Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 170

Summing up his meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton in New Zealand, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said: “We have a common enemy–international terrorism.” Putin said he told Clinton that the notorious international terrorist Osama Bin Laden was connected to “the events in Chechnya and Dagestan.” Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo said much the same in a telephone conversation last week with Federal Bureau Investigation Director Louis Freeh (see the Monitor, September 9). Washington views this claim very seriously. Both Clinton and Freeh promised to support the government in all questions involving the fight against terrorism (Kommersant, September 14).

At the end of last week, the trail of Bin Laden was also discovered in Central Asia. Valery Verchagin, Russia’s first deputy prime minister in charge of national security, stated that there was evidence that Bin Laden was behind both the fighters in Dagestan and the guerrillas who penetrated Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan (Kommersant, September 14).

Bin Laden reportedly commands a veritable army, numbering around 10,000 men. Units of this army operate in various parts of the world, from Algeria to the North Caucasus and Central Asia, and Bin Laden is represented in these places by emissaries. His emissary in the North Caucasus is Khattab, whom Bin Laden met in Afghanistan in 1987. Khattab’s link to Bin Laden gave him access to financial resources which allowed him to win such a strong position in Chechnya. Last year Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov tried to ban Wahabbism and expel Khattab from Chechnya, but, under the pressure of Chechen field commanders, was forced to back off. The ultimate goal of Bin Laden’s push into the former Soviet states is apparently to establish control of the region surrounding the Caspian Sea (Kommersant, September 14).

It cannot, however, be ruled out that in pointing a finger at Bin Laden, the Kremlin is simply trying to justify its own helplessness. At any rate, during the Chechen war, Chechen fighters did not receive most of their material aid from Middle Eastern Islamic radicals. The main source of support for the Chechen resistance fighters was their fellow countrymen living in the rest of Russia. The support was provided through a rather simple scheme: Chechen mafia groups in Russian cities collected “tribute” from Chechen businessmen located there, and used the proceeds to buy weapons from the Russian military. A similar scheme seems to operating in connection with the current conflict in Dagestan. The fighters in Dagestan are said to be armed largely with Russian weapons manufactured this year (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 15).