U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the state television channel Rossiya in an interview broadcast on February 21 that Washington would soon be formally adding three Chechen organizations to its official list of terrorist organizations. To put an organization into this category automatically triggers certain penalties, such as the freezing of its bank accounts and other financial assets in the United States. However, independent specialists consider it most unlikely that any of the three groups has such assets. Powell did not name the groups, but Russian officials have been seeking U.S. action against groups that they have identified as 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.”
Agence France-Presse, which received an advance transcript of the Powell television interview, reported on February 21 that a U.S. official said that the groups would be placed on the joint blacklist of the U.S. State and Treasury departments. “Diplomatic sources” told AFP that all three groups are led by separatist warlord Shamil Basaev. The British agency Reuters learned, also from an anonymous U.S. government source, that Washington is also “consulting with other governments about placing these groups on various international listings on terrorist organizations.”
Moscow political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky said to AFP that Powell’s announcement “is part of a bargaining process that has been going on for six months,” one in which Washington is trying “to ensure that Moscow will present the least possible obstacles” to US military strikes on Iraq.
In a February 24 telephone interview with Jamestown, Musa Muradov, who writes extensively about Chechnya for the Moscow daily Kommersant, said that at least two of the three Chechen groups “exist only on paper,” and that he is certain that none of them have any foreign structures or assets such as bank accounts that could be frozen by the U.S. government. He agreed that all are closely linked to Basaev.
Of the “Battalion of Shaheed Suicide Bombers,” Muradov said that “it would be hard to call it an organization; it has no structure.” This group arose, he told Jamestown, after last October’s raid on a Moscow theater by Chechen militants–a raid for which Basaev took responsibility. According to Muradov’s account, Basaev responded to Maskhadov’s denunciation of the raid by announcing that he would henceforth act independently of Maskhadov as head of this newly formed “Battalion.” The Moscow journalist said that the entity is so formless that it cannot even be compared with the highly decentralized Al Qaida of Osama bin Laden. “It is more like Palestinian suicide bombers,” he said. But while lacking conventional assets such as bank accounts, it may receive financial support from Arab groups, possibly including funds raised ostensibly for humanitarian aid for Chechen refugees but diverted to military activities.
The “Congress of the Peoples of Ichkeria and Dagestan” is older, said Muradov. It dates back to 1998, when Basaev and Chechen militant Movladi Udugov were planning to unite Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan under a single government. It was an organization of radical Islamists sharply opposed to Maskhadov, he said; “it had some meetings in 1998 and 1999, but not since then.” Though Basaev was formally its military leader, it had no armed forces of its own and “existed mostly on paper.” Muradov does not believe that this group exists today.
As for the “Supreme Military Mejlis-ul-Shura-United Force of the Caucasian Mujahadeen,” Muradov said that it arose in 1999 as a vehicle for Basaev to undermine Maskhadov by challenging the very office that the latter holds. Basaev took the view, which according to Muradov is formally correct from the standpoint of Islam’s traditional “Sharia” law, that the office of president is contrary to the Sharia code and should therefore be abolished. This entity still has something of a real, concrete existence, said Muradov, though only within Chechnya; essentially it is Basaev’s own legislature and Sharia court, parallel to the parliament and judges of the elected government headed by Maskhadov.
Jamestown also reached Thomas de Waal of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London. He is the author of many articles as well as a book about the Chechen conflict, and agreed with Muradov that the word “organization” is misleading in the context of Basaev’s groups. He said that it would be better for the State Department and others to focus on individuals rather than on these shadowy entities. De Waal dislikes the word “terrorist,” he said, but if one had to use it he would classify Basaev as one.
In Muradov’s view, the flow of support between Basaev’s followers and foreign Muslims is essentially a one-way street: Financial support flows to the Chechen guerrillas from the Middle East, but the Chechens do not go off to fight in places such as Afghanistan. He said that at most there are only a few “individual fanatics” from Chechnya helping the Taliban, not any systematic “export” of such people: “After all, they have enough opportunities to fight at home.” De Waal agreed that Arab help for the Chechens mostly takes the form of money, not troops. He estimated the maximum possible number of anti-Moscow foreign guerrillas in Chechnya and Georgia at “a couple of hundred.” Many of them, he said, never make it all the way to Chechnya across the mountainous border.
A pro-Putin website in Russia, Utro.ru, stated that the Russian government provided Washington with information about the three groups to “help the State Department make its decision.” According to Utro, the Congress of Peoples of Ichkeria and Dagestan has “direct ties with Aslan Maskhadov,” but the website failed to provide specific evidence of this.
Powell’s exact words in his Russian television interview, as released by the State Department, were as follows: “We are very sensitive to the threat that Chechen terrorists present to Russia. I’ve spoken with Mr. Ivanov [that is, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov] about it many times and with Mr. Putin many times. Recently, we added three organizations to our terrorist list, three Chechen organizations, and we are doing everything we can, working with Georgian authorities and we’re working with our Russian colleagues to help them in the war against terrorism, but, at the same time, seeing whether or not a peaceful solution can be found to the situation in Chechnya. We know how deeply felt this situation is to all Russians, especially after the tragedy that occurred in the theater in Moscow. And so I stay in very close conversation and touch with Foreign Minister Ivanov on this matter.”
From Moscow’s standpoint, it would appear that the State Department’s decision is only a first step. Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign-relations committee of the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament), told a Washington press conference on February 25 that Russia will continue to press for Western condemnation of other Chechen separatist entities.