13 October 2004, Volume
THE ISLAMIC PULPIT ON THE WEB
In the spring and summer of 2004, Uzbekistan became the target of two waves of terrorist attacks. Uzbek authorities almost immediately responded to these attacks by placing the blame on Uzbek opposition groups allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda. As proof of this, the authorities pointed to statements posted on Islamic websites in which groups claimed responsibility for the spring attacks.
"The Jihad Islamic Group is responsible for all the jihad operations that took place and are still going on in the Islamic state of Uzbekistan," read one statement posted on three websites, according to AP on 11 April. "These operations came as a response to the injustice and brutality practiced by the infidel leaders in this country."
In another, a group calling itself Egypt's Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility and promised to continue fighting against the Uzbek government to create an "Islamic state of Uzbekistan," CentrAsia reported on 12 April, citing Israeli press sources.
Uzbek authorities soon singled out two Uzbek groups as being responsible for the March attacks -- the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir, the BBC reported on 2 August.
In July, following a second wave of attacks that targeted the U.S. and Israeli embassies and the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office, Uzbek President Islam Karimov again pinned the blame on the IMU and Hizb ut-Tahir, citing a statement on the Islamic website islamic-minbar.com, according to the BBC.
Despite Hizb ut-Tahrir's issuance of a statement denying responsibility in which it described itself as a totally nonviolent movement that seeks change through debate, the Uzbek authorities continued to cite the islamic-minbar website statement as proof of foreign involvement.
The BBC also reported that local Uzbek experts tended to believe Hizb ut-Tahrir's denials, and doubted the reliability of the claim.
It was, by coincidence or design, the same website, islamic-minbar.com -- minbar meaning "pulpit" -- that later posted various claims of responsibility by a group calling itself the Islambuli Brigades for a string of terrorist attacks in Russia that left nearly 100 dead and which President Vladimir Putin cited as proof of Al-Qaeda involvement in Chechnya.
THE ISLAMBULI BRIGADES
On 26 August, a group calling itself the Islambuli Brigades and claiming to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda took responsibility for blowing up two Russian airliners on 24 August. "We in the Islambuli Brigades declare that our mujahedin managed to hijack two Russian planes, and the mujahedin were crowned with success despite problems they initially faced, with a team of five mujahedin on each plane," the statement read, according to an English-language version posted on globalterroralert.com.
This statement created a stir. Never before had a foreign-based Islamist group taken credit for a terrorist act inside Russia. And despite the mention of the plane being hijacked by five individuals, which did not correlate with the subsequent findings of Russian investigators (in both cases, the planes were said to have been blown up by lone women without any prior warning), Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) seemed to lend credibility to the website statements attributed to the Islambuli Brigades.
In an apparent reference to the message, Putin said in Sochi on 31 August that "if one of the terrorist organizations has claimed responsibility for this and it is linked to Al-Qaeda, that is a fact that confirms the link between certain forces operating on the territory of Chechnya and international terrorism."
The same group first denied and then took responsibility, via two messages posted on islamic-minbar.com, for a 31 August suicide bombing outside a subway station in Moscow. Again, the messages -- coming from a group whose existence could not be confirmed by any overt sources -- were used as "evidence" of Islamist involvement in the Chechen war.
But the most shocking of the string of terrorist attacks was yet to come -- the 1-3 September hostage crisis that unfolded at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. This tragedy, which resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people, many of them children, prompted President Putin to tell the nation on 4 September that "we are dealing with direct intervention of international terrorism against Russia, with a total, cruel and full-scale war in which our compatriots die again and again."
The lack of hard evidence to link the Beslan tragedy to "Arabs" forced Russian security organizations to place the blame for Beslan on "Chechen separatists." This was later confirmed when Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev claimed responsibility for the Beslan attack.
On 9 September, the Islambuli Brigades issued a new communique on islamic-minbar.com. This time, making no mention of Beslan, the group reiterated earlier claims and issued a threat to launch a "destructive war."
The new message, the English translation of which can be found on globalterroralert.com, stated:
"The war is coming, if Allah wills it.... We in the Islambuli Brigades call on all our cells in every region of Russia to launch a destructive war in the face of the infidels in Russia, and to target every place the same way that the evil Putin has declared that he has targeted every Muslim in the world and the Islamic land of Chechnya.
"Putin, everyone who lives in Russia will hear the sound of our response, and your nation will taste the hellfire as long as you thirst for the blood of Muslims and the Muslims in Chechnya...and until you withdraw from your cemetery that lies in the Islamic land of Chechnya.
"We in the Islambuli Brigades have put our words into action previously on the ground in Moscow and in the sky over Russia, and we declare that this infidel country will be a target for us in the coming endless wave of operations, if Allah wills it."
By declaring all of Russia, including Putin, a target and claiming to have cells active in different parts of the country, the Islambuli statement certainly buttressed the FSB's claims that foreign Islamic extremists are a major threat to Russia.
The FSB reacted to this new threat instantly. Gennadii Gudkov, a member of the Duma's Security Committee, told "Ekho Moskvy" radio on 10 September that the FSB was proceeding on "the assumption that the threat against the president is an absolutely real one."
Shortly thereafter, FSB spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko gave an interview to "The New York Times" that was published on 12 September. Ignatchenko argued that the presence of Arabs among Chechnya's fighters, no matter how few, proved continued international links. "They did not fall out of the sky," he said. He also said recent intercepts indicated that foreign money underwrote the fresh wave of terrorist acts in Russia, including the Beslan school siege.
"We cannot make it public now because it would interfere with the investigation," he said when pressed for details. "The connections exist, and they lead to the Middle East."
Ignatchenko's revelations of outside money coming into Chechnya were not new by any means. Official U.S. government spokesmen along with independent analysts had often pointed to these sources of funding, and Western law-enforcement organizations had acted to interdict them.
At the same time however, many observers downplayed the importance that Al-Qaeda or other international terrorist organizations might have in the Chechen movement.
After the 9 September Islambuli communique was posted, islamic-minbar.com began experiencing problems The administrator of the hosting server for the website in Geneva told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that he was asked by the Swiss police to remove the website.
This seemingly ended the Internet activities of the mysterious Islambuli Brigades and the Jihad Islamic Group -- at least for the time being.
But the veracity of the true existence of the mysterious Islambuli Brigades and the Jihad Islamic Group remains in doubt -- leaving open the question of whether they might have been nothing more than useful ploys created to further domestic agendas. For instance, the tightening of domestic controls first in Uzbekistan and then, on a much wider scale, in Russia. (Roman Kupchinsky)
NEW EVIDENCE OF CORRUPTION IN IRAQ OIL-VOUCHER SCHEME
Two separate reports have recently surfaced describing in greater detail allegations of corruption in the United Nations-administered oil-for-food (OFF) program in Iraq and the so-called "oil voucher" scheme by which various individuals and companies were given gifts of oil by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in return for political support. The main beneficiaries of this scheme, according to these reports, are alleged to have been Russian, French, and Chinese companies and individuals.
The first report was prepared at the behest of the Iraqi interim administration by the auditing firm KPMG and the British law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Labeled "highly confidential," the report was leaked to London's "Sunday Times" on 3 October.
Three days later, on 6 October, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released a three-volume report by Charles A. Duelfer, head of the Iraq Survey Group. After a detailed investigation, the report concluded that Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction at the time of the U.S.-led invasion last year, but it also contained a lengthy description of irregularities in the OFF program and the oil-voucher schemes.
The "Saddamgate" scandal began when the Iraqi daily "Al-Mada" in its 25 January edition published a sensational expose of companies, organizations, and individuals who allegedly were bribed with hundreds of millions of barrels of supposedly free oil by Hussein in return for political support and as payment for items forbidden under the pre-war embargo on Iraq. Titled "President's, Journalists, and Political Parties Received Millions Of Oil Barrels From Saddam," the paper claimed that documents from the Oil Marketing Company; an Iraqi company affiliated with the Oil Ministry, listed some 270 names of alleged recipients (see "RFE/RL Organized Crime and Terrorism Watch," 16 February and 4 March 2004).
Soon after this expose was published, a number of investigations began to ascertain if the charges contained. in the Iraqi documents were true.
The UN -- facing potential embarrassment for the way the OFF program had been handled and the fact that initial reports named the head of the OFF program at the UN, Benon Sevan, as having received 9.3 million barrels of oil from the Iraqi regime --initiated its own investigation headed by Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. This commission has not yet completed its work.
The Duelfer report states: "According to Tariq Aziz (the former Iraqi foreign minister now held captive by the coalition), Taha Yasin Ramadan al-Jizrawi, and Hikmat Mizban Ibrahim al-Azzawi, the oil-voucher program was managed on an ad hoc basis by regime officials.... The Iraqi Intelligence Service, ambassadors, and other senior Iraqi officials also commonly made nominations for oil allocations.... Saddam [Hussein] personally approved and removed all names on the voucher recipient lists."
The KPMG-Freshfields report summarized in "The Sunday Times" found that the office of Russian President Vladimir Putin profited from the cheap oil and that Russia, China, and France, all members of the UN Security Council, were given top priority by Hussein's regime.
According to "The Sunday Times," "The report claims that Russians had a prominent role. They received 'unprecedented priority' and were allocated a third of all Iraqi oil -- most of which was resold to other countries. Besides Putin's private office, those named as having received oil include political parties, Russian oil firms, and the Foreign Ministry."
The Duelfer report also notes that: "In Russia, oil voucher gifts were directed across the political spectrum targeting the new oligarch class, Russian political parties and officials."
According to the initial report in "Al-Mada," 798 million barrels of crude oil were allegedly given to 46 Russian individuals and organizations. Most of the oil bought by Russian companies from Iraq under the OFF program was resold on the open market, and most of it apparently went to the United States. Most of the oil never went to the Russian market, and what became of the money is a mystery.
According to a study carried out by the Washington and Hague-based Coalition for International Justice (CIJ) in September 2002 titled "Sources of Revenue for Saddam & Sons," the Russian prosecutor's office began an investigation into the whereabouts of up to $15 billion in proceeds that Russian companies received from Iraqi oil sales. This investigation was never completed.
Also implicated in the KPMG-Freshfields report, is a French oil company linked to a close associate of French President Jacques Chirac. The company is alleged to have teamed up with the Iraqi regime to bribe a UN-appointed inspector monitoring exports of Iraqi oil.
The CIJ study noted that: "Iraqi officials have never hidden the reasons, prerequisites, or criteria behind their choices of contractors under the Oil-for-Food (OFF) program: indeed they have stated many times that the money will flow to those who demonstrate political support for Baghdad in the international arena."
"Al-Mada" noted in January that among the more well-known individuals and organizations that allegedly received oil for support are the Bulgarian Socialist Party, former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, former Prime Minister Megawati of Indonesia, former British deputy George Galloway, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a number of major Russian oil companies such as LUKoil and Rosneft, the state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom, the pro-Kremlin Unity party, the communist parties of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus along with some 270 other recipients.
All the Russian organizations mentioned in the initial report in "Al-Mada" denied any improprieties soon after the article was published. After the Duelfer report was issued most continued to deny any involvement, according to "The Moscow Times" on 8 October.
However, according to "The Moscow Times," a source from one of the Russian oil companies mentioned in the Duelfer report said: "All oil majors were involved in this.... The state played a large role. Almost all -- no, not just almost all -- all companies that took part in Iraq projects were connected to this." (Roman Kupchinsky)