Dagestan has experienced a wave of armored-car robberies this spring. The costliest attacks took place in Khasavyurt, Makhachkala, and in the mountainous Utsukul district. In March a bank vehicle in Khasavyurt was robbed of 1 million rubles. In April gunmen held up a bank vehicle in Makhachkala, the capital, taking 24 million rubles (about $1 million). Then on June 5 bandits made off with 18 million rubles from an armored car in Utsukul district. According to Kommersant newspaper, the bank vehicle in the Utsukul district was first stopped by a roadside bomb, and then the car was attacked by gunfire coming from the nearby forest. The three guards were killed; the bandits seized their weapons and took the stacks 50-ruble and 100-ruble notes and the gold coins that were also in the car (Kommersant, June 6).
Such frequent robberies have forced security officials to respond, and they reluctantly admitted that these robberies were not mere instances of local banditry, but well-calculated attacks organized by the Dagestani insurgency. Sergei Salodolnikov, deputy head of the Main Directorate of the Russian Interior Ministry for the Southern Federal District, said that the lack of foreign financing had driven the rebels to commit crimes (lenta.ru, July 6).
Beyond Dagestan, other North Caucasus republics have seen a similar burst of armored-car robberies. On April 12, a group of gunmen robbed a bank vehicle in North Ossetia (Kavkazky Uzel, April 12). However, the militants in that attack not only robbed the bank vehicle, but also some local businessmen. Last year in North Ossetia rebels confiscated $65,000 from a local alcohol dealer under the pretext that Islamic Sharia law banned alcohol. Ossetian rebels also claim that they shake down local drug dealers, blaming them for “poisoning Muslims.”
The most lucrative heist to date occurred in Ingushetia, another section of the North Caucasus. In February 2006 insurgents kidnapped Magomed Chakhkiev, a KGB veteran, Ingushetia’s prosecutor general, and a close relative of Ingush President Murat Zyazikov. Chakhkiev is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the republic. The militants who kidnapped him demanded either the release of all Ingush rebels then held in Russian prisons or a ransom. Chakhkiev was released in early May. Officials say that a special operation liberated him and that no money was paid to the kidnappers.
However, the Ingushetia.ru website published another version of events. Quoting sources from Zyazikov’s entourage, the website says that a $10 million ransom was paid to the militants. On May 1, Zyazikov’s envoys brought a suitcase packed with U.S. dollars to the mountain forest near Ali-Urt village. Officers from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) had placed a radio transmitter inside the case in order to identify the location of the rebel base, but the frightened messengers tipped off the gunmen when they handed over the briefcase. The militants put the money into another bag and hung the briefcase on a tree. Two hours later the tree was attacked by an air strike, but the rebels had already vacated the place, taking the $10 million with them (Ingushetiya.ru, May 3).
Early this year Nikolai Shepel, Russian prosecutor general to the Southern Federal District, told Izvestiya that the main sources of income for the terrorist groups in the North Caucasus were robbery, racketeering, kidnapping, and drug trafficking (Izvestiya, January 9). Just two days before Shepel’s interview, Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev had promised in an interview with Kavkaz Center to solve the insurgency’s financial problems by spring. Evidently, his solution is robbery.
It is no secret that the rebels in Chechnya get money from officials in the pro-Russian government who either sympathize with them or are terrified of them. Even now almost all village chiefs in the mountain districts of Chechnya give money to the insurgency. In 2004 the yufo.ru website posted a copy of a letter written by the Chechen field commander to the head of the administration of Elistanzhi village demanding a payment of $5,000 “for Jihad.” A source in Chechnya has told Jamestown that nothing has changed since that time. However, no amount of money will be sufficient for the rebels who intend to spread war across the entire North Caucasus. According to Basaev’s plans, robberies in Dagestan and Ossetia and kidnappings in Ingushetia will cover the deficit.
Late last year Alexander Torshin, head of the commission investigating the 2004 hostage crisis in Beslan, said in an interview published in Moskovsky komsomolets on December 22, that no more than 10% of the rebels’ funding now comes from outside Russia; most of the remaining money comes — indirectly — from the Russian government budget. Recent events confirm this claim. Despite numerous declarations and official Kremlin rhetoric, it is clear that the North Caucasus insurgency is largely self-financing, rather than a beneficiary of al-Qaeda or other forces of international terrorism.