Chechens have been a storied source of foreign fighters in Syria, due to their own violent recent history and the two wars they fought with Russia in the past 25 years. The numbers are considerable – an estimated 3,000 Chechens have fought for the self-styled Islamic State and other extremist groups.
However, the vast majority of these fighters came first from Europe, where a very different set of radicalizing factors exist than in Chechnya itself. Even though a large number of those Chechens who left to Syria from Europe were veterans of conflicts in their homeland, there is a wider array of contributing elements to the process of their radicalization.
Almost all ethnic Chechens residing in the EU are recent migrants, with the first major wave coming with the Second Chechen War in 1999. Despite the fact that active conflict in Chechnya today has largely ceased, the flow of Chechens to Europe remains extremely high – roughly 100 Chechens per day attempt to enter the EU and seek asylum via Belarus alone.
It is easy to see why. High unemployment, collective punishment and summary executions by the Chechen authorities mean that many Chechens have no chance of living safely and happily in their homeland.
The diaspora is big now. As of late 2017, there were an estimated 150,000 Chechens living in the EU, roughly 10% of the number in Chechnya itself (officially 1.4 million).
As for specific countries, the largest Chechen populations exist in France, Poland, and Austria. Their status in these countries and others is extremely precarious. The vast majority of Chechens in Europe exist in a state of unprocessed migration, with very few granted refugee status – only 4.3% of Russian-origin applications for asylum in Germany were accepted in 2016. Tens of thousands of Chechens live in Poland on a near-futile quest for transit documents, suffering squalid conditions with no hope for employment or protection from the Polish state.
In the absence of state support and the rule of law, traditional honor codes play a large role, including blood feuds and honor killings. Living in constant fear of deportation back to Chechnya, which for many would be a death sentence, Chechen communities in Poland in particular exist in a state of paranoia and violence – a situation ripe for exploitation by violent extremist actors.
Oftentimes, even leaving home is not sufficient for Chechens to escape harm. Chechen security services have deep penetration into diaspora communities in Europe, both indirectly, through pressure on relatives at home, and directly.
This has been especially prevalent recently with the now-infamous LGBT purges carried out by the Chechen authorities, with consequences that have spread beyond Chechnya itself.
In September 2017, Movsar Eskarkhanov, a Chechen man who openly declared himself as gay, gave a wide-ranging interview to TIME Magazine about his troubles. Barely two months later, in November, he appeared on Chechen state TV, telling their correspondent in Germany Beslan Dadaev that he had been forced to “shame the Chechen people” by the Western media and begging the forgiveness of Chechnya’s leadership. In December, Eskarkhanov admitted that it was the confession that had been forced, with threats to his family if he did not do so.
LGBT individuals are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to state security services intimidating Chechens in Europe. More common are stories such as Minkail Malizayev’s. He is another Chechen refugee living in Germany. In April 2018, Malizayev’s wife and children were deported back to Chechnya. Within days, he received a demand to record a video apology to the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov for his critical remarks. When he refused, Dadaev, the Chechen state TV employee mentioned earlier, and two thugs appeared at his Hamburg residence and beat him so badly that he needed hospitalization.
Another famous case occurred in August 2018, when the well-known Chechen blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov posted the video of the call he received from Magomed Daudov, speaker of Chechnya’s parliament. Over the course of a three-hour conversation, Daudov demands that Abdurakhmanov tell him his address in Poland, and calls on him to return home and face justice “if you are really not a Wahhabist”.
In such an environment, under constant physical threat, it is little surprise many Chechens are drawn to violent groups and ideologies in search for some sort of protection. Most alarmingly, Chechens in Germany and elsewhere have been attractive targets for IS recruiters
With few legal socioeconomic opportunities and facing arbitrary persecution, criminality too naturally proves attractive to many Chechens living in Europe. Chechens have famously formed one of the most powerful mafias in Moscow, and this has been replicated elsewhere in Europe, primarily in Austria, where police have raided Chechen residences a number of times for criminal activity in recent years. French police arrested 23 ethnic Chechen members of a crime syndicate as recently as October 26, 2018. Some crime groups have links to Chechen security forces, as seen with the Guerilla Nation Vaynakh, a branch of Russia’s notorious Night Wolves gang, active in Germany.
Living in insular, tribal conditions, Chechens often clash with other migrant groups, sometimes in large numbers, as seen in an October 2014 fight between 30 Chechens and 70 Kurds in the German town of Celle.
In sum, while the flow of foreign fighters into Syria has all but ceased, many of the environments that produced them remain fertile ground for radicalization. Nowhere is this more true in the case of Chechens in Europe, who continue to suffer extensive persecution by Chechen security services while European governments turn a blind eye. Providing basic services and protections to Chechen refugees, most of whom cannot return home, would solve much of the problem. But for now Chechen communities in Europe remain at serious risk of being easy targets for radical elements.