THE RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCED Monday that its security forces had killed Shamil Basayev, a commander of the jihadist insurgency in Chechnya. The death of the man responsible for the 2004 Beslan school massacre may prove every bit as significant for Russia as the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi will be for the U.S. and allied forces in Iraq. But one detail that shouldn’t be overlooked in the rush to assess the strategic importance of Basayev’s death is how this man, who began his fighting career as a swashbuckling separatist, was transformed over time into an international jihadist aligned with al-Qaeda.
By the time Basayev died, his allegiance to al-Qaeda and connections with the terrorist group could not seriously be doubted. In September 2004, counterterrorism consultant Dan Darling provided a detailed analysis of the links between Basayev’s fighters and al-Qaeda.
These links center around Basayev and Umar ibn al-Khattab, a bin Laden protege who brought his military prowess to the Caucasus in 1995. After Russian forces withdrew from Chechnya in June 1996, giving it de facto independence, Basayev and Khattab became close. By late 1998, they planned to unify radical Wahhabi factions in Chechnya and Dagestan. This culminated in their men invading Dagestan in August 1999 with the stated intention of establishing an independent Islamic state. After Russian forces drove them from Dagestan and then invaded Chechnya following a series of apartment bombings, Basayev and Khattab remained comrades-in-arms up until Khattab’s 2002 demise.
The connection between these men and al-Qaeda are many. Basayev and Khattab sent emissaries to Afghanistan in 1999 who returned with “several hundred members of al-Qaeda’s elite Brigade 055 as well as a large amount of cash to help bankroll the invasion of Dagestan.” Bin Laden continued to send money and weapons to Chechnya as combat against the Russians intensified late in 1999.
Nor did this support cut one way. In a show of solidarity with bin Laden, Khattab sent fighters to Afghanistan after 9/11. After the Taliban regime’s collapse, “a number of key al-Qaeda commanders…sought sanctuary with Khattab.” And al-Qaeda bomb maker Midhat Mursi trained European al-Qaeda members in toxins and basic chemical weapons from a Chechen stronghold in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge.
IT WAS NOT ALWAYS SO FOR BASAYEV. He was born on January 14, 1965, and raised by a family with a long history of resisting Russian domination of the Caucasus. His first two brushes with fame are suggestive of a man committed not to pan-Islamic ideology, but to freeing his people from foreign rule.
Basayev first gained national attention in the August 1991 Soviet coup attempt, when Communist hardliners briefly wrested control from Mikhail Gorbachev. A 26-year-old grenade-toting Basayev joined Boris Yeltsin’s supporters at the barricades to resist the coup. He later described this move as calculated, saying that “you can kiss Chechnya’s independence goodbye” if the hardliners prevailed.
Basayev’s fame grew later that year when he came to see erstwhile ally-of-convenience Boris Yeltsin as an enemy of the Chechen struggle. In November 1991, when then-president Yeltsin dispatched Russian troops to Chechnya in response to its declaration of independence from Moscow, Basayev hijacked a passenger plane and took 171 hostages. In stark contrast to the bloodlust he later displayed, Basayev let all the hostages go unscathed. He explained that the hijacking’s goal was tied to the Chechen struggle for independence: “We wanted to show that we would resort to anything to uphold our sovereignty.”
THERE HAVE BEEN TWO DISTINCT wars in Chechnya since it declared independence in 1991. The first, running from 1994 to 1996, was a fight against Russian control. The second began in 1999, and was precipitated by the Chechen mujahideen invading Dagestan. This was no war of liberation, but instead was headed by jihadists.
During the first war, Basayev emerged as the Chechens’ best commander. In an excellent profile of Basayev that the New York Times published in September 2004, C.J. Chivers described how Basayev was then known for his battlefield prowess and “sarcastic charm”:
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 journalist from The New York Times a drink….
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.”
But Basayev was eventually transformed into a brutal, humorless warlord who appeared to have less interest in Chechen independence than in furthering the international jihad. It is always difficult to speculate on the cause of such wrenching personal changes, but certainly the Russians’ killing of his family looms large. In May 1995, Russian attacks reportedly killed eleven of Basayev’s relatives, including his wife, two daughters, and a brother.
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.