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Analysis: Chechen Warlord Warns Of New Terrorist Attacks

  • Liz Fuller

Since masterminding the hostage taking in the south Russian town of Budennovsk in the summer of 1995, radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev has claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist acts that have claimed hundreds of Russian lives. His ill-fated incursion into Daghestan in August 1999 in the wake of an unsuccessful attempt to sideline Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov served as the rationale for the Russian leadership to launch its second war against Chechnya in October of that year under the pretext of combating terrorism.

Yet although he is routinely reviled by leading Russian politicians and has been designated an international terrorist by the United States, the Russian military have for five years failed to apprehend him, despite offering a reward of 300 million rubles (over $10 million) for information leading to his capture (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 September 2004). Basaev's seeming immunity has fuelled speculation in the Russian press that he may be acting at the behest of, and/or enjoy the protection of, the Federal Security Service (FSB).

On 31 October, chechenpress.info posted extensive replies from Basaev to questions submitted in mid-September by a Canadian journalist employed by Toronto's "The Globe and Mail." When the newspaper subsequently requested proof of the authenticity of Basaev's responses, Basaev's website (http://www.kavkaz-center.com) said that if the paper failed to publish the interview within three days, it would forfeit the exclusive rights to it. The website then posted the entire text of the interview, which runs to some 7,500 words.

Basaev fielded questions on a range of issues, ranging from the Beslan school hostage taking in early September and what he considers the international community's unpardonable complicity in war crimes committed by Russian forces in Chechnya, to episodes from his military activities over the past decade, included an ill-fated visit to Pakistan in the hope of learning from the experience of former Afghan mujahedin in shooting down Russian helicopters and ambushing Russian troops.
"I thought I was doing the Russians a favor by showing them the way out of a blind alley," Basaev said about Beslan.


Basaev professed to have been "shaken" by Moscow's response to the seizure by Basaev's men of some thousand hostages in Beslan in September, as he did not anticipate that Russian President Vladimir Putin would sacrifice the lives of children -- especially Ossetian children, given that Ossetia has always been a Russian ally in the North Caucasus. Basaev implied that he anticipated that Moscow would comply with the hostage takers' demand for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. "I thought I was doing the Russians a favor by showing them the way out of a blind alley," Basaev explained.

Basaev said that he regrets that "so many children died at the hands of the Russians" in Beslan, but that he does not regret the seizure of the school. Basaev then warned that as long as Russia continues to violate the Geneva Conventions, his fighters will do likewise. "It is the enemy who sets the limits to our actions, and we are free to resort to the methods and actions that the enemy first employed against us," including the use of chemical and biological weapons, Basaev argued. "We are ready, and want to wage war according to international law, it is even to our advantage to do so in terms of protecting the civilian population. But unlike President Maskhadov, we do not want to be the only side to espouse those tactics."

Basaev further warned that his men may resort to terrorism against the citizens of states whose leaders support Putin's Chechen policy.(In footage broadcast by Al-Jazeera in early July, however, Basaev said his men were not planning any attacks outside Russia.) Basaev said that if Putin had responded to his January appeal to abide by the Geneva Conventions, or if the international community had pressured Putin to make such a statement, then he would not have resorted either to the Beslan hostage taking or the Moscow subway bombing and the destruction of two Russian passenger aircraft in August.

Basaev said that he met in late July with Maskhadov, who has repeatedly insisted that the fighters under his command strictly observe the Geneva Conventions and refrain from targeting civilians, and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to persuade Maskhadov to switch tactics. He added that he hopes that Maskhadov may now do so after Russian intelligence rounded up 50 of his relatives in retaliation for Maskhadov's imputed complicity in the Beslan hostage taking.

Basaev responded in some detail to his interviewer's observation that in video footage of the 21-22 June raid on Interior Ministry facilities in Ingushetia Basaev appeared healthy and had no apparent problems in moving freely despite having had one leg amputated in the aftermath of the Chechen retreat from Grozny in February 2000. Basaev boasted that in contrast to the months following that retreat, when he admitted having wept at his own weakness, he has fully recovered from his wounds, and is now capable of walking up to 50 kilometers a night. He said he treats his wounds with pure honey, which he said is also efficacious in cases of poisoning together with a caraway concoction (he claimed that he has survived eight attempts to poison him over the past five years), while he doses himself with tetracycline hydrochloride together with the medication Doctor Mom for chills and flu. He said he never resorts to painkillers as "thanks be to Allah, I have a very high pain threshold."

Basaev denied that he personally receives much financial support from abroad, explaining that after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States "people are afraid" to give him donations and he is reluctant to ask for money. But he said other field commanders have their own sources of foreign funding, and that his men regularly seize funds destined for the pro-Moscow Chechen government. He repeated his earlier denials of any links with Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and also denied that his men include numerous foreign mercenaries. He claimed that "in my database I have extensive lists of people from all over the world who want to participate in the jihad in Chechnya, tens and hundreds of thousands of them, and not all Muslims." But, Basaev continued, he automatically rejects all such offers as "we have quite enough volunteers in Chechnya." He did not, however, shed any light on the claim by one young participant in the June raids in Ingushetia that hundreds of young Ingush, alienated by corruption and the routine kidnapping of young men by the FSB in Ingushetia, are flocking to fight under his banner.

Basaev praised the professionalism of his fighters, saying that they "are self-sufficient, fight independently [one detachment of another], every man in his place, you do not need to teach them anything." He said that he issues orders in writing, and does not need to confer personally with lower-level commanders more than once or twice a year. (In March 2003, Russian media quoted what were said to be excerpts from intercepted letters from Basaev to field commanders subordinate to him. Basaev personally convened a council of war on the eve of the raids on Ingushetia, according to kavkaz-center.com on 18 June.) He even claimed that he spent only two weeks in Chechnya during the whole of last year, but did not say where he spent the rest of the time.

Basaev categorically denied that his men have used Georgia's Pankisi Gorge as a base, explaining that "there are better conditions to relax in Chechnya than in impoverished Georgia, and if you need medical treatment it's better and cheaper in Russia."

Asked how he has managed to evade capture by the Russians for so long, Basaev explained that he has 20 secret hideaways in Chechnya, each furnished with enough provisions and supplies to last 20 men for two weeks. But the most important factor, he claimed, is the strong support he enjoys from the population of Chechnya and other North Caucasus republics. He claimed that last year when he was badly wounded, a police colonel in Kabardino-Balkaria, "who was not even a practicing Muslim," sheltered him for one week. All Russian Muslims, Basaev added, have an obligation to acknowledge his leadership or that of Maskhadov and contribute materially to the jihad. But pro-Moscow Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Dzhabrailov rejected outright Basaev's claim to enjoy the support of the Chechen population. "I cannot speak on behalf of the population of other North Caucasus republics, but I can say on behalf of the Chechens: nobody will help Basaev because he is a bandit, criminal, and murderer and endangers the lives of innocent people," "Kommersant-Daily" on 1 November quoted Dzhabrailov as saying. Dzhabrailov declined, however, to comment on Basaev's other claims, saying only "today anything is possible. I can neither acknowledge or refute the information contained in this interview."
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