By Nabi Abdullaev
Reports that hundreds of Chechen rebels and even one of their prominent leaders, Emir Khattab, have been fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan have appeared in the international media throughout the U.S.-led military campaign. These reports have been sketchy and poorly substantiated: Thus far no Chechens have been presented to the public from among the captured Taliban fighters often featured in television reports. Yet the reports have provided sufficient grounds for Russian political and military observers to speculate on how many Chechens are likely to have been fighting in Afghanistan and why. The differences in opinion seem based on different evaluations of the strength of ties between the Chechens fighting for the independence of their republic and Islamic radicals with a global cause.
Most–but not all–experts agree there have not been large numbers of Chechens in Afghanistan and that it is unlikely Khattab was there. They say that while Chechens have been in Afghanistan along with representatives of many other Moslem ethnic groups, it would be wrong to speak about systematic Chechen involvement in the Taliban’s resistance to the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition. Timur Muzaev of the Moscow-based Panorama think tank, who was an adviser to the Chechen government from 1995 to 1996, said that a majority of the Chechen rebels were motivated by a desire to defend their own land and thus had no reason to go and fight in Afghanistan. “And those Chechens who view themselves as religious warriors against the infidels,” he added, “can also nicely defend their faith in Chechnya, without going anywhere else.”
Another Chechen insider, Khozh-Akhmed Noukhaev, who was widely believed to be a confidant of and private banker for Djohar Dudaev, the first Chechen president, also said that it was absurd for Chechens to be fighting in Afghanistan–because the Taliban had no need for them. Writing on his website, Noukhaev.com, Noukhaev noted that there was no shortage of fighters and warlords in Afghanistan, which essentially has been at war for twenty-three years, and that a few dozens, or even hundreds, of Chechens could provide little help to the Taliban, which once boasted of having 300,000 gunmen.
Indeed, as in any guerilla war, the Taliban’s strength (or weakness) in Afghanistan was the same as the Chechen rebels in Chechnya–knowledge of the local situation and the support of the local population (or the lack thereof). Were Chechen fighters, who have effectively opposed Russian federal troops in Chechnya, to appear on the alien soil of Afghanistan, they would inevitably lose their efficiency.
Although Russian official propagandists claim the number of the rebels fighting in Chechnya at about 3,000, independent analysts say that the core of the Chechen resistance fighting on a constant basis numbers only several hundred. The higher estimates are in part due to the fact that local male residents sometimes join the rebels for specific military operations against Russian troops. Splitting the core of the resistance and sending its regular fighters to Afghanistan would hardly suit the strategic and tactical purposes of the Chechen separatists.
Even so, a few Chechens may be fighting in Afghanistan as mercenaries, attracted by the money Osama bin Laden is believed to pay to his supporters. Alexander Pikayev, a military expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the numbers might be slightly higher, perhaps a few dozen. “There were numerous reports about the Taliban permitting Chechen rebels to train in military camps on Afghan territory,” he said. “And many rebels, forced out of Chechnya in the ongoing conflict, could have chosen to go to Central Asia or Afghanistan, rather than to Georgia or Turkey.”
But Viktor Korgun, head of the Afghanistan section of the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies, said that the number of Chechens at the beginning of the U.S. operation might have exceeded 1,000. “There is some indirect but sufficient evidence of Chechen rebels being active in Afghanistan,” he said. “President Vladimir Putin’s threatening the Taliban in May 2000 to bomb the terrorist camps on Afghan territory where large groups of Chechen rebels were trained is one of them.” The Taliban was the only government in the world to recognize Chechnya as a state, and, in February 2000, the Chechen separatist government of President Aslan Maskhadov opened an embassy in Kabul. “Undoubtedly, the embassy was set up to build up military cooperation between Chechen separatists and the Taliban,” Korgun said.
These opinions, however, though they sound rather convincing, overlook solid evidence and are to a great extent based on the information Russian officials feed to the public in the form of putative intelligence reports. No independent information about Chechen rebels being trained in Afghanistan has ever been made available to the Russian audience. What is more, Russian intelligence’s reputation as an information source has suffered severely in the Chechen military campaign as a result of some particularly clumsy attempts to prove close ties between rebels in the breakaway republic and the global Islamic cause. The “discovery” by federal troops of a computer disk putatively containing a manual for flying a Boeing airplane in an abandoned rebel camp in Chechnya just several days after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington was one of the more notorious illustrations how intelligence serves the political purposes of Russian officialdom. A more recent example of this was how the Russian authorities massaged the news about a videotape by the U.S. newspaper Newsday obtained in Afghanistan in late January, which shows footage of Osama bin Laden and Khattab. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin spokesman on the Chechnya war, said the tape should prove to the world that al-Qaida is financing the Chechen rebels. Analysts, however, said there was no way to know whether the tape is genuine and that it was unlikely to lessen Western criticism of Russia’s conduct in Chechnya.
The videotape shows footage of bin Laden and Khattab, an Arab who is among the leading commanders of the Chechen rebels, but the Newsday report indicated that the two men are never shown together. According to the newspaper account, the video opens with an episode set in an al-Qaida camp in the Afghan mountains, where bin Laden talks to his followers about their duty to fight the infidels. He does not mention Chechnya or Russia. The video then shows Chechen rebels shooting what appear to be already dead Russian soldiers. Close-ups show bullet wounds in their heads, suggesting that they were executed. The next scene is of Khattab at a table with Chechen rebel leaders, including Shamil Basaev, listening to a motivational speech by a man identified by the newspaper as an Arab. The last segment of the tape is of two suicide bombings in Chechnya–one said to be south of Gudermes and the other in Argun. Newsday suggested that these could have been suicide attacks carried out against Russian troops in 2000. One purpose of the videotape might have been to show potential donors how al-Qaida was helping the Chechens, Newsday said.
This one tape, which could easily have been produced by any interested party, cannot serve as proof of a link between al-Qaida and the Chechen rebels, said Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow branch of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information. “There must be a critical mass of evidence of the regular exchange of such documents like that tape,” he said. Videotapes featuring Chechen rebel attacks and executions of Russian soldiers circulate widely in the Northern Caucasus and are openly sold in local video shops.
Although it is impossible to determine whether the tape was really used to solicit financial support for the Chechens, its existence plays into the Kremlin’s hands, said Alexander Iskandaryan, head of the Moscow-based Institute of Caucasian Studies. “The attempt to connect internal enemies with the international terrorists against whom the United States has taken up arms is what Moscow naturally wants.”
After the Newsday report was published, Yastrzhembsky’s office said that the videotape proves that Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov and his representative, Akhmed Zakaev, are not being truthful when they deny rebel connections to al-Qaida. Zakaev was appointed by Maskhadov last fall to represent him in peace negotiations with Russia. “It is impossible to successfully fight al-Qaida in Afghanistan and at the same time encourage its action in Chechnya, calling for negotiations with those who deny a connection between Chechen rebels and this organization,” Yastrzhembsky’s office said.
Since last November there have been various reports that Khattab, a Chechen warlord of Arabic origin, has ties to bin Laden and was in Afghanistan fighting with him. Khattab himself added some heat to rumors, telling the rebels’ website Kavkaz.org in October that he knew Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan, when both fought on the side of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet occupation, but that he had not seen or spoken with bin Laden for eight years. He called the Saudi-born terrorist “a good mujahid and scholar” and a “very decent” person. Both General Gennady Troshev, the commander of Russian troops in the North Caucasus, and the Federal Border Guard Service insisted Khattab had not left Chechnya. Although Khattab’s presence in Afghanistan might serve to bolster the Kremlin’s claims that it is fighting Islamic terrorism in Chechnya, the military might be afraid it would look foolish if it let Khattab slip away.
For their part, the Chechen rebels have said the reports of Chechens in Afghanistan are inspired by Western governments eager to cement the alliance with Russia. No one “is able to produce even one Chechen as proof of the ‘participation of hundreds and thousands of Chechen fighters’ in the war in Afghanistan,” Kavkaz.org said.
Some political observers said they saw political motives behind reports of Chechen rebels fighting with the Taliban. “The publications that link bin Laden to the Chechen rebels are to demonstrate to the world that Russia and the West are jointly opposing Islamic terrorism,” said Pikayev of Carnegie. But Alexander Iskandaryan, head of the Institute of Caucasian Studies in Moscow, said he saw another motive: “Massaging the news about foreign fighters is a well-known propagandist technique to prove that the core of the resistance has no popular origin,” he said.
Indeed, myths of alien threats seem to be inherent in crisis military situations. Since Russia’s first military campaign in Chechnya in 1995-1996, reports about the female snipers from Baltic countries–so-called “white stockings”–along with reports about Ukrainian nationalists, Arabs and even Africans fighting in Chechnya on the side of rebels have appeared in the Russian national coverage of the conflict.
Today, the Chechen may be playing that role for the Americans. “This helps them pretend that they are opposed in Afghanistan not by the Afghan people,” Iskandaryan said, “but by an international evil.”
Nabi Abdullaev is a journalist based in Makhachkala, Dagestan.