With an average height of over 10,000 feet, and cliffs which drop more than a mile, the Caucusus Mountains are among the world's most difficult terrain. For thousands of years the Noxche have called this land their home. Organized in teips (extended families or clans), they lived in aouls, rugged stone-walled villages built atop high peaks and accessible only by narrow footpaths. There they practiced a nature religion, influenced by those who came here through the trade routes between Europe and Asia, and by those who wished to avoid persecution in their own lands. While missionaries representing Islam, and later Christianity, came to this region those religions never really took root in the rugged Caucasian soil. Not until the 19th century would Islam become the dominant religion of this region - and even then it was largely blended with ancestral rites and folk practices.
All this changed when the fast-growing Russian Empire set its sights on the Caucusus Mountains. In 1818 the Russians built a fort in what would later become Grozny, and set out to conquer the people they called "Chechens." They soon encountered fierce resistance, as the Chechens and other Caucasian people united under Ghazi Mollah, a Nashqbandi Sufi and noted scholar who told his followers "Your marriages are unlawful, your children bastards, while there is one Russian left in your lands!" Replacing the Adat (tribal customs) of the frequently squabbling clans with the Sharia, he formed an army and declared Jihad against the Russian invaders. Marching under black banners, and chanting "there is no god but Allah," his Murads set out to rid the land of the Christian menace.
At Tsori two Chechen snipers held off four thousand Russian soldiers for three days; at Ghimri Mollah was killed and his leading disciple, Shaykh Shamyl, sustained eighteen bayonet and sword wounds. The Russians rejoiced in their victory… only to discover it was just the beginning of a war that would take thirty years and claim half a million Russian lives. Russian soldiers found themselves embroiled in a brutal guerrilla campaign, and became painfully familiar with the "Death Song" which Chechen warriors would sing as they tied themselves together and prepared for a fight to the finish. Only in 1859, with Shamyl's surrender, would the Russians finally gain control of the region… a control marked with frequent uprisings and violence. Russian, and later Soviet leaders, would later make numerous attempts to drive the Chechens out of the region, including Stalin's mass deportations to Kazakhstan in 1946. Still the Chechens retained their unique culture and, when the Soviet Union fell in 1989, wasted no time in declaring their independence. Boris Yeltsin had other ideas. In 1994 Russian troops set out to quell the uprising in their breakaway province… and soon found themselves embroiled in yet another bloody guerrilla war.
As it was in the days of Mollah and Shamyl, many of the Chechen militias are controlled by religious leaders. The Russian invasion radicalized many Chechens, and led to the formation of fundamentalist youth groups like the "Djamaat" batallion. These groups were responsible for numerous suicide bombings and miltiary attacks against Russian outposts and civilians, including the notorious 2000 bombings in Moscow which claimed over 200 lives and the 2002 hostage siege at a Russian theatre. Some of the most feared Muhajjadeen in Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda were Chechens; many of the Arabs in Afghanistan were first trained during the "Holy War" against the Russians in Chechnya.
In keeping with Noxche history, their practice of Islam owes a great deal to their traditional tribal cultures. Their version of Sharia gives pre-eminence and judicial authority to local tribal leaders. There is not a unified Chechen army fighting the Russians so much as a number of small bands of guerrillas, many of whom also dabble in organized crime and gun running. Seventy years of Soviet domination, and its attendant suppression of Islamic education, has left the Chechens less educated about Islam - and less inclined to hard-line enforcement of prohibitions against alcohol, daily prayers, etc. - than many of their Moslem brethren elsewhere. The Sufi tradition tends to be dominant here: instead of mosques, many of these brotherhoods meet in homes and tend to function almost like secret societies, or tribal units. These groups have frequently found themselves at odds with the growing Vakhabite movement, which is more fundamentalist and which has received support from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Still, they have generally put aside their religious differences when it came time to fight Russians.
For their part, the Russians have played the Chechen-Moslem-Terrorism connection for all it's worth. After September 11, they did their best to equate the Chechen guerrillas with Bin Laden, and justified their miserable human rights record in the region in the name of "fighting terrorism." There is no reason to suppose this will change in the future, as the Russians continue to fight for control of Chechnya's oil and gas fields… and the Chechens continue their centuries-long struggle against outside invaders.