Moscow had hoped that the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington would undermine support in the West for the Chechen rebels. And, indeed, not long after the September 11 attacks the U.S. administration and other Western governments called on the rebels to break any ties they had with al-Qaida or other international terrorist groups. But while there has been debate over the extent of those ties, officials in the West seem to be moving back toward a position that both makes a distinction between Aslan Maskhadov and other more radical members of the Chechen rebel movement, and that calls on Moscow to resume its stalled talks with representatives of the Chechen rebel leader.
This may explain why the Russian authorities have lately sought to connect not only radical Chechen rebel leaders like Shamil Basaev and Khattab with bin Laden, but also Maskhadov. On January 25, Strana.ru, the Kremlin-connected website, reported that Arab mercenaries who had fought in Afghanistan alongside al-Qaida had joined Maskhadov’s “bandit formation” inside Chechnya. The website–quoting an unnamed source in the “regional operations staff for counterterrorist operations in the North Caucasus”–claimed that “notes” found on the body of a rebel field commander named Oybek Rakhimov (aka “Uzbek”) who was killed in Chechnya on January 16 indicated that among the “Arab mercenaries” fighting in Maskhadov’s unit were two Egyptians belonging to the extremist Al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyah who were close to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s Number Two and al-Qaida’s ideologue. Strana.ru also claimed that the body of “Uzbek” was found with “financial statements for the international terrorists al-Islambuli and Hamza.” This, the website claimed, is proof that Maskhadov is receiving money for “jihad” from international Islamic extremist organizations (Strana.ru, January 25). It is not completely clear who “al-Islambuli” and “Hamza” refer to, but it may be Muhammad al-Islambuli–brother of Khalid al-Islambuli, who was accused of assassinating Egyptian President Anwar Sadat–and Mustafa Hamzah, alias Abu-Hazim–whom Egypt accuses of planning the failed 1995 assassination attempt against President Husni Mubarak in Addis Ababa. Both men, along with al-Zawahiri, are reputedly top members of Al Jama’ah al-Islamiyah. Last month, Akhmed Zakaev, Maskhadov’s representative and a vice premier in the separatists’ Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, categorically denied any links between the Chechen rebel leadership and al-Qaida (see the Monitor, January 25).
Meanwhile, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who yesterday accused Western governments of exhibiting a double standard in meeting with representatives of Aslan Maskhadov, used the series of bombings carried out in various Russian cities in September 1999–which Russian officials blamed on Chechen terrorists and which served as one of the main pretexts for Russia’s military intervention in Chechnya–to make his case. “If those who blow up apartment houses in Moscow or Buinaksk in Dagestan are declared freedom fighters while in other countries such persons are referred to as terrorists, one cannot even think of forging a united antiterrorist front,” the Russian defense minister declared.
It remains less than clear, however, who was behind those bombings. In March 2000, two men were sentenced to life imprisonment and four received life sentences for carrying out the September 1999 truck bombing of an apartment building in Buinaksk, which killed sixty-two people. One of the convicted bombers, Isa Zainutdinov, admitted that he had served with Khattab, but said he worked as a cook and did not take part in combat operations. During the trial, he claimed that he had not known about the planned bombing when he agreed to deliver the chemicals from Khattab’s camp in Serzhenyurt to Dagestan. He insisted that he and his co-defendants had been “framed” and said he believed that “the Russian secret services were fully informed about the transport of explosives from Chechnya to Dagestan” (Moscow Times, March 20, 2001). Last November, five men from the southern Russian republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia were sentenced to prison terms ranging from nine to fifteen years for plotting various terrorist attacks across Russia. They were originally charged with organizing the September 1999 bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and the southern town of Volgodonsk, but those charges were dropped (Moscow Times, November 15, 2001; see also the Monitor, October 31, 2001). No one thus far has been convicted for the Moscow and Volgodonsk blasts, and Boris Berezovsky, the anti-Kremlin oligarch, claims they were carried out by Russia’s special services.
CENTRAL ASIANS STEPPING ONTO INTERNATIONAL STAGE.