"[Putin is] rebuilding Russia by tearing down Chechnya, and with it whatever remained of the ideals brought into the world the day Lenin's first statue came down."
~ Mark Irkali, commentator
"I don't believe we should separate Russian Government from the Russian people."
~ Amir Ramzan, a Chechen terrorist, describes his philosophy on bombing
Shamil Basayev is a product of Taleban
-era Afghan terrorist training camps, and is currently Russia's
most wanted man due to his co-ordination of terrorism inside Russia and his rebellious activities in the Caucasus
Basayev was born on January 14, 1965, into a family which had a history of resistance to Russian rule. His grandfather fought against White Russian troops in an attempt to establish a North Caucasus Emirate after the October Revolution. His father was also a warlord, and like other Chechens he suffered deportation to Kazakhstan on suspicion of sharing the pro-Nazi sympathies evident at the time in Ukraine.
His place of birth is Vedeno, the most significant site in the history of Chechen nationalism. It was here that Imam Shamil fought his last battle against the Russian Empire, the one which finally sealed the fate of this part of the Caucasus. This Shamil was a Sufi dervish, and his warriors fortified themselves with the local faith. Alas, such protection is ephemeral, and his armies were defeated in the mid nineteenth century after a twenty year struggle. He left behind a legend which thrived in all of Russia, and especially in the North Caucasus.
Basayev considers himself the legatee of this legend, something he's only too happy to tell any journalist whose attention he can grab. And journalistic attention is something that Basayev has seen much of recently, although their comprehension of his activities has frequently been misguided. He also claims to be directly descended from one of the commanders in the Imam's army, a claim which obviously helped his grandfather after October as it helps him today. Whether this is true or not, I could not say.
Basayev's life before 1991 was not noteworthy. First a firefighter in the Soviet Army, than a worker on a state farm, he failed to get into law school and so went to engineering school in Moscow in 1987. Expelled for poor grades a year later, he entered a successful business partnership and made his daily bread making and selling computers. His parter would later fight on the other side of the Chechen conflict, helping to outfit a unit of Chechens dubbed the 'Shamil hunters'.
In August 1991, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union was busy passing plans to restructure the Union, giving the constituent Republics an independent foreign and defence policy. It was at this point in the Soviet Union's self-destruction that the reaction occurred - an attempted coup by Communists. Basayev appeared on the barricades with Yeltsin, swearing to protect the President of the Supreme Soviet (himself a Chechen) Ruslan Khasbulatov. Like most of the participants, he was there to try and advance his own sectional cause, and like most of them he would later fight against others who joined him. This is, I suppose, one definition of democracy.
As the security situation in the Soviet Union deteriorated and people in the localities began to fight to define the nature of the sucessor states, Russian troops declared a state of emergency in Chechnya and prepared for an invasion to rein the region in. In November of 1991, Basayev hijacked a plane on its way to Ankara and threatened to kill all on board if Russian troops entered Chechnya. In the end, all he got was safe passage back to Chechnya in exchange for not blowing up the plane. Yeltsin had been convinced by others that now was not the time to send in the troops.
In the early '90s, the various Causcasian independence movements were intertwined with one another and found strength in solidarity. They formed the Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus in 1990 in Sukhumi, which today is the de facto capital of Abkhazia, over which Georgia claims sovereignty. Basayev led a brigade of volunteers in the war between Georgia and this breakaway region, an activity in which he was paradoxically funded by Russia. Russia was keen to weaken Georgia so it would become dependent on its old master, but it apparently did not occur to them that creating a corps of Causcasian fighters could backfire on them in, say, Chechnya. These fighters were dubbed the 'Abkhaz brigade' veterans similar to the Afghan Arabs who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Basayev's next stop was Nagorno-Karabakh, now another de facto independent republic which is claimed by a sovereign state, in this case Azerbaijan. At the time, the majority-Armenian region was trying to break away and become part of Armenia. Basayev backed Muslim Azerbaijan, and deployed his fighters against Armenian troops and civilians when violence broke out. Again, Russia had a hand in the war, encouraging both sides so that they would remain weak and divided. None too pleased that the war was more nationalist than religious in nature, Basayev soon tired of it. But the war in Nagorno-Karabakh was to have a profound influence on him, for here he met Amir ibn al-Khattab, a Saudi Wahhabi extremist.
Khattab had been sent by Osama bin Laden to intervene in the civil war in Tajikistan, and then to help the Azeris in their war with Christian Armenia. With Khattab, Basayev travelled to Afghanistan with several hundred of his fighters. They entered training camps and returned to Chechnya to prepare for jihad. Links between Basayev's movement and the Taleban/al-Qaeda state were strong, as the international jihadi movement recruited fighters for Chechnya and OBL funelled millions of dollars to Basayev and Khatab, once the latter was in Chechnya. Mullah Omar recognized Chechnya as an independent state, and Chechen brigades have been dispatched to Afghanistan and Iraq to fight coalition forces.
Back in Chechnya at the head of a force of local and foreign fighters, Basayev's military ability was soon tested by the Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1994. A jihad was declared against the infidel invaders, and Basayev engaged in asymmetric warfare against them. The war was carnage on both sides, with Russian citizens resident in Grozny massacred and the Russians eventually resorting to carpet-bombing to try and quell the implacable Chechen resistance.
Basayev began to make a name for himself in the turmoil of these events. In 1995, he was leading a force of several hundred fighters into Russia when he was surprised in the town of Budyonnovsk. His forces gathered over a thousand citizens and herded them into a hospital, then demanded a press conference before world media. The Russians wouldn't allow it, so Basayev started executing hostages. Russian special forces then stormed the building, and Basayev escaped. A year later, he led an operation to re-take Grozny from the Russians, bringing the first war to an end. Elections were held, and Aslan Maskhadov declared President of Chechnya. Maskhadov appointed Basayev Prime Minister, but it was clear he had greater ambitions.
The second war
In 1996, Khattab touched down in Chechnya, sent by OBL to co-ordinate al-Qaeda's activities in the area. Like his master, Khattab had big dreams and specialized in harnessing other people's causes to his own. As Basayev was the man in charge of the Chechen mujahideen and the two had fought together before, they naturally shared goals and capabilities. Chechnya was now independent, but Basayev was not content with peace. Together with Khattab, he began planning for a new war.
The two opened terrorist training camps in Chechnya, and established links with the terrorist formations in the Panski gorge in Georgia. After several years of consolidating their forces, with the generous help of OBL, the two sent their forces to invade neighbouring Dagestan in 1999. Their plan was to annex the republic to Chechnya, and later to add Ingushetia. Their aim was to create an Islamic emirate which would be ruled according to strict shar'iah, interpreted in the non-traditional Wahhabi way. Crudely, the Wahhabi conception of Islam is that of a social and political community similar to the one which existed during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. Such a way of life is harshly rejected by the majority of Causcasian Sufis.
That's why the villagers in Dagestan who Basayev claimed to be liberating took the lead in fighting him off. The failed invasion would be a disaster for Chechnya, but Maskhadov had lacked the power to stop it. Doubtless he wanted to cut Basayev loose, but he didn't control most of the country and was vulnerable to leadership challenges. When the Russians invaded after the invasion of Dagestan and the apartment bombings, he needed all the help he could get.
Basayev and Khattab (while he was alive) always denied involvement in the apartment bombings, and it is not clear who carried them out. Basayev usually revels in his infamy, so it is likely he is telling the truth. However, it is equally unlikely that the Russian government committed self-immolation. Either way, shortly afterwards Russian troops re-crossed the Terek River and ploughed into Grozny. Basayev fled the town to the south with his fighters, losing a foot to a landmine in the process. This was confirmed by a videotape of him having it amputated, the existence of which is curious as it seems doubtful propaganda.
Ever since, Basayev has engaged in a terror offensive which has made him Russia's most wanted man. Khattab has since been killed by the Russians, but has been replaced by a new al-Qaeda point man, Abu Walid al-Ghamdi. Basayev's main force is now comprised of foreign mujahids, and they have brought with them the terror tactics forged in the Middle East. The international Islamist terrorist movement continues to send money and men to fight in the Chechen jihad, which has allowed Vladimir Putin to conceptually link Chechen independence to the global war on terror, even though these people have little interest in the former.
The Moscow theatre siege in October 2002 once again brought the Basayev to the attention of international media. Chechen terrorists seized control of a theatre in Moscow, and died when Russian special forces took the building. One hundred and twenty hostages died with them. Around this time, Basayev formally separated himself from Maskhadov, signifying a split over the tactics that should be used in the resistance and its ultimate aims. As Basayev had shown when he invaded Dagestan in 1999 and wrote the death warrant for Chechen independence, his goals were much larger than those of Mashkadov. They were also deranged.
'People without any demands, who will not be taking anyone hostage, will come next time,' declared Basayev after the theatre raid. He has introduced the practice of suicide bombing into Chechnya, claiming responsibility for five such attacks in 2004. Indeed, 2004 has been a year of frantic activity for Basayev, in which he personally led a raid into Ingushetia and claimed responsibility for the assassination of Akhmad Kadyrov (pro-Russian Chechen President) and the Beslan massacre. He has threatened to use chemical weapons against Russia, including anything else he can get his hands on.
Basayev's recent actions show that the situation for Russia in Chechnya is deteriorating, not getting better. The audacity of his raid into Ingushetia shows that the Russians are no more in control of this part of their country than the Chechen government was. Basayev's terorist tactics will only serve to increase hatred and increase the severity of Russian human rights abuses in the republic; a true cycle of violence.
Basayev's extremist organization rules by fear, and is as much hated by many Causcasian peoples as by the Russians. Like all such elements, his movement needs to be isolated and destroyed before any true peace can be found in Chechnya. By showing himself willing to wage a war against all Russian civilians, he has lost the mantle of a respectable revolutionary leader and lowered himself to the level of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Indeed, Basayev is essentially Russia's very own OBL now that their old one has found a new enemy. The problem for them is that he is on their doorstep, and they seem unable to do anything about it.