Was it the Russian secret services who assassinated the former acting president of Chechnya’s separatist government in his Persian Gulf refuge, or his former allies in the separatist movement? Each side blames the other for the February 13 murder of Zelimkhan Yandarbiev in Qatar. As they have done so often, both sides have combined total certitude in stating their conclusions with a glaring lack of concrete data to support those conclusions.
At this point there is far too little reliable evidence to justify a firm verdict. The fact, cited by some Chechens, that Soviet agents killed Trotsky nearly seven decades ago in Mexico proves nothing about this latest murder. But the Russian special services seem to have committed a public relations blunder by taking the unusual step of explicitly and vigorously denying that they had anything to do with Yandarbiev’s death. As Said Bitsoev pointed out in a February 16 article for Novye izvestia, “this haste, together with their unconvincing arguments, produces exactly the opposite of the result they intended: suspicion that the special services were indeed involved.”
Yandarbiev died from a bomb explosion that destroyed his car, killing two of his bodyguards and wounding his 13-year-old son, after they had left Friday prayers in the city of Doha. According to a Qatari journalist quoted in Kommersant on February 14, the highway on which the car was traveling was too wide and too well-maintained for it to be easy to plant a bomb in the roadway; most likely the explosive had been attached to the car itself while it was parked. The Qatari journalist said that the vehicle was unattended while the Yandarbievs and their bodyguards attended the prayer service. Qatar’s investigators found the bomb to have been detonated by remote control, according to a February 16 account on the Vremya novostei website.
Thus, whoever killed Yandarbiev, who was usually tightly guarded, apparently knew precisely when the Chechen poet and political propagandist would be most vulnerable. This is especially noteworthy in tightly run Qatar, which has one of the Arab world’s most effective security services and which has remained largely free of violence and turmoil. (That is one reason why Washington chose the tiny sheikhdom as a major command center for U.S. military operations in the Middle East. The sheikhdom has admitted other controversial Muslim leaders, such as Iraqi officials of Saddam Hussein’s deposed regime, leaders of Algeria’s extremist opposition, and Palestinian militants—thus balancing its unpopular policy of hosting the Pentagon.) It seems unlikely in the extreme that the murder could have been the work of domestic criminals or dissidents.
Even after his death, Yandarbiev continued to receive privileged treatment from the Qatari government. On February 14 he was buried in the al-Rayan cemetery, usually reserved for members of the royal family. That family sent one of its members, also a cabinet minister, to be among the more than 1,000 mourners at the graveside ceremony—which was conducted by the chairman of Qatar University’s Islamic Studies department. On the grave of the deceased, according to the February 16 account in Kommersant, was placed “a long staff to which was tied a white scarf—a sign that he had died in jihad.”
On February 13 the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television network published on its website a strikingly favorable account of Yandarbiev’s life, calling him “more than any other…the modern-day father of Chechen independence.”
Working against Russia’s side in the current war of words is what Bitsoev called “a series of coincidences which are rather unhappy from Moscow’s standpoint.” Fueling suspicions is the fact that Moscow had long tried, without success, to persuade the Qatari authorities to turn Yandarbiev over to them. Another coincidence is that just one week earlier, in the wake of the February 6 Moscow subway bombing, Vladimir Putin sternly proclaimed that “Russia doesn’t conduct negotiations with terrorists—it destroys them.”
Yandarbiev was widely seen as one of the main intermediaries between financial donors in the Arab world and Chechen guerrilla commanders, especially those willing to engage in terrorist operations. Last year the U.S. government formally added him to its list of supporters of international terrorism whose financial assets are subject to seizure. As far back as 1996, prominent human rights activist Sergei Kovalev denounced Yandarbiev as “a person who stays in the shadow but voices the most extremist views.”
Unlike Akhmed Zakaev, Yandarbiev was far from being a member of Maskhadov’s inner circle; it was of course Maskhadov who defeated him in the 1997 presidential election during Chechnya’s brief period of de facto independence from Russia. At the beginning of 2002 Maskhadov dismissed him from his post as an official representative of the underground separatist government for having publicly expressed support of “any methods,” including terrorism, in the struggle against Moscow.
As Bitsoev observed for Novye izvestia, “many of the field commanders preferred to deal with Yandarbiev as a man with a rigid, uncompromising stance rather than with Maskhadov whom they considered too soft, irresolute and willing to compromise.” The Chechen leader once said in an interview (quoted in Kommersant on February 14) that he preferred to deal with the Arabs not as a representative of Maskhadov “but as a former president and representative of the mujahadeen.”
In comments published in the February 14 issue of Kommersant, a key figure in Chechnya’s currently ruling Kadyrov circle confirmed the tensions between Yandarbiev and Maskhadov—but added his own spin. “The idea that Yandarbiev’s murder was ordered by Maskhadov or [Shamil] Basaev is 100 percent true,” said Duma deputy Ruslan Yamadaev. “They had been planning for a long time to do away with him.”
According to the website Gazeta.ru, a spokesman for the Russian military headquarters in the northern Caucasus has been energetically circulating a rival version. It claims that Yandarbiev was killed by former business partners in a dispute connected with the Baku publishing house that they had founded to disseminate Chechen nationalist writings.
Compromising Yandarbiev’s prestige among his fellow Chechens, who pride themselves on their deeply rooted warrior traditions, was the fact that he sat out the second Chechen war in his Persian Gulf sanctuary. Even during the first war, when he was vice president in the secessionist government of Dzhokhar Dudaev, Yandarbiev spent most of his time in safe hideaways in the southern highlands.