What drives the separatists to commit such terrible outrages?
So, what does al-Qaida and international Islamic terrorism have to do with any of this? Probably very little. Chechens have plenty of reason to do what they do without outside inspiration. In addition, their tactics are very different from al-Qaida's. Osama Bin Laden's group generally aims for maximum casualties; the Chechens, at least when they have staged hostage-takings, have not seemed to have that goal. Al-Qaida explicitly targets Westerners; the Chechens, on the other hand, explicitly exclude Westerners from their list of targets; they target Russians and Russia-sympathizers. Finally, the Chechens' demands, when they have made them, have always focused on the war in Chechnya to the exclusion of any religious or international agenda. They have consistently demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya—an unattainable goal in the current Russian political climate, but one that may look plausible to the Chechens because it worked after Budyonnovsk.
Russian intelligence has produced little or no evidence that al-Qaida is present in Chechnya. Russian officials claimed that there were Arabs among the hostage-takers, but this information has yet to be confirmed, and even if it is, it may mean only that foreign men have come to fight on the side of Chechens—something that has happened before and something that happens in every conflict, whether or not a major international organization is involved. On the other hand, it would be surprising if al-Qaida had no presence in Chechnya at all. Chechens are Muslims, and they are at war; representatives of virtually every Islamic organization have at one point or another sent missionaries and recruiters to the region. They have also sent money. Researchers of al-Qaida say that, in addition to its own organization, the terrorist network has a number of loose affiliates, essentially freelancers, who get occasional financial support. Most likely, some Chechen groups or individuals fall into that category.
But Russia's terrorism problem is not international Islam. It's a war that Russia started and has continued. Because of terrorism, this war has spread to engulf the entire enormous country.
Correction, Sept. 7, 2004: This article originally and incorrectly stated that Chechens were exiled in Western Siberia until 1976. In fact, they were allowed to return home in 1957. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Masha Gessen is the author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, and several previous books. She has contributed to Vanity Fair, Newsweek, and Slate, among many other publications, and has served as editor of several magazines. She lives in Moscow.