The Chechen mafia, or Obshchina (Russian: Община, meaning “community”), is one of the largest and most important organized crime (OC) groups operating in the former Soviet Union next to established Russian mafia gangs, which consist of ex-KGB, spetznaz and criminals with wide access to arms caches, and other high profile criminal activities. However, Russian language media reports on the influence and nature of Chechen OC have been the subject of much controversy and an unbiased analysis has yet to be provided. What exactly defines Chechen “organized” criminal activity and its relationship to politics, Islamic fundamentalism, and the ongoing conflicts in the Caucasus, continues to be a subject of debate.

Origins and history

According to the documentary The Making of a New Empire directed by Jos de Putter, the group originated in 1974 after a Chechen student at Moscow State University named Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev founded an underground opposition movement, which later became known as the widely feared Obshina.[1] To many Chechens however, it was regarded as the cradle of the liberation movement, with Noukhaev embodying a persistent Chechen tradition of the bandit-warrior. By 1987 Chechen criminals had developed into a well-organized community under Nukhayev and Nikolay Suleimanov, the group forced the most influential local OC gangs (the Lyubertsy, Solntsevo, and Balashikha) out of Moscow which allowed the Chechens to occupy the dominant position.[2] Recent reports estimated that the groups sphere of influence extends from Vladivostok to Vienna, with members involved in various areas of criminal activity ranging from automobile theft, money laundering, trafficking Chinese illegal immigrants to Japan, narcotics smuggling, and the illegal sale of plutonium. Unlike other Russian OC groups, the Obshina was considered a hybrid criminal-political entity, which used illegal proceeds to finance and arm separatists fighters during the Chechen Wars. This unique characteristic has resulted in a trend towards blurring the distinction between organized crime and terrorists groups and has confused many observers as to the Obshina’s overall motivations. It is still not entirely clear whether they are more interested in creating an independent nation-state or in perpetuating regional instability so that they might continue to profit from the drug trade and other criminal activities. The group was last rumored to be led by Nikolay Suleimanov, who is currently trying to expand his way into the lucrative East European cigarette smuggling racket.[3]

Drug trafficking

Chechen criminal groups and guerrilla factions reportedly play a significant part in the narcotics trade in Central Asia, Russia and the Caucasus region. In the First Chechen War guerrillas used funding from a variety of rackets as well as the sale of oil. However in the Second Chechen War the fighters received huge financial backing from Jordanian militant Ibn Al-Khattab, who joined with guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev and became a prominent figure in the war. This marginalized some figures such as Ruslan Gelayev, who turned to the drugs trade full time.

The Chechen mafia appears to dominate the traditional Russian mafia organizations in the drugs trade. One Tajik drug trafficker stated he preferred to sell his product to Chechen gangs rather than Russians, because of the Chechen’s high-reaching contacts in both the underworld and police force. The Chechen influence runs even so far as to Murmansk, where starting from 1997 the head of the province’s Internal Affairs Administration was actually a puppet for a Chechen named Vaskha Askhabov, who brought with him large-scale heroin trafficking that dominated the local underworld. Eventually Askhabov was arrested but freed in Moscow shortly afterwards, apparently thanks to his connections in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. [4]

Myth or reality?

Organized crime experts in Russia say the Obshina is the most dominant minority criminal organization operating in the Russian Federation. Many in the Chechen community feel that they are unfairly portrayed as criminals by the Russian government and media to ‘demonize’ rebel elements fighting in Chechnya and legitimize Russia’s policy in the Caucasus. Valery Tishkov, director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said,

“Thanks to the press not only in Russia but also abroad, an image of ‘Chechen Mafia’ has been created, which neutralized the sympathy towards Chechens that had formed internationally as a result of the war. If it were not for that image, the international support for Chechens would have been even more tangible. I also do not agree with the image of Medellín Cartel or criminal zone that has been thrust upon people. This is a myth. The level of crime among Chechens is no higher than among Georgians or Russians in Moscow. At the same time Chechens are very successful in business.”[5]

Connections to Islamic Fundamentalism

The Chechen independence movement has gained widespread attention and support in the Islamic world and throughout the conflict foreign charity organizations and fighters from many Arab countries have volunteered their services. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City, the Putin administration has made several attempts to link Chechen insurgents to Al-Qaeda. Allegations of Al-Qaeda and Taliban links to the Chechen mafia have recently appeared and well-known Chechen leaders have been at different times referred to in the media as Islamists, terrorists, and mafia bosses. In a 1995 interview, former president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria Dzhokhar Dudayev gave his opinion of the Russian media’s representation of Chechen rebels:

Where do you think the Russian press reports on the Chechen Mafia originated?

Dudayev: “From the year 1989 when preparations for all this began. Soon after the first all-national congress which opted for sovereignty, propaganda began from state political and ideological levels. They were preparing to swallow the Chechens. To put fear into the Soviet peoples and the world: here’s what’ll happen if you’re disobedient. To patch the empire into new clothes through violence. They needed to create a Chechen image as a nation of criminals and Mafiosi.
That failed and now they turned and created a completely different image so there’s no more Chechen Mafia but Islamic fundamentalists. That myth has also burst but that’s not important to Russia, she wants to lay blame, disregarding the fact that the gap between Muslim fundamentalism and the Mafia cannot be bridged. Now they want to show their efforts as the fight of Islam against the Christian world and forget that Russia is without spirituality. That war of the spiritual world against Russia will continue.”[6]

The use of narcotics profits to finance the Chechen separatist movement and its links to Islamists groups has been suggested by various intelligence agencies. The Chechen mafia presence in Argentina has been linked primarily to the use of Argentina as a transit country for Andean cocaine shipments to Europe in fishing treaters and cargo ships, arms trafficking to Brazil and Colombia, and money laundering. In the so-called “tri-border” area between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay – which is home to a sizable Arab Muslim population – Argentine intelligence sources have detected contacts between Chechen separatist groups and “Islamic terrorists” and suspect Chechen use of these networks for arms smuggling purposes.[7] On the other side of the globe, to finance their separatist movement, Islamist leader Shamil Basayev and his Chechen followers transported Afghani heroin through Abkhazia to the Black Sea or through Turkey to Cyprus and then on to Europe.[8]

In 1998 it was reported by Riyad ‘Alam-al-Din in Nicosia and an unidentified Al-Watan al-‘Arabi correspondent in Moscow that Osama bin Ladin dispatched a delegation to the Chechen Republic made up of his group and representatives of the Taliban. Secret meetings were held in the outskirts of Grozny with some members of the Chechen Mafia to put the final touches on “the nuclear warheads deal.” Allegedly the deal cost $30 million in cash from Osama bin Ladin‘s treasury and a grant of two tons of Afghan heroin donated by the Taliban. It was claimed that bin Ladin resorted to the services of the Chechen Mafia after many of his aides, some specializing in nuclear physics, failed in their attempts to acquire nuclear technology and equipment.[9] However, these reports have yet to be confirmed by outside sources.