The circumstances surrounding the July 10 death in Ingushetia of Shamil Basaev, the Chechen rebel military commander and recently appointed vice president of the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI), remain murky. At 9:45 AM (Moscow time) that day, Interfax quoted “a source in Ingushetia’s law enforcement services” as saying that four militants had been killed in a “self-induced blast” during “a sweep operation” in the village of Ekazhevo, located in Ingushetia’s Nazran district. The source told the news agency that the rebels “were in two cars parked nearby” a KamAz truck that blew up, while Ingushetia’s Security Department told Interfax that the militants were inside the truck itself when it exploded. “The incident occurred at about midnight,” the news agency quoted the department as saying. “The bodies of four militants were discovered at the scene of the explosion.” A Security Department spokesman said that two bodies were identified as those of rebel “warlords” Tarkhan Ganizhev and Isa Kushtov. According to the department, the truck had been filled with weapons, ammunition and explosive substances that Basaev and his associates had intended to use for “high-impact subversive and terror attacks in the North Caucasus.” The Interfax report concluded: “The blast is believed to have been caused by careless handling of ammunition and explosive substances.” Likewise, the Regnum news agency, citing Itar-Tass, quoted Ingushetia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) branch as saying that the massive blast, which had the force of 100 kilograms of TNT, was the result of “careless handling of ammunition and explosive substances.”
At 10:37 AM, NTV television’s website, Ntv.ru, reported that a group of militants who had accompanied the explosives-laden KamAz truck in two cars with the intention of carrying out a large-scale terrorist attack had been “surrounded” on the outskirts of Ekazhevo and that four militants died “as a result of a spontaneous explosion of the truck.”
At around 4:30 PM on June 10, Russian news agencies reported that FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev had informed President Vladimir Putin that Basaev and a number of other “bandits” had been killed in a “special operation.” Patrushev said that the militants had been preparing a terrorist attack in Ingushetia aimed at “putting pressure on the Russian leadership” during the scheduled G-8 summit meeting in St. Petersburg. The FSB chief also stated—rather opaquely—that the operation to “liquidate” Basaev “became possible owing to the fact that a preparatory basis was created, above all in those countries where weapons were gathered that were subsequently ferried over to the militants in Russia.” Putin, for his part, was quoted as congratulating all of the special forces personnel who had planned and carried out the operation. He added, according to Reuters, “This is deserved retribution against the bandits for our children in Beslan, in Budennovsk, for all these acts of terror they committed in Moscow and other Russian regions, including Ingushetia and Chechnya.”
Several hours later, Interfax quoted an unnamed FSB source as saying that 12 other militants were killed along with Basaev, some of whom had already been identified. The following morning (July 11), Interfax quoted Ingush Interior Minister Beslan Khamkhoev as saying that the republic’s law-enforcement agencies were verifying reports that among the dead militants was Ali Taziev, the rebel commander and Basaev associate also known as “Magas,” who took part in the June 2004 attacks on Ingushetian law-enforcement installations.
Late on July 10, RIA Novosti quoted a “high-ranking source in the power structures of the Southern Federal District” as saying that information about Basaev’s whereabouts had been learned from someone in his “inner circle” and that his “destruction” was the result of “many months of purposeful work by the special services.”
Gazeta.ru reported late on July 10 that Ingush FSB sources had told it earlier in the day that the explosion had blown Basaev to pieces. Yet, the website noted that following Patrushev’s report to Putin, Ingushetia’s vice-premier in charge of the republic’s power ministries, Bashir Aushev, told Interfax that Basaev had been identified with “100-percent” certainty by his head, which apparently remained intact despite the force of the blast. Aushev also said that investigators recognized the “distinguishing characteristics of Basaev—his characteristic beard and his artificial limb in place of one leg.” All of Basaev’s “characteristic signs” had been discovered, Aushev said.
Russia’s Pervy Kanal (First Channel) state television, meanwhile, reported on July 10 that Basaev was killed by a pinpoint missile strike on the column of cars in which he was traveling, similar to the missile strike that had reportedly killed Chechen separatist President Dzhokhar Dudaev in 1996 by homing in on his phone. On June 11, however, RIA Novosti quoted an unnamed official of Ingushetia’s Interior Ministry who dismissed this version of events, insisting that Basaev was killed when the truck carrying weapons blew up at the start of an operation to capture the militants.
The various versions of Basaev’s death put forward by Russian newspapers did nothing to clear up the confusion. Komsomolskaya pravda reported on May 11 the blast that destroyed the KamAz truck had been detonated by a radio-controlled explosive device attached to it by a Russian special services undercover agent. According to the daily—which cited sources in the FSB and the federal Interior and Defense ministries—three months ago, plain-clothes Chechen counter-intelligence agents tracked down Basaev in Ingushetia’s mountains, where he was briefing rebel field commanders. According to the newspaper, the Chechen counter-intelligence agents were able to buy informants from among the rebels in exchange for guarantees of safety for their families, after which both the regional and federal FSB began receiving information about Basaev’s whereabouts and planned operations. About a month ago, the informants reported that Basaev was planning to carry out a massive bombing in Nazran timed for the G8 meeting in St. Petersburg and that a KamAz truck would be used. The special services, according to the newspaper, paid a “tail” US$300,000-$500,000 to follow the KamAz truck and attach a radio-controlled bomb to it.
Vremya novostei, for its part, reported on July 11 that the events in Ekazhevo the previous day were the result of a Russian special services operation that had been in the works for half a year. According to the newspaper, intelligence agents set up a deal to sell weapons to Basaev and his comrades, and the arms transfer was set to take place in Ekazhevo on June 10. When Basaev and his comrades came to the village that day and approached the KamAz truck carrying the weapons, it was blown up along with the rebel warlord and his associates.
Izvestia reported on July 12 that Basaev’s death was the result of a “highly complex” special operation in which an unnamed foreign intelligence agency that had previously supplied weapons to the Chechen rebels “betrayed” the arms channel to Russia’s special services, who then attached a small amount of explosives along with a special “beacon” to a shipment of weapons destined for Basaev and his comrades. Using a Pchela unpiloted drone and a satellite uplink, Russian intelligence was able to monitor Basaev and Co. and trigger the explosion at the needed moment, Izvestia claimed. The newspaper elaborated on the putative hi-tech operation in its July 13 edition, reporting that a tiny transmitting antenna had been placed in a piece of plastic explosives that was part of a weapons shipment, which originated in Iraq and arrived in Ingushetia via Turkey and Georgia. According to the newspaper, the entire operation was assisted by U.S. forces in Iraq and neither employed—nor required the placement of—any agents within Basaev’s inner circle.
Kommersant, meanwhile, reported on July 12 that Basaev was likely killed as a result of an operation in which Russian special services booby-trapped a shipment of weapons that came to the separatists from abroad (“presumably from Georgia,” the newspaper added, noting that FSB chief Patrushev had hinted at a foreign connection) but had no idea that Basaev personally would be among those taking delivery of the weapons. “That would explain why the FSB did not claim responsibility for the blast immediately, thinking that the victims were ordinary militants,” the newspaper wrote. “The ‘special operation’ was announced after the body fragments were identified as those of Basaev, who had a $10-million price on his head.”
Kommersant speculated that Basaev was the main recipient of the arms shipment and went to oversee the divvying up of the weapons. According to this version, while he was watching the weapons being loaded, Basaev became interested in a piece of ordnance that was not on the shipping list and placed it on the ground to take a closer look, after which it exploded. It could have been detonated either by a hidden detonator or by remote control—although, according to the newspaper, it is unlikely that the Russian intelligence operatives could have seen that Basaev was among the militants receiving the weapons, even using night vision equipment.
In any case, Kommersant quoted an “Ossetian pathologist” as saying that the remains believed to be those of Basaev appeared to have been blown up by a mine and that the victim was probably leaning over or squatting next to it. According to the newspaper, the remains had been removed from the scene of the explosion in two large plastic bags. It also reported that the body initially believed to be that of Ali Taziev, a.k.a. Magas, turned out to belong to belong to one Musa Mutaliev—at least according to a driver’s license found on the body. Since he was not known to law-enforcement authorities, he is believed to have been a driver hired by the militants.
Interestingly, Interfax quoted Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov as saying during a press conference in Rostov-on-Don on July 12 that there is “not the slightest doubt” that Basaev had been destroyed, but adding, “The question arises: why is it necessary to carry out identification” of his remains. Ivanov said that if the FSB asked the Defense Ministry for help in identifying the body, the ministry would comply, but that he did not see why such an identification process was needed.
On July 13, Kommersant put forward yet another version of Basaev’s death. “The autopsy by the Vladikavkaz forensic morgue of the body presumably belonging to Shamil Basaev showed that he was killed by means of a homemade explosive device filled with pieces of wire,” the newspaper wrote. “Such bombs are the proprietary production of the Dagestani terrorist group ‘Sharia.’ This may be evidence that the death of the terrorist was the result not of a special operation conducted by the FSB, but of a settling of accounts between the militants or a blood feud.” Kommersant reported that according to “operational information,” Dagestani rebel leader Rappani Khalilov, a.k.a. Rabbani, whom it described as “a specialist in the industrial production of shrapnel,” is currently hiding along with his “brigade” somewhere in the woods along the administrative border between Chechnya and Ingushetia. “This Wahhabi has already won respect among the militants and is continuing to make a fast-rising career. It is possible that last weekend, Rabbani, who was formally subordinated to Shamil Basaev, decided he no longer needed the commander.”