Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Jihad in the Caucasus

A Russian parliamentary commission claimed this week that a foreign special service was involved in the Beslan hostage-taking (Interfax) The Russians did not identify the country, but Iran is an obvious suspect. (Hat tip to Headland reader No Dhimmi.) Evidence of indirect Iranian assistance to the terrorists in Beslan can be found in the article by Yossef Bodansky, discussed in part on Headland in Monday's post ("Russia's Chechnya Terrorism Highlights Broader Links and Objectives, Linking to anti-US and Palestinian Terrorism," Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, November 29, 2004). Bodansky maintains that the Beslan hostage-taking was not about promoting Chechen independence, but an act of escalation in the global Islamist jihad against the West. Bodansky further argues that the strikes against Russia were planned by the al-Qaeda high command, with key support from Iran, after a decision in the summer of 2003 to broaden the anti-western jihad, beyond the anti-U.S. resistance in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, to include terrorist strikes against Russia.

All sides agree that the hostage-takers were a multinational team. Russian intelligence claimed, soon after the attack, that the strike force was composed of 35 terrorists, including "Chechens, Insushes, Kazakhs, [ten] Arabs, Uzbeks and Slavs." Arab Islamist sources tend to agree with this original Russian claim of the large number of Arabs among the hostage-takers.

According to Bodansky, in mid-August 2003, Zawahiri and his aides were in Tehran to coordinate anti-American resistance in Iraq. "Then, on August 17 or 18, 2003, the eve of the first spectacular strikes in Baghdad, Ali Younessi, the chief of Iranian intelligence, personally instructed a special team of Iranian senior intelligence operatives to organize Zawahiri's clandestine trip back to Pakistan." The mullahs allegedly wanted Zawahiri to leave Iran because they did not want to be directly associated with a marked escalation in Islamist terrorism. Iranian intelligence gave Zawahiri the disguise and documents that helped him travel across the Turkish border, to stay in a safe house in eastern Turkey. Using a route upon which Islamists volunteers may travel to Chechnya, with the tacit approval of Ankara and Baku, Iranian intelligence escorted Zawahiri to al-Qaida's bases in the Pankisi Gorge in northern Georgia on the border of Russia. Zawahiri is then said to have traveled to the Fergana Valley, through northern Afghanistan, to Pakistan.

On the way to Pakistan, Zawahiri inspected command cells of jihadists that were under a command center of senior al-Qaida commanders in Tehran. Bodansky identifies the key members of this command group as: Saad bin Osama bin Laden (son of Osama bin Laden), Seif-al-Adl, Muhammad Shawqi al-Islambuli (a.k.a. Abu-Khalid) and the Mauritanian Mahfuz Ould Waleed (a.k.a. Abu-Hafts).

On the eve of his departure from Tehran, Zawahiri organized a new command cell for the Caucasus. Among the commanders of this cell were the Saudi, Muhammad Abu-Omar al-Seif, nominated by Zawahiri as "al-Qaida's emissary" in Chechnya and the northern Caucasus. Though he was deployed in summer 2003, he assumed the formal title "Commander of the Eastern Province and the Mujahedin and Al-Ansar in Chechnya" in September 2004. Bodansky mentions, but has no information about, another key commander in Chechnya, the Saudi Abu Hajr.

The first claim of responsibility for the strikes against Russia was issued via authoritative Islamist-jihadist channels that are associated with bin Laden's elite command. The claims were written in Arabic and explained that the anti-Russia jihad was an integral part of the global anti-Western jihad. The first such communique was issued from "Kataeb al-Islambuli" [The al-Islambuli Brigades] and claimed responsibility for the downing of the two aircraft. The Al-Islambuli Brigades are associated with the Iran-based Muhammad Shawqi al-Islambuli.

Next came a claim of responsibility for the Beslan massacre from "Ansar al-Zawahiri" [The Supporters/Devotees of al-Zawahiri] on September 5, 2004. The al-Zawahiri group tried to link their grievances against Russia with those they hold against all whom they regard as enemies of Islam.

The last communique in Arabic regarding the anti-Russian jihad and its connection to the global jihad was issued by "The Chechnya al-Khattab Group" on September 18, 2004. It declared:
"In consideration of the Russian and US parties exceeding the limits of their aggression against the honor and dignity of Islam and Muslims in Chechnya, Palestine, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and other Muslim countries, within sight of the international community and without awakening the conscience of any Arab leader ... the commanders of the Chechen mujahedin and al-Ansar in Chechnya declare the beginning of simultaneous attacks against Russian and US interests."

Bodansky sardonically notes that the goal of an independent or Islamic Chechnya was not even mentioned in these statements. He also notes that the Chechen leader Shamil Basayev did not acknowledge responsibility for the strikes until after the Islamist-jihadist leadership had already done so. Basayev's first message was posted on September 19, 2004, though it was dated September 17. In an interview published on November 1, 2004, and prepared by the Kavkaz-Tsentr, Basayev acknowledge he had only "a degree of responsibility for the strikes" and did not think he was "guilty of that outcome." Yet his threats of future escalation became more bold, and he even gave a veiled warning of the use of weapons of mass destruction: "I would like to note," he said, "that the Russians had many times used chemical and bacteriological weapons against us as well as various poisons, and we feel free to retaliate."

Bodansky does not doubt any of these claims of responsibility. He sees a tight integration of the al-Qaeda high command with the Chechen resistance, not only operationally but ideologically. He cites the mentor of Basayev, Magomed [Muhammad] Tagayev, as calling for an anti-Russian jihad not in the context of an independent or even an Islamist Chechnya. According to Tagayev, "[The] Chechen state is ... the forward springboard for the liberation of the entire Caucasus."

Thus, the strikes against Russia in Autumn 2004 reveal how the international Islamist-jihad cause is closely integrated with the regional Islamist jihad in Chechnya.

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