Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 18

In some few respects–indeed, fewer even than a year ago–Shamil Basaev remains a traditional Chechen rebel rather than a postmodern global terrorist. For one, he takes full, public and personal responsibility for his atrocities. That fact alone casts doubt on the Kremlin’s attempts to create the impression that the Chechen separatist movement (of which Basaev in any case represents only a part) is simply an arm of al Qaeda. Another difference is that Basaev has not followed al Qaeda’s recent switch to soft targets. A pair of mid-May attacks, which Basaev publicly claimed as his own on May 19, were directed against two of the most heavily defended entities in hyper-militarized Chechnya–a key regional headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB) secret police, and the person of the head of the republic’s Moscow-appointed administration.

In other respects, however, the Basaev of 2003 is not the same man as the Basaev of 1995 or even 1999. His most recent attacks have shown an increasing callousness toward the lives of civilian bystanders, even when those civilians have been his fellow Chechens. Both the May 12 attack on the district headquarters of the FSB secret police in Znamenskoe and the May 14 assault on Akhmad Kadyrov, amid a crowd of religious pilgrims in Plaskhan-Yurt, were carefully planned. This is usually the case with Basaev’s operations. They are also typically planned in such a way as to make large numbers of civilian deaths inevitable. The FSB headquarters in Znamenskoe stands amid other bureaucratic offices, many with peaceful functions, such as agriculture. In any case, even the FSB was likely on a Monday morning to have rank-and-file civilian visitors, such as parents seeking information about their “disappeared” sons. The May 14 assassination attempt on Kadyrov took place at a traditional Chechen religious festival, one that has always attracted thousands of Muslim pilgrims–even if the festival was tainted this year by the sponsorship of the country’s leading pro-Putin political party. Thanks to the ruthlessness of both Kadyrov and Basaev, the Chechen conflict is becoming ever more a civil war among the Chechens themselves, though it is still mainly a war for national independence.

As Orkhan Dzhemal observed in an article for the May 14 issue of Novaya gazeta, the apparent “cynicism” of Basaev’s bombing attack during the festival of Sheikh Kunta-Khadzhi Kishiev, which this year coincided with the celebration of Mohammed’s birth, “perhaps can be explained…by the fact that far from all Muslims share the same views about the holiday…In particular, the Wahhabis believe the holiday to be an “unclean” innovation, a relatively recent imitation of the Christian feast of the Nativity of Jesus; the Wahhabis are also extremely critical of Sufism.”

The May 14 bombing in particular can thus be seen as another step in the “Arabization” of Basaev and his allies.

Dzhemal wrote his article before the militantly pro-separatist website Kavkaz-Tsentr, on May 19, published the statement from Basaev in which he “officially” embraced responsibility for both of the previous week’s attacks. Basaev called both attacks “successful,” despite their failure to kill either Kadyrov or the head of the Znamenskoe district FSB, Mairbek Khusiev. His statement included a personal denunciation of the latter. In Basaev’s words, Khusiev and his subordinates have “distinguished themselves by special cruelty toward all who have fallen into their security sweeps (“zachistki”). They have also, he said, won renown all over the republic of Chechnya-Ichkeria for their refined tortures and insults and also for their extra-judicial punishments.”

Basaev attempted to give his terrorist attacks on fellow Chechens the same moral and political basis as his attacks on Russians. He also tried to refute the nearly universal view that such attacks are a fundamentally new tactic. “We have warned many times, and we now warn again, all peaceful citizens: Do not approach near to these national traitors [Kadyrov and his supporters], do not live next to them or next to the places where they are stationed, do not travel with them–because we will not stop our struggle when they try to shield themselves with peaceful citizens….We assert our right to take any means necessary in order to stop the genocide of the Chechen people and to liberate our homeland from the foreign yoke.”

In a chilling coda, Basaev warned that “these two military-sabotage actions of our suicide warriors are only a small part of the operations which we have planned for this year under the code name ‘Anti-terror Whirlwind.’ Let Allah grant that this whirlwind will rage everywhere.”

In another contrast with al Qaeda, Basaev went out of his way to claim an even greater degree of personal responsibility for the December bombing of the Kadyrov administration’s Grozny headquarters complex. In a separate statement reproduced by the Kavkaz-Tsentr website, he said that he personally had pushed the remote-control button that detonated the explosives on the suicide drivers’ vehicles. He even seemed to take personal offense at the Russian authorities’ failure to pronounce him guilty immediately. “The Russian authorities issued a statement,” he wrote, “saying that if my direct involvement in the blast of that cesspool is proven, then a criminal prosecution will be launched against me. Thus, in spite of my own statement published on the pages of the media of the State Defense Council (Majlis al-Shura) of the Chechen Republic and on Chechen websites, the Russian authorities have apparently decided to maintain my ‘presumption of innocence.'” (Yet another contrast worth mentioning here is that, to this date, neither Basaev nor any other Chechen rebel leader has ever claimed responsibility for the 1999 apartment bombings that the Kremlin has always blamed on the rebels–even while thwarting a full investigation of them.)

It would seem that Basaev’s new tactics, and new ideological justifications for them, represent not the absorption by Chechens of the al Qaeda mentality, but the “Palestinization” of the Chechen war. That is, it is a national conflict that has turned ever more bitter over time, that has become ever more prone to such methods as suicide bombings, and that is producing ever more young militants with whom negotiations look ever more hopeless. Anna Politkovskaya observed in the May 19 issue of Novaya gazeta that “after the referendum the situation there became even tenser than before, because that constitutional farce, which improved nothing, turned out to be even more agonizing and humiliating than the preceding years of the war. For those on the bottom, [there is] a complete sense of futility and helplessness–while a shower of lies about peace pours down from above onto soil made all too fertile…for glamorizing those who raided Moscow last October…a glamorization which has begun quickly to transform Chechnya into a second Palestine.”

In what has become a familiar pattern, Aslan Maskhadov repudiated terrorist attacks which have been committed in the name of his own cause of Chechen independence, but which he seemed unable to prevent. Responding to questions submitted by Reuters, he stated that he would never have ordered the murder of peaceful civilians or even of civilians working for the Kadyrov administration. “I am totally convinced that those who kill Chechnya’s civilians operate under the umbrella of Russian special forces with the aim of discrediting Chechen resistance fighters,” he said.

An official of the southern regional center of Russia’s Ministry for Emergency Situations told Interfax that, as of May 19, a total of seventy-six people had been killed by the two terrorist attacks of the previous week. Another 124 had been hospitalized.