Moscow's muddled objectives
- Moscow's muddled objectives
By B Raman
Chechnya in Russia continues to bleed, with no respite from the scourge of
pan-Islamic terrorism. At least 80 persons are reported to have died on or
after December 27, 2002, when two vehicles filled with a large quantity of
explosives rammed into a highly protected building in the Chechen capital of
Grozny, which housed the headquarters of the provincial government.
Chechnya's Moscow-nominated President, former mufti (Muslim scholar) Akhmed
Kadyrov, and Prime Minister Mikhail Babyche were reportedly not in the
building when the strike took place. The incident has been described as a
case of suicide bombing.
Coming as it does within two months of the October capture of a theater in
Moscow with over 700 spectators inside by a group of about 50 Chechen
terrorists, which was terminated by the Russian security agencies with heavy
civilian casualties, the Grozny attack highlights the ground reality that
the morale and motivation of the Chechen terrorists remain undiluted despite
the disastrous failure of their Moscow operation of October, and that the
Russian security agencies are nowhere near getting the better of the ground
situation in Chechnya.
Since July, 2002, there has been speculation in Grozny about the plans of
the group of foreign mercenaries led by Abu al-Valid, who succeeded Samir
Saleh Abdullah Al-Suwailem, alias Ibn-ul-Khattab (killed in April, 2002), as
the head of the mercenary force, to carry out a major strike against the
provincial government headquarters in Grozny and the local railway lines.
Pravda, the Russian daily, referred to this in its online edition of July 8,
2002. The fact that the terrorists were able to carry out the strike despite
this indicates that either security outside the building was lax or that
strict security could not prevent the terrorists from penetrating the
protected area, possibly with the help of accomplices in the government
security set-up. In the past, too, there have been instances of Chechen
policemen, sympathetic to the terrorists, facilitating their operations.
If it is finally established that this was a suicide strike, this is the
most serious act of suicide terrorism since it made its appearance in
Chechnya in June 2000 under the influence of Osama bin Laden's International
Islamic Front, (IIF) formed in Kandahar in Afghanistan in 1998. It may be
recalled that in India's Jammu and Kashmir, too, suicide terrorism made its
appearance for the first time only in 1999 after the Pakistani pan-Islamic
organizations joined the IIF in 1998.
No organization has so far claimed responsibility for the Grozny incident.
The pro-independence Chechen groups are reported to have denied any
responsibility for it. The pan-Islamic elements have been silent. Unless
some of those who participated in the conspiracy are arrested by the Russian
authorities and interrogated, it is going to be difficult for them to
determine which of the innumerable terrorist groups in Chechnya carried out
A peculiar characteristic of the Chechen situation is that there is hardly
any distinct, identifiable organization. There are many warlords heading
groups of people owing allegiance to them, but hardly any organization with
a personality, a clearly explained objective and typical modus operandi of
its own. This renders an analysis of the situation quite difficult. The
dramatis personae can be divided into the following two groups.
Those fighting for national independence for Chechnya, who claim to have no
affinity with the Islamic extremists and do not call for an Islamic state.
Prominent in this category are Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected as the
president of the Republic in February 1997, but was subsequently deposed by
Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his closest supporters, like the
former foreign minister Ilias Ahmadov, with suspected links to US
intelligence, former vice premier Ahmed Zakayev, with suspected links to
European intelligence, whom the Russians unsuccessfully tried to get
extradited from Denmark after the October terrorist incident in Moscow, and
Movladi Udugov, former Information Minister, who reportedly runs many of the
anti-Moscow Chechen websites using US-based servers. All of them are
generally critical of the Islamic terrorist groups, but consistent in their
demand for an independent Chechen state. However, they are reportedly
prepared to give another try to the agreement worked out in 1996 under
former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, under which Moscow gave considerable
autonomy for Chechnya, with a decision on its demand for independence
deferred to a later date. This agreement collapsed in 1999 when the
pan-Islamic terrorists based in Chechnya raided Dagestan and organized a
series of terrorist strikes in Moscow and other non-Chechen cities.
Those fighting for an independent Islamic state to be ruled under Sharia
law, as the first step towards the formation of an Islamic caliphate
consisting of Chechnya and Dagestan. Prominent in this category are Shamil
Basayev (who recently died in Russian custody), a former Russian army and
military intelligence (GRU) officer who projects himself as the "Islamic Che
Guevara", Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who reportedly operates from Qatar, Salman
Raduyev and Abu al-Valid.
The various pan-Islamic terrorist groups are estimated to have a total
strength of about 6,000, including a large number of foreign mercenaries.
There are widely varying estimates of the strength of the foreign
mercenaries, ranging between 200 (Western estimate) and 1,100 (Moscow's).
The foreign mercenaries, many of them trained by the US Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) during the first Afghan war of the 1980s through Pakistan's
Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for use against Soviet troops, come from
countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates,
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, the Lebanon, Indonesia and China (Xinjiang).
The largest and the most fiercely motivated components of the mercenary
force come from the Chechen Diaspora in West Asia and Pakistan. The favored
routes of the foreign mercenaries for infiltrating into Chechnya lie through
Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Many thousands of Chechen
mohajirs (refugees), whose ancestors left the Caucasus as a result of the
1817-1864 Caucasian war, now live in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Lebanon,
Turkey, Syria, Egypt and the Persian Gulf countries.
Hundreds of Arab nationals of Chechen ancestry joined the 6,000 plus jihadi
mercenary force raised by the CIA through the ISI in the 1980s to fight
against Soviet troops, and they fought in Afghanistan under Osama bin Laden.
They maintained their links with bin Laden after the withdrawal of the
Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1988. Some of them were taken by bin Laden
into his al-Qaeda and IIF, and they worked as instructors in the training
camps in Afghan territory. They were also used by the ISI to train the
Taliban army after 1994 and to assist the Taliban in its fight against the
Northern Alliance. Many others were sent to Chechnya by bin Laden after 1994
to assist the indigenous Chechen groups in their fight for an Islamic
caliphate. They were initially led by Khattab, and after his assassination
through a booby-trap by the Russian intelligence in April, 2002, they have
been led by Abu al-Valid.
The Russians do not identify these pro-bin Laden Chechen mercenaries from
the Diaspora as Chechens. Instead, they identify them as Arabs. Khattab and
Abu al-Valid are described by the Russians as Arabs, but they are believed
to be of Chechen ancestry - Khattab from Saudi Arabia or Jordan and Abu
al-Valid from Jordan. Russia itself has a large Chechen population outside
Chechnya in Moscow and other cities. The total Chechen population of Russia
is estimated at 1 million plus, most of whom used to live in Chechnya before
1994. After the terrorist violence broke out in 1994, nearly a half of them
migrated to other cities, either due to fear or due to the serious
unemployment problem in Chechnya because of the set-back to the economy. The
presence of a large Chechen population in Moscow and other cities enables
the pan-Islamic terrorists to carry out terrorist strikes in those areas, as
one saw in Moscow in October, 2002, and earlier in 1999.
Next to the Chechen mohajirs, the second largest component in the foreign
mercenary force consists of Pakistani nationals belonging to the Tablighi
Jamaat (TJ), the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) and the
Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI). The TJ is not a member of bin Laden's IIF,
but the HUM and the HuJI are. It is not clear whether Abu al-Valid acts as
the head of the Pakistani component too, or whether it acts autonomously.
In an article in the prestigious weekly Friday Times of Lahore (October 4 to
10, 2002), Khaled Ahmed, the well-known Pakistani columnist, wrote as
follows on the role of the HuJI in the Central Asian Republics and the
Caucasus: "Pakistan's jihadi penetration of Central Asia was conducted
through Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami led by Qari Saufullah Akhtar of Pakistan
and based in Kandahar [in Afghanistan]. The outfit with a wide network of
seminaries and camps in Pakistan was close to Mullah Omar [Amir of the
Taliban] because of its early allegiance to Maulvi Nabi Muhammadi, whose own
Harkat activists formed the new Taliban cadres. These were the men often
called 'Punjabi Taliban'. Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami was the Taliban
spearhead in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The leader of the
Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami in Uzbekistan was Sheikh Muhammad Tahir al-Farooq.
Twenty-seven of its fighters were killed in battle against Uzbek President
Islam Karimov, as explained in the Islamabad-based journal Al Irshad. The
war against Uzbekistan was bloody and was supported by the Taliban till in
2001 the commander had to ask the Pakistanis in Uzbekistan to return to the
He added, "In Chechnya, the war against the Russians was carried on under
the leadership of commander Hidayatullah. Pakistan's embassy in Moscow once
denied that there were any Pakistanis involved in the Chechen war, but the
journal Al Irshad ( March, 2000) declared from Islamabad that the militia
was deeply involved in the training of guerillas in Chechnya for which
purpose commander Hidayatullah was stationed in the region. It is estimated
that dozens of Pakistani fighters had been martyred fighting against Russian
infidels. When the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami men were seen first in
Tajikistan, they were mistaken by some observers as being fighters from
Sipah Sahaba [the Sunni extremist organization of Pakistan], but in fact
they were under the command of commander Khalid Irshad Tiwana, helping Juma
Namangani and Tahir Yuldashev resist the Uzbek ruling class in the Ferghana
There used to be seven training camps in the Serzhen-Yurt district of
Chechnya. Of these, one was run by Khattab and another by Hidayatullah.
Initially, these two camps of Khattab and Hidayatullah trained only those
foreign mercenaries meant to fight against the Russians. After the US cruise
missile attack on his training camps in Afghan territory in 1998, bin Laden
started sending some of his own men to the Chechen training camps. In the
past, sections of the Russian media have claimed that Georgian intelligence
operatives suspected that the militants, who had tried to assassinate
President Eduard Shevardnadze on February 9, 1998, were trained at camps in
The pan-Islamic terrorists in Chechnya and the innumerable organized Chechen
crime mafia groups operating in Chechnya and outside have never been short
of funds. It is believed that their main sources of funding are:
Narcotics (essentially heroin) smuggling: US$800 million per annum.
Money diverted from banks controlled by Chechen businessmen in different
parts of Russia: $600 million per annum.
Illegal production and sale of oil: $36 million per annum.
Hostage-taking for ransom: In 1997-1998, more than 60 Chechen groupings
kidnapped a total of 1,094 people for ransom, and in 1999, 270. The number
of hostages kidnapped for ransom still remaining in captivity is estimated
to be more than 1,500. No estimate of the total ransom payments received is
Money diverted from government funds: Moscow heavily subsidizes the Chechen
state budget. A large portion of this money goes into the hands of various
terrorist and mafia groups. (These estimates are by pro-government Russian
analysts and could, therefore, be on the higher side.)
The external sources of finance for the Chechen terrorists are as follows:
Contributions from Saudi Arabia: Most of this amount is sent from Saudi
Arabia to Pakistani fundamentalist organizations such as the Jamaat-i-Islami
and the Jamaat-ul-Ulema Islam, which in turn have the money smuggled to the
Chechen terrorists through the Tablighi Jamaat, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and
the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami. The six-party religious coalition called the
Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which has come to power in Pakistan's North West
Frontier Province and Balochistan after the elections held on October 10,
2002, had promised in their election manifesto that they would step up
assistance to the Chechen "freedom-fighters". Some of the Saudi funds also
go through Islamist charities such as the Global Relief Foundation and
Contributions from the Chechen Diaspora in West Asia. (Pro-government
Russian analysts have estimated the fund flow from Saudi Arabia at $55
million since 1994, and from the Diaspora at $20 million. These estimates,
too, could be on the higher side.)
Yeltsin followed a policy of distinguishing between those seeking
independence and those with pan-Islamic objectives and reached accommodation
with the former in 1996 to isolate the latter. Putin, on the other hand,
does not make a distinction between indigenous and foreign terrorists and
between those for independence and the pan-Islamists. He tends to treat all
of them as one and the same, inspired and guided by bin Laden and his ilk
from outside. This is making the problem intractable. However, in an attempt
to appeal to the religious sentiments of the population and to project
himself as not anti-Islam, he nominated after 1999 the Chechen mufti Akhmed
Kadyrov as the head of the Chechen state, despite the fact that before the
ceasefire of 1996 the mufti had supported the separatists, though he
subsequently came over to the government side and condemned the pan-Islamic
Putin's unqualified post-September 11 support to the US in the war against
international terrorism had two objectives:
To facilitate an active and pre-eminent role for the Northern Alliance in
the post-Taliban government in Kabul.
To have the scourge of terrorism in Chechnya acknowledged by the US and
other Western countries as part of the international terrorism of the bin
Laden and al-Qaeda kind.
While he has achieved the first objective for the time being, his hopes in
respect of the second remain belied to date. The US and the rest of the West
have strongly condemned specific acts of terrorism, such as the Moscow
theater seizure and attacks causing civilian casualties in Chechnya and
extended moral support to Moscow in its fight against terrorism, but are
still reluctant to accept the Russian argument that what has been happening
in Chechnya is totally due to terrorism, inspired by bin Laden and company.
Despite repeated Russian requests, Washington has desisted from designating
any of the Chechen terrorist groups as foreign terrorist organizations.
B Raman is Additional Secretary (ret), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of
India, and presently director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai;
member of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India.
He was also head of the counter-terrorism division of the Research &
Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, from 1988 to August,
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