On December 7, Izvestiya published a second article by its special correspondent in Chechnya, Vadim Rechkalov, addressing the issue of why Russia’s special services have been unable to catch rebel warlord Shamil Basaev during the ten years since the start of the first Chechen war.
In the first article, published on December 6, anonymous sources in the Chechen branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) said Basaev has more than 13,000 “accomplices.” While most of these are not actual rebel fighters, they have been instrumental in helping Basaev and his men avoid capture and include not only ordinary citizens, but also employees of “the law-enforcement organs.” A Russian counter-intelligence officer estimated that “up to 30% of the staff of the Chechen Interior Ministry” are rebel accomplices and that some of these sell rebel fighters internal passports, fictitious names, and other forged identification documents. The officer also told Rechkalov that Basaev is a hero for many Chechen boys and women, even including women who work in counter-intelligence “but sympathize with Basaev.”
Rechkalov’s second installment focused on how the rebels hide from security forces. In 2000, he wrote, Russia’s special services obtained a video taken at a base of Khattab, the late Saudi-born Chechen rebel field commander, in Chechnya’s Nozhai-Yurt district. “A comfortable campsite for around 50 people,” is how Rechkalov described the video’s setting. “Tents are standing, a waterfall is making noise. Fighters are relaxing, posing for the cameraman, grilling shashklik. The federal forces have looked for that base for four years. Both from the air and [using] dismounted reconnaissance groups. Chechnya is not big — 17,000 square kilometers, and the Nozhai-Yurt district is even smaller. The search area is around 3,000 square kilometers. They have combed the length and breadth of this territory, but to this day they have not found the Khattab base with the waterfall.”
One of the few people Rechkalov interviewed who agreed to go on the record, Alexander Potapov, deputy head of the Chechen FSB, estimated that there are some 2,500 rebel bases and encampments in Chechnya. They range in size from those that can accommodate four or five fighters to the one that GRU military intelligence spetsnaz commandos discovered near the village of Ulus-Kert in the Shatoi district, which could accommodate 200 fighters. However, no fighters were at that base when it was discovered: it, like others, was designed so that it was extremely difficult to approach it without being seen. “How many times has it happened: spetsnaz enter a base, campfires are smoldering, food in kettles is still hot, but there are no people — they’ve gone,” Potapov said. “Let’s say that each base on average can accommodate 20 people. Multiply 20 by 2,500. It turns out that there are 50,000 places for the 1,500 active fighters wandering the mountains and woods with weapons in their hands.”
An FSB spetsnaz officer told Rechkalov that rebel bases located in Chechnya’s woods or mountains are generally located 1-3 kilometers from populated areas and while unoccupied are looked after by rebel accomplices. These rebel bases have no paths leading to them and are camouflaged so that they cannot be detected either from the ground or the air. Bases often include bunkers and storehouses for keeping items ranging from food and ammunition to clothing and blankets, and these are sometimes booby-trapped with mines or grenades for potential intruders. Some “medical bunkers” have been known to have not only medicine, but also medical equipment — even including, in one case, an operating table. For security reasons, the precise location of each storehouse or bunker is known only to one rebel fighter, who is responsible for it.
The rebels “are fighting in their native environment,” the FSB spetsnaz officer stressed. “They have climbed those mountains since their childhood, herded sheep, and played war there. They notice any changes in the landscape, any footprint, every broken branch. To remain unnoticed in the mountains is impossible even for specialists like GRU spetsnaz or us. Besides which, the mountains are rather densely populated.”
Still, the FSB spetsnaz officer said that most rebel fighters “live not in caves, but in cities and villages . . . . In practically every village, especially in the mountainous regions, there are reporting points,” he said. “If it is in a village, it’s a private house, if it’s in a city, it’s an apartment that doesn’t attract attention . . . As far as possible, they try to put the safe house under the protection of the local police, so that the cops don’t stupidly raid it, but, on the contrary, guard it. If it is a private house, then it should be located on the edge of the village, so that in case of danger one can quickly run to the woods or into a ravine. It is desirable if the house is located on a dead-end street. That way no one can approach it unnoticed.”
Rechkalov quoted an officer with the Chechen FSB’s Vedeno district department, who had searched for a “bandit” who was reportedly hiding in a bunker inside a house. “We arrived, led everyone into the courtyard, and began searching,” the officer told the Izvestiya correspondent. “Poked through everything — no bunker. The house was big, comfortable, lots of rooms, a lavatory. But no bunker. We were ready to leave, but one of our guys needed to use the john. The mistress of the house wanted to send him out to the garden even though the house had a john, but she said it was under repair. Then it dawned on me. I went into the john. Everything looked standard — bath, toilet, bidet, expensive sanitary engineering, tile lying in packages. I blew into a small hole [in the wall]; there was a strange sound. I pushed a pebble through it, and it was as if it had fallen into a well.” The FSB officer said that he and his colleagues discovered an “underground room” beneath the bathroom, complete with ventilation, electricity, a small desk, and a trestle-bed.