Knowledgeable observers in both Moscow and Washington have been predicting for weeks that the U.S. State Department, under heavy lobbying from the Kremlin, would formally classify three Chechen organizations as terrorist groups subject to U.S. sanctions. But when the State Department’s decision was finally announced on February 28, it included a surprise: Two of the three groups now on Washington’s blacklist are not the same as those named by the Kremlin.
The Kremlin list, discussed in detail in last week’s issue of the Chechnya Weekly, is as follows: the Battalion of Shaheed Suicide Bombers; the Supreme Military Mejlis-ul-Shura-United Force of the Caucasian Mujahadeen; and the Congress of the Peoples of Ichkeria and Dagestan. But the trio now identified by the State Department are the Islamic International Brigade, the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment, and the Riyadus-Salikhin Battalion (“Riyadus-Salikhin” is Arabic for “Fields of the Righteous”). The State Department said that all three groups were directly involved in last October’s armed raid on Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater, in which 800 civilians were taken hostage, and that all are subordinate to or have close ties with militant Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev.
Well-informed sources in both Washington and Moscow have confirmed to Jamestown that the “Battalion of Shaheed Suicide Bombers” on the Kremlin’s list and the “Riyadus-Salikhin Battalion” on the State Department list are identical.
The militantly anti-Moscow Kavkazcenter website responded to the State Department’s decision by stating that the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment had been “previously led by Movsar Baraev.” This implies that the group no longer exists. “As for the so-called International Islamic Brigade,” said the website, “the talk is most likely about the International Islamic Peacekeeping Brigade. Amir Khattab used to be its military amir and Shamil Basaev was in charge of it in general….The International Islamic Peacekeeping Brigade was reorganized last summer in connection with the formation of the State Defense Committee-Majlis ul-Shura. Its individual units joined the eastern front of the regular troops of the armed forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria…. Moreover, Shamil Basaev gave up the remaining formal authorities of the general command of these units immediately after the Nord-Ost events.” The website called the Riyadus-Salikhin unit “a purely military-guerrilla structure which is waging a legitimate armed struggle.”
In response to questions at the February 28 State Department press briefing, Richard Boucher agreed that the Islamic International Brigade “was created and led by Shamil Basaev.” But he said that the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment “has remained active under its new leader, Khamzat,” who is the former deputy of Movsar Baraev. A State Department fact sheet states that “in the same statement in which he attributed the Dubrovka Theater seizure to the Riyadus-Salikhin, Basaev resigned from all other positions he then held, including as Amir of the IIB, and declared that he would henceforth act only as Amir of the Riyadus-Salikhin.”
A Moscow source with a strong record of reliability, who requested anonymity, told Jamestown that all three organizations on the State Department list do indeed exist and that all of them have been involved in terrorist activities. None of them, he said, is subordinate to Aslan Maskhadov, the head of Chechnya’s underground separatist government.
The source said that the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment was created in 1997 by Chechen warlord Arbi Baraev, uncle of Movsar Baraev. Maskhadov ordered it to be disbanded in 1998, but by that time Baraev’s and Maskhadov’s troops had fought openly with each other and Baraev was no longer obeying Maskhadov’s orders. (The elder Baraev was killed in 2001.) The Islamic International Brigade, said the source, was under foreign-born rebel commander Khattab until his own death.
Aleksei Makarkin, chief political analyst for Moscow’s Center for Political Technology, wrote in an analysis published by the website Politcom.ru on March 3 that the two groups blacklisted by the Kremlin but not by the State Department are connected not only with Basaev but also with Movladi Udugov, the former propaganda minister for the separatist government. Makarkin concluded that the State Department had evidently decided to pin the formal “terrorist” label only on those groups that actually bear arms, and not on their ideological apologists. The Kremlin, by contrast, seems to be applying the term more broadly and trying to discredit a wider range of separatist groups. Another distinction, in Makarkin’s view, is that the State Department has so far blacklisted only those groups which it believes to be collaborating with al Qaeda.
Also acknowledging indirectly that the three groups do exist was Akhmed Zakaev, Maskhadov’s representative in Western Europe. He said in a press release: “I confirm that such marginal groups have appeared as a result of the cruel punitive acts by the Russian military on the territory of Chechnya. At the same time, we assert that the absolute majority of the Chechen Resistance is subordinate to President Maskhadov and has no connection with terrorist activities.”
Glen Howard, executive director of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the State Department’s announcement will probably make it harder to achieve a peaceful settlement in Chechnya. “There are some terrorist elements in Chechnya, and there are some elements that are very bad,” he said. “No one disputes that. But the problem [is] that this is going to further paint all Chechens as being part [of], [or] affiliated with, terrorist organizations. And it’s going to make it much more difficult for Russians in Moscow who are opposed to the war to step forward to promote a peaceful resolution to the war.”
Under Executive Order 13224 on the financing of terrorist organizations, the formal addition of a group to the blacklist blocks all its financial assets in the United States. These three Chechen groups probably have no such assets, but the order also prohibits anyone in the United States from donating any funds, goods or services to them. The State Department is also making a formal request–in tandem with Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China and Spain–that the United Nations add the three groups to its own blacklist. This would oblige all U.N. member states to impose similar sanctions on them.
In his February 28 statement announcing the decision, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said “At the same time, we do not consider all Chechen fighters to be terrorists. It remains our position that the broader conflict in Chechnya cannot be resolved militarily and requires a political solution. We have made this point repeatedly to the Russians. We urge Russia to pursue a political settlement and to establish meaningful accountability for human rights violations by its armed forces in Chechnya. We also condemn acts of terrorism and other abuses committed by armed Chechen groups.”
Boucher said that the State Department had also found links between all three Chechen groups and the global terrorist network al Qaeda. The State Department fact sheet on the three groups states that not only did they seek financial and personnel support from al Qaeda, but that “the support was often reciprocated. Al Qaeda’s select ‘055 Brigade,’ which fought against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, included a number of Chechens, many of whom were likely followers of Basaev, Baraev and Khattab. Then SPIR [Special Purpose Islamic Regiment] commander Arbi Baraev sent at least one group of his fighters to train in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan in the spring of 2001. In October 2001, Khattab sent additional fighters to Afghanistan and promised to pay the volunteers’ families a substantial monthly stipend or a large lump-sum payment in the event of their death.”
Nevertheless, independent observers have pointed out that of the hundreds of Muslim militants captured in Afghanistan by U.S. troops, not one is a Chechen. The prison at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Navy base in Cuba, designated specifically for the most hardcore militants, has received eight citizens of the Russian Federation; all of them are from provinces other than Chechnya.
In his statement released in London, Zakaev charged that the State Department’s list “is undoubtedly incomplete. We regret that it doesn’t include the main terrorist force acting in Chechnya–the Russian occupation power. On its conscience are thousands of innocent victims, both Chechens and Russians. The terrorist activity of the Federal forces has increased in recent days, in connection with the preparation for the so-called referendum. Murders and disappearances of civilian citizens have increased in frequency. Punitive units and secret ‘death squads’ are active all over Chechnya; it’s their purpose to terrorize the civilian population in order to force it to submit to the aggression.”