Thinking Aloud: Islamists or Hired Guns?

Mar. 10, 2015 by Darius

After Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow last week, Russian authorities have rounded up five suspects in the case.  The suspects, including the alleged mastermind of the killings, are all Chechens.  The claim that the killers had an Islamist motive is ridiculous, but Chechens have a long and decorated history as hired guns in Russia.

Chechen gangs first appeared in Moscow during the 1980s.  Soon, thanks to their unhesitating use of violence, Chechen criminals controlled large portions of the Moscow underworld, confronting and forcing out many established gangs.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Chechen mafia in Moscow thrived.  The Chechen mafia also developed connections to the Chechen separatist movement (sort of like Irish-Americans in Boston sending money to the IRA).  After the First Chechen War (1994-1996), during Chechnya’s period of quasi-independence, the Chechen mafia operated extensively in Chechnya itself, engaging in kidnappings for ransom, gun smuggling, oil smuggling, and money laundering.  The level of lawlessness in Chechnya was cited by some as a reason the Russian government sought to reestablish control over Chechnya, resulting in the Second Chechen War (1999-2000+).  Since then, the Chechen mafia has remained a formidable force in the Russian criminal world and has been implicated in several prominent contract killings.

Within the Russian military, some Chechens now fight on the side of the Russian government.  Chechen counterterrorism units in Chechnya are considered some of Russia’s best and most loyal soldiers.  The man who allegedly killed Nemstov, Zaur Dadaev, was in such a unit.  In fact, he had served in the Russian military for 11 years and was repeatedly decorated and known as a Putin devotee.

The narrative the Russian government is pushing is one of a loyal soldier who goes rogue in one of the most secure places in Russia and, for his own (maybe Islamist) reasons, kills someone his former boss just happened to want dead.


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