MOSCOW—The man known as "Putin’s attack dog" has spent years promoting a violent response to the publication of controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. When a teenager from a Chechen family beheaded a school teacher in France on Friday for sharing these images with his class, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin-backed ruler of Chechnya, took to social media to lecture France about its “unacceptable attitude to Islamic values.”
Kadyrov has worked hard to make the French controversy a cause célèbre in the Muslim-majority region of Russia. He gathered hundreds of thousands of Chechens for an anti-Charlie Hebdo rally, just a few days after terrorists killed 12 and injured 11 people at the satirical newspaper’s office in January 2015. That was the biggest rally ever seen in the Northern Caucasus. With a white vest on, Kadyrov spoke to a crowd of about a million people, calling on Muslims to rise against those who “deliberately kindle the fire of religious hostility.”
When Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons on September 2 to mark the opening of a trial of those involved in the terror attack, Chechnya’s official Instagram account responded with a call in the Chechen language saying, “May the Almighty punish them for their deeds as quickly as possible.” Two days later Chechen Islamic jurist Salakh Mezhiyev condemned the French publication as part of “the West’s well-planned attack against Islam.” A rain of angry statements followed, and Instagram users called to make Charlie Hebdo “burn in hell.”
Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of Moscow’s Civic Assistance Committee, said there could be no doubt what the Chechen leader was advocating. “The message Kadyrov has been sending his people is pretty clear, she told The Daily Beast. “He calls for Muslims to take measures against those mocking Muhammad.”
The son of a Chechen émigré family in the suburbs of Paris did just that on Friday. A French teacher of geography and history, 47-year old Samuel Paty, was decapitated in the street in the Conflans Saint-Honorine neighborhood by Abdullah Anzorov, 18, about a week after Paty had shown the Muhammed cartoons to his students.
Witnesses heard Anzorov yell during the attack, “Allahu Akbar!” The attacker was later shot dead after firing a plastic pellet gun at police. The authorities have arrested at least ten members of Anzorov’s Chechen family.
The teenager himself was born in Moscow and only visited Chechnya as a young child, but Grigory Shvedov, editor-in-chief of the Caucasian Knot media site, told The Daily Beast that Kadyrov’s influence stretched well beyond the republic’s borders. “It has to do with so-called ‘Kadyrovtsy,’ they are responsible for spreading intolerance, hatred of critical thinking,” he said. “The murder in France took place after Chechnya’s main mufti condemned Charlie Hebdo.”
Kadyrov, whose hardline policies are fully supported by President Vladimir Putin, did condemn the terrorist attack at the end of his social media tirade, but he also doubled down on his criticism of the cartoonists and those who would challenge Islamic fundamentalism. “While speaking out categorically against any manifestation of terrorism,” he wrote. “I also urge not to provoke believers, not to offend their religious feelings.”
Kadyrov has been lecturing on public morality and behavior for years. Enjoying Kremlin-backed power in his republic, he forbade smoking and drinking, banned women from entering state buildings without scarves on, and called for a crusade against his own LGBT citizens in order “to purify our blood.”
Chechen nationals across the world continue to follow Kadyrov, watching his videos and messages on Telegram and Instagram. His own Instagram account was blocked after U.S. sanctions, but he continues to spread his message via the republic’s official account.
Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, the founder of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center think tank, has been researching Chechen émigrés in Europe and the U.S. “Many Chechens in the West are shocked, ashamed, they condemned the murderer for spoiling their nation’s reputation,” she said. “As my own research showed, most young Chechen refugees blend in, learn languages, study and work on the West. They have no other home, since returning to Chechnya would be too dangerous for most of them.
“Judging by how much Anzorov rushed to photograph his beheaded victim and publish photographs on Twitter, he was prepared for a demonstratively violent act for some time, using the teacher as a pretext.”
The shocking photographs were published on Twitter in a post addressed to French President Emmanuel Macron, which read, “I have executed one of your dogs.”
Chechnya watchers in Russia believe that many Muslims who oppose Kadyrov’s domestic policy have been seduced by his criticism of Charlie Hebdo and French politicians who support tolerance and freedom of speech. “Kadyrov makes statements about Muslims in Myanmar, Muslims in Palestine, he has ambitions of becoming the leading voice for all Russian Muslims,” Sokirianskaya told The Daily Beast.