More than two months after six National Guardsmen were killed in an attack on their base in northern Chechnya, it remains unclear precisely what happened.
On May 25, the Russian daily Kommersant reported that Investigative Committee staffer Colonel Igor Sobol had identified the mastermind behind the attack as a local resident, Ali Bakiyev, who allegedly fled abroad two days before it took place. But that unconfirmed information does little to clarify the glaring discrepancies between the official version of the attack and details subsequently made public by Russian media.
The official version, according to statements by Chechen police and security personnel, is that eight young Chechens from the settlement of Naurskaya armed with knives and firearms attacked the control post at the entrance to the base in the early hours of March 24. Six of them then forced their way into the base, where they were killed in an hourlong shoot-out in which six guardsmen were also killed and three injured. The other two attackers reportedly escaped. Naurskaya resident Ibragim Dzhamalov, 21, was detained on March 31 and subsequently said to have confessed to taking part in the attack.
Some 20 other local men were detained for questioning later on March 24, as was Grozny resident Rizvan Minazov; all were subsequently released.
Russian media, however, tell a quite different story. Novaya Gazeta reported on March 25 that the six attackers were armed only with knives, axes, and staves, and that they were not killed in a gunfight but execution-style by a shot to the head at close range. The paper published photos of two of the dead men showing those head injuries. One of the two also had abrasions on his left wrist that might have been left by handcuffs, possibly suggesting that he had been overpowered before being killed.
A more detailed picture of the attack emerged on March 29 and 30 from follow-up reporting by Novaya Gazeta and the website RBK. The eight attackers are said to have scaled a fence and made their way to a control post, the doors of which were open. They allegedly cut the throats of two sentries who were asleep on duty, purloined their automatic rifles and rubber truncheons, then waylaid and opened fire on a patrol that initially failed to recognize them as intruders, possibly because it was pitch-dark and foggy. Novaya Gazeta suggested weather conditions cast doubts on a statement RBK attributed to a National Guard officer who said the head wounds sustained by the six assailants were inflicted by a sniper.
That alternative account of events calls into question the professionalism of the guardsmen at the base. Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov too openly affirmed in a TV interview that the Chechen "force" agencies were partly to blame for the attack. "We weren’t expecting something like this to happen," he said. A spokesman for the National Guard, however, insisted the guardsmen at the base reacted appropriately, in accordance with their orders.
Also unclear are the motive for the attack and the political and religious affiliations of the perpetrators. The Islamic State (IS) extremist group claimed responsibility for the attack within 24 hours, but as RFE/RL’s Kavkaz.Realii pointed out, IS appeared to get the number of assailants wrong. The news portal Caucasian Knot quoted Denis Sokolov, head of the analytical center Ramson, as saying that not all Russian analysts believe IS was involved. Sokolov suggested that "we are witnessing the beginning of a revival of armed national protest movements" that have no connection either with IS or with the now-defunct Caucasus Emirate that coordinated armed resistance to Moscow from 2007-13.
Akhmed Zakayev, the head of the independent Chechen Republic Ichkeria government in exile, similarly told Kavkaz.Realii that he was absolutely certain the Naurskaya attackers had no ties to IS or to any other terrorist group. He suggested, as did Russian journalist Orkhan Dzhemal, that they were motivated by sheer desperation by the blanket oppression and arbitrary violence that are the hallmarks of the Kadyrov regime.
That same hypothesis was also aired with regard to the attacks in December in Grozny by young men and women who targeted individual police officers to lay hands on weapons.
And yet, as former Investigative Committee staffer Feliks Tsokov explained to the website OnKavkaz after the March attack, it is not difficult even today for Chechens to obtain firearms. That suggests that both the Grozny and the Naurskaya attacks were undertaken spontaneously, rather than meticulously planned in advance.