Chechen Rebels Mainly Driven by Nationalism

By C. J. CHIVERS and STEVEN LEE MYERS

New York Times

September 12, 2004

MOSCOW, Sept. 11 - Chechnya's separatists have received money, men, training and ideological inspiration from international Islamic organizations, but they remain an indigenous and largely self-sustaining force motivated by nationalist more than Islamic goals, Russian and international officials and experts say.

The flow of financing from Islamic groups that supported Chechnya's separatist movement has slowed from its peak in the late 1990's, Sergei N. Ignatchenko, the chief spokesman for the Federal Security Service, said in an interview on Friday. And yet Chechen separatists have recently managed to carry out the most devastating attacks against Russia in years, killing nearly 600 people since late June alone.

They have also organized through local means, exploiting Russia's weak security and corruption to travel and arm themselves, the officials and experts said.

Although President Vladimir V. Putin and others have accused international terrorists of sustaining the war in Chechnya, the relationship between the separatists and Islamic terrorists abroad remains only an element in a far more complicated war, they said.

Despite assertions that Arab fighters took part in the seizure of Middle School No. 1 in Beslan 10 days ago, officials have yet to establish that any of the fighters came from abroad or received training or supplies elsewhere. Of the dead identified so far, all came from Ingushetia or were ethnic Chechens, including some who raided police and other security garrisons in Ingushetia in June, killing nearly 100.

Some of the weapons and ammunition used in the school seizure had been captured in those raids, the Russian deputy prosecutor general, Vladimir I. Kolesnikov, announced Friday. Those holding the school and at least 1,200 hostages cited no grievances about conditions in the larger Muslim world, but focused demands on Chechnya's independence, according to official accounts so far.

Officials and experts said in interviews that as Russia's conflict in Chechnya has evolved, descending from separatist bravado into barbarity, a portion of the republic's separatists have merged nationalist goals and tribal codes with the ideology and tactics of groups like Al Qaeda, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, has cited Chechen resistance as part of his global religious war.

The influence of Islamic extremism is clear in much of Chechnya's terrorism now, including large-scale attacks and, increasingly, suicide bombings intended to shock and sow fear more than to accomplish a clear military or political objective. The Chechen fighters have also adopted Al Qaeda's methods of securing money through conduits masquerading as charities, officials say.

Islamic ideology has also left its mark among the separatist fighters - who have adopted, at least outwardly, the dress, slogans and strictures of extremist fighters elsewhere - though it has not taken root in Chechnya's relatively secular society.

Nevertheless, many officials and experts said that influence was limited and, to Russia's critics, overstated by the Kremlin in order to avoid addressing the roots of war in Chechnya. The number of foreign fighters is also thought to be very small - from a dozen to 200, though most estimates fall on the lower end.

"There are people from foreign countries - perhaps 20," Ilyas Akhmadov, a Chechen leader living in the United States, acknowledged in a telephone interview. "Most of them are from the Middle East. Most are of Caucasian ethnicity, though some are Arabs. But it is not on the scale as described by the Kremlin and Interior Ministry in Russia."

The officials and experts said the principal motivation for Chechnya's fighters remains independence, though a goal that after 10 years of war, has increasingly become entwined with Chechnya's traditional codes of revenge, known as adat. Mixed with them are smaller elements of Islamic extremism, including that of the Saudi branch called Wahhabism.

"There are two tracks," said Nick Pratt, director of the Program on Terrorism and Security at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany. "When you get these two together - Wahhabism and adat - you have this witch's brew."

Fueling this mix has been international money, which has helped arm and pay fighters. "A lot of money has been flowing into Chechnya as part of the global jihad movement and as part of the separatist movement, too," Juan Zarate, an assistant secretary at the United States Treasury Department, said in a telephone interview. "There has been enormous flow of funding from outside Chechnya, from the Gulf, some from Europe and some, quite frankly, from North America."

Mr. Zarate cited the example of the Benevolence International Foundation, a group with Islamic sympathies that had been collecting money from Chicago and was using funds to equip Chechen fighters. A foundation executive, Enaam Arnaout, pleaded guilty to deceiving donors last year.

When war erupted in Chechnya in 1994, essentially no fighters had a strong sense of the larger international Islamic movement. "During the first war, there was already a lot of propaganda being thrown around about mercenaries and Arabs," said Sebastian Smith, an editor for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in Tbilisi, Georgia, who spent much of the war among the fighters. "It was nonsense, actually."

That war ended in 1996 after forces led by Shamil Basayev, the Chechen commander believed to have organized the siege in Beslan, recaptured Chechnya's capital, Grozny. The Russians withdrew, granting the republic de facto independence. Chechnya slipped into chaos and banditry.

At the time, foreign fighters expanded their influence, and Islamic charities began funneling money into Chechnya, according to the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B. The money was ostensibly for religious and aid purposes, but was diverted for weapons, uniforms and other equipment, as well as for salaries.

One charity that sent money, Al Haramein Islamic Foundation based in Saudi Arabia, moved money through the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan and through an office in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, according to an unclassified report provided by the F.S.B.

Jangir Aras, director of the Center for Terrorism and Asymmetric Threats Studies in Baku, said another group, Muslim Brotherhood, opened an office in Grozny and funneled money through it.

Ibn al-Khattab, an Arab veteran of war in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, was one benefactor. He built training bases in areas under Mr. Basayev's command.

Mr. Ignatchenko, the F.S.B. spokesman, said agents infiltrated those camps and observed a curriculum for jihad: classes on weapons, explosives, tactics and ideology. He said Al Qaeda financed it through Al Haramein, although other officials say a direct link is not clear.

Al Qaeda's interest in the region is not in dispute. As early as 1997, Mr. bin Laden said Chechnya served as an incubator of religious war. In an interview with CNN, he said fighters from Afghanistan had "spread to every place in which nonbelievers' injustice is perpetuated against Muslims."

"Their going to Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan and other countries is but a fulfillment of a duty, because we believe that these states are part of the Islamic world," he said.

Among those drawn to Chechnya was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who would later become Mr. bin Laden's top deputy. At the time Dr. Zawahiri led the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Late in 1996, Russian authorities detained him. He was held for six months.

"He had four passports, in four different names and nationalities," Mr. Ignatchenko said. "We checked him out in every country, but they could not confirm him. We could not keep him forever, so we took him to the Azerbaijani border and let him go."

There is evidence of other foreigners. In 1999, Tokhir Yoldesh, the emir of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, sent a letter to "all Uzbek mujahedeen in Chechenistan," according to document found by The New York Times in Afghanistan in 2001.

Chechnya's period of independence, when the republic was lawless, appears to have been the peak of the transit of fighters, cash and ideology from abroad. It soon ended.

After Mr. Basayev led a raid into Dagestan and bombs destroyed three apartment buildings in Russia, Russian forces poured into Chechnya again. The Russians drove the separatists, with their Islamic fighters, into the mountains along the border and destroyed the training camps.

Russian troops, along with loyal Chechen fighters, now control almost all the republic, at least by day. The separatists, however, still carry out regular attacks.

The number of separatist fighters is estimated at several hundred to a couple thousand. Alu Alkhanov, who was elected Aug. 29 to replace Chechnya's assassinated president, Akhmad Kadyrov, said in a recent interview that battlefield losses had reduced them to 400 or 700.

By all accounts, the number of foreigners among them is small. Mr. Khattab was killed, reportedly by a poisoned letter, in 2002. His successor, an Arab who fought under the name Abu Walid, is also reported to have died.

Six Arabs were also arrested among Chechens in 2002 and 2003 in the Pankisi Gorge, which served as a sanctuary in Georgia for Chechen fighters, according to Gigi Ugulava, deputy minister of state security in Georgia. They included a Syrian and two French citizens of Arab descent.

Among those interviewed one common assertion was that Al Qaeda was much more interested in Chechnya than Chechen separatists were interested in a global religious war.

Three senior counterterrorism officials in Europe, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, said they believed that Al Qaeda was seeking to expand links with the Chechens. "We have reason to believe their ties have strengthened in recent months," one of them said.

After the war against the Taliban chased many Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan, the official said, some sought to relocate to Chechnya, although with difficulty. That difficulty almost certainly stems from the fact that Russian forces now control most of Chechnya and have air and artillery supremacy over the rest.

Chechnya also presents a particular challenge to Arabic-speaking fighters. "It's very hard to get into Chechnya if you're not Russian-speaking," said Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It's hard to get smuggled through if you can't pass."

Other experts noted that while some jihadists have focused on Chechnya, and a few Chechens traveled to Afghanistan, almost all the Chechen fighters have stayed home. No Chechens turned up among detainees at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, they say, and Chechen fighters have not been verified among Qaeda holdouts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Also, efforts by some of Chechnya's fighters in the 1990's to impose the most ancient interpretation of Muslim life did not take.

Mr. 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 school siege, the twin bombings of passenger airliners on Aug. 24 and the latest suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station on Aug. 31.

"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."

Others remain generally skeptical, saying that while some separatists have had common cause with the jihadists, precise connections to Al Qaeda have not been established.

Dia Rashwan of Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo said that whatever its earlier role, Al Qaeda's current influence was likely to be minimal. "There is doubt that Al Qaeda is even able to defend itself," he said, "let alone partake in Chechnya."