Max Boot shares some lessons from Chechnya’s long history of Jihadism — which started in the 18th century and continues into the 21st century:
But it was in the 19th century that it produced its most notable personality — a forerunner of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi known simply as Shamil.
Born in 1796, Shamil became imam of the gazavat (holy war) against the Russians in 1834 after his predecessor as imam was assassinated by tribal rivals. A skilled horseman, sword fighter, and gymnast, Shamil cut an impressive figure, standing six feet three inches and appearing taller still because of his heavy lambskin cap, the papakh. His flowing beard was dyed orange with henna, and his face was, in Tolstoy’s telling, “as immovable as though hewn out of stone.” His force of personality was such that one of his followers said that “flames darted from his eyes and flowers fell from his lips.”
To keep a desperate resistance going against overwhelming odds required the ability not only to inspire hope but also to instill fear. Shamil was a master of both. He traveled everywhere with his own personal executioner, chopping off heads and hands for violating the dictates of Allah and his humble servant, the Commander of the Faithful in the Caucasus. Although he was influenced primarily by the Sufist tradition, Shamil’s “fanatical puritan movement,” notes one history book, “was in many ways comparable to the contemporary Wahhabi movement in Arabia.” He did not hesitate to slaughter entire aouls (villages) that did not heed his demands.
When a group of Chechens, hard-pressed by the Russians, sought permission to surrender, they were so afraid of his wrath that they conveyed their request through Shamil’s mother, thinking this would make him more amenable. Upon hearing what she had to say, Shamil announced that he would seek divine guidance to formulate an answer. He spent the next three days and nights in a mosque, fasting and praying. He emerged with bloodshot eyes to announce, “It is the will of Allah that whoever first transmitted to me the shameful intentions of the Chechen people should receive one hundred severe blows, and that person is my own mother!” To the astonished gasps of the crowd, his followers, known as the murids (“he who seeks” in Arabic), seized the old lady and began beating her with a plaited strap. She fainted after the fifth blow. Shamil announced that he would take upon himself the rest of the punishment, and ordered his men to beat him with heavy whips, vowing to kill anyone who hesitated. He absorbed the ninety-five blows “without betraying the least sign of suffering.” Or so legend had it.
This street theater helped animate Shamil’s murids to maintain a fierce resistance. He mobilized over ten thousand men to conquer much of Chechnya and Dagestan and inflicted thousands of casualties on Russian pursuers. But over time, his ruthlessness cost Shamil popular support — as it did for more recent Chechen rebels. Tribal chieftains who did not want to cede authority to this religious firebrand turned for support to the Russians. So did many ordinary villagers who balked at his demands for annual tax payments amounting to 12 percent of their harvest.