its putative successor the Kavkaz emirate, confounded such categorizations.
Noting the difference in background between the founder of the original Chechen insurgency – Dzhokhar Dudaev, a chancing former Soviet airforce general – and his successors in the second Chechen insurgency, many observers regardless of their stance on the war tended to split the Chechen militants into “secularist”, or “nationalist”, and “Islamist”, or “radical”, camps; one American author, Robert Schaefer, went so far as to differentiate between “Gazavat” – a traditional term for Islamic campaigns – and “jihad”, which he perceived in the same radical garb as the most extreme proponents.
Such talk, popular though it has been, is plainly muddled; not only, as the very much non-radical Chechen foreign minister Ilyas Akhmadov explained in his 2010 memoir, did almost every Chechen, regardless of his personal practice, strongly identify with Islam – leaving very few “secularists” as it were – but again and again political actions and coalitions stymied such imagined faultlines. Little better was the sectarianized idea of “radical Wahhabis”, influenced by an influx of Arab fighters, versus “moderate Sufis”; while Wahhabis or Salafis were certainly present and increasingly influential in traditionally Sufi Chechen communities, the term “Wahhabi” was commonly and mostly inaccurately used by critics to describe any Muslim militancy, while Sufis and Salafis – both adherents of Sunni Islam – did not act as separate monoliths but often collaborated.
Doku Umarov’s career overrides such faultlines. The scion of the notable Malkoy clan – which also insulted the abovementioned Akhmadov and many other major characters in the Chechen conflict – he came from very much an ordinary background, mixing an engineering education with occasional prison stints, mostly for petty crime, as a youth. At some point in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union was in collapse and Chechnya premier Dudaev was increasingly agitating for secession, Umarov became a more observant Muslim. He fought in the mid-1990s war that expelled the Russians and established the so-called Ichkeria emirate, a largely unrecognized parastate that was immediately beset with holdover problems from the war.
Dudaev earned his stripes in the liberation war; he had originally fought at a famed strike force founded by Khamzat Gelaev, but in around 1995 he left along with his friend Akhmed Zakayev to start another front. After Ichkeria’s independence, Zakayev ran alongside its emir Aslan Maskhadov in the February 1997 election, and thus became prime minister. Gelaev became defence minister, probably the second-most important military leader after the daring Shamil Basaev. And Dudaev was eventually promoted to serve as secretary-general in Maskhadov’s security council.
Such titles were less influential than they ought to have been, largely because the course of a war that had pummelled the Chechens brought with it the typical problems that linger after such wars. In a problem that directly concerned Dudaev because of his office, “state structures” tended to cover for coalitions of militias, who operated outside the state and only fleetingly bothered to cite its authority. Some were associated with the Salafi trend that had gained some traction in the 1990s, even before the war.
Outside observers initially – but wrongly – attributed this to the influence of Abu Saleh Khattab, a seasoned Saudi commander who had entered Chechnya mid-war and had become a close collaborator of Basaev and Gelaev. But, as foreign minister Ilyas Akhmadov pointed out, this was untrue; Khattab made no attempt to impose his Salafi doctrine on the Chechens, and when push came to shove he sided against the unruly Salafi militias. Rather the militias were associated with younger, ambitious, and not unusually unscrupulous Chechen adventurers for whom Salafi exceptionalism served as an easy route to flout societal authority; a considerable number of them were involved in both contraband and crime, earning hefty ransoms from abductions. Among the most infamous was Arbi Baraev, second-in-command of the official state paramilitary – in reality a number of competing militias – and a clansmate of Umarov. Perhaps because of their shared clan background and his own unruly youth, Umarov would in later years be repeatedly associated with Baraev – and repeatedly protested his innocence, declaring that a horse was a horse even if a rumourmonger called it a goat.
In 1998 Chechnya officially adopted shariah as its law; this was itself uncontroversial, but it ironically gave such militia commanders as Baraev an official license to flex their authority under the dubious guise of applying shariah. They were also well-connected in the region, and it was perhaps not a coincidence that in July 1998 – the same month as Salafi militants attempted a coup in the neighbouring, Russian-governed, Dagestan emirate – Baraev and his lieutenant Abdulmalik Medzhidov mutinied in the eastern town Gudermes. Umarov, whose job basically involved mediating between rival militias, was sacked after he proved unable to stop them. Instead, a battle ensued between the mutineers and troops loyal to Baraev’s boss, Magomed Khanbiev. Though the loyalists were backed by the Yamadaev militia, from a notable Sufi family that detested the Salafis, Abu Saleh Khattab’s Arab militia abstained from supporting the Salafi mutineers.
If Khattab and Basaev were loyal to the Ichkeria emirate, they were also increasingly irate at what was rightly perceived at Russian pressure on the emirate. The 1996 Khasavyurt Accord that had yielded Chechen independence had been wildly unpopular in Russia, and it was suspected – not without reason – that Moscow was officially and unofficially subverting Chechnya. Yet while Maskhadov’s solution – at which the embattled Ichkeria emir admittedly ultimately failed – was to avoid any misstep that could strengthen Russia’s case, for Basaev and Khattab the problem lay in the narrowness of the independent Chechen corridor. They increasingly believed that a liberation of the North Caucasus at large – especially Dagestan, its most prosperous province and the home of Basaev’s legendary namesake, nineteenth-century Imam Shamil – was necessary. This would be later put down to their supposedly expansionist “Salafi ideology” – though Basaev did not in fact follow this ideology – but in fact the reasons seem to have been as practical as anything. Basaev could point out that brazen faits-accompli had proven effective in the recent past – it had been his daring, commando-style raid into Grozny that had precipitated the Russian withdrawal in 1996 – and he now turned his sights on Dagestan.
In summer 1999, Basaev and Khattab mounted an invasion of Dagestan. Carried out with only a few hundred fighters, who expected to be welcomed as liberators, the project entirely backfired. Apart from a few individuals such as Siradzhuddin Ramazanov, the brother of a Salafi ideologue whom the attackers expected to name Dagestan emir, the rural population was more unprepared and unwilling to see a war, and so quickly beat off the invasion. This gave Moscow – where Vladimir Putin, the sinister security hardliner, was in the ascendant – a pretext, and a spate of mysterious apartment bombings in Moscow the next month strengthened this pretext. Though Khattab and Basaev rightly protested their innocence from the Moscow attacks, neither the Russian regime nor broader public was in much mood to reconsider and the second Chechen war began.
Over the winter into the new millennium, Russia steadily surrounded Grozny and subjected it to another ferocious bombardment. His jaw badly injured in the battle, Doku Umarov was among the earlier Chechen fighters to leave the city. It would be several months before he recovered, by which point Russia had taken Grozny and, rebuffing attempts by Ilyas Akhmadov to negotiate, installed former Chechnya mufti Akhmad Kadyrov as its vassal. Kadyrov, who had enthusiastically called for an anti-Russian jihad in the first Chechen war, now played on the “Sufi-Salafi” dichotomy in an attempt to legitimize the Russian campaign – claiming that the Wahhabis had wrecked the prospect of independence.
Nonetheless, the first few years after the Russian conquest saw a ferocious, and surprisingly effective, insurgency. If the Ichkeria emirate had been a shambles, insurgency found the Chechen fighters back in their element, and in spite of repeated attempts to wedge between them the insurgency largely remained united under the leadership of Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basaev; those senior officials or commanders who switched sides, such as the Yamadaevs and eventually even Khanbiev, largely failed to attract sizeable numbers outside their immediate band of followers. Nor did the Russian elimination of such commanders as Arbi Baraev and Abu Saleh Khattab immediately dent insurgent momentum.
Numbers are difficult to ascertain – information about the war was much more tightly controlled by Moscow than had been the case in the 1990s – but certainly thousands of Russian troops, and many more Chechens, were killed in the first few years of the war; so widespread was the insurgency, even on Grozny’s outskirts where Doku Umarov was among its commanders, that Kadyrov had to use a makeshift capital in the east that was itself under constant threat.
Ironically, a war that had been justified by Chechen expansionism saw such expansionism spread. Khamzat Gelaev, who operated in southern Chechnya, was an early proponent of attacking neighbouring North Caucasian emirates, including Ingushetia and Dagestan. While this tactic was controversial, it increasingly became necessary to find “strategic depth” as Russia slowly but surely increased its clout on Chechen soil. Similarly, Shamil Basaev was increasingly enthusiastic about using suicide attacks – a hitherto unknown tactic – against Russian garrisons. By the point that Gelaev lost his life to a Russian attack on the mountains in 2004, the Chechen leadership had prepared a sweeping offensive.
The summer offensive, with a lighning blow a month, began spectacularly in May 2004 with the assassination of Akhmad Kadyrov – blamed by his son and successor, Ramzan Kadyrov, on insurgent commander Khairullah Imurzaev – in an attack that also injured the Russian corps commander, Valery Baranov. The next month, Akhmed Taziev led a brazen raid into the Ingush city Nazran, executing its interior minister Abubakar Kostoyev and his second-in-command Zyauddin Kotiev before his withdrawal. This was followed a month later by Imurzaev’s takeover of the historic town Avtury. At the summer’s end it was the turn of Grozny; in an attack planned by Doku Umarov, his lieutenant Yunadi Turchaev plowed into the city for yet another commando raid, barraging its security forces to the tune of dozens slain before his withdrawal.
These attacks immensely emboldened the Chechen insurgency, but they were capped off by a far more controversial and indeed tragic episode that marked the beginning of the end – when Basaev, increasingly willing to endanger civilians, held hostage a school in the Russian town Beslan. He had apparently intended to force a withdrawal similar to the 1990s, but Putin was far more ruthless than Boris Yeltsin, and when Russian troops stormed the site over three hundred people, mostly schoolchildren, were killed. The incident sparked widespread revulsion and horror, depriving the Chechen insurgency of whatever sympathy it might have had.
Certainly Basaev’s colleagues realized that a line had been drawn; Doku Umarov would publicly argue against targeting civilians – such tactics, he said, would cost the insurgents their humanity. By now he had assumed command in the strategic southwest region, which spanned the Georgian border as well as Ingushetia. Aslan Maskhadov, meanwhile, began 2005 with a month-long ceasefire to show goodwill; a few weeks after its expiration, the Russians took him out, before sighing mournfully that the widely respected Ichkeria emir had permitted himself to be hijacked by the radicals.
Maskhadov’s assassination marked the beginning of the end for the original Ichkeria leadership; his handpicked successor, mild-mannered mufti Abdulhalim Sadullaev, and military commander Basaev both followed suit in summer 2006. Now a secondary generation, the field commanders of the previous decade, assumed executive positions.
Widely respected for his organizational and practical talents, Umarov replaced Sadullaev and promoted his counterparts from the 2004 campaign to the executive command. He replaced Basaev – whom he took care to posthumously honour – with Akhmad Taziev, and promoted Khairullah Imurzaev to his own second-in-command. The latter, however, only lasted briefly: he was personally wanted by Ramzan Kadyrov for his father’s assassination, and in spring 2007 Russia took him out.
Ironically, Umarov now veered toward the same expansionism that had marked Basaev in 1999 and Gelaev thereafter. Again widely portrayed by observers as evidence of a shift from his Sufi background to Salafi ideology – a shift for which there is no real evidence – it was necessitated to a large part by the fact that Russia was slowly tightening its grip in Chechnya. The upshot was a large uptick of attacks in Ingushetia and Dagestan. In October 2007, Umarov officiated this position by announcing that the Ichkeria emirate would be replaced by the Kavkaz emirate, to cover the entire Muslim region of the North Caucasus.
This announcement sparked shock from Akhmed Zakayev, the former Ichkeria prime minister now acting as something of an unofficial foreign minister in Europe. He had been convinced that his old friend Umarov would not yield to such maximalist temptations; to him, they jeopardized the entire Chechen cause abroad by asking more than the international community was willing to give. The announcement practically split the Chechen insurgency into an external wing, led by such diplomats as Zakayev, and an internal wing.
While talk of moderation and radicalism buzzed in both Western and Russian capitals, however, Umarov’s motives were essentially practical. In an age where the war on terrorism, fundamentally hostile to independent Muslim militancy at its core, abounded, Umarov informed his followers that they could not rely on the help of America, China, Europe, or any other country – only on the help of Allah. However much this may have discomfited secularists, it was the logical conclusion to the international community’s essentially pro-Russian stance of the past decade.
Yet if Umarov’s motivation was based on fact, it was also a fact that the insurgency was spread thin. Its numbers dwindled sharply – owing to sheer war-weariness, flight, and elimination by the counterinsurgency – in the late 2000s, so that only a couple of thousand fighters remained by 2010. Umarov tried to solve the problem by resorting to a tactic he had previously opposed – suicide attacks. He reorganized Shamil Basaev’s old suicide brigade, now led by a close confidante called Said Buryatali, a Russian convert to Islam. In autumn 2009, five years after the Beslan campaign, they mounted a number of terrorist attacks. Umarov laboriously, and somewhat half-heartedly, tried to defend such tactics – much as Basaev had done before, he claimed that the Russian population’s indifference to their callous regime left him with no other options.
However, this showed Umarov’s vulnerability as much as anything. Starting from autumn 2009, an alarming number of Kavkaz commanders were picked off with blurring speed, including mufti Sayfullah Astemirov and Buryatali. Umarov was losing commanders faster than he could replenish any territory. Increasing dissent among Umarov’s lieutenants became clear in summer 2010. The summer began with the surrender of his military commander, Akhmad Taziev; unrepentant at his role in the insurgency, Taziev’s surrender seemed to have been prompted by necessity. The recently promoted mufti Sayfullah Vagabov also criticized Umarov, but the most alarming step came in August 2010.
In what appears to have been a neat coup plan, the Kavkaz propaganda outlet announced that Umarov was stepping down and would be replaced with Aslambek Vadalov, who had previously led the front in eastern Chechnya. Within hours, however, the announcement was reversed. Umarov espied a plot by four leading commanders – Vadalov and the shadow interior minister Khusain Gakaev, both of whom shared the Chechnya front between them; Muhannad Harbi, the commander of Arab fighters whom he had hitherto closely trusted as military second-in-command; and constable Tarkhan Gaziev, who handled security. They refused an attempt to reconcile by Umarov’s second-in-command, Supyan Abdullaev, and pushed for a court to resolve their differences.
The shifting sands in insurgent politics merited some interest. The mutineers, including the Salafi Arab commander Muhannad, were supported by Zakayev, belying the idea that there was a “Sufi-Salafi” or “moderate-radical” dynamic at play. Meanwhile, Umarov received the support of two Levantine Salafi preachers, Abu Muhammad Barqawi from Jordan and Abdul-Munim Halima from Syria.
It was not until the following summer, however, that the court was held – it ruled in Umarov’s favour, so that both Gakaev and Vadalov yielded. Gaziev abstained, and soon left for Turkey; Muhannad, meanwhile, had been eliminated along with the loyalist second-in-command Supyan Abdullaev by Russia in spring 2011.
Umarov had survived, but he now presided over a steadily crumbling network. Thinly spread and unable to command much territory, the Kavkaz insurgency was a shadow of itself. Russia continued to pick off commanders, including Gakaev; and in September 2013, they nabbed Umarov. It was a sudden, but long-expected, end for an emir whose reputation for practicality had been challenged by increasing political, diplomatic, and military pressure. In a field increasingly misdiagnosed as a contest between ideological and sectarian opponents, Umarov’s common point had not been moderation or radicalism or any particular sect but rather a constant opposition to Russia’s occupation.