WHERE IS “ABUBAKAR?”
Was the October 2002 terrorist attack on Moscow’s Dubrovka theater provoked, or at least manipulated, by double agents working for the Russian authorities? Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya gazeta has already raised that possibility (see Chechnya Weekly, April 29), asking questions that the authorities have yet to answer. Now a reporter for another Russian newspaper claims to have received information that pinpoints the identity of the shadowy figure who really led the October attack, and that demonstrates the authorities are obstructing efforts to bring that man to justice.
According to an article by Aleksandr Khinshtein in the May 23 issue of Moskovsky komsomolets, criminal investigators in the Russian capital have confirmed (as the weekly Moskovskie novosti had suggested on April 29) that the main organizer of last October’s terrorist attack on Moscow’s Dubrovka theater was a certain “Abubakar.” Khinshtein wrote that his sources told him that “Abubakar” is in fact a native of Chechnya named Ruslan Elmurzaev. This Elmurzaev was said to be the key figure behind several other terrorist attacks in Moscow as well, including an explosion in Pushkin Square three years ago.
Khinshtein avoided specifically labeling Abubakar/Elmurzaev as a double agent. But the reporter insisted that this mysterious figure had managed, somehow, to leave the theater before it was stormed by Russian commandos–and that the authorities have shown a striking lack of zeal in pursuing him. “Every effort should have been mounted to capture him,” wrote Khinshtein, “even closing Russia’s borders; after all this is not some petty thief but one of the most bloodstained criminals on earth. His name was already known to the procuracy: He is really Ruslan Elmurzaev, 30-years-old, born in Urus-Martan, a former police employee. But even to this day he is not on any official most wanted list; in spite of the huge weight of evidence, he has not even been formally accused of anything.”
Khinshtein suggested that the importance of Abubakar/Elmurzaev should have been clear even when the Dubrovka episode occurred. At the time, the prominent Chechen singer Iosif Kobzon and the Russian filmmaker and politician Stanislav Govorukhin recounted how they negotiated with someone named “Abubakar,” who acted as if he, rather than the relatively young “wolf-cub” Movsar Baraev, was the real leader of the Chechen hostage-takers. The reporter acknowledged that two different passports with Abubakar’s photo had been found among the bodies of the hostage-takers after Russian commandos stormed the theater. But Khinshtein claimed that, according to his sources, detailed analysis by police investigators had shown that “Abubakar” in fact had managed to escape.
The “main hero” among these investigators, according to Khinshtein, is one Yevgeny Taratorin. He recently headed the Moscow city directorate of internal affairs for terrorism, but was removed from that position by the procuracy and is now the focus of what Khinshtein obviously regards as a trumped-up criminal investigation. (Khinshtein understandably refrained from specifically identifying Taratorin as one of his sources.) In Khinshtein’s and his sources’ view, the Moscow terrorism directorate clearly established close links between the Dubrovka episode and a car-bomb attack on a McDonald’s restaurant in southwestern Moscow that took place just a few days earlier. The organizers of these attacks, according to this version, also planned several other attacks, including a car-bombing of the Tchaikovsky concert hall in downtown Moscow. This last attack was supposed to take place at the same time as the McDonald’s blast but failed because the bomb did not explode.
A breakthrough in the McDonald’s case, wrote Khinshtein, came earlier this month when a certain “Zaurbek” (not his real name) was arrested in Ingushetia. It was “Zaurbek” who recruited the man who provided the used car in which the McDonald’s bomb was planted.
Moscow detectives had already established in October that the car’s previous owner had sold it to someone who gave a false name, but whose telephone number they were able to retrieve from the electronic memory of the seller’s mobile telephone. The number turned out to be that of Aslan Murdalov, a small-time Chechen criminal who had lived in Moscow for a decade. He was soon arrested, but the detectives quickly realized that he was not one of the main organizers of the McDonald’s car-bombing. On the very next day, when the Dubrovka hostage-takers seized the theater, the detectives immediately suspected that the two episodes were connected.
Also organized by that same terrorist circle, according to Khinshtein’s sources, was the bombing of a busy underground pedestrian crossing at Moscow’s Pushkin Square in August of the year 2000. “It has become reliably known to us that one of those who planted the bomb in the underground crossing was the now well-known Movsar Baraev. In order to be convinced of this one need only compare the photo or Baraev with the Identikit picture of the criminal put together three years ago.” The photos were included in Khinshtein’s article (available on the Moskovsky komsomolets website), and the similarity is indeed striking.
Further links emerged on October 28 and 29 when detectives arrested two additional organizers of the McDonald’s bombing, the brothers Akhyad and Alikhan Mezhiev. They found evidence that the small-time criminal Murdalov had introduced the younger of these brothers about nine months earlier to a certain “Zaurbek.” This person then pressured Mezhiev to take part in a terrorist operation, threatening reprisals against his relatives in Chechnya. At one of their meetings, “Zaurbek” was joined by a certain “Abubakar.”
According to the version supplied to Khinshtein, it was “Zaurbek” who provided both a phony passport and US$2,500 to buy two cars for two separate car-bombings. But “Zaurbek” fled Moscow just after the McDonald’s attack, knowing that the Dubrovka attack would be next. “At the last moment he lost his nerve,” wrote the reporter. When the planned car-bombing of the Tchaikovsky concert hall failed (the bomb’s timing mechanism malfunctioned), it was “Abubakar” who retrieved the bomb so that it could be used in the Dubrovka attack.
It was also “Abubakar” who entrusted two Chechen women to the younger Mezhiev’s care just before the Dubrovka attack. The women were wearing special belts attached to explosives, and “Abubakar” ordered Mezhiev to take them to some crowded place where they could blow themselves up and thus distract the attention of the Russian security agencies. Soon afterward Mezhiev heard over the radio about the attack on the theater; at that point his courage abandoned him and he failed to carry out the assignment from “Abubakar.” Two days later he put the women onto a train to Ingushetia. Soon thereafter their explosive belts were collected from him by a man named “Khampash.”
Khinshtein’s sources told him that this “Khampash” was arrested a month later, together with yet another organizer of the terrorist attacks, retired GRU (Russia’s military counter-intelligence agency) major Arman Menkeev, at their base in the village of Chernoe just outside Moscow. While “Khampash” was being driven under guard back to Moscow, he offered the detectives a bribe of half a million dollars for his release.
Three months ago, Khinshtein’s “main hero,” Taratorin, discussed the McDonald’s bombing in an interview with television journalist Aleksei Pimanov. According to Khinshtein, Taratorin told viewers nothing important that was not already publicly known. But soon afterward the procuracy nonetheless opened a criminal investigation against him for allegedly revealing secrets from the investigation. Pimanov called that allegation “complete nonsense.”
Unlike Politkovskaya, Khinshtein refrained from offering larger theories about the cover-up. He closed his article by asking, “Who benefits if terrorists stroll about in freedom while detectives take their places on prison bunks? Who benefits if criminal investigations fall apart? I ask myself that question, but I cannot find an answer–or more precisely, I dare not speak that answer aloud, even to myself.”