Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 15

Was last October’s attack by Chechen terrorists on a Moscow theater actually a provocation organized by elements of the Russian security services–or at least known to them in advance, so that they could easily have prevented it? In the opinion of Novaya gazeta correspondent Anna Politkovskaya, the answer is yes, and the key figure in this shadowy operation was a Chechen serving as an agent for Russia’s special services–one Khanpash Terkibaev. This mysterious figure unaccountably agreed to let Politkovskaya interview him. And although he has since denied the most sensational parts of her April 28 account of their conversation, he and the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin have failed to provide any convincing alternative explanation.

Terkibaev’s name first appeared in print long ago as one of those who seized the Moscow theater showing the popular musical Nord-Ost. Politkovskaya asked him if he had sued any of the news media for publishing his name in this fashion. He said he had not, because top Putin aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky had advised him to pay no attention to such stories. But according to her account–which Terkibaev has denied–he directly confirmed that he was indeed one of the band of October hostage-takers. Their conversation took place in the “Sputnik” Hotel on Moscow’s Leninsky Prospekt.

According to Politkovskaya’s article, Terkibaev showed her a document identifying him as a correspondent for “a government newspaper” (apparently Rossiskaya gazeta), but admitted that he has not done any writing for that periodical. Politkovskaya concluded that this journalistic affiliation is just a cover for Terkibaev’s real work. The 30-year-old Chechen told her, she wrote, that he does not even show up for work at the newspaper, but is actually employed by the information section of President Putin’s staff. However, Terkibaev did not recognize the name of Igor Porshnev–the head of that section–when she mentioned it. Instead, she quoted him as saying that, “when it’s necessary I meet with Yastrzhembsky. I work for him. Here’s a photograph of us together.”

Politkovskaya noted in her article that Yastrzhembsky looks most dissatisfied in the photo–that it was obvious how unwelcome such a photo was to him, and that Terkibaev had evidently insisted on it. She wrote that the latter also produced for her photos of himself with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, with Vakha Arsanov (Maskhadov’s former vice president, who, according to some reports, has recently resurfaced as a would-be mediator), and with the prominent Chechen businessman Malik Saidullaev. A good number of these photos looked to her like crude forgeries; the newspaper subsequently had them checked by experts who confirmed her impression. But at least one of the photos with Maskhadov was found to be genuine–and recent.

According to Politkovskaya, she asked Terkibaev whether he is afraid to walk the streets of Moscow with such photos on his person, which could easily cause him to get arrested. At that point, she wrote, he became boastful. He said that he had also met twice after the October theater raids with Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration. He claimed to be working on peace negotiations on behalf of Surkov and Yastrzhembsky–and not with Maskhadov, who remains unacceptable to the Kremlin, but with Arsanov. He took credit for organizing negotiations after the hostage crisis between Yastrzhembsky and members of the Chechen parliament who used to be Maskhadov supporters, such as Isa Temirov. According to her account he also claimed to be working on his own initiative to persuade Maskhadov to resign before the presidential elections–which, he observed in aside, “perhaps will not take place.” But if the elections do take place, he saw either Ruslan Khasbulatov or Saidullaev as the most likely winner: “They are the third force.”

Politkovskaya wrote that Terkibaev claimed to have been an actor by profession and to have graduated from the acting department of Grozny University. This despite the fact that no such department exists and that he cannot remember who taught him there. He also claimed to be a friend of Maskhadov’s London representative, Akhmed Zakaev, and to have worked with him in the theater world (Zakaev’s pre-war specialty). He said that in the first Chechen war he made videos for the rebels, and that he accompanied Basaev on the Budennovsk raid. He claimed to have received a formal amnesty in April 2000 for his participation in that raid–from the Argun city section of the Chechen Federal Security Service (FSB). This last point, Politkovskaya says, “is a very serious detail,” because the Argun FSB is one of the harshest, killing people who fell into its hands even during the period when Terkibaev says he was amnestied.

According to Politkovskaya, Terkibaev said that he worked between the two wars in Maskhadov’s press service, where ran a television program called “The path of the president.” Later he was relieved of his duties, then returned to them. He denied that he has since been relieved yet again of his duties, this time by Maskhadov himself. Terkibaev said that he does not believe that Maskhadov’s representative in Turkey, Rakhman Dushuyev, is really speaking for the separatist president when he says that Maskhadov no longer wants Terkibaev to serve as a presidential representative. Not long ago, Terkibaev claimed, he met with Maskhadov’s wife and son.

Politkovskaya quoted Terkibaev as claiming that he has been in Dubai, Turkey, Jordan and Strasbourg: “I know all the Chechens, so I travel about various countries and try to persuade everyone to accept peace and unity.” He repeated that claim later when asked if he knew Movsar Baraev (leader of the Chechen band that seized the theater in October): “I know all the Chechens.” Terkibaev was asked if his visit to Dubai had been by way of Baku, if it had taken place after the theater episode, and if he had sought help from Chechens abroad as a surviving participant of that episode, one who urgently needed to make contact with the Arab world. He answered: “How did you know that?” Politkovskaya replied, according to her own account, that she had been told about it by Chechens from Baku.

Politkovskaya wrote that she asked Khanpash Terkibaev if there had really been explosives with the hostage-takers, and that he said no.

Her article continued:

“It was precisely after Nord-Ost that the career of Khanpash sharply took off. He became a true ‘comrade-in-arms’ of the Putin administration, he was provided with all the documents needed to enable him to travel without obstacles to wherever he might be needed, and to maneuver between Maskhadov and Yastrzhembsky. He conducted negotiations in the name of the Putin administration with deputies of the Chechen parliament–these were necessary for the support of the referendum. He secured for these deputies guarantees of their immunity from prosecution if they visited Moscow. Khanpash, and nobody other than he, brought these same deputies to Strasbourg, in fact as leader of their group–to the highest offices of the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly, where these deputies behaved themselves perfectly under the direction of Rogozin, the chair of the Duma’s committee on foreign affairs.

“By all appearances, Khanpash is that very person whom all of us who have been researching the Nord-Ost tragedy have long been seeking-the person who laid the groundwork for this terrorist act from within. According to information in our newspaper’s possession (and he himself does not deny it), Khanpash is an agent planted by the special services. He entered that building together with the terrorists–as a member of their unit. He secretly, according to his own words, arranged for them to get into Moscow and then into the theater itself. It was precisely he who assured the terrorists that ‘everything is under control,’ that ‘there are plenty of corrupt people,’ that ‘the Russians have again taken bribes,’ just as they did earlier to allow passage out of besieged Grozny…that it was only necessary to ‘make a noise’ in order to produce ‘a second Budennovsk’ and thus to achieve peace–and that then, after the mission had been accomplished, ‘they would allow us to escape,’ though not everyone.”

According to Politkovskaya’s account, Terkibaev left the theater before the Russian commandos stormed it. He had a plan of the building, which even Baraev did not have, nor, at first, the commandos themselves. The reason for this, in her view, is that he was and is a part of those forces which stand far higher in the special organs’ hierarchy than mere rank-and-file commandos. The essential point is that if there was such an agent in the theater, it means that the authorities knew about the terrorist action in advance–and that they took part in preparing it.

But just who among the authorities knew in advance? The Kremlin, Putin, the FSB? “Our authorities are not a monolith, nor are the special services,” she wrote. “It is not true that the majority of the officers besieging the theater only pretended to be struggling with this tragedy and really knew that it was all a fabrication.” So precisely who was it, from high in the Russian government, who gave Terkibaev his orders? To that question, Politkovskaya does not claim to know the answer.