Easily the most important event in Chechnya since the last issue of this Weekly, published just before Christmas, took place on December 27, when three unidentified terrorists drove their bomb-laden vehicles into the Grozny headquarters complex of the Moscow-appointed Chechnya administration. The attack marked a new milestone in the downward spiral of terror and counterterror: the first clear use of Arab-style suicide tactics. As Moscow military analyst Alexander Zhilin observed, its success “testifies to the fact that the [Russian forces] do not control anything in Chechnya, not even their own HQ.”
Conflicting versions of the attack continue to circulate. Akhmed Dakayev, chief of staff of the Interior Ministry for Chechnya, told the press that the suicide bombers were subordinates of a supposedly Arab terrorist named Abu al Valid, who he said had planned the operation together with Shamil Basaev. Dakayev said that the bombers managed to get past all obstacles so easily because they were dressed in Russian military uniforms with officers’ insignia, their two vehicles had military license plates, they presented proper identification papers and official passes, and they did not look like Chechens.
Correspondent Sanobar Shermatova of the weekly “Moskovskie Novosti” challenged the official version in a detailed article published at the end of December. The official version, she wrote, claims that Russian forces had already killed a supposed “Arab mercenary” Abu-Tarik, but that he had already planned the December 27 bombing attack which his gang then proceeded to execute. According to the official version, Starye Atagi (about ten miles south of Grozny) has been used by the Chechen separatists as a headquarters from which to direct various guerrilla operations, including those in Grozny itself.
According to Shermatova, other Russian sources directly contradict the official version. Some say the suicide bombing was the work of Chechen fighters under the command of Ruslan (Khamzat) Gelaev, who in October infiltrated Chechnya from Georgia’s Pankisi gorge through Ingushetia. Russian commanders thought that they had successfully bottled up Gelaev’s forces in the area of Bamut (just inside Chechnya’s western border). In fact, however, Gelaev’s men were able to penetrate into the depths of Chechnya, planning to unite various scattered separatist groups under his leadership in direct competition with Aslan Maskhadov, who had earlier demoted Gelaev.
In any case, wrote Shermatova, the December 27 attack in Grozny took place prematurely. A meeting of all the pro-Moscow city mayors and heads of local districts from across Chechnya had been scheduled to take place at 3:00 that afternoon; addressing them would be Stanislav Ilyasov, the new federal minister for Chechnya. But the bombs went off at 2:20 p.m., before most of the meeting’s participants had arrived.
It is no surprise that the suicide bombers could easily have purchased authentic, “iron-clad” identification documents–not counterfeits–from corrupt officials, Shermatova wrote. “But if the kamikazes did indeed display such documents, then it was hardly international terrorists or Arab mercenary Abu-Tarik who took part in planning the terrorist attack. The general opinion of the [pro-Moscow] Chechen bureaucrats is that ‘It was not managed without betrayal [from within].’ The only question is, Will they find the betrayers? After all, so far they have managed to find neither those who sell Russian arms to Chechen fighters, nor those federal officials who provide their adversaries with ‘iron-clad’ passes.”
The Russian authorities, however, claim to be on top of the situation. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told the press on January 5 that “We know who is behind the terrorist act in Grozny, but one must not talk about it before the bandits face justice.”