Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 187

The Kremlin has continued to press its campaign to tar the Chechen rebels with the Osama bin Laden brush. Presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky said yesterday that Russia’s special services had information showing that “the links of the [Chechen] separatists with international Islamic terrorists is one of the main factors [in] destabilizing… the North Caucasus [in general] and the Chechen republic in particular.” Yastrzhembsky claimed that the main area of cooperation between the Chechen rebels and international terrorist organizations has been in recruiting foreign “mercenaries” to fight in Chechnya. Some 800 fighters from the Middle East and Far East were in Chechnya at the start of the current Russian military campaign there, Yastrzhembsky said. After the Chechen rebels suffered losses, Khattab, the rebel field commander said to hail either from Saudi Arabia or Jordan, appealed for aid to various Islamic extremist organizations based in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including bin Laden’s International Islamic Front for Holy War Against Jews and Crusaders. Fighters of various nationalities were sent to Chechnya from Afghanistan via Azerbaijan and Georgia, Yastrzhembsky claimed. He said that no more than 200 foreigners are fighting with the Chechen rebels at the moment.

He also said that 350 fighters were trained for fighting in Chechnya at three training camps in Afghanistan (one near Kabul, the other two in the Khost region), 300 of whom went to the North Caucasus. Yastrzhembsky claimed that the fighters trained in bin Laden’s camps were distinguished by “extreme cruelty”–and, by way of illustration, alleged that Arab fighters who had received serious shrapnel wounds during bombardment by federal forces in Chechnya’s Gudermes and Shelkovsk districts were “finished off” by their own comrades. Yastrzhembsky listed Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Afghanistan and Pakistan among the countries of origin of the foreigners who have fought on the side of the Chechen rebels. Asked to provide examples, the presidential aide named an Iraqi, an Azerbaijani, two Jordanians and a Saudi, all of whom were captured by federal forces in Chechnya during 1999-2000.

Yastrzhembsky also claimed that Khattab is “a representative of the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood”–one of the Middle East’s oldest Islamic fundamentalist organzations–and that until recently Khatab’s inner circle was made up of a small group of Arab fighters “close” to Osama bin Laden. Three of these Arab fighters were killed over the last year; one continues to work with Khattab (Izvestia.ru, October 10). For his part, Khattab told the Qatar-based website Kavkaz.org that he knew Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan, when both fought on the side of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet occupation, but that he had not seen or spoken with bin Laden for eight years. He called the Saudi-born terrorist “a good mujahid and scholar” and a “very decent” person (Kavkaz.org, October 10).

Aslan Maskhadov, who in the past has come into conflict with Islamist rebel leaders like Khattab and Shamil Basaev, claimed in an interview published this week that “the role of mercenaries and fanatics in the Chechen war is greatly exaggerated.” Maskhadov said that foreign fighters had not played a major role in either the first Chechen war (1994-1996) or the current one. He also warned the foreign fighters that the rebel leadership would deal with anyone who placed themselves “above the law” or prevented it from “building a peaceful life” (Kommersant-Vlast, October 9).

At the same time, it should be noted that both radical rebel leaders like Basaev and media connected to Maskhadov have come out in support of Afghanistan’s Taliban–the only government in the world to have recognized Chechnya’s declaration of independence from Russia–in its war with the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition. The Chechenpress news agency, which represents Maskhadov’s self-proclaimed government of Ichkeria, ran a commentary yesterday accusing the United States and Great Britain of having ordered the air strikes on Afghanistan without having proven that the Taliban was involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Chechenpress accused the United States of employing a classical “colonialist” carrot-and-stick strategy in Afghanistan by first dropping food parcels and then “dropping the ‘humanitarian cargo’ of countless bombs on the Afghans’ cities and kishlaki [villages]” (Chechenpress, October 10).