THE MURKY LIFE AND DEATH OF WAHHABI FIELD COMMANDER ARBI BARAEV.
Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 2 Issue: 26
On June 24, the Combined Group of Russian Forces announced that earlier in the day it had killed the notorious kidnapper and Wahhabi field commander, Arbi Baraev, a man who, according to the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, “had personally participated in the murders of 170 persons” (Krasnaya Zvezda, 26 June). The FSB at first chose denied this information. Finally, at 10:00 p.m. on June 224 it was announced that Baraev’s body had been definitely located and had been officially identified (Gazeta.ru, June 25; Lenta.ru, June 26).
The Russian power ministers were notably upbeat over this development. “The minister of defense of the Russian Federation, Sergei Ivanov,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported on June 27, “announced that such operations would continue until the full neutralization of the chieftains of the rebels…. The Minister of Internal Affairs of Russia, Boris Gryzlov, who yesterday reported to the head of state [Putin] about the work which had been accomplished, also remarked that ‘the destruction of the heads of the bandit operations has now assumed top priority.'” Representatives of the Russian power ministries reported that Baraev had been killed as the result of a carefully targeted “special operation” conducted in the villages of Alkhan-Kala, Alkhan-Yurt, Kulary and Ermolovsky, all located just to the west of the capital. According to General Oleg Aksenov of the Information Department of the MVD, the killing of Baraev was the result of a joint effort, lasting from June 19 to June 24, by the MVD and the FSB (Novye Izvestia, June 26).
“The Russian federal troops,” Kommersant reported on June 26, “launched pinpoint missile strikes against Baraev’s ancestral lands, including the villages of Alkhan-Kala, Alkhan-Yurt Kulary and Ermolovsky, a week ago. Twenty-three houses where the terrorist and his men could have been hiding were destroyed in the first days of the attack. The federal troops met practically no resistance…. Baraev’s dead body was found in the ruins of a house destroyed by a direct missile hit in Alkhan-Kala…. For some reason the retreating rebels left Baraev’s body to the federal forces.”
The village where Baraev was said to have been killed was tightly sealed off by federal troops. One enterprising journalist working for Kommersant, Sergei Dyupin, managed, however, to interview a resident of the village, Alpatu Khadisova, who, together with two children, had managed to make her way out of the blockaded village. “I have never seen so much armor and so many soldiers in our village,” she observed. The village, she said, had been entered by more than 100 armored vehicles coming from the direction of the capital alone. “Each street and each corner was occupied by soldiers. Helicopters constantly circled over the village. Even at night people feared to emerge from their basements” (Kommersant, June 26).
From Khadisova’s words, it seemed that a classical military “mopping up operation,” complete with the plundering of the possessions of local residents, and not a pinpoint assassination attempt on Baraev, had been conducted. “The military set fire to many houses on the street where Baraev and his bodyguards lived,” she said. “Moving along the street, the soldiers entered into each house and, if there were no one present, they set it on fire. If the soldiers found grown men in a house, they took them off to a filtration point.” The Russian soldiers, Khadisova recalled, came several times to her house: “They asked me where the men were and where the weapons were. They turned the house upside down looking for valuables.”
A leading specialist on Chechnya, journalist Sanobar Shermatova, suggested on the pages of Moskovskie Novosti (no. 26) that the version put out by the federal authorities could be flawed and inaccurate. “A Chechen source,” she wrote, “imparted sensational news to Moskovskie novosti. According to him, on the night of the 23rd to the 24th of June, Baraev and several persons from his guard, including the cashier Timur Autaev, were quickly led away from his home to the [Russian military] commandant’s office located on the edge of the village of Alkhan-Kala. There the baraevtsy stayed during the cleansing of the village, after which they were brought to the neighboring village of Kulary, to a safe place.” If this version were correct–and at this juncture one must be agnostic concerning that point–then Baraev would presumably have been murdered by Russian soldiers or police supposed to be protecting him, with his body then being placed in the ruined building in Alkhan-Kala.
Arbi Baraev, to offer a thumbnail biography of the now-deceased field commander, was born in 1973 into a poor family living in Alkhan-Kala. His father, Alaudi, had been born in exile in Kazakhstan. The younger Baraev received no education whatsoever. His maternal uncle, who later became a vice president of separatist Chechnya, Vakha Arsanov, got Arbi a job in the traffic police and then, in 1991, brought him on board as a personal bodyguard. Later, Arsanov gave Baraev to the acting vice president of Chechnya, Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, as a bodyguard. It was Yandarbiev “who turned the uneducated village youth into a fierce adherent of ‘pure Islam’ (the term ‘Wahhabi’ was not current at that time).” During the conflict of 1994-1996, Baraev founded and headed an “Islamic Special Purpose Regiment.” Following the war, Aslan Maskhadov, “who did not sympathize with Baraev,” demoted him to the ranks and attempted to dissolve his regiment by presidential decree (Izvestia and Novye Izvestia, June 26). Following the first war, Baraev acquired fame and notoriety by engaging in kidnapping and the slave trade, actions strongly disapproved of by the Maskhadov leadership. (Moskovskie novosti, no. 26)
A number of Russian commentators who chose to air their views on the occasion of Baraev’s death emphasized his strange but indisputable links to the Russian federal authorities.
“On November 12 ,” Izvestia recalled, “a special unit of the GRU in one of the apartments of House No. 52 on Pervomaiskaya Street in Grozny took several rebels into custody. According to several sources, Baraev was one of them.” The GRU was then ordered by their superiors to release Baraev and the other fighters (Izvestia, June 25).
“In Chechnya,” the weekly Obshchaya gazeta (no. 26) wrote, “there have long circulated rumors concerning the strange contacts of Baraev with representatives of the Russian power structures. In particular, the residents of his native Alkhan-Kala spoke about this–in their words, Baraev maintained that, while he was present in the village, there would be no [Russian] mopping up operations. And so it always was-until this last time.”
“Two or three months ago,” the well-known Duma deputy Sergei Kovalev told Moskovsky Komsomolets (June 26 issue), “I knew exactly where Baraev was living…. Excuse me, is it possible that I knew that and that [FSB director] Patrushev did not?”
“Why did Baraev feel so free,” Sanobar Shermatova asked on the pages of Moskovskie Novosti (no. 26), “that during the second Chechen campaign he was even able to noisily celebrate two weddings in his own house in Alkhan-Kala? Why at [Russian military and police] checkpoints was he able to present documents of such quality that the soldiers would salute him?”
“For more than a year,” Anna Politkovskaya remarked in Novaya Gazeta (June 28), “there continued something improbable: Baraev lived untouched by mopping up operations and surrounded by [Russian] checkpoints. His house was bypassed by those who would then impudently break into a neighbor’s home and engage in looting. His car, no matter what it looked like–for example, without license plates-was never touched by the military. And how could they touch him? On the windshield of Baraev’s vehicle there was a pass, regularly renewed, which stated that the driver was free ‘to go everywhere’–the most cherished and respected pass there is in the Combined Group of [Russian] Forces.”
“The Russian special services,” journalist Il’ya Maksakov commented on the pages of Nezavisimaya Gazeta (June 26), “are absolutely justified in speaking of their achievement [in killing Baraev]. It is only unclear why such an operation was not conducted earlier. It is known precisely that Baraev never hid from anyone; his fellow villagers saw him in his own house literally every day, but the Russian special services were for a long time unable to ‘locate’ him. It is noteworthy that even official sources of information point out that, through his designated representatives, Baraev established informal ties with persons close to the power structures in Moscow.”
Why, then, did the Russian special services finally decide that it was time to eliminate Baraev? Baraev’s men, Anna Politkovskaya notes, were in effect Russian provocateurs, “serving the task of continuing the war-precisely his rebels were declared responsible for explosions, murders, and executions.” During the month of June 2001, however, the Russian special services have apparently begun “the destruction of their network of agents” in Chechnya. Three leading FSB Chechen informers and agents in Vedeno District (whom Politkovskaya names) were assassinated in June, almost certainly, she contends, by the federal forces. The destruction of key Russian agents, Politkovskaya speculates, suggests that “the end of the war is approaching.” Soon, she predicts, Baraev’s fate may be shared by Shamil Basaev (Novaya Gazeta, no. 44).
Journalist Evgeny Krutikov wrote in a similar vein on the pages of Izvestia (June issue): “Former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov is again emerging as the only possible negotiator for the Chechen separatists. Arresting or killing more Chechen field commanders, like Shamil Basaev or the Jordanian zealot known as Khattab, will clear the terrain around Maskhadov, relieving him of the pressure exerted by the most extremist and irreconcilable rebel groups.”
Basically agreeing with Krutikov’s opinion, Il’ya Maksakov observed in the June 27 issue of Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “No matter how paradoxical it may seem, precisely with the activization of the special operations has the question of negotiations with Aslan Maskhadov again become actual.” Unfortunately, Maksakov went on to add: “Once again the aide to the president, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, has announced that in Moscow they consider it senseless to negotiate with the leader of the former regime of Ichkeria,” and that therefore it is “only a procurator who can talk [with Maskhadov].” Moscow, one can conclude, has thus not yet taken a firm decision on this key issue.