The Islamist struggle for the Heart of Asia has already crossed a major milestone. The Islamists' objective is no longer just an effort to consolidate their hold over the Muslim states of South and Central Asia as well as a struggle for the "liberation" of traditionally contested territories such as Indian Kashmir. The Islamists have launched an offensive on Russian territory. The quintessence of the escalation of the war in Chechnya into a regional struggle is a strategic quest of radical Islam to wrestle the hegemony over the Caucasus from Russia for radical Islam. Given the economic potential of the region, the sponsoring states of this Islamist upsurge, rather than the peoples of the Caucasus, will be the primary beneficiaries of the unfolding strategic upheaval. At the same time, however, the still escalating terrorism in and out of Chechnya is also a revival of one of the longest and most persistent armed resistance to Russian presence and control. And this legacy gives the Islamist surge its grassroots support and legitimacy.
Russia's original conquest and submission of Chechnya and Dagestan in a lengthy campaign between 1825 and 1859 was most challenging. Local resistance peaked with the revolt under Imam Shamil during the 1850s. Shamil's surrender to Tsar Alexander II did not end the fighting, as Russian columns continued to be attacked in the 1860s. Ultimately, however, the local population was exhausted into submission. Still, the revolt revived whenever the local population sensed a weakening in the Russian power. The North Caucasus resisted by force the imposition of Soviet rule between 1917 and 1921, with isolated clashes continuing into the 1930s. During the Second World War, the Caucasian revolt against Soviet rule flared again in cooperation with the German invasion. This revolt was brutally suppressed by Stalin in 1944, including a mass exile of the local population into the heart of Central Asia.
At the same time, however, the Caucasian population developed a unique way of life where Islam was a manifestation of nationalism and self-identity. Although Muslims, the Chechens and other peoples of the Caucasus did not manifest any strict following of traditional Islam, let alone fundamentalism. By the middle of the 20th century, through prolonged exposure to the Russian presence (both Imperial Russia and the USSR), the Caucasians underwent a near-complete Russification. For example, the Chechens speak Russian even among themselves and very few of them know how to pray.
Indeed, General Dzhokar Dudayev, the original leader of the Chechen revolt rose in the ranks of the Soviet Air Force, including a post of commander of a bomber regiment equipped with nuclear weapons -- a highly sensitive command post one would not have been assigned unless thoroughly Russified and fully trusted by Moscow. Dudayev was married to a Russian and his break with Moscow occurred over the violent suppression of the nationalist movements in the Baltic states, and not in the Caucasus. Indeed, when the present wave of the Chechen revolt began in the early 1990s, it too had a distinct nationalist character and was an integral part of the disintegration of the USSR.
The current crisis began in 1991, during the collapse of the USSR. Dzhokar Dudayev was elected President of the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic on a nationalist separatist platform in October 1991, and immediately declared independence from Russia. For the next 18 months, Moscow and Grozny maintained a tense co-existence, and conducted cycles of inconclusive negotiations, as tension and personal animosity were growing between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Dudayev.
In April 1993, Dudayev disbanded the Chechen parliament by decree and established unitary rule due to emergency conditions. This move was resisted mainly by wide segments of the local population -- both Chechen and Slav (Russian, Ukrainian, etc.) -- that opted for continued relations with Russia. Tensions escalated into the use of force. By June 1993, what began as a series of skirmishes transformed into a full blown war between Dudayev's supporters and enemies. Provocations, special and covert operations by Russian forces, did not contribute to stability or conflict resolution. Heavy street fighting took place in Grozny during the summer of 1993.
Ultimately, Moscow stayed largely out of this fighting. During the next 18 months, the Russians provided clandestine support to both sides in Chechnya, as well as maintained close contact with Dudayev through military channels that included old and trusted military friends of his. Moscow gradually accepted the legitimacy of, and recognized the popular support enjoyed by, Dudayev. Starting mid 1994, the Russian Government made repeated efforts to negotiate a settlement with Dudayev.
But these efforts at reaching a tenuous agreement collapsed in the fall of 1994. The failure can be attributed to both the constant hardening position of Dudayev, which earned him widespread popular support, and a gradual escalation of military clashes between Russian and Chechen separatist forces. As the military build-up continued in the Caucasus, both sides began prodding the lines and trying to gage the limits of the other side.
A major escalation in the crisis took place in early September 1994 when "Chechen forces" -- actually a few symbolic Chechen units loyal to Moscow backed by large and heavy Russian Army forces -- captured a few strategically located villages on the approaches to Grozny. Quite correctly, Dudayev interpreted this move as Moscow's strengthening of the military option in case Yeltsin decided to break the deadlock before the winter. Consequently, fighting escalated throughout the entire Grozny area with Dudayev's people launching daring attacks on Russian units in the rear, inflicting heavy casualties on training units and non-combatants. The sudden surge in losses compelled Yeltsin to order the military into hasty action in the dead of winter.
Meanwhile, during this period -- from early summer 1993 to the fall of 1994 -- the military posture of the Chechen forces strengthened through the incorporation of the Chechen Mafiya into the nationalist cause. The Mafiya arranged for the flow of illegally purchased arms from the former Soviet Union and the Near East. Moreover, through the Mafiya and its contacts with the Russian Intelligence services at the highest levels, Dudayev was able to deliver a veiled threat to the sanctity of the oil and gas pipelines passing through the region -- the destruction of which will have a devastating effect on the Russian economy. Furthermore, Russia's, and CIS's, planned modernization of oil and gas resources in the Caucasus and trans-Caspian Sea is based on the construction of an elaborate network of new pipelines to be constructed through Chechnya.
Thus, in the fall of 1994, Dudayev and his Mafiya aides were confident they could pressure the Russians. However, Moscow became alarmed by the long-term ramifications of having the pipelines hostage to Dudayev. But Yeltsin was plagued by indecision. Reluctant not to confront the Chechens nor reach an agreement with them, he opted for a "compromise" -- Russian intelligence would arm and unleash Chechen "opposition forces" on Dudayev's strongholds in the Grozny area. Moscow believed that the new Chechen "opposition" would both retain popular support among the separatists and -- having defeated Dudayev -- would reach an agreement with Moscow. However, initial assaults of Moscow's Chechen forces failed in November 1994.
Therefore, in late November 1994, Moscow delivered an ultimatum to all sides in the conflict to lay down their arms because of losses suffered by civilians. When the ultimatum was ignored, as expected, Moscow had an excuse to involve Russian forces. Hastily assembled and unprepared Russian forces stormed the main concentration of Chechen separatist forces and began an advance toward Grozny. By December, at the most improper time for military actions in the Caucasus mountains, the Russian offensive peaked as over 40,000 troops stormed Grozny. By the time the fighting subsided in April 1995, the Russians had bombed and shelled most of the urban centers of Chechnya, causing heavy destruction and civilian casualties. Having used fresh and untrained troops as cannon fodder, the Russians suffered heavy casualties without showing much of a gain for it.
It was during this phase of the fighting that Dudayev raised the Islamic factor for the first time. He described the Chechen war against Russia as a Jihad, while appealing for greater support from the Muslim World. This, however, was slow to come because Iran and other key Muslim states were in the midst of strategic negotiations with Moscow and support for the Chechens would adversely affect this expanding relationship.
Islamabad became directly involved in the active support for the Chechen Jihad already in the spring of 1994. At that time, the ISI-sponsored Taliban offensive endangered the flow of Heroin from Afghanistan which served to finance the Chechen revolt. Islamabad intervened to ensure the continued flow of drugs, as well as capitalize on the relationship between the Chechens and ISI-sponsored Afghans, then maintained via Gulbaddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami as a front, in order to expand the ISI's direct relations with the Chechen leadership. Consequently, between April and June 1994, a high-level Chechen delegation headed by a lieutenant of Dudayev's named Shamil Basayev visited the ISI-sponsored terrorist training infrastructure in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the Chechens visited the ISI's training facilities in the Khowst area, then run under the banner of Gulbaddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami. In Pakistan, the Chechens had a series of high level meetings with the Pakistani leadership -- particularly with Gen. Babar, Defense Minister Gen. Aftab Shahban Mirani, and General Javid Ashraf of the ISI (who was presented as the head of the ISI branch in charge of support for, and sponsorship of, Islamist causes). These three officials became the patrons of the Chechen Jihad, arranging for the establishment of a comprehensive training and arming program for the Chechens in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Chechens also met with former ISI Chief, General Hamid Gul, and an aid of his named Col. Imam, who would assist the Chechens in arranging for local connections and contacts for their drugs and weapons smuggling operations. Moreover, Gen. Babar intervened with the Taliban leadership already in early 1994 to ensure the uninterrupted flow of Heroin from the Helmand valley. However, the Heroin was now shipped northwards to the airfield near Chitral from where the drugs, as well as a growing number of Chechens and 'Afghan' volunteers, were flown to Chechnya.
The training of the Chechens began immediately. The first hundred or so Chechens were added to the ISI-run training camps near Khowst where between two and three hundred Uzbeks and Tajiks were already being trained in guerrilla warfare and prepared for the export of the Islamist revolution into their homelands. Most important were the advanced sabotage and guerrilla warfare courses provided to a select few Chechens in the Markaz-i-Dawar center in Pakistan. In the Fall of 1994, in order to expedite the flow of expertise to Chechnya, the ISI organized mixed detachments made of recently trained Chechens and veteran Pakistani operatives, most of them with long combat experience in the ranks of the Mujahedin in Afghanistan. These forces brought with them large quantities of weapons and ammunition. In addition, fighters from an ISI battalion of Afghan Mujahedin stationed in Pakistan were also dispatched to Chechnya in late 1994 to bolster the Pakistani-Chechen detachments. These Pakistani-led detachments saw combat already around the first of 1995. Significantly, the ISI retained combat and tactical control over these detachments. The Pakistani commanders maintained radio communications with their HQ in Pakistan, not dissimilar to communications maintained between the Islamist forces in Kashmir and their rear bases in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, in late 1994, the international Islamist leadership, particularly the Armed Islamic Movement sponsored by Iran and Sudan, adopted the Chechen war as a Jihad. Senior Islamist commanders and emissaries deployed to Grozny from where they coordinated their activities with the authorities in such places as Tehran, Khartoum, and Islamabad. Their early reports noted the growing Islamicization of everyday life in Chechnya under direct orders from Dudayev. Consequently, between late 1994 and early 1995, several Islamist charities associated with the pursuit of militant Jihad (from Kashmir and Afghanistan to Bosnia) began establishing front offices in Chechnya. The flow of money and Mujahedin, many of them veterans of previous Jihads, began soon afterwards. "Mujahedin from around the world have been arriving at the Caucasus area to join with their brethren in the fight of the aggressor occupying forces of the Russian forces who came to subjugate Muslim Caucasia under their Christian Orthodox rule," the commanders reported in late December 1994. Thus, by the time fighting erupted in late December 1994, the Islamist command and control system was already functioning.
Fully aware of this posture, Moscow was convinced in early 1995 that the Chechen revolt would ultimately die down without foreign support and sponsorship. Therefore, in April 1995, Yeltsin declared a unilateral cease fire and the beginning of a new cycle of negotiations with Dudayev. Sporadic armed clashes between prodding forces of both sides continued. A new element in the fighting was increasingly independent Chechen elite formations attacking isolated Russian forces. Nevertheless, during the summer, the situation in Chechnya stabilized, the level of violence and losses remained tolerable for Moscow, and Yeltsin saw no reason to reach the painful decisions required to resolve the Chechen conflict. Dudayev was feeling pressure, knowing that the strangulation and impasse would result in the collapse of his popular support.
The outbreak of hostilities constituted a tactical surprise, catching the main Mujahedin forces still unprepared. However, reinforcements of people and weapons were rushed to Chechnya. Thus, in early January, the Grozny-based commanders reported that "Mujahedin are still arriving from all neighboring Muslim states to give the Russian enemy a taste of its own medicine." A week later, the commanders' reports were more upbeat concerning the Islamicization of the Chechen struggle and the impact of the foreign Mujahedin. "Green Flags are flying throughout the city, marking high moral and strong Islamic spirit, and Mujahedin are seen praying in groups on the charred streets of Muslim Grozny. Many held their Qur'an along with their personal weapons. The words of Allah-hu-Akbar in Arabic are seen written in some visible areas by some Mujahedin arriving from other countries. Several Mujahedin of the Martyrdom unit wore distinct black bands around their heads, they vowed resistance to the end." In mid January, at the height of the battle of Grozny, the commanders reported that "a number of Pakistani Mujahedin have arrived in Grozny and are now fully mobilized along their Chechen brothers."
In late January, the Islamist commanders reported the launch of terrorist operations against the Russians by a joint force of 'Afghan' Arabs and Islamist Chechens. "Mujahedin have mounted an organized and disciplined Martyrdom operation which instilled fear and terror among enemy ranks. Several Mujahedin have dressed up in Russian soldiers uniform, even with fake Russian ID, military ID cards, and are penetrating deep inside Russian lines, at ammunition supply and Command centers, they are strapping their bodies with explosives and are blowing themselves up. Russian enemy special forces were reportedly firing at anything that moves including animals for fear of Mujahedin Martyrdom attacks."
At the same time, the Grozny-based commanders were worried by reports reaching them according to which "Russian enemy tanks are filling the streets in neighboring Muslim Dagestan, and Russian army have mobilized 40 to 50 thousand troops at the Chechen-Dagestani borders with Azerbaijan to prevent Mujahedin and relief convoys from passing." Nevertheless, in mid February, the Islamists were able to expand the flow of Mujahedin and equipment from Iran via Azerbaijan and Dagestan.
One of the most important reinforcing forces that arrived in this wave was an organized group of hardened Gulf (Saudis, Kuwaitis, etc.) and Maghribi (Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian, etc.) Arab Mujahedin under the command of one Khattab. Khattab is a Beduin from north west Saudi Arabia and/or southern Jordan. Over the years he has identified himself as both a Saudi Arabian and a Jordanian, depending on the circumstances. Khattab would soon emerge as one of the more important commanders in Chechnya.
In early April 1995, the Islamist commanders reported that "Azeri and other Caucasus volunteers have been waiting in training camps in the mountains for their turn to carry out attacks on the Russian enemy and on the Georgian troops if they try to intervene." By June, these military measures developed into a strategic reorientation of the war. During the Summer, the Chechnya-based commanders kept reporting the deterioration of the situation in Chechnya, a continued withdrawal of Chechen and Islamist forces to remote mountain sites, a few hit-and-run attacks, and acute logistical shortages.
At the same time, however, they announced the beginning of region-wide mobilization in order to orchestrate a widespread rebellion against Russia. "The Caucasus area does not belong to Russia, it belongs to its Muslim people from the Black to the Caspian sea. The area was savagely suppressed and occupied by criminal Russia about 150 years ago, now is the time for every Muslim to share the reward of freeing the land of the free, Caucasia."
These were not ideological tracts. The entire region was preparing for a major escalation in the fighting to be initiated by the Chechen and Islamist forces. In late June, the Islamist commanders reported that "[Chechen] Mujahedin have announced that they are preparing horses and mules, and that the coming months will require a lot of effort. Mujahedin have organized themselves in several Battalions, and have spread throughout the Muslim lands of the Caucasus."
Significantly, in preparation for the anticipated escalation, the on-site Islamist commanders conducted a thorough study of the Muslim forces operating in Chechnya. "In Chechnya today, there are three Mujahedin groups which are all united under one banner: 'La Illaha Illa Allah, Muhammad Rasoolu Allah.' The first group is the Mujahedin themselves led by their Ameer and they have strong knowledge of Islam, the second group is the Government troops, and they also practice Islam as much as they know, and are sure that victory will only come from Allah, but this group also have some minor Bid'a and that is why good Muslim Da'wa is needed. The third group is led by a brother called 'Shamil' [Basayev who is] named after the great Imam and Mujahid Shamil who defeated the Russians for over 25 years. This group is also abiding by Islam, and all three groups are working together and have the responsibilities divided among them. In short the banner of Islam and Jihad is now very clear, Alhamdulillah in Chechnya." The commanders recommended the marked escalation of the fighting in Chechnya -- particularly the launching of an offensive against the Russians as well as spectacular terrorist strikes into the heart of Russia.
By now, however, Dudayev was most alarmed by the rise of the Islamist factor. In the Spring of 1995, his earlier call for an anti-Russian Jihad was being increasingly answered as Pakistan and Iran began sponsoring the Chechen revolt. Their active support was reinforced with arrival of growing numbers of volunteers, including Arab 'Afghans' and Islamist educators, weapons supplies, and funds. The elite forces of the Chechens were now becoming increasingly Islamist. The Islamist message of all-Caucasian Jihad, as distinct from a Chechen national liberation struggle, was increasingly popular.
It was therefore imperative for Dudayev to stage a dramatic breakout. In June 1995, Shamil Basayev lead a daring raid on the Russian town of Budennovsk. The Chechen force included ten Mujahedin from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, two of whom were killed in action. The Chechens seized the local hospital and some 2,500 hostages. After a lengthy siege and a few failed assaults by Russian forces, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin negotiated the safe withdrawal of the terrorists and a framework for a new cycle of high-level negotiations between Dudayev's people and Moscow. In July, both sides reached an initial agreement stipulating a cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of Russian forces, and the self-disarmament of the Chechen forces. Both sides had a lot to gain from this agreement -- for Moscow it was the opening for the end of the war, and for Dudayev it was a recognition and guarantee for the stability of his regime.
Throughout this period, the Chechnya-based Islamist commanders were in constant touch and consultations with the Chechen leadership, including Dudayev and Aslan Maskhadov. The Islamists reported the Chechen leaders' analysis of the situation, and delivered their messages and requests faithfully. Significantly, in August 1995, Maskhadov foresaw to the collapse of the just signed agreement within two months. The Islamist commanders suggested terrorist strikes that would provoke the Russians into violating the agreement. Highly trained Arab experts were sent to Grozny. The spate of car-bomb attacks against Russian officials in Grozny that started in early October was their handiwork. Moreover, back in late September, "Ameer Shamil Basayev, the wolf of the Caucasus, carried out another daring operation against Russian occupying forces" shattering the agreement with Moscow. However, it was the Russian massive reaction, mainly shelling and bombing of civilians, that registered in the West as the violation of the cease fire. Just as had been planned by the Chechen leaders and their Islamist allies.
High hopes were soon dashed with the resumption of guerrilla warfare in the mountains and the plight of the Chechen civilian population. By now, Dudayev's greatest challenge was the growing Islamicization of his elite forces -- the growing influence of the foreign Mujahedin. There has been a distinct internationalization of the conflict in Chechnya through the infusion of Islamist forces and the emergence of a coherent sponsorship and command structure run by the sponsoring states. This internationalization and Islamistization of the conflict immediately created pressure on Dudayev to escalate the struggle -- being now a Jihad -- by adopting a harder and uncompromising line.
Dudayev decided to demonstrate that he was in charge of the Chechen revolt, and could out-escalate his rivals and contenders. In late November 1995, using Dudayev's Mafiya contacts, Shamil Basayev organized the first known incident of nuclear terrorism. He arranged for the burying of several packages of radio-active material (largely harmless) at the heart of Moscow. He then notified Russian TV of the location of one package so that it could be retrieved on live TV to the horror of Moscow -- both public and the government.
Little wonder that the Russian forces reacted with fury to the first minor provocation in Chechnya. Furthermore, throughout the Fall of 1995, the Chechen forces concentrated on guerrilla warfare against the Russians. Consequently, as Winter approached, Moscow resolved to escalate the war once again. By December 1995, Russian forces succeeded in evicting Chechen rebels from Gudermes -- Chechnya's second largest city -- by destroying it in a hail of artillery and rocket fire.
Dudayev could not ignore the challenge and defeat. In early January 1996, he sent his son-in-law, Salman Raduyev, at the head of the "Lone Wolf" terrorist force to raid the Russian air base in Kizlyar in nearby Dagestan. The operation was planned by a Pakistani expert and veteran 'Afghan' known by the nom-de-guerre Fakh. Reflecting the new posture of the Chechen revolt, this "Lone wolf" force also included several non-Chechen Islamist terrorists in senior positions. Having attacked the air base, the "Lone Wolf" force then continued to seize a nearby hospital and over a thousand hostages. This time, after a brief siege, the "Lone Wolf" force withdrew with numerous hostages to the village of Pervomayskoye. There, they were besieged and bombarded by Russian forces for several days. Despite the large Russian forces, the key elements of the "Lone wolf" along with several hostages succeeded to break through the Russian lines and reach Chechnya.
Meanwhile, an Islamist terrorist force that included a few Chechens but was led by a Turk -- Muhammed Tokcan -- seized a Russian ferry in Trabazon, Turkey, with 120 passengers and 45 crew members. The terrorists identified themselves as part of Shamil Basayev's force. After a few days of negotiations, the terrorists surrendered to Turkish authorities in Istanbul.
In early 1996, the future of both the nationalist movement and the war in Chechnya was dark. By now, the Mujahedin had completed the training of Chechen elite units in tactics based on the lessons of Afghanistan. These units were comprised of both veteran Mujahedin, mostly veterans of Afghanistan, and Chechen combat veterans. Moreover, in preparation for the anticipated escalation, and in concert with Tehran and Khartoum, some 600 Mujahedin, mainly Afghans and Chechens, who had been trained by Iranian intelligence and the HizbAllah in Sudan, deployed to Chechnya in late 1995/early 1996. In the Spring of 1996, Basayev and Khattab escalated the war with a series of devastating ambushes conducted by Pakistani-trained Mujahedin utilizing the experience gained in Afghanistan. In April 1996, Basayev led one of these units, ambushing a Russian convoy in the mountains near Vedeno with lethal effectiveness. Soon afterwards, Khattab led another unit on another devastatingly effective ambush in the mountains near Yaryshmardy.
The situation was more severely complicated in late April, 1996, when Dudayev was killed in a Russian Air Force bombing of his mobile headquarters. By then, however, the war has already been transforming into a combination of a popular guerrilla struggle in the mountains of Chechnya and, increasingly, other parts of the Caucasus, and a series of daring terrorist strikes by international Islamist forces, both in Russia and throughout the world. While Moscow could cope with a low level of insurgency in the Caucasus, it could not tolerate international terrorism. Since the Islamist international and the sponsoring states strongly influence, if not outrightly control, the terrorist operations (especially the international strikes), the sponsoring states increasingly dictated the duration and intensity of the Chechen war at the expense of the Chechen nationalist leadership. Indeed, the younger commanders associated with the Islamist forces and terrorist operations, like Basayev and Raduyev, were rising to prominence.
Following Dudayev's death, Aslan Maskhadov, a former Colonel in the Russian Armed Forces and a professional officer, emerged as the de-facto Chechen leader. In the Summer of 1996, Maskhadov resolved to break the deadlock in Chechnya with a dramatic outburst of fighting. He ordered the infiltration of over 1,500 fighters, mostly Islamist Chechens and their Mujahedin allies, into the heart of Grozny and the launching of a wave of terror fighting that flagrantly challenged Russia's hold over the city and, in fact, the entire Chechnya. To General Aleksandr Lebed, Russia's newly appointed Secretary of the Security Council, this sudden escalation of fighting meant that the war in Chechnya had become a total war that could not be won at the price Moscow was willing to pay. Lebed resolved to swiftly end the war and stop the futile carnage. Embarking on intense negotiations with Maskhadov, Lebed secured the cessation of hostilities within a couple of weeks. Between early October and late November 1996, Maskhadov, now Chechnya's Prime Minister, signed a series of agreements with Russia that ensured for Chechnya a unique autonomous status and postponed the resolution of the sticky question of full independence till 2001.
While Moscow considered the Fall of 1996 to be the end of the painful war in Chechnya, the Chechens saw it as the beginning of a new Jihad for the establishment of not only an Islamic State but a new regional order in the Caucasus. And it is in this struggle that the extent of power and influence of the Islamist forces in Chechnya has become clear. Hence, in the long term, the still unfolding new struggle for an independent Chechnya is more crucial than the extremely violent war that has just ended.
The Rise of Islamist Chechnya
Between 1991 and 1995, there was thus a profound transformation of the struggle in Chechnya. The Chechen war had originally started as an anti-Soviet quest for liberalization and self-determination. In 1993-1994, the war was taken over by organized crime -- the Chechen Mafiya -- in order to finance the escalating war. At the same time, and even more so since 1995, the war in Chechnya has been dominated by the Islamicization of the struggle and the rise of the Islamists to prominence. And with the Islamists came the reliance on terrorism, all the way into the center of Moscow, in order to score political attention. Thus, the Chechens' involvement in, and utilization of, terrorism is an expression of a wider acceptance of the logic of the Islamist Jihad advocated by Tehran and Islamabad. A closer look at the evolution of the external, state-sponsored, support for the Chechen Jihad best demonstrates the extent of the Islamists' influence over events in Chechnya.
As the war progressed, the Chechens' support system, primarily the financial resources, were increasingly dependent on Islamist sources and conduits. For example, during the entire war in Chechnya, until 1996, Libya clandestinely transferred tens of millions of Dollars. The bulk of the money was shipped via Turkey, where Libyan intelligence was using couriers and channels of the Refah Party in order to launder and deliver the cash handed over by the Embassy in Ankara. This was not a risk free operation. For example, one of the latest shipments of $10 million seems to have ben embezzled by the Refah Party. According to the Libyans, Amar Hareba, a Libyan diplomat, handed the money to a Refah courier. However, the cash never reached Chechnya. Even after a group of Chechen officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Medetullah, arrived in Turkey to discuss the missing funds with Refah officials, the latter denied any knowledge. It is assumed that Refah used the Libyan money for the election campaign. (Qadhafi is convinced this is the case and this is why he publicly insulted the Turkish Prime Minister and Refah leader, Erbrakan, during his first visit to Libya.)
Thus, by mid 1996, the war in Chechnya was fully integrated into the global struggle strategy, and not only of the Islamic Bloc, but of the Trans-Asian Axis as well. Grozny is the oil pipeline juncture for transporting Caspian Sea oil to European Russia and for export via Novorossiysk. The disconnection of this oil pipeline will expedite the transferring of this oil to the proposed Trans-Caspian pipeline and its export eastwards in the PRC's Pan-Asia Continental Oil Bridge. Militarily, a marked escalation in the fighting in Chechnya will serve more than just a containment of Russia -- a drain on manpower, supplies and resources. Politically, a prolonged unpopular war will make Moscow reluctant to confront, let alone intervene in, other conflicts in the near abroad so that the Islamists' escalation in Central Asia can take place with a lesser risk of Russian intervention.
Meanwhile, the integration of the Chechen revolt into the state-sponsored Islamist struggle continues to evolve and expand. This development is best reflected in the flow of Mujahedin from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bosnia and the Middle East, in the further increase in the training of Chechens in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey (Northern Cyprus). The allocation of drugs from the Golden Crescent for funding the Chechen war, as well as the laundering and handling of Chechen funds by Islamist front companies and financial institutions in the West, are other expressions of support by the Islamist leadership. Moreover, the international support functions, especially in the US and Western Europe, are being run by the main Islamist organizations controlled by Iran, Pakistan, and their proteges.
The magnitude of the Chechen drug smuggling and other organized crime activities is immense. By the mid 1990s, the network of smuggling routes used by the Islamists to deliver Mujahedin and weapons into Chechnya were also used for the smuggling of drugs out of Chechnya in order to finance the Jihad and enrich its commanders.
For example, the "Abkhaz route" that is operating since late 1993 under the control of the brothers Shamil and Shirvan Basayev. Shamil Basayev was the leader of the Chechen volunteers in Abkhazia and established excellent relations with the Muslim rebels there. Using Mi-6 helicopters, the Basayev brothers are shipping drugs acquired in Pakistan and Afghanistan from the Vedenskiy Rayon of Chechnya to the heliport in New Athens, using bases set up in Dzheyrakh Gorge in Kabardino-Balkariya as their intermediate landing points. Then, from New Athens, Abkhaz smugglers deliver the drugs by truck to Port Sukhumi on the Black Sea. From there, the drugs are carried by Turkish ships to the port of Famagusta in Northern Cyprus where local drug dealers take over. On the return routes, the ships, truck and helicopters carry arms and munitions acquired by Turkish intelligence for Basayev's forces.
Meanwhile, as of 1992-93, the volume of flights in and out of Chechnya continued to grow. The average annual record stands at 100-150 unauthorized flights by large aircraft from Chechnya (from Khankala, Grozny-North, and Kalinovka airports) to cities of the former USSR and to other countries--Turkey, Iran, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and even Africa. However, this is only a fraction of the real traffic, for low altitude flights are not recorded, while the illegal flights from Chechnya into such Azerbaijani airports as Nasosnaya are not even counted.
The marked increase in the Chechen's aerial activities has taken place since early 1995. Back in early December 1994, Usman Imayev -- a close aide of Dudayev, who was the head of the National Bank of Ichkeriya as well as Chechnya's minister of justice and prosecutor general -- reached an agreement with representatives of the Turkish intelligence on the supply of weapons to Dudayev's forces from and via Turkey, the latter mainly from Pakistan. The ISI agreed to provide the Chechens with stockpiles dating back to the days of the Afghan Jihad. The Turks purchased large quantities of Soviet-era weapons and ammunition from Germany, from the ex-DDR arsenals, and transferred some of them to the Chechens.
In order to facilitate the shipment of these weapons, Turkey agreed to permit Dudayev to run an airlift out of an airport in the region of Bitlis in Turkish Kurdistan. From there, several Chechen An-24 and An-26 transports have since been flying to Chitral, where Mujahedin, weapons and drugs have been loaded, and to Nasosnaya, Azerbaijan. Bitlis continues to serve as a refueling point. From Nasosnaya, the transports make night low-altitude dashes to Chechen air strips in the Shatoy region, and in the upper gorges of Belaya Shalazha, not far from the village of Chozhi-Chu. The flights are performed at night, at low altitude.
Back in the Spring of 1996, when the fighting intensified and the Russian Air Force began flying interceptor patrols, the bulk of the flights between Azerbaijan and Chechnya shifted to the Azerbaijani village of Zabrat-2 where the Chechen forces established a forward base for a few Mi-8 helicopters. From there, the helicopters flew to Nasosnaya, loaded and refuelled, and then continued to the northwest, to the Chechen bases in Zakatala region. In cases of heavy loads, intermediate landing sites were arranged for the Mi-8s' refueling.
Another key base for the export of drugs and importation of weapons and ammunition was set in Shali, Chechnya, back in 1995. The most sensitive cargoes (such as nuclear materials) and passengers (such as Islamist leaders) are still being shipped via Shali. Toward this end, a special detachment of about 100 Chechens, Mujahedin and mercenaries (mainly Ukrainian and Balt former members of SPETSNAZ, OMON, and similar units) was created in 1995 and is still operating in Shali. Shali is also used for storage and transshipment of weapons, arms accessories, and ammunition acquired from a wide variety of illegal sources such as ex-Soviet military depots, Mongolia, Germany, Lithuania, and other still unidentified sources.
Meanwhile, closer relations with Iranian intelligence brought the Chechens to expand criminal activities. Utilizing the excess capacity of the airplanes operating between Bitlis and Chitral, and Bitlis and Nasosnaya, the Chechens sought other forms of income. The Islamist commanders and emissaries in Chechnya suggested that the Chechen Mafiyas contribute to the distribution of the Tehran-made counterfeit $100 bills, and the Pakistanis endorsed the idea warmly.
In early 1995, the Iranians had an excess of around $30 million which they offered in tempting rates. Thus, a Chechen transport flew from Chitral to Zahedan in southeast Iran and picked up the load. The plane returned to Chitral, and flew on to Bitlis and Nasosnaya. Imayev argued that the spread of these bills into Russia and the rest of CIS was another form of warfare, and by the end of the year the Chechen Mafiya was able to disperse there at least $26 million of Iran-made bills. The success of this early venture emboldened the Chechens and the volume of counterfeit loads collected in Zahedan continued to increase. The growing involvement of Iranian intelligence in the training of Chechen cadres as well as the supply of Mujahedin and critical weapons served as added incentive for the Chechen Mafiya to expand its counterfeit distribution activities.
In the long run, the most perturbing development is the Islamicization of the population in Chechnya. During this current, more prolonged cessation of fighting holding, the extent of the Islamist influence in Chechnya is becoming apparent. The popular Islamicization which is being enforced by Chechen fighters is a profound and most dangerous phenomenon because of the local historical circumstances. Although Muslim, the peoples of the Caucasus have followed the traditions of their tribes and nationalities, relying on codes of behavior and Muridism, rather than on 'classic' Islam, to guide them. A series of fierce rebellions were motivated by the strength of tribalism and Muridism, most notably demonstrated in Shamil's revolt. In contrast, there is no local tradition of Islamism or of strict following of Islamic codes in the Caucasus. Hence, with the collapse of the Soviet and Russian legal system, the population should have revived the traditional social and legal system.
Instead, Chechnya has emerged as a fertile soil for a popular Islamist surge. Furthermore, the most conservative variant of the Sharia is being enforced in Chechnya in a revolutionary manner. Chechen fighters impose the Sharia by force or through Islamist revolutionary courts. The Ulama, most of them educated in Islamist schools abroad, oversee the establishment of Councils of Ulama as the only judicial organs in Chechnya. The Chechen Ulama are aided by numerous religious experts from the Arab World, Iran and Pakistan. Their enforcement of the Sharia is draconic. In the rebel-held parts of Grozny, the main law in the city is now the Sharia. Campaigns for the enforcement of a strict "modest" dress code for women and against alcohol are already being conducted. People detained for consumption of alcohol in public are flogged with a cane. A thief caught will have his hand cut off. These social norms have been imported along with the Islamist assistance for, and thorough manipulation of, the Chechen revolt. Thus, the enforcement of, and support for, Islamism are recently imported phenomena. The prominence of the Islamicization is the most important manifestation and expression of the inherent strength of influence cast by the sponsoring states, the foreign Mujahedin, and their local proteges.
Therefore, in the longer range, and irrespective of the fortunes of the negotiated settlement now being worked out, there remains the ticking time-bomb -- the Chechens trained and indoctrinated in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. The mere fact that Shamil Basayev visited Afghanistan and Pakistan twice recently to inspect and modify the training programs provided to his people, is a reflection of the importance of these fighters.
By the Fall of 1997, several hundreds of Chechens were being trained in ISI-sponsored camps near Warsaj (Takhar), Jabal ol-Saraj (Parwan), Khowst (Paktia), and other smaller sites. Some 250 Chechens were undergoing clandestine training in a camp near Peshawar by ISI operatives and expert terrorists from Egypt and Sudan. Some 100 Chechens were being trained by the ISI in the Lahore area in sophisticated terrorism and urban warfare. A VEVAK-run terrorism training base in Ziarat Jah (Herat) was transferred to Gorgan (Mazandaran, Iran) in the Fall of 1995 because of the fighting. Chechens now attend other Islamist higher terrorism schools in Iran under the control of al-Quds forces. Several hundreds Mujahedin, mainly Afghans and Chechens, were being trained by Iranian intelligence and the HizbAllah in Sudan. Moreover, in the spring of 1996, in anticipation for a marked escalation, about 400 Chechens were sent to HizbAllah training camps in the Biqaa, Lebanon, to undergo the six-month advance courses run by Iranian Pasdaran instructors. These training programs still continue in early 1998, with new classes made of young Chechens replacing the graduates that returned Chechnya. Ultimately, the mere presence of Chechens in these terrorism schools is indicative of Tehran's and Islamabad's trust.
Meanwhile, the intelligence services of Iran, Pakistan and Turkey also continue to prepare, train and ship foreign volunteers to Chechnya. In Afghanistan, Shaykh Muhammad Ali Akhund organized a Taliban force for deployment to Chechnya. Most important are the Islamist commanders and instructors from Afghanistan, Pakistan and numerous Arab states -- all of them veteran 'Afghans' and 'Balkans', as well as Middle East terrorists -- who build a new generation of Chechen Mujahedin. They also constitute the core of the elite terrorist and special operations units of the Chechens. As well, they train cadres from other Caucasian states and nationalities. If the current build-up continues, Chechnya will become a center for Islamist regional and international terrorism comparable to Afghanistan or Lebanon.
Ultimately, given the Islamists' headway in Tajikistan, and Central Asia as a whole, one can foresee the emergence of an Islamist radical belt stretching from Afghanistan to Chechnya. Such a belt will be controlled and sponsored by Iran and Pakistan. Both will use it for furthering their global and regional aspirations. The availability of weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union makes this prospect all the more harrowing.
Preparing for the Next Jihad
In the Fall of 1996, the Chechens intensified their preparations for the escalation of the Islamist struggle, and terrorism continued, irrespective of the August 1996 cease fire agreement signed by Aleksandr Lebed and the Chechen leadership. A series of bombs in buses in the center of Moscow back in mid July was meant to serve as a reminder and as an incentive for Moscow to expedite handing concessions to the Chechen leadership. In Ankara, Chechen commander Solta Ersanov claimed responsibility and explained that they were "a warning to the Russian authorities" aimed to force a cessation of Russian attacks. There was never an intent among the Chechen leaders to reach a meaningful agreement with Moscow. Indeed, in early October 1996, the international Islamist leadership (including the senior leaders in Tehran, Islamabad and Khartoum) concluded that the firing of General Lebed in Moscow meant that the resumption of war in Chechnya was virtually inevitable. The leadership has already announced this decision to the central offices and regional headquarters of the Islamist international in the West.
In essence, this decision is little more than a confirmation and reiteration of earlier decisions, particularly the conclusion made by the Iranian and Pakistani intelligence services in mid September. These conclusions, along with instructions to prepare for an increased flow of logistical and financial support from the West, were also communicated on September 16. The message stressed that the Russians were not abiding by their commitments in accordance with the agreement mediated by Lebed.
The Islamist commander on site anticipates two possibilities, both aimed to facilitate the resumption of fighting and further escalation. The more likely possibility was that "The Russians are changing the military sections into new sections and new regiments, the soldiers are more efficient than they were previously, and that the fighting will return more severe than it was before, after the decisive rulings on Grozny. And this probability is the closest of probabilities because the Mujahedin leadership are saying that the Russians will not leave Chechnya. ... The second probability: That the Russians will consolidate in the open regions this winter, they will uphold resistance and will carry out a series of assassinations of the Mujahedin leadership in the combat zones trying to bewilder the Mujahedin." Once the weather improves, the Russians are expected to launch an offensive that "will be stronger than the previous time ... after which the Russian forces executed violent attacks on Mujahedin positions and cities where Mujahedin were to be found."
Significantly, these instructions were transmitted in the form of a special communique signed by "the Ameer of the Ansar [Forces] in Chechenya [sic.]" -- that is, the on-site forward commander of Iran's 4th Ansar Legion. The 4th Ansar Legion is under the command of the IRGC's al-Quds Forces -- Iran's overhead command for the training of, and operational command over, Sunni Islamist terrorists -- and is specifically responsible for the export of the Islamic Revolution to the independent republics of the former Soviet Union. The Ansar Forces operating in Chechnya belong to this Legion.
Meanwhile, the specifics of the impending escalation in Chechnya were decided upon back in late August in the summit of the senior commanders of the HizbAllah International, held in Mogadishu, Somalia. Among the participants were Usamah bin-Ladin and the Iranian Commander of the al-Quds Forces based in Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen. The summit decided to deploy between 500 and 700 'Afghan' Mujahedin (Arabs, Pakistanis, Afghans, etc.) to Chechnya during the fall. These Mujahedin would come mainly from camps in Afghanistan (particularly ISI-run camps under the nominal supervision of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf), as well as Sudan (mainly Arab 'Afghans') and Lebanon (a combination of the recently-trained Chechen-HizbAllah, and HizbAllah veterans from Persian Gulf states and Bosnia). The ISI was also directly responsible for the transportation, logistics and the transfer of "special means" (or "special weapons") to Chechnya. General Ashraf of the ISI -- who was presented to Shamil Basayev in the Spring of 1994 as the head of the ISI branch in charge of support for, and sponsorship of, Islamist causes, and who has been involved in supporting the Chechens since then -- is personally in charge of the Pakistani part of this operation. Additional funds were moved to Chechnya from Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states via Western Europe. Follow up decisions on the accelerated implementation of these designs were reached in late September in the follow-up summit of the senior commanders of the HizbAllah International that was also held in Magadishu, Somalia.
The implementation of these resolutions began immediately. In mid October 1966, at least 200 of the Mujahedin were already deployed to Chechnya from camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pakistani Minister of Interior, Maj.Gen. (ret.) Naserullah Khan Babar, personally arranged for safe-conduct for these Mujahedin through both the Taliban and Ahmad Shah Massud lines, as part of the Pakistani mediation effort in Afghanistan. From north-eastern Afghanistan, these Mujahedin were transported eastward on the supply route established for the sustaining of the Afghan Mujahedin during the 1980s. The Chechnya bound Mujahedin were taken to camps near Chitral. They were flown to Chechnya from a nearby airport already used by the ISI for traffic in and out of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Meanwhile, the organization a force of over 100 Arab 'Afghans' from bases in Sudan and Yemen was near completion. These Mujahedin reached Chechnya via Iran or Afghanistan in the first half of November. Further more, the first class of Chechen-HizbAllah completed its six-month advance training in the Pasdaran-run HizbAllah camps in the Biqaa in mid November 1996, and its members returned to Chechnya in the early days of 1997. Altogether, some 400 Chechen graduates were dispatched from the Biqaa by the early Spring of 1997. Significantly, by early 1998, the flow of foreign Mujahedin and Chechen graduates of terrorist schools along these routes still continues.
By the Fall of 1996, the leadership of Chechnya was openly advocating the themes raised by the Islamist leadership, particularly the possibility of resumption of fighting. Thus, Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev declares that he "cannot affirm that the war has really ended." Chechen Commander Shamil Basayev concurs that the war "is suspended." Because "Russia has proved that it does not keep its promises," Basayev believes that "the possibility of the war being resumed remains on the cards."
It did not take long to for the Russians to discover how serious the Chechens were.
On November 16, 1996, a major explosion in a housing complex in Kaspiysk, Dagestan, destroyed a whole bloc where the families of senior officers of the Russian Border Guards lived. Many of these officers were from units patrolling a number of areas on the administrative border with Chechnya. There were at least 60 fatalities, including 10 children. The explosion was by at least two bombs, containing up to 55 pounds of high explosives, hidden in the basement of the building.
The bombs were most likely planted by Chechen terrorists under the command of Shamil Basayev who were operating from the Vedeno zone of Ichkeria. Recently, the Border Guards of the unit hit managed to block the routes of transportation of arms, ammunition and medicines into Chechnya. This caused a major disruption to Basayev's efforts to rapidly build strategic stockpiles in the Chechen highland districts. A major smuggling route for Central Asian drugs used to finance the Chechen war effort was also blocked in this operation. From the very time of this operation and until shortly before the explosion in Kaspiysk, several known associates of Basayev visited Kaspiysk repeatedly, allegedly in order to purchase food and medicines for Chechnya, and were able to conduct observation and planning of their objective. Shamil Basayev himself was working closely with Islamist terrorists and was already responsible for some of the most audacious and spectacular terrorist strikes during the Chechen war.
When the extent of the civilian casualties was becoming clear, several Chechen leaders denied involvement in the explosion. Shamil Basayev only wondered out loud about the usefulness of such an attack. He did not condemn it, or flatly denied his involvement. Meanwhile, Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin had termed the explosion "an allergic reaction to the peace process in Chechnya."
In mid December, the Chechen Islamists embarked on a series of audacious terrorist operations aimed to not only derail the negotiations with Moscow, but also to evict all foreigners from Chechnya. At first, some 60 of Salman Raduyev's Chechen Mujahedin assaulted a Russian post near Penza and took 21 Border Guards troops as hostages. Chechen leaders then embarked on intense negotiations with the Russians to secure the release of the hostages in return for political concessions, only to have a confident Raduyev flatly refuse to consider releasing anybody. His confidence reflected advance coordination with other Chechen leaders. Indeed, it was only after receiving unspecified guarantees from both Chechen and Russian negotiators that Raduyev released the hostages.
While this drama was unfolding, a few masked gunmen penetrated the ICRC facilities in Nvoye Atagi, Chechnya, and assassinated six Western relief workers, five of them females. It was a highly professional job -- the victims were killed while asleep and the assailants used handguns with silencers. The undeclared but clear objective of this assault was to force Western relief agencies out of Chechnya so that the Islamist regime could be imposed more efficiently. The plan worked, for within a day the ICRC and all Western humanitarian organizations announced that they were pulling their personnel out of Chechnya, as well as freezing all humanitarian work. Chechen leaders attributed the assassination of the Red Cross personnel to "forces interested in frustrating the peace settlement and the coming elections in Chechnya, as well as isolating the republic from international humanitarian organizations which are rendering medical and food aid to its population." The eviction of Western humanitarian presence by force was a major component of the Islamists' consolidation of control over the population in Afghanistan. Indeed, Russian officials attributed the assassination to "radical separatist fighters" who are determined to "undermine peace." Salman Raduyev topped their list.
The wave of terrorism against foreigners continued with the assassination of six Russian civilians in central Grozny. These Russians, members of two families who elected to stay and live under Chechen rule, were also assassinated by professionals. The assailants, using a silenced handgun and an assault rifle, shot each of the victims in the head while asleep. For long now, Chechen leaders have sought to evict the local Russian population because they considered their presence in Chechnya both a hindrance to their ability to establish an Islamist regime and a potential excuse for a future Russian intervention ostensibly in order to protect Russians in distress. In late 1996, there was a sense of urgency among Chechen leaders.
By now, the Chechen leaders have been setting their eyes on far wider objectives than just an independent Islamist Chechnya. Back in late October, the Chechens declared their commitment to a regional liberation campaign, not just securing the independence of Chechnya. Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev explained that the Chechens were determined to establish "a state based on Islamic values and laws" that will serve as a base for the further expansion of an Islamist revolutionary movement throughout the Caucasus.
Yandarbiyev was very clear about his vision of Chechnya's regional role: "All those who seriously deal with the issues of Chechnya and the Caucasus realize what our role is. As is the case with all important periods in history, the Chechen people are today playing a central role in the process of determining basic orientations of development in the Caucasus region, particularly its northern parts. They are defining the nature of the Russian-Caucasian relations. To a certain extent, our dealings with Russia indicate the likely course of development in relations between Moscow and the rest of the Caucasian peoples. I wish to affirm in particular that Caucasians have a great capacity for asserting their influence at the Islamic and regional levels."
In late November, 1996, the Chechen leadership further hinted its intent to transform Chechnya into a hub for the further escalation of the anti-Russian struggle and export of Islamist liberation struggle throughout the rest of the Caucasus.
Chechen Prime Minister Aslan Maskhadov acknowledged that achieving "the collapse of the Russian state and the separation of the peoples of the Caucasus [from Russia] is a difficult issue." Chechnya, he stressed, was committed to the establishment of "a normal policy and balanced relations between Russia and the peoples of this region" that would ensure their independence as Muslim states. The only alternative to Moscow's unilateral acceptance of this development was the resumption of armed struggle. Maskhadov warned the Russian leadership that "if anyone thinks that they can subjugate these peoples by the power of the gun, then this collapse [of Russia] is bound to start."
In this context, Maskhadov expressed Chechnya's willingness to serve as an active hub for the liberation of the entire region. Chechnya was willing to provide shelter for the "citizens from Arab and Islamic states who fought in Chechnya" as well as a base for their future operations. Maskhadov hailed the contribution of "Mujahedin from many Islamic states [who] fought by our side. They took up arms and defended our people." These Mujahedin "were a great help and support to us." Therefore, Maskhadov stated, Chechnya "welcomes" them "among their brothers in Islam, if they wish to stay." This is an innocent phrasing of an invitation for the establishment of yet another Afghanistan, Bosnia or Sudan.
In mid December, Chechen leaders were anticipating further escalation of their war against Russia, this time to be waged mainly through terrorism. Movladi Udugov, the spokesman for the Chechen government stressed that "the anti-Chechen war is not over." Udugov blamed Moscow for instigating the latest round of terrorism and violence as a cynical way to avoid granting Chechnya independence. The likely outcome of this process, as described by Udugov, actually reflected the outcome of the establishment of a militant Islamist state. "Chechnya is to play the role of a criminal cesspool, which should be isolated from the rest of the world," Udugov warned.
Chechen militant leaders such as Basayev and Raduyev were fully aware of the gravity and imminence of the crisis they were instigating. Basayev was confident that a new war "will surely start sooner or later, should Chechnya continue to be dependent on Russia at least to some extent." The cease-fire agreement mediated by Lebed stipulated that the question of Chechnya's independence will not be addressed until 2001 -- a situation unacceptable to the Chechen commanders. Indeed, Raduyev expected the war to resume any moment. "I have put my troops on red alert,"he stated in mid December. "If they [the Russians] want to fight with me, let them come and we see who wins." He was not the only one anticipating the resumption of fighting in the near future.
When it erupts, the Chechen war will be a regional conflict aimed to liberate the entire Caucasus and punish Russia. These objectives are the quintessence of the Chechens' ideological conviction. Shamil Basayev's banner has the wolf as the main symbol at the center: It is the Bozkhurt (the steppe wolf) -- the traditional symbol of militant pan-Turkism. In mid December, sitting under the same flag, Salman Raduyev declared that he was "preparing for war", and that he was "sure that combat operations will be transferred to the territory of Russia."
The Making of a Terrorist Entity
The polity of Chechnya since mid December 1996 has been that of a quintessential terrorist state. On the one hand, Aslan Maskhadov has been pursuing an overt policy concentrating on two foci: (1) getting the Arab world to overtly support an independent Muslim state in Chechnya; and (2) furthering the negotiations with Russia in the hope of ultimately attaining formal independence. At the sub-rosa level, the Chechens have relied on terrorism and subversion, both domestic and anti-Russia, in order to influence their "interlocutors" into concessions beyond what the strength and legitimacy of the Chechens' position would have achieved on its own.
The Chechens' road to the elections scheduled for January 1997 was made possible by Islamist terrorism. Since December 1996, as the preparations for the elections were heating up, it became imperative for the entire political leadership -- virtually all candidates -- to remove Western presence and influence from Chechnya. The Chechen leadership was apprehensive about the international ramifications of first-hand reporting by Westerners of election rigging and intimidation, as well as the "moderating influence" Western humanitarian workers and activists might have on potential voters.
Indeed, in mid January 1997, by the time the elections campaign peaked, there were very few Westerners (including Russians) in Chechnya. This was the result of a seemingly unrelated, and duly condemned, spate of terrorism against Westerners. The first round was the assassination in cold blood of six ICRC officials in mid December 1996. Since then, there developed a sustained campaign characterized by the kidnaping of several humanitarian workers and journalists, including Russians, that is yet to be resolved. Consequently, the extent of Western direct involvement in, and thus having first-hand knowledge of, Chechnya has all but ceased.
The six Red Cross workers were assassinated in mid December, 1996, at the hospital in Novyye Atagi near Grozny. The close range shooting with silenced handguns was a professional job. By the Summer of 1997, the identity of the perpetrators remained a mystery. Still, by late 1996, the assassination brought to the fore the importance of the foreign Mujahedin in post-war Chechnya. Although the attackers are yet to be formally identified, ICRC officials believe the murders were committed by Mujahedin answering to the commander called "Emir Khattab", who, in turn, was serving under Salman Raduyev. According to ICRC officials, the murdered medics might have heard "hot" information while treating Mujahedin and had to be "silenced". Irrespective of who committed the assassination, most Westerners immediately left Chechnya as expected and desired.
However, Grozny's pointing fingers at Khattab, as well as Chechen commanders described as rogue, was only a cover of deniability for carrying out terrorism as needed by the Grozny leadership.
Indeed, the importance of key Mujahedin commanders increased by early 1997, in the aftermath of the war. These Mujahedin commanders are now serving as assistants and aides to key Chechen military and intelligence commanders-turned-politicians. Ameer Khattab, also popularly known as "one-armed Akhmed" and "the Black Arab", is no different. Prior to his arrival in Chechnya, he had fought in Afghanistan and in several Persian Gulf countries. He also claims to have personally conducted a number of terrorist strikes against Israeli and French citizens. In Chechnya, Khattab established an elite force of veteran Mujahedin and Islamist Chechens that played a central role in some of the more demanding battles and terrorist strikes. He is a revered commander, considered harsh but caring and fair. A specialist in sabotage and subversive activity, Khattab was in command of the special forces that destroyed a Russian armored convoy near the villages of Serzhen-Yurt and Yarysh-Mardy back in the Spring of 1996.
In the Winter of 1996-97, Khattab converted to peacetime operations. He established a terrorists-commando training school near the village of Serzhen-Yurt, Vedeno Rayon, where he and several of his senior veteran 'Afghan' and 'Bosnian' Mujahedin serve as instructors. Significantly, these Mujahedin also remain as the core of an operational unit for terrorist and other clandestine operations. The school trains and indoctrinates some of the most promising Chechen youth, all war veterans, as the core of Chechnya's future intelligence, special and terrorist forces. Significantly, Khattab's school also has a special department training Algerians and French Maghribis for terrorist operations in France. Significantly, Khattab's camp and the entire terrorist-Mujahedin infrastructure remains under the supervision and control of the international Armed Islamic Movement and the key terrorism sponsoring states.
Since January 1997, key Chechen leaders, particularly Maskhadov and Yandarbiyev, under whose command Khattab fought, have been building a deniability gap with Khattab. Consequently, Shamil Basayev emerged as Khattab's primary patron. The reason for this disengagement was Khattab's embarking on a major project -- organizing, training and preparing of a high quality terrorist force made of both Chechens and foreign Mujahedin for the conduct of spectacular terrorist strikes at the heart of Russia, as well as throughout the West. The threat, and possible conduct of such terrorist attack, could be used by Grozny in order to build pressure on Moscow to compromise in the then forthcoming negotiations with the newly established Chechen government. However, the Chechen leaders must not be identified as the instigators of the terrorism they are clearly benefitting from.
The late January 1997 presidential elections in Chechnya, and Maskhadov's inauguration as the president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in mid February, brought Chechnya as close to unilaterally declaring independence without burning all bridges to Moscow as possible. Grozny was convinced that the Muslim World would now rally to support Chechnya both financially and politically. To stress the Islamic factor, Maskhadov immediately went on Hajj to Saudi Arabia. During his stay in the Middle East, he made a concentrated effort to demonstrate his Muslim identity and win Arab support. It did not work. Maskhadov's Hajj proved futile because Arab states have remained too apprehensive of Russia, and too much in need of weapons and military assistance, to overtly support Chechens. Several Arab leaders explained this logic to Maskhadov in no uncertain terms. By the Spring of 1997, several Arab and Muslim governments quietly notified Grozny that with the Chechen people's "liberation struggle" completed and with no threat of war in sight, they could no longer openly support Chechen secessionism.
Indeed, returning from the Hajj, Maskhadov knew that he could not count on all out support from the Muslim World in dealings with Moscow. Moreover, he knew that Moscow also knew that. Still, Maskhadov remained committed to the maximalist objective of complete independence. "I fully intend building an independent state," he declared in late February. Hence, Grozny found itself at a disadvantage as negotiations with Moscow were becoming more complicated and challenging. By late March, Maskhadov conceded that the negotiations with Moscow "have reached a dead end." He further warned that the "political and economic blockade" imposed by Russia would have to be breached or else Chechnya would collapse. As a signal of the nature of the possible breakout, Maskhadov nominated Shamil Basayev as his first deputy.
Concurrently, Grozny was building up the "terrorist alternative" to concessions by the "moderate" Maskhadov in the form of an increasingly belligerent and outspoken Salman Raduyev. Starting mid January 1997, Raduyev was building a pressure campaign by promising a campaign of spectacular terrorism against Russia on April 21, the anniversary of Dudayev's assassination. "We are declaring April 21 a day of national revenge," Raduyev declared in late January. "At least three Russian towns will go up in smoke... Revenge is inevitable." The validity of Raduyev's threats was markedly enhanced in early April, when he was badly wounded when his car was blown just outside Grozny. His aides attributed the assassination bid to Russian intelligence, and vowed to intensify the terrorism campaign planned for April 21 as revenge for Raduyev's injuries.
In mid April, the highest authorities of the key terrorism sponsoring states authorized the use of their assets in Chechnya -- senior Mujahedin and specialized equipment -- in the forthcoming strikes in Russia. With Raduyev neutralized, Adam Deniyev, a close aide of Raduyev's, was put in command of the planned terrorism campaign. Meanwhile, Abu Movsayev, the chief of Chechnya's security organs, made political capital for Grozny by warning Moscow about the impending spate of terrorism. The ensuing security alert throughout Russia deterred the Chechens from activating their plans.
Instead, between late April and early May, the Chechens blew up two bombs in Armavir and Pyatigorsk in southern Russia, causing a few fatalities and injuries, as well as widespread damage. There were also several clashes between armed Chechens and Russian security forces in areas adjacent to Chechnya. These operations were a far cry from the promised wave of terrorism, but they proved that Chechen terrorism was still alive, and that a regional eruption of violence was a viable option. While denying any connection to the escalating terrorism, Chechen officials warned Moscow that unless they had "achievements" to show, it would be increasingly difficult for Grozny to restrain the building frustration and despair in Chechnya, as well as contain the ensuing radicalism and violence. Reinforcing Grozny's warning, Raduyev reemerged in early May and repeated is promises for an escalatory wave of terrorism. "The explosions in Armavir and Pyatigorsk were carried out on my personal order," he declared. "This is a new phase in the Russian-Chechen war." While Grozny continued to profusely condemn terrorism and even allege provocations by Russian intelligence, Basayev's continued patronage of Raduyev remained solid.
By now, Moscow and Grozny were negotiating the fixing of the major oil pipeline crossing Chechnya and the resumption of shipping oil from the Caspian Sea to Russia. In early June, as the pace of the oil negotiations was growing, Maskhadov sought to stress the Islamic identity of Chechnya in order to gain political support from the oil producing states of the Middle East. Hence, Maskhadov dissolved Chechnya's secular courts and left only Islamic tribunals, based on the Sharia, as the legitimate elements of the country's legal system.
Once again, increasingly dependent on Russian weapons supplies, the Arab World proved reluctant to take on Moscow. Hence, pressure through terrorism was once again the choice means. This time, however, official Grozny went to exceptional steps in order to build a gap of deniability. In mid June Maskhadov ordered the disbanding of all private armies, specifically mentioning Raduyev's forces as an objective. Under the decree, Raduyev would be permitted only to retain a personal guard force. Maskhadov offered that the rest of Raduyev's force join either the national guard or the largely ceremonial presidential guard.
In late June, an attempt was made on Khattab's life. He was driving a jeep near Benoy, some 70 kilometers south of the capital Grozny, when a remote-control land mine blew up seconds after the car had already passed it. Khattab was not hurt. This expertly built and deployed but belatedly activated bomb could have been a signal to Khattab -- a make-believe assassination attempt to enhance deniability.
Indeed, a marked escalation in the violence started immediately. This cycle of violence spread into nearby Dagestan. Chechen raiding parties planted mines and ambushed government vehicles. In early July seven Russian policemen were killed and 13 were injured near the town of Khasavyurt in Dagestan, near the Chechen border, when the truck they were traveling in was blown up.
In mid July, Russia and Chechnya agreed on the refurbishment of the pipeline that had been destroyed in the war. In a major concession to Grozny, Moscow agreed to pay for the project. That same day, masked gunmen opened fire on a Russian government car in the center of Grozny. Official Grozny denied there was any link between the pipeline deal signed only a few hours earlier and the shooting. Skirmishes, mining and bombing continued as the next phases of the Chechen-Russian negotiations were dragging.
Now it was Raduyev's turn. In late July, a powerful bomb exploded in Grozny, killing three people but missing Raduyev. A van filled with explosives was detonated by remote control as Raduyev's car was about to pass by. "They missed killing me by mere seconds," he said, blaming Moscow and its local allies. Seizing the moment, Raduyev also threatened to attack the oil pipeline, preventing its refurbishment or use, unless Moscow recognized Chechnya's independence. "Russia needs the pipeline, but we'll explode it," Raduyev said.
Meanwhile, Shamil Basayev resigned from the position of vice-premier of Chechnya because the Maskhadov government "failed to implement all my plans". He also expressed his regrets that Khattab was being driven out of Chechnya by the authorities. (However, at the this time, Khattab is yet to leave Chechnya.)
Since late August, 1997, two trends have dominated events in Chechnya: (1) Moscow is increasingly apprehensive about a growing penetration of the US into the Caucasus, in quest for oil and challenging Russia's vital interests. Moreover, the US is using conservative Arab regimes as conduits. (2) Official Grozny is demonstrating unprecedented self-confidence and affluence, including Maskhadov's early September declaration about the building of a new Capital city -- Dzhokar -- rather than attempting to rebuild the devastated Grozny without explaining the source of the funds. Moscow estimates that the money came from the Muslim World under US influence. These trends cast a long shadow over the negotiations on a permanent settlement scheduled to begin in Moscow in late September. Maskhadov was very optimistic about his ability to convince Yeltsin to sign a treaty acceptable to Grozny -- that is, an inter-state treaty recognizing Chechnya's independence.
At the same time, Maskhadov signaled Moscow that the resumption of war, including terrorism at the heart of Russia remains a viable option Grozny would not hesitate to employ. In mid September, he awarded medals to Shamil Basayev and over 100 other fighters all of whom participated in the 1995 terrorist raid on, and hostage taking in, Buddenovsk. In the ceremony, Maskhadov stressed that the raid was the turning point in the Chechens' war of independence. He suggested that such raids might resume if Moscow failed to deliver what Maskhadov considers to be the legitimate gains of the war and Moscow considered to be unacceptable secessionist demands.
By the late Fall of 1997, the Chechen leadership had all but given up on the negotiation process with Russia. Grozny did not have any specific problems other than that the latest round of talks with Moscow once again failed to produce any progress on resolving the political status of Chechnya to their satisfaction. Moscow would not commit itself to recognizing Chechnya's secession and independence. In the aftermath of late September's round of negotiations, Chechnya's first deputy premier, Movladi Udugov, asserted that Moscow's position could not be reconciled with Grozny's.
By the end of the month, Grozny signaled Moscow that Chechnya was considering itself to be an independent state. Chechnya expelled Russia's representatives in Grozny on a short notice, ostensibly over a disagreement on flight clearances through Russian airspace. That night, a column of about 20 vehicles carrying the Russian envoys drove out Grozny. The disputed flight paths are those frequently used for smuggling of drugs, weapons, and other contraband.
During the Fall, Chechnya continued to introduce both aspects of independence and characteristics of a Muslim State. At first Grozny announced the introduction of Chechen Passports. Subsequently, the Chechen government decreed that all women either working for the government or studying in higher institutes of education must wear traditional Muslim grab or risk losing their positions.
Grozny's open defiance peaked with the public executions in Grozny for they were used to stress Grozny's insistence on independence from Russia. In early September, the Chechens embarked on a program of public executions in Grozny that were played on Russian TV despite protests from Moscow. Grozny used these executions as a pretext for demonstrating the supremacy and validity of the Sharia law in Chechnya as well as the irrelevance of the Russian law. "I spit on Russia," Chechnya's Vice President Vakha Arsanov said in reaction to Russia's protests. "Russia means nothing to us, we are an independent state." A week later, a Chechen firing squad publicly executed another couple of convicts in defiance of Moscow's threats. As the shots were fired, the crowd shouted "Allah Akbar!" "It does not matter how much Russia shows its indignation," said Magomed Magomadov, Chechnya's deputy prosecutor general. "We are living in an independent state, we have our own Sharia courts, and we shall punish criminals according to Sharia law."
By mid October, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov announced that Grozny would agree to anything less than full independence irrespective of the impact of this position on the already shaky negotiations with Moscow. He added that a meeting of the Chechen leadership decided that all future contacts with Moscow would be identical to these with any other foreign country. "Chechnya is ready to discuss with Moscow the need to establish full-scale diplomatic relations of a friendly nature," Maskhadov's spokesman Kazbek Khadzhiyev said.
Then, in late October, 1997, Maskhadov intensified his campaign of audacity and brinkmanship, demanding greater presidential powers. He then reshuffled the Chechen government even as parliament failed to grant him the extra powers. Soon afterwards, Maskhadov issued a decree appointing Shamil Basayev Acting Premier for the duration of Maskhadov's trip to Turkey. Shamil Basayev had just resumed his post of First Deputy Premier. (Since Basayev had submitted his resignation from the post back in the Summer, Maskhadov refused to sign the decree on Basayev's resignation.) In addition, on Maskhadov's instructions, a special committee led by Deputy Premier Ruslan Gelayev was established in order to expedite the purging of the Chechen leadership. Reflecting Chechnya's real power structure, the committee was comprised of representatives of all of Chechnya's military departments and religious leaders.
In early December, President Aslan Maskhadov announced that he would transfer some of his authority as premier to First Vice Premier Shamil Basayev. Ziyavdi Aybuyev, secretary of state of the Chechen Government, explained that "Basayev will henceforth conduct sessions of the Cabinet of Ministers, examine correspondence received by the government and make decisions in its regard, administer the entire economic complex of the Chechen Republic, and issue decrees and directives pertaining to the activity of ministries, divisions, and departments that fall under the Cabinet of Ministers."
Meanwhile, it did not take long for the results of the committee's work be get clarified. On January 1, 1998, Maskhadov dismissed his cabinet and tasked Basayev with forming a new government with 22 ministers instead of the then 45. Maskhadov expected to remain both the president and prime minister of Chechnya. However, Basayev was increasing his powers and influence, and let it be known he preferred to become Chechnya's prime minister.
Maskhadov knows full well that Moscow considers Basayev a terrorist and would interpret his rise in power as an adversarial and belligerent action. And that is exactly what Maskhadov wants to signal Moscow.
Thus, the changes in the Chechen government reflect Grozny's anticipation for a crisis with Russia. "Russia has not met its commitments in respect of Chechnya so far, and nor will it do so in the future", Movladi Udugov said in early January 1998. Alluding to emerging national challenges or crises, he pointed out that a Sharia Security Committee will be set up to oversee meeting the new challenges facing Chechnya. "The Sharia Security Committee will become a major power-wielding body within the republic and will be guided in its activities only by Sharia laws and norms," Udugov explained.
Grozny's approach to confronting deadlocks in the negotiations with Moscow was clearly demonstrated on the night of December 22, 1997. A large Chechen-Dagestani terrorist force led by senior Arab Mujahedin attacked the tank battalion of the 136th motor rifle brigade of the 58th army of the Russian Army based in Buinaksk, Dagestan, some 100 kms from the Chechen border.
Moreover, predominantly Chechens launched several simultaneous diversionary attacks on the Chechen-Dagestani border. The key strikes were in such spots as Khasavyurt, Pervomayskoye, and the Kizlyar bridge over the River Terek that is considered a key infrastructure unit for the building of the oil pipeline in the Caucasus. The Chechen attackers were ordered to blow up the bridge. After the fighting, Russian sappers would find 15 kg of explosives, three howitzer shells, and three 100 meter spools of detonator cable near the bridge. Meanwhile, the nighttime operation continued with an attack on a police post at Pervomayskoye village. Five Chechen fighters were seized by the Dagestanis.
Significantly, Ameer Khattab personally commanded the main attack on Buinaksk. The report of the on-site Islamist commanders to the leadership on the operation states that the attack was carried out by "the foreign Mujahedin in Chechnya under the leadership of Ibn-ul-Khattab". Khattab's participation serves as an expression of the importance of the strike for Grozny and its allies.
According to the Islamists, the strike force was made of three platoons of Mujahedin fighters for a total of 115 fighters from Chechen, Ingush, Dagestani, Central Asian republics and Arab nationalities -- all of them Islamists. Many of the Arabs were veteran 'Afghans'. The Russians identified five Arab Mujahedin (Egyptians and Gulf Arabs), as well as three Mujahedin from each Tajikistan and Afghanistan. During the fighting, Russian intelligence intercepted radio communication in which commands were given in the Arabic, Chechen and Russian languages. Many of the Chechens were Akintsy Chechens from Dagestan. The Jihad Army of Dagestan, the organization that Raduyev would claim carried out the attack on Buinaksk, is a cover name for an Islamist force made predominantly of Akintsy Chechens originally trained by Raduyev himself in camps in central Chechnya.
The attack on Buinaksk was a highly professional job. Lengthy advance preparations, particularly collection of intelligence and reconnaissance preceded the strike. For several months before the strike, the local Russian troops had noticed that suspicious people were constantly hanging around the area where armored equipment was parked, some taking notes and pictures. Sentries took car registration numbers, but neither the police not the Interior Ministry came up with any incriminating data. The Russian intelligence failure was severe given the total surprise achieved by the Mujahedin.
The command echelons of the attack, about a dozen strong, arrived in the Buinaksk area a few days prior to the strike. The combat leadership was concentrated in the vicinity of Buinaksk during several days, with one or two terrorists arriving every day in a different infiltration road. They conducted last minute observations and then prepared for the arrival of the main force.
The main force arrived at the last minute. Despite official Grozny's repeated denials, the Islamist report states that the main strike forces "crossed the Chechen border and entered Dagestan (in Russian territory) in a number of buses and trucks." The vehicles converged on a point of forward organization and concealment in the village of Karamakhi, 30 km from Buinaksk and 150 km from the Chechen border. Half of the village population is Islamist (Wahhabi) and thus sympathetic to the Mujahedin. The village also served as a communication point with Chechnya. Mukhammed-Shafi Dzhangishiev, the leader of the Kavkaz Center, played a major role in the support system.
Significantly, all the Chechen-Dagestani combat detachments were under the command of Arabs. This was a cohesive force that had been trained in the special terrorist and combat training camps under Khattab and Raduyev. In preparations for the strike, all the attackers were especially drilled by Khattab and his close aides -- mostly Jordanians, Egyptians, and Gulf Arabs -- in three training centers on the territory of Chechnya.
The main force arrived at Buinaksk around midnight of 21/22 December. The terrorists arrived in several KamAZ trucks and a few buses, taking the military by surprise. They were equipped with assault rifles, machine-guns and rocket launchers (RPGs). They broke into a few small groups that surrounded and sealed off the camp. Then, the terrorists opened up heavy fire from their assault rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers for two hours. Around 2 a.m., the Mujahedin platoons launched a full-scale raid into the Russian base.
At the time of the attack on Buinaksk, there were only 25 Russian soldiers and officers on duty at the vehicle area. Surprised and shocked, there was little they could do against the lightening strike. Thus, within five minutes, the Mujahedin were in control of the parking and storage where, according to the Islamist report, there were about 300 Army vehicles, the majority of which were some 50 T-72 tanks and armored personnel carriers (BMPs). The Mujahedin claimed that they had attempted to drive some of the tanks away, but were unable to do so because their batteries had been removed. Instead, the Mujahedin began to blow up and burn vehicles.
According to the Islamist report, the Mujahedin destroyed "each and every one of the 300 vehicles, including over 50 brand new Russian T-72 battle tanks. They also destroyed the weapons stores of the base in addition to burning over 260,000kg of fuel." The actual damage caused was much smaller. Four tanks were destroyed -- two by the terrorists' RPGs and two from secondary explosions -- as were two BMPs and two other vehicles. In addition, five tanks, six armoured personnel carriers and four trucks were damaged. The terrorists also destroyed four cisterns of lubricants.
More significant was the damage inflicted on the civilian population. Within a few hours after their attack, the terrorists sabotaged and disabled all the local power substations. They succeeded to completely cut off electricity supplies to the town of Buinaksk. By the time the terrorists withdrew, they left behind the two power substations on fire, all power supply cut, and Buinaksk under the cover of darkness.
The losses on both sides were relatively low. According to the Russian data, three -- two citizens and a paramilitary guard -- were killed and thirteen -- six servicemen, one militiaman, one paramilitary guard, and five civilians -- were wounded during the attack. There is no reliable data about the losses incurred by the Mujahedin because they carried most of their wounded and dead with them. The Islamist report acknowledges that two Egyptian Mujahedin -- commander Abu Bakr Aqeedah and Abu Ammar, were killed. Three Mujahedin, including Khattab himself, were injured. According to Russian intelligence, Khattab was seriously wounded during the attack, while the Islamist report insists he was only slightly wounded. Russian sources also note that the Chechens buried the bodies of around 20 people involved in the attack in the settlement of Zandag.
The Mujahedin left Buinaksk in the predawn hours riding the vehicles they came with. They drove straight toward the border in a convoy. By now, however, there was intense activity of the Russian security forces throughout the area. Just before 5 a.m., the Mujahedin convoy arrived near the village of Dylym where it divided into two groups.
About fifty terrorists, apparently including some of the commanders and wounded, seized a bus. Using the passengers as a shield, they drove freely through the security forces' checkpoints all the way to the Chechen border. There, the Mujahedin released their hostages and vanished into Chechnya.
Meanwhile, MVD units tried to block the other Mujahedin group that was traveling in a large KamAZ truck in the Kazbekovskiy Rayon. However, the Mujahedin succeeded to reach the Dagestani village of Almak, on the border with Chechnya, where the situation complicated. On the outskirts of the village, the Mujahedin abandoned and burned the truck. They radioed their headquarters, and, speaking in Chechen, asked for transport. Meanwhile, they took four hostages -- two policemen and two local residents. In the morning hours, they seized a bus and along with their hostages drove toward Chechnya. A few kilometers from the border, they abandoned the bus, released the hostages and started walking toward Chechnya.
It was there, around midday, that the security forces caught up with the terrorists as they were walking in a canyon. A firefight erupted and continued for between three and four hours. Two Mujahedin and one policeman were killed.
By now, Chechen forces were becoming involved in supporting the raiders. Just as the security forces were closing in on the trapped terrorists, a force of 20 Chechens opened fire on a guard post near the railway bridge near Kizlyar. One of the guards was killed in the attack. This Chechen force deliberately moved in from Chechnya in order to help relieve their surrounded comrades. However, they advanced straight into the main body of the security forces that turned around and moved in on the advancing Chechens. Five of these Chehcens were cornered, isolated from the main force, and ultimately surrendered to the Dagestani authorities. Among them was Magomed Khambiyev -- a brigadier general in Raduyev's General Dudayev's Army. Meanwhile, the terrorist force in the canyon exploited the confusion and complications and to hide. They managed to flee under the cover of darkness and thick fog in the canyon, and walk into Chechnya.
The incident demonstrated the close relations and operational cooperation between the Islamist organs in Chechnya and Dagestan. These relationships go beyond ideological convictions, for there are also elaborate clan and family ties. These even extend to the foreign Mujahedin. For example, one of Khattab's wives lives in the settlement of Kara-Makhi in Dagestan.
While official Grozny disassociated itself from the attack and even insisted that no terrorist crossed the Chechen border in either direction, Raduyev was more circumspect concerning taking credit for the strike.
Raduyev announced that the raid on Buinaksk was carried out by the "Jihad Army of Dagestan". "Mujahedin troops united with the Dagestani Jihad movement are likely to have staged the attack, since they are opposed to the presence of [Russian] occupational forces [on their territory]," Raduyev explained. He did not try to conceal his support for and endorsement of the terrorist strike. "In the event the reports on destroying the armored equipment are confirmed, the [Dagestani] servicemen who hit the targets will be awarded military decorations of the Dudayev Army," Raduyev added.
At the same time, Raduyev stressed that none of the fighters of "General Dudayev's Army" he commands was in Dagestan. He had not given the order to attack Buinaksk. He also reiterated that the attacking Mujahedin of the Dagestani Jihad organization are "friendly" to his forces. Both armies, Raduyev emphasized, "do not intend to tolerate the presence of occupation troops in Dagestan." Moreover, Raduyev acknowledged that some Dagestani Mujahedin have been trained by his men, and that both entities had an agreement on mutual assistance.
The terrorist strikes of late December 1997 should not be considered an isolated case. On the contrary, they were the opening shots in an escalation of the Caucasian Jihad that is already unfolding. The Chechens are trying to draw all other separatist and Islamist movements throughout the region into an "All Caucasian" Jihad and armed conflict with Russia.
Having given up on Russia's granting independence now, Grozny has resolved to breakout of the deadlocked diplomatic process. However, Grozny is determined to do so in a way that Russia will be blamed for the collapse of the peace process and the resumption of hostilities. By then, Grozny is determined to be but a component of a regional eruption so that Russia will not be able to concentrate the forces to crush the Chechens.
Thus, it is in the vested interest of Grozny to turn the entire North Caucasus into a hotbed of tension and ultimately terroristic Jihad. As the recent attack demonstrated, Grozny's intentions to spread the armed conflict to the neighboring republics, particularly Dagestan, are already planned. Grozny is convinced it can rely on the support of the Akkin Chechens living in Dagestan in areas bordering on Chechnya in the first round of escalatory terrorism. The experience of late December has proven Grozny right. The Chechen commanders seem to have full confidence in their ability to drag Dagestan into the armed conflict, thus turning it into the "eastern springboard" for Chechen expansion.
Meanwhile, Grozny is openly touting the idea of creating a single Muslim state in the North Caucasus, in which Chechnya will hold a leadership position. The next phase is turning Dagestan into an eastern bridgehead for exacerbating tension and crisis with Russia. Ultimately, however, Grozny is interested in controlling the Dagestani territory all the way to the Caspian Sea. Aslan Maskhadov considers access to the Caspian Sea to be "vitally necessary for Ichkeria". In order to reduce Russia's ability to react to the mounting challenge, Chechnya is striving to escalate the destabilizing of the North Caucasus as a whole.
Grozny also expressed interest in emerging on to the Black Sea via Georgia and Abkhazia. However, in this case, a pragmatic Grozny is looking for non-violent methods such as capitalizing on the Chechens' strong relations with the Abkhaz rebels. The Chechens also offer help for virtually any Muslim separatist-minded grouping that exists in the entire North Caucasus region.
These are not idle pontifications. The report by the Islamist emissaries in Chechnya makes no secret of the Mujahedin's commitment to the escalation of fighting. "Hundreds of Mujahedin from the surrounding Russian regions are arriving at the base of the Mujahedin. We are opening a number of training camps in order to train these Mujahedin and, InshaAllah, we hope to teach the Russians another lesson in the approaching Summer of 1998, should they not stop their harassment of the Muslims."
However, concurrent events suggest that the Chechens may opt to strike out even before the Summer. For example, in late December 1997, Saratov police arrested three armed Chechens for plotting to carry out a terrorist attack in the city. When arrested, they were carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a pistol, a bomb equipped with remote-control devices and two detonators. The three Chechens were arrested while secretly surveying the area around a central food market and apparently planning to plant a bomb there. They resisted arrest and one of them was wounded in the brief fight.
Moscow is most apprehensive about these strategic developments. "Someone apparently intends to push Russia into a new Caucasian war," Russian officials explained. "The attack on Buinaksk is a precursor of this war." They believe that from a geo-political perspective, the escalatory potential even in Dagestan alone "represents the biggest threat to the integrity of the Russian State since World War II."
With Dagestan controlling two thirds of the Russian access to the Caspian Sea coastline, its transformation into a Chechnya-like status will push Russia's southern border 400 km to the north and marginalize Russia's influence in a strategically and economically crucial region. Consequently, Russia's borders with the increasingly radicalized and volatile Muslim World will move right up to the Volga region -- to Astrakhan and Kalmykia -- namely, to the heart of the country. And the Muslim population of these regions cannot be expected to prove immune to Islamist and separatist incitement with all dire ramifications. Meanwhile, the Caspian Sea would basically turn into a Turkish-Muslim sea. Consequently, Russia's influence on the entire Caucasus era chain would be marginalized. And Russia's effective disappearance from involvement in the Caspian Sea basin would trigger the reduction of Russia's posture in Central Asia as well. These developments are unacceptable for Moscow.
Meanwhile, the Islamists and their sponsors do not conceal their own aspirations. The Islamists' report states that the main reasons for the Buinaksk raid were strategic and regional. "Until now, the Russian Government does not, and nor does it have any intention to, recognize Chechnya as an independent country." This is because Russia feels secure in its hold over the rest of the North Caucasus region. "The Russian Government has been running a similar colonialist harassment campaign upon the other two Muslim nations in the Caucasus as well, namely Dagestan and Inguishetia." Only the eviction of Russia from the entire Muslim area can ensure independence for the entire Muslim population. In addition, the Islamists note that there was also a personal motive in the attack. The self-confident Russians "even had the courage to carry out two assassination attempts of the Mujahedin leadership inside Chechnya itself."
Significantly, without mentioning the terrorists' raid, the official Tehran media urged Moscow to grant independence to the entire "independence-seeking North Caucasus region" virtually at the same time. "The conflict, the Caucasus region's historical struggle against Russian hegemony, which has been going on for 400 years, cannot linger on for ever," one article pointed out. Tehran argues that Moscow should immediately "realize that there is no other way but to end the dispute and grant Chechnya an outright independence."
Again, unfolding activities suggest confidence in the Muslim World in the near term realization of this scenario. Even before the formal political decision on the future of the region, several states have jointly embarked on active economic maneuvering with outright political ramifications. Most important is the effort, blessed by the US and the UK, to create a so-called Caucasian common market that will concentrate on energy development while excluding Russia from its activities. This effort is developing since the Fall of 1997, and is supported by all the states of the Transcaucasus region except Armenia, by major Western oil corporations, and by organizations lobbying their interests, both in the United States and Britain. Moscow is most alarmed by the establishment of a Caucasian-American chamber of commerce because it is led by Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev -- a leader of a Chechen criminal grouping in Moscow in the early 1990s and subsequently First Deputy Prime Minister in Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev's Government in Chechnya.
Moscow also learned that back in October 1997, a group of prominent businessmen and politicians from Britain, Pakistan, and Hong Kong, signed a protocol of intent regarding the establishment of a Transcaucasian energy company with Aslan Maskhadov as if he was the President of a sovereign state. According to the agreement Chechnya would participate in the project by providing the emerging consortium with a right to rent part of the Baku-Grozny-Novorosiisk oil pipeline with attached enterprises and infrastructure.
Concurrently, aspirant regional powers are making moves in the security and oil realm suggesting confidence in the imminent implementations of their designs. Pakistan is reinforcing the ISI-controlled Afghan security detachments in Azerbaijan. Already in late 1993 and early 1994, the ISI deployed several hundreds strong Hizb-i-Islami forces to Azerbaijan to help fight the Armenians and guard the oil pipelines. Meanwhile, Turkey is planning on taking over parts of the US Air Base at Incirlik that is being evacuated. The new Turkish forces will provide the security of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline through both stationary and mobile forces.
Thus, Moscow believes, and not without reason, that all of these activities and preparations make sense only in case Russian influence and presence in the Caucasus is drastically reduced. A flare-up of Islamist terrorism and subversion is a prime instrument to achieve this end.
And Moscow has very good reasons to be apprehensive. On January 6, 1998, Pyotr Marchenko, a plenipotentiary representative of the Russian President in Adygei, Dagestan, Kabardin-Balkaria and Karachai-Circassia and also in Stavropol Territory, noted that the Russian security services have accumulated evidence that "the Northern Caucasus is a region of special and enhanced interest for foreign secret services" as well as the terrorist organizations they sponsor. He disclosed that the security services " had detained and were investigating cases of a number of citizens from the West and the Middle East, who took part in reconnaissance and sabotage operations. These operations are aimed at destabilising the situation and, in particular in Dagestan, at kindling internecine strife." The intelligence operatives exposed did not limit themselves to collection of data about Russia or other regional activities. "Overseas secret services," Marchenko stressed, "all but openly organize, train and equip militants at semi-clandestine centers, which is not always actively resisted in the localities." According to Marchenko, the late December 1997 terrorist strike in Buinaksk "had been provoked by precisely such militants."
On January 8, Interior Minister Anatoliy Kulikov blamed the Chechens for the late December raid and observed that Russia had "the right to deliver preventive strikes against bases of bandits, wherever they are located, including the territory of Chechnya." Even though senior Russian officials distanced themselves from Kulikov, Chechen leaders led by Shamil Basayev seized on these comments to escalate their struggle with Moscow in both words and deeds. Assuming his position as acting Prime Minister, Basayev was quick to capitalize on Kulikov's warning as an excuse for defining Grozny's priorities vis-a-vis Russia.
Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Movladi Udugov observed that "it is impossible to trust Russian politicians, even if important documents are signed at the highest level." He warned that Grozny would consider any unilateral use of force by Russia as the resumption of "a full scale war". Basayev elaborated on the prospects of war and threatened to strike blows "at the places all over the Russian Federation where the military men are concentrated."
Urgent efforts by Moscow to calm down the mounting crisis through economic incentives proved futile. Nevertheless, Ramazan Abdulatipov, a Russian Deputy Prime Minister, led a delegation to Grozny for talks with Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev. On January 10, Abdulatipov reported a "serious breakthrough" in Russian-Chechen relations and that Russian and Chechen officials agreed to pool funds to revive Chechnya's economy.
But all these efforts were to no avail. Starting January 9, thousands of Chechen troops began advancing to the border with Russia. Meanwhile, Udugov accused Moscow of moving large forces toward the Chechen border. He noted that Maskhadov had met with his field commanders already on January 8 and decided to deploy additional patrols along the border. Neither the subsequent Russian denials of force movements near the Dagestan-Chechnya border, nor the economic concessions, have had any impact on Grozny. The military build-up and heightened readiness of the Chechen forces continue.
The one day inspection tour by General Anatoliy Kvashnin, Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, to Dagestan on January 11 did not help. Kvashnin was accompanied by the Chief-of-Operations and the chiefs of all General Staff departments. Moreover, General Kvashnin and his delegation visited Buinaksk and the 136th Motorized Brigade. "There is no need at present to reinforce the federal contingent in Dagestan," Kvashnin told RIA Novosti. "As the activities of federal and local law-enforcement bodies need coordination in the entire republic and every particular area bordering on Chechnya, a united control network will soon be introduced." Grozny ignored these assurances as well.
Thus, by early January 1998, the Chechen leadership is using Moscow's reaction to the Mujahedin's strike in Buinaksk as a pretext to heighten anxiety. Basayev's threats to launch terrorist strikes into the heart of Russia are aimed to blackmail Moscow into granting concessions Grozny could not have achieved through normal negotiations. But these are not empty threats, for the elaborate terrorist infrastructure nurtured by Basayev and his Islamist allies is ready to strike out if Moscow fails to capitulate.
Meanwhile, Moscow is determined to resolutely fight the escalation and intensification of Islamist terrorism in the Caucasus. Hence, resolving the Chechen crisis thus becomes a major challenge and urgent necessity. Given the growing economic and strategic importance of the Caucasus, the future of Chechnya is more than a bilateral issue. Thus, a new struggle for the control of the Caucasus and their rich oil reserves is escalating. And as the Moscow-Grozny negotiations over oil and political issues become even more crucial, given their ramifications for Russia's own vital interests, the expediency of using Islamist terrorism, violence and subversion in order to exert additional pressure on Moscow will only increase. Determined to consolidate their control over the strategically and economically crucial Caucasus, the Islamists and their sponsoring states have already resolved to escalate their terroristic Jihad to achieve what no negotiations can deliver. And herein lies the quintessence of the grim prospects for the Caucasus.
1. Yossef Bodansky is the Director of the Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare of the U.S. Congress, as well as the World Terrorism Analyst with the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies (Houston TX). He is a contributing editor of Defense and Foreign Affairs; Strategic Policy, the author of three books (Target America, Terror, and Crisis in Korea), several book chapters, and numerous articles in several periodicals including Global Affairs, JANE's Defence Weekly,Defense and Foreign Affairs; Strategic Policy, Business Week. In the 1980s, he acted as a senior consultant for the Department of Defense and the Department of State.
The opinions expressed in these articles are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, U.S. Congress, or any other branch of the U.S. Government.