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CHECHNYA CONTINUES TO BLEED

Paper No. 573                               30/12/2002

by B. Raman

Chechnya in Russia continues to bleed with no respite from the scourge of pan-Islamic terrorism.  At least 46 persons are reported to have died on December 27, 2002, when two vehicles filled with a large quantity of explosives  rammed into a highly protected building  in the Chechen capital Grozny, which housed the headquarters of the provincial Government.  Chechnya's Moscow-nominated President, former Mufti Akhmed Kadyrov,and Premier Mikhail Babyche were reportedly not in the building when the strike took place.  The incident has been described as a case of suicide bombing.

2. Coming as it does within two months of  the October capture of a theatre 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, 2002, and that the Russian security agencies are nowhere near getting the better of the ground situation in Chechnya.

3. Since July, 2002, there was speculation in Grozny about the plans of the group of foreign mercenaries led by Abu-al-Valid, who had 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, had 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 had been instances of Chechen policemen, sympathetic to the terrorists, facilitating their operations.

4.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 1998.  It may be recalled that in India's Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) too suicide terrorism made its appearance for the first time only in 1999 after the Pakistani pan-Islamic organisations joined the IIF in 1998.

5. No organisation 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 had 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 the operation.

6. A peculiar characteristic of the Chechen situation is that there is hardly any distinct, identifiable organisation.  There are many warlords heading groups of people owing allegiance to them, but hardly any organisation with a personality, a clearly-explained objective and typical modus operandi (MO) of its own. This renders an analysis of the situation quite difficult. The dramatis personae could 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 President Vladimir Putin, and his closest supporters like the former Foreign Minister Ilias Ahmadov, with suspected links to the US intelligence, former Vice-premier Ahmed Zakayev, with suspected links to the European intelligence agencies, 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 organised a series of terrorist strikes in Moscow and other non-Chechen cities.

* Those fighting for an independent Islamic State to be ruled under the Sharia, as the first step towards the formation of an Islamic Caliphate consisting of Chechnya and Dagestan.  Prominent in this category are Shamil Basayev, 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 (recently died in Russian custody) and Abu al-Valid.

7. 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 got trained by the USA's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the first Afghan war of the 1980s through Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for using them against the Soviet troops, have come from countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Pakistan,  Jordan, the Lebanon, Indonesia and China (Xinjiang).

8.The largest and the most-fiercely motivated components of the mercenary force have come from the Chechen diaspora in West Asia and Pakistan.  The favoured routes of the foreign mercenaries for infiltrating into Chechnya  lie through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Many thousands of Chechen Mohajirs (refugees), whose ancestors had 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.

9. Hundreds of Arab nationals of Chechen ancestry had joined the 6,000 plus jihadi mercenary force raised by the CIA through the ISI in the 1980s for fighting against Soviet troops and had 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 used to work as instructors in the training camps in Afghan territory. They were also used by the ISI for  training the Taliban army after 1994 and for assisting 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 are being led by Abu Al-Valid.

10. 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 one 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  have 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.

11. 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.

12. 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.

13. "Pakistan's jehadi penetration of Central Asia was conducted through Harkat-ul-Jehad-Al-Islami led by Qari Saufullah Akhtar of Pakistan and based in Kandahar. The outfit with a wide network of seminaries and camps in Pakistan was close to Mullah Omer (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-Jehad-al-Islami was the Taliban spearhead in Central Asia and the Caucasus.The leader of the Harkat-ul-Jehad-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 base."

14. 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 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 estimated that dozens of Pakistani fighters had been martyred fighting against Russian infidels. When the Harkat-ul-Jehad-Al-Islami men were seen first in Tajikistan, they were mistaken by some observers as being fighters from Sipah Sahaba (the Sunni extremist organisation 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 Valley." (End of citation)

15. 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 had claimed that Georgian intelligence operatives suspected  that the  militants, who had tried to assassinate President Shevardnadze on February 9, 1998, were trained at camps in Chechnya.

16. The pan-Islamic terrorists in Chechnya and the innumerable organised 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: US $  600 million per annum.

* Illegal production and sale of  oil: US $ 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 available.

* Money diverted from Government funds: Moscow heavily subsidises the Chechen State budget. A large portion of this money goes into the hands of various terrorist and mafia groups.

The estimates are by pro-Government Russian analysts and could, therefore, be on the higher side.

17. 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 organisations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) and the Jamaat-ul-Ulema Islam (JUI), which in turn have the money smuggled to the Chechen terrorists through the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), the Harkat-Ul-Mujahideen (HUM) and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-Al-Islami (HUJI). The six-party religious coalition called the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which has come to power in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) 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,Al-Haramayn, etc.

* Contributions from the Chechen diaspora in West Asia.

18. Pro-Government Russian analysts have estimated the fund flow from Saudi Arabia at US $ 55 million since 1994  and from the diaspora at US $ 20 million. These estimates too could be on the higher side.

19.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 has nominated after 1999 the Chechen Mufti Akhmed Kadyrov as the head of the Chechen State, despite the fact that before the cease-fire of 1996 the Mufti had supported the separatists, though he subsequently came over to the Government side and condemned the pan-Islamic terrorists.

20. Putin's  unqualified post-9/11 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.

21. While he has achieved the first objective for the time being, his hopes in respect of the second remain belied so far. The US and the rest of the West have strongly condemned specific acts of terrorism such as the Moscow theatre 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 his ilk.  Despite repeated Russian requests, Washington DC has desisted from designating any of the Chechen terrorist groups as Foreign Terrorist Organisations as required under a 1996 law. 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-Mail: corde@vsnl.com )

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