The Chechen's Story: From Unrivaled Guerrilla Leader to the Terror of Russia

By C. J. CHIVERS

New York Times

September 15, 2004

MOSCOW - The most loathed man in Russia moves in secret along the edges of a nation whose security services were once thought to be all-knowing. It should be hard for him to hide, having only one foot, a shaved head, and a beard reminiscent of the Taliban.

He did not start this way.

Shamil Basayev, the man accused of plotting the attacks that have terrorized Russia this summer and killed hundreds, including more than 170 children in a school in the town of Beslan, has always had a flair for spectacular attacks. But once he was also capable of restraint.

His first terror act was in 1991. Mr. Basayev, then 26, seized a passenger plane with hijackers armed with pistols and grenades. He forced the jet to Turkey and then Grozny, the Chechen capital. Having made his point - Chechnya is sovereign, he said - he let 171 hostages go.

Mr. Basayev held his fire and commanded attention, always one of his aims. "We wanted to show that we would resort to anything to uphold our sovereignty," he said on Moscow television.

From the hijacking in 1991 to the rows of children's bodies left after the siege of Beslan, the story of Mr. Basayev's career is one of a rebel's rise, radicalization and dizzying moral descent.

During his long run as Russia's most wanted man, Mr. Basayev briefly shed the image of a terrorist in the mid-1990's to become a storied guerrilla commander, exuding tactical dexterity and sarcastic charm as he led fighters who chased the Russian Army from Chechen soil. Back then he rarely displayed the ascetic habits of the Islamic extremists he later embraced; in a break during a battle in 1995 he pointed to looted vodka and offered a journalists from The New York Times a drink.

But even as he accumulated victories, this personification of the Chechen warrior began to suffer war's toll, losing much of his family, surviving injury and, after communing with foreign Islamist militants, evolving to a darker form. He became a scarred man waging total war.

Russia has put a $10.3 million bounty on Mr. Basayev's shaved head, a more than ten-fold increase of the reward first attached to his death or capture in 1999. As the manhunt proceeds with new urgency, those who have known him wonder: How did the separatist become the nihilist? What makes Shamil Basayev tick?

"Obviously something in him cracked," said Thomas de Waal, the Caucasus editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that encourages the development of independent journalism in troubled parts of the world. Mr. de Waal met Mr. Basayev several times in the 1990's.

The Chechen struggle is epic in sweep, brutality and grief; Mr. Basayev was raised in its dark milieu. In 1944 the Chechen population was deported on Stalin's orders to Kazakhstan. In 1957 the Soviet government allowed Chechens to return.

Mr. Basayev was born in the mountain village of Vedeno in 1965 to Chechens who had reclaimed the highlands, and has said about 40 of his relatives died in exile. He was the namesake of Imam Shamil, a 19th-century religious warrior who fought the czars, and claims to descend directly from a Shamil lieutenant.

His moral tone was often as high as his martial pedigree. He once said he had wanted to become a detective but was denied admission to the right school for refusing to pay requisite bribes. "If I start handing out bribes now, what kind of investigator will I be later on?" The Moscow News quoted him saying in 1996.

As a young man living in Moscow, he joined Boris Yeltsin at the barricades to resist the coup when the Soviet Union unraveled in 1991, a decision he described as a calculated move, telling the newspaper Moskovskaya Pravda several years later that if the hard-liners had succeeded, "you can kiss Chechnya's independence goodbye." A few months later, after Chechnya had declared its independence from Moscow, he appeared with the hijacked jet. He next turned up in 1992, under circumstances that are still debated, as a paramilitary commander fighting with Russian-backed ethnic Abhkaz guerrillas seeking to break away from the republic of Georgia.

A Warlord With No War

The war ended in 1993 with a Georgian retreat and the establishment of a small, self-proclaimed republic of Abkhazia. Mr. Basayev returned to Chechnya with f 500 to 700 fighters, a warlord with no war. Suspicion surrounds his early guerrilla period. Many who have studied him claim Russia's intelligence services trained him for the Abkhaz war, a version of history that casts Mr. Basayev as a proxy who broke his leash - the Kremlin's Frankenstein monster. The public evidence is unclear.

"Clearly there was Russian connivance," said Dr. Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and a scholar of the Chechen wars. "He couldn't have gotten to Abkhazia without the Russian border guards and officials letting him go through. But whether there was more intimate assistance, I've never seen clear evidence of it."

Russia has denied helping him. Sergei N. Ignatchenko, the top spokesman for the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B., said Mr. Basayev did not interest the intelligence services until the first Chechen war began in 1994; by then, Russia was trying to kill him.

Details of his next months are also contradictory. Mr. Ignatchenko said Mr. Basayev went to Afghanistan in 1994 to train in a terrorist camp. Mr. Basayev once told a New York Times correspondent that the charge was not true, but he has been quoted elsewhere confirming it.

"From April through July 1994, myself and a group of 30, we were in Afghanistan, in the province of Khost," the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta quoted him saying in 1996. "I sold some weapons and borrowed some money and we went."

War broke out in Chechnya in December 1994. Mr. Basayev organized Grozny's defenses and emerged as the resistance's most capable commander.

In May 1995, the Russians destroyed his family's homes. The attacks reportedly killed 11 of his relatives, including his wife, two daughters and a brother. "That could have propelled him, because he was not a born terrorist," Dr. Trenin said. "The annihilation of his clan may have pushed him in this direction."

Whatever drove Mr. Basayev, Chechnya could no longer contain him. In June 1995 he hid fighters in trucks that ostensibly carried the bodies of slain Russian soldiers and, with a fake police escort, drove to the adjacent republic of Dagestan and seized a hospital and as many as 1,500 hostages. Russia conducted two failed assaults against him; more than 100 hostages died.

He eventually negotiated with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin on live television, having broken the Kremlin's nerve. "I beg you," Mr. Chernomyrdin pleaded, according to a report by the United States Army's Foreign Military Studies Office. "Release women, children, sick and wounded. I beg you."

Mr. Basayev relented, exchanging hostages for passage back to Chechnya, where in 1996 he commanded the assault that ousted the Russian Army from Grozny and led to de facto Chechen autonomy.

By now Mr. Basayev was the unrivaled guerrilla leader of Chechnya, a role he played with style. Unlike Osama bin Laden, with whom he is sometimes compared, Mr. Basayev lacked a list of global grievances and the blank messianic stare. He focused his rage against Russia, and, even after the deaths of his family members, often wisecracked.

In 1996 he warned a British reporter that if war resumed, "Moscow will be destroyed- not one person will be left," but he then leavened the threat with a punch line, "I'm just warning you so if you have any flats there you'd better sell up."In January 1997 he lost a bid for the Chechen presidency, capturing just 23.5 percent of the vote. But the new government appointed him prime minister - a job for which his skills were of little use. Chechnya became a gangster state, which Islamic militants exploited.

One Arab commander, Ibn al-Khattab, tapped money from Islamic charity fronts and set up jihadist training camps, Russian and Western officials say; Mr. Basayev's collaboration was implicit as the camps were in a zone he controlled.

Mr. Ignatchenko provided The New York Times with copies of identification cards carried by foreign fighters. The sampling includes 45 cards with numbers ranging from 1 to 231, and fighters' photographs beside coded names: "Abu al-Ansar," "Abu Ziad," "Abu Khalid." The cards bear Mr. Basayev's signature, above a title: "Islamic Division General."

Those who have studied Mr. Basayev and his fighters say they appear to have made a marriage of convenience. Marginalized in politics, they joined with Islamists and found access to foreigners and cash.

A Drift Toward the Islamists

"That became grounds for fusion: people who had very little else in common accepted the sense of a common enemy," said Dr. Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Sebastian Smith, who also covers the Caucasus for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, agreed. "My distinct feeling is that this was not a religious conversion," he said. "This was a means to an end, but a means that led him down this horrible path."The contrast with an earlier period was sharp. Asked by the Moscow News in 1996 if he had fought in Abkhazia for faith, Mr. Basayev had answered: "What faith? Abkhazia is pagan almost to a man."

Mr. Basayev was drifting to the Islamists' fold, and his struggle was rising as an Islamist cause. In early 2000, when the Russian Army was attacking Chechnya again, only one government recognized Chechnya's independence: the Taliban.

The rebels' fate resembles one that later befell the Taliban. In February 2000, pressured by a fresh Russian advance, the rebels withdrew from Grozny, as the Taliban did from Kabul. Mr. Basayev stepped on a mine. His foot was amputated soon afterward. He has been seen very little since, operating his network from hiding, appearing now and then on videotape, and executing ever deadlier terror attacks on civilians. .

By October 2002, according to Russian authorities, he ordered the takeover of a Moscow theater that resulted in at least 129 deaths when the government raided the building after 57 hours in which hundreds of hostages were held. Two months later, suicide bombers destroyed the headquarters of Chechnya's pro-Russian government in Grozny; more than 40 people died. Mr. Basayev claimed responsibility. Once attentive to public images, both his own and that of his cause, Mr. Basayev and his adherents, at one time sympathetically regarded in many parts of the world as underdogs, now often evoke disgust.

"These are beasts, not people," said Aslan Aslakhanov, a Kremlin adviser on the Chechen war. "These animals have shown their true face."

Russia now controls almost all Chechnya. Estimates of the rebels' number vary from several hundred to the low thousands, but their connections to each other are not clear.

Some fighters are thought to form gangs motivated strictly by revenge.

Others are tied to Mr. Basayev, whose core now calls itself the Riyadus-Salakhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Martyrs, which the State Department designated a terrorist organization last year. During the siege at Beslan, a hostage taker spoke by telephone with The New York Times and said he was from this group.

The relationships between the fighters with different motivations is debated among those who study the war. One theory holds that Mr. Basayev and the Islamic extremists use younger fighters motivated by revenge to do much of their bidding. Military analysts also say Mr. Basayev's group has impressive organizational and tactical skills, conducting detailed reconnaissance, massing for attacks when necessary and swiftly dispersing, as they did in raids this summer in the republic of Ingushetia and in Grozny where masked fighters briefly overwhelmed the army and the police in the night. Its bomb-making talents are fully developed, and at Middle School No. 1 in Beslan its members made a tenacious last stand.

No matter the immediate fate of Mr. Basayev, the experts said, his legacy will almost certainly be much like the followers that Al Qaeda developed in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and will include continued terror acts.

"These guys are incredibly professional, to use the most morbid sense of the word," said Nick Pratt, director of the Program on Terrorism and Security at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany.