Circling the Lion's Den

The role of Al-Qaeda in the North Caucasus

Since the nineties the Federal Security Service (FSB) was keen to find any signs of foreigners in the war in Chechnya. The explosions in Moscow in 1999, the 2002 hostage crisis in the Moscow theatre and the Beslan school tragedy in 2004 all seemed to support FSB claims that foreigners Al-Qaeda in particular were behind these attacks. The FSB cited the fact that some foreigners from the Middle East had been killed in the region. But was this sufficient to say that Russia faced Al-Qaeda in the North Caucasus?

From the beginning in September 1999 the Second Chechen War was presented by the Russian authorities as a response not only to the incursion by Chechen militants into Dagestan in that summer, but also to the bombing of buildings in Volgodansk, Buynaksk and Moscow in summer-autumn of 1999. In October 1999 it was officially classified as a counterterrorism operation with a security regime imposed in the region which was ended only in April of 2009.

But the fierce struggle in Chechnya was not a common front against Al-Qaeda. While there were a few foreigners there and some international money, the North Caucasus did not become a base for international terrorism. The reason for this lies within the Jihadist movement itself.

The collapse of the Afghan regime in 1992 was soon followed by the government of neighboring Pakistan ordering the closure of Arab mujahideen offices in the country. Instead of coming to the former Soviet Union, as some had expected, most of the Arabs who formed the core of Al-Qaeda went to Bosnia.

The first mujahideen appeared in Bosnia almost right after the Bosnian Serbs, supported by Belgrade, had started to revolt against the self-proclaimed Bosnian Muslim government. According to the American expert Evan Kohlmann, the Saudi Sheikh Abu Abdel Aziz (known as Barbaros due to his fiery-red beard) became the leader of the Mujahideen in Bosnia. An Afghanistan veteran, he had the status of emir, or commander. From the beginning Abu Abdel Aziz told his supporters in Bosnia that their goal was to establish a base for operations in Europe against Al-Qaeda's true enemy, the United States.

This special role for Bosnia was further confirmed by the choice of ringleaders al-Qaeda sent to the region. The nationality question became crucial if the Saudis were responsible for financing operations, North-Africans, especially Egyptians, were in charge of the ideology of permanent jihad. In most cases the very appearance of Egyptians preceded this change of direction of the jihadist movement.

In Bosnia Egyptians played a crucial role in jihad. The militant Egyptian Shaykh Anwar Shaaban became political leader and chief spokesman for foreign jihadis in Bosnia. Later he was to become the Imam of the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, where he had been granted political asylum after calling for the overthrow of the secular government of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Three of the other five leaders of the Bosnian mujahideen in Bosnia were Egyptians, followers of the blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman whose terrorist organization, Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, had repeatedly tried to kill Egyptian president Mubarak. In 1993, when the World Trade Center was bombed for the first time, one of the main conspirators was Omar Abdel-Rahman, who then happened to be in the USA raising money for Bosnia. He was eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison.

In 1995-6, when the Bosnian conflict was over, and the Bosnian authorities, under pressure from the international community, started expelling the mujahideen, it seemed likely that many fighters would end up in Chechnya. But that never happened. The Arabs who did decide to go to the North Caucasus were to be very different.

In Chechnya there were almost no mujahideen leaders from North Africa. Those who came from abroad were mostly from Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The command positions in Chechnya were filled by Saudis. The most prominent Arab fighter in Chechnya was Samir Saleh Abdullah Al-Suwailem, known as Emir Khattab (The black emir), who was poisoned by the FSB in March 2002. He was thought to be from Jordan, but after his death it emerged that he was born in Saudi Arabia to an Arab father and a Circassian mother.

He was succeeded by the Saudi Abu al-Walid, who in turn was killed in April 2004. Another leader was Abu Omar al-Seif, a Saudi given a role of the mujahideens spiritual leader, until his death in December 2005. Besides the Saudis, there was a group of mujahideen fighters from Jordan, with the most prominent among them being Abu Hafs al-Urduni, the personal envoy of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, until his death in November 2006. A few North-Africans who went to Chechnya were tasked with training Saudi commanders on how to use communications equipment and computers.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FSB stated that Chechnya was another front in the war against Al-Qaeda, claiming that the most horrible acts of terrorism were financed by Arabs. Emir Khattab and Abu Al-Walid were accused of organising the apartment bombings in Moscow in September 1999. Abu Al-Walid was said to have received US $4.5m for a terrorist attack on the Moscow metro in 2004. In October 2004 the FSB spokesman in the North Caucasus claimed Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood were the main reason for ongoing hostilities in Chechnya.

But the tactics used by terrorists in Chechnya were different to those practiced in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most astonishing acts carried out by terrorists on Russian soil were not suicide bombings but hostage takings: the hospital in Budennovsk in 1995, the village Pervomayskoye in 1996, the Moscow theatre in 2002, and the Beslan school in 2004.

In the early 2000s the terrorists did use suicide bombers, in Chechnya as well as in Moscow. But the method was different from that used by Al-Qaeda: in Russia it was female suicide bombers who were primarily used, and would-be martyrs were never trained or used in pairs, as was common practice for Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One possible explanation might be that the most horrible terrorist attacks were carried out not by the Arab mujahideen but by local rebels. For example, hostage takings were planned by famous Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev; the Karachaevo-Circassian Jamaat was behind the apartment bombings in Moscow in 1999, and the very same Jamaat organized the explosions in the Moscow Metro in 2004. The use of female shahidas (so-called black widows) appears to be one of Basayev's tactics: if the first female Palestinian suicide bomber, Wafa Idris, blew herself up in Jerusalem in January 2002, then the first female Chechen suicide bomber, Khava Barayeva, drove a truck filled with explosives into a military camp in Alkhan-Yurt in June of 2000.

Supporters of the blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman showed no interest in attacking Russian citizens even on Egyptian soil. On 17 November 1997 a group of militants shot dead dozens of foreign tourists at the Deir el-Bahri archeological site near Luxor, close to one of Egypt's main tourist attractions the mortuary temple of the 18th-dynasty female pharaoh Hatshepsut. Fifty-nine foreign tourists were killed: 36 Swiss, ten Japanese, six British, four Germans, one French, two Colombian, and one dual-national Bulgarian/British. But the terrorists had no intention of killing Russians.

There are many explanations for why Egyptians and Al-Qaeda as a whole have not become interested in the Chechen war. It was certainly not because of the border, since Russian border troops didnt impede al-Qaedas main ideologue and second in command, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, from travelling to Dagestan in December 1996. However, he was arrested with his two Arab foot soldiers and found guilty of entering Russia without a visa. All three were released in May 1997 for reasons unknown. Given the fact of Zawahiri's visit to Dagestan, it was not the lack of the initial interest to the region.

The main obstacle was the strong position and authority of local warlords such as Shamil Basayev.

In June 1995 Basayev, a ruthless and able 30-year old Chechen commander, changed the face of the Chechen conflict when he led a group of 80-150 Chechens which attacked the town Budennovsk in south Russia, some 70 miles north of the border of Chechnya. The rebels stormed the police station, city hall and government offices and took between 1,500 and 1,800 people hostage in Budennovsks hospital, including children and pregnant women.

The brutal terrorist attack and disastrous attempt to storm the hospital - dozens of hostages were killed- forced Victor Chernomyrdin, then Russian prime minister, to call Basyaev directly. Basayev's group, using 120 volunteer hostages including journalists and MPs as cover, was allowed to depart for Chechnya, carrying with them the corpses of 11 dead militants in a special freezer truck. In turn Chernomyrdin promised to start official negotiations with Chechen rebels. According to independent estimates, 166 hostages were killed during the crisis.

Soon afterwards Moscow concluded an autonomy deal with Chechen leaders. The attack turned Basayev into Russias most-wanted terrorist and a sort of national hero for Chechens.

By this time Emir Khattab, the future leader of the Arab mujahideen in Chechnya, had only just arrived in the region. He first posed as a TV reporter, but soon abandoned his journalist's cover to take part in ambushes on Russian army columns. In April 1996 he became famous for his ambush of a large armored column in a narrow gorge near Yaryshmardy village in the Argun valley, where he killed up to 100 soldiers and burned dozens of armored vehicles.

But Khattab's popularity never competed with that of Basayev. In 1999 Khattab's image was allowed to be used in collecting money abroad, but the rebels command and control structures were always in the hands of the Chechens. Shamil Basayev tolerated Arabs on Chechen soil, but only in junior positions.

The Arabs in Chechnya were given even less of a free-hand in operations than that accorded the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, although Khattab was allowed to supervise a training camp, known as Khattab's camp.

If Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s needed the mujahideen's fighting spirit, military expertise and financing, a decade later the Chechens were interested only in their money. Khattabs poisoning in March 2002 didn't strengthen the positions of the Arabs in Chechnya because all successive Arabs who went on to take over the mujahideen after Khattab lacked his popularity. In the early 2000s the Arabs had almost lost all interest in Chechnya because of the Iraq war. According to Reuven Paz, director of the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements (PRISM), the main turning point was in 2003 with the start of the Iraqi Jihadi insurgency. The focus on Iraq as an alternative arena for Afghanistan, caused Al-Qaeda to lose interest in the Chechen struggle, and in Russia as a significant target. Arab volunteers headed to Iraq and stopped going to Chechnya. Some young Saudi Jihadi scholars such as Yousef Uyeri tried to see the Chechen struggle as part of global Jihad, and supporters of global Jihad circulated videos from Chechnya on Jihadi web sites. But in truth, Chechnya had become marginal in al-Qaedas strategy.

In the meantime, the authority of Chechen commanders by the mid-2000s was considered so high, that militant groups from other regions of the North Caucasus started to ask the Chechens for military guidance. In June 2004 Basayev helped local rebels in Ingushetia organize a raid on the republics capital. The operation was a significant insurgent success they simultaneously attacked the police office, FSB building and some military bases killing 62 servicemen stealing more than 1,500 guns.

In September 2004 Basayev was behind the hostage taking in the Beslan school, carried out mostly by militants from Ingushetia. And in October 2005 Basayev stepped in as military adviser for the attack on Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. In 2005 the so-called Caucasian Front of the Armed Forces of the Chechen Republic was created to coordinate militants across the entire North Caucasus.

By July 10, 2006, when Basayev was eventually killed by an explosion in Ingushetia, he was the undisputed leader for the all militant groups of the North Caucasus.

Another reason for the limited influence of the Arab mujahideen was that in the early 2000s Chechen rebels didnt share the Arab commitment to permanent apocalyptic jihad. Unlike the mujahideen in Bosnia, the rebels in the North Caucasus didn't consider their war as a part of the universal struggle against the West.

Al-Qaeda does wield ideological and financial influence there, but its influence is not decisive. Basayev and his camp were purely anti-Russian, and the Chechens didn't attack Western targets like terrorist groups infiltrated by Al-Qaeda throughout the world, says Adam Dolnik, the director of Research Programs and Senior Fellow of the Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention (CTCP) at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Only when Chechens found themselves close to defeat in the mid-2000s, did they show readiness to support a strictly Islamist agenda. In 2003 Basayev adopted the title of Emir Abdallah Shamil Abu-Idris and quotes from the Quran started to precede his statements on terrorist websites. In October 2007 Doku Umarov, who succeeded Sheikh Abdul Halim Sadulayev (killed in June 2006) as president of the self-proclaimed Chechen republic of Ichkeria, proclaimed the Caucasus Emirate and declared himself its Amir, thereby converting the Chechen Republic into a vilayat (province) of the emirate. In 2007 an Egyptian jihadist Mahmud Muhammad Shaaban (Amir Seif al-Islam), present in Chechnya since the mid-1990s, was appointed the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ichkeria-Chechnya.

In the late 2000s militant movements in the North Caucasus ceased to be controlled by the Chechens: the Ingush Akhmed Yevloyev (nome de guerre Amir Magas) captured by the Russian FSB on June 9, 2010) was appointed as the commander of the main military structure of the Imarate - the Caucasian front - and the Karbardian, Anzor Astemirov (Amir Sayfulla), who led the ill-prepared militant attack on Nalchik in 2005 in which 92 rebels, 12 civilians and 35 policemen were killed - became the movements main ideologue (he was killed in May 2009).

On February 2, 2010 Mahmud Muhammad Shaaban was killed in a shootout in the Botlikh district of Dagestan. The FSB called him an Al-Qaeda envoy, sent to Dagestan by Doku Umarov in autumn 2009 to oversee Dagestan's jihadis. However, his assassination did nothing to halt the spiraling violence in this republic. The wave of terrorist attacks of 2010, that originated in Dagestan, now include the double suicide bombings in the Moscow subway on March 29, organized by a Dagestan based terrorist cell, and the September 5 attack, in which a suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into a military camp of the 136th Motorized Brigade outside the town of Buynaksk (four soldiers were killed and 35 wounded).

Agentura.Ru September 13, 2010