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After the June 1996 Russian withdrawal from Chechnya, Basayev lost his bid for the Chechen presidency but was appointed prime minister. Little more than a military commander, Basayev was unsuited to this job and became politically marginalized. It is around this time that he drew close to Khattab and other jihadist figures that had flocked to the country. Most Western analysts view the alliance between Basayev and the jihadists as a marriage of convenience rather than a genuine religious transformation on Basayev’s part. But then again, most Western analysts understand neither theology nor religious conversion and so needlessly downplay them as salient factors.
Even if Basayev’s conversion to radical Islam was a fraud, his terrorist attacks carried out in its name were tragically real. Basayev is linked to large number of major terror attacks. The best known is the Beslan school massacre in 2004, in which over 1,200 people were taken hostage. More than 340 were killed, with children comprising over half of the victims. Another prominent incident is the October 2002 Dubrovka theater attack in Moscow, in which Chechen rebels took over 800 theatergoers hostage. When Russian special forces attempted a rescue, 129 hostages died — most of whom were killed by the narcotic gas the Russians used to knock out the rebels.
THE PARALLELS BETWEEN BASAYEV’S LIFE and the fate of his beloved Chechnya are striking. Basayev’s shifting goals from Chechen independence to the promotion of pan-Islam mirror the shifting objectives of the two wars. And just as the Russians’ treatment of Basayev’s family and his people seemingly drove him into the arms of the jihadists, so too has Russian callousness in pursuing the second Chechen war driven many Chechens toward solidarity with the terrorists.
There are many lessons to be gleaned from Basayev’s life and the Chechen war as a whole. One clear lesson, reflected in both Basayev and the Chechen people, is how wars that are brutally executed can play into the jihadists’ hands. Another lesson is that, while the Chechen mujahideen should clearly be seen as an enemy of the U.S., we should be careful about how we engage nation-states like Russia in the global war on terror. Though the Russians did not initiate the second Chechen war, their brutal execution of the conflict has played one hundred percent into the terrorists’ hands.
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