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Media Advisory: Princeton's Reynolds offers comments on recent instability in Chechnya

For immediate release: April 19, 2013
Media contact: Jamie Saxon, jsaxon37@princeton.edu, 609-258-2982, cell 609-375-6058
Media Advisory: Princeton's Reynolds offers comments on recent instability in Chechnya and its role in radicalism

The past two decades of instability in Chechnya have produced a rallying point for militant Muslim groups around the world as the small republic fought a long and brutal war to separate from Russia. Yet the American public and media have been generally unaware of the volatile republic and surrounding region, said Princeton University professor Michael Reynolds, an expert on the Caucasus region, the mountainous expanse between the Black and Caspian seas that includes Chechnya.

Reynolds, an associate professor of Near Eastern studies, is available to the media to comment on the history and recent events in Chechnya. The republic's political and military strife have come into new focus with the discovery that the suspects in the April 15 bombings at the Boston Marathon were from the nation. Reynolds can be reached through Princeton humanities writer Jamie Saxon at (609) 258-2982, or jsaxon37@princeton.edu.

"This has been a region in rebellion against Russian rule the past two centuries. It's gotten tied up in international jihad, in particular with al-Qaeda," Reynolds said. "The instability in the Caucasus could be a problem for the United States. American media has not given that proper attention."

Chechnya and the Caucasus region have been in regular turmoil since the 19th century when the armies of the Russian tsars invaded, Reynolds said. Since then, the Chechens have experienced a cycle of invasion, combat and defeat, including a Bolshevik invasion in 1919 and forced deportations to Central Asia ordered by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1944.

Following the Soviet Union's collapse, Chechens fought two destructive separatist wars against the Russian Federation. The first, which lasted from 1994 to 1996, ended in a nominal Chechen victory when Russian forces withdrew. The conflict restarted in 1999 when Russian forces again invaded Chechnya following an incursion of armed rebels from Chechnya into neighboring Dagestan. The wars resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 civilians. In 2009, Russian authorities declared the Chechen insurgency officially suppressed. Russia's North Caucasus remains wracked by ongoing violence, a matter of special concern for those planning the 2014 Winter Olympics in the nearby Russian Black Sea city of Sochi, Reynolds said.

Reynolds said the war-torn nation attracted the attention of Islamic radicals worldwide, including the global terrorist network al-Qaeda, members of which arrived in Chechnya after fighting against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The current leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, attempted to enter Chechnya in 1996, but was arrested in neighboring Dagestan and jailed for six months. Chechen radicals later trained in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

"The Chechen cause was very important to the jihadist movement in the 1990s," Reynolds said. "It was a story of how a small Muslim nation with no formal army or even a state could defeat a former superpower with a huge army through their belief in God."

The radicalism spawned by the Chechen wars has spilled over into the Russian Federation. In particular, Islamist radicals from Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus carried out the 2004 Beslan school siege in North Ossetia that resulted in the deaths of 380 people, and the 2002 siege of a Moscow theater that killed 130 hostages.

As a fiercely independent mountain-dwelling people, the Chechens' culture has long valorized martial virtues and defiance of state authority, Reynolds said. Rebels are often celebrated folk heroes, and the small nation has produced an inordinate number of world-class athletes in the sports of wrestling, boxing, judo and weightlifting.

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