Twenty-nine men went on trial in Cherkessk last week on multiple charges of plotting to overthrow the republic's leadership and seize power; membership of illegal armed formations; and the attempted murder of Russian police officers. Twenty of those accused were reportedly apprehended in the course of half a dozen counterterrorism operations in 2007.
But official accounts of their activities and the circumstances in which they were apprehended are inconsistent. And some of the murders of which they are accused were previously attributed to a militant group that the authorities claimed to have wiped out in 2006.
Over the past decade, Islamic militancy in the North Caucasus has spread from Chechnya to neighboring Daghestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. The latter two republics have suffered large-scale militant attacks that inflicted dozens of fatalities -- in Ingushetia in June 2004 and in Nalchik in October 2005 -- while the Shariat jamaat in Daghestan has waged a relentless low-level war
of attrition targeting government officials and police and security personnel.
The Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) by contrast appeared a relative oasis of stability. Militants from Karachayevo-Cherkessia were implicated in apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk in the fall of 1999, but no concrete evidence was ever produced to substantiate those allegations. But it was only in 2005 that the media began reporting armed attacks perpetrated by a militant group based in the Malokarachay Raion in the extreme east of the republic.
In 2005-06, that group, whose commander was identified as Vakhtang Aliyev, reportedly killed 12 police officers in Karachayevsk, the republic's second-largest city. Aliyev also is suspected of the murder in August 2006 of Abdul-Kerim Bayramukov, a senior Muslim cleric.
Local Federal Security Service (FSB) personnel launched two "special operations" against Aliyev's group, in April 2006 in Storozhevoy, southwest of Cherkessk, and in December of the same year in Cherkessk. Four militants, including Aliyev, were killed in the April attack, and two more in December
. In October 2007, KChR Deputy Interior Minister Boris Erkenov claimed that Aliyev's group had been "completely wiped out," and that the republic no longer faced any threat from "terrorists," "whether Karachai or Circassian."
But at least one prominent member of Aliyev's group, Rustam Ionov (aka Abu-Bakar), apparently escaped in December 2006 to Georgia: he was reportedly killed in early September 2007 trying to reenter the KChR from Georgian territory, together with a woman identified as Elvira Kitova, a resident of Cherkessk.
Days after his death, the KChR FSB claimed in a press release to have apprehended a total of 20 members of his group over the previous two months. (The group reportedly had 35 members.) But over that time period Russian media reported the arrest of only four militants, two in a special operation in late July and two more in separate actions in late August. The total number of members of "religious-extremist formations" arrested in 2007 was subsequently given as 25.
Meanwhile, the trial opened in June 2007 in the KChR Supreme Court of five men identified as members of an armed group set up in 2002 by renegade Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev in conjunction with two Arab mercenaries. That group is said to have been responsible for the murders in Karachayevsk of one FSB and seven Interior Ministry officers, regnum.ru reported on June 14, 2007. It is not clear whether that was the group headed by Aliyev whose members had allegedly all been killed.
Commenting in March 2007 on the destruction of Aliyev's group, then-FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev told "Rossiiskaya gazeta" that they had planned to stage a terrorist attack in Cherkessk in 2006 on the scale of that perpetrated by inexperienced young Muslims in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria
in October 2005. And following the arrests in 2007 of 20 putative members of Ionov's group, the KChR prosecutor's office similarly alleged that the group was planning an "armed uprising," according to regnum.ru on September 6.
But the public perception in Karachayevo-Cherkessia was that, like their counterparts in Kabardino-Balkaria, the group targeted police officers simply to avenge themselves for the indiscriminate harassment meted out to them by police tasked with implementing the April 2000 republican law "On counteracting political and religious extremism." Even the republic's prosecutor subsequently admitted that while Aliyev's group were armed "extremists," it would be wrong to designate all of them as Islamic radicals ("Wahhabis").
The 29 men now on trial -- 28 from the KChR and one ethnic Russian from elsewhere in the North Caucasus -- include the 20 reportedly arrested in the summer of 2007. They are said to have reported directly to Doku Umarov, then commander of the North Caucasus resistance, and to have amassed weaponry with the aim of proclaiming Shari'a law throughout the republic.
Those arrests failed, however, to restore permanent stability. Four police officers were killed and two injured in two separate attacks last summer in Karachayevsk and a town north of Cherkessk.