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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Shamil Basayev: How Jihadists Are Made

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

One interesting and overlooked angle in the coverage of Shamil Basayev's death is his transformation from a Chechen separatist rebel to a brutal jihadist warlord aligned with al-Qaeda. Back in 2004, shortly after the Beslan school massacre, C.J. Chivers wrote an excellent article for the New York Times, "The Chechen's Story: From Unrivaled Guerilla Leader to the Terror of Russia," that explores this transformation in detail.

Basayev first burst onto the scene in 1991 when he and other hijackers took 171 airplane passengers hostage, forcing the jet to Turkey and eventually to the Chechen capital of Grozny. He let all the hostages go unscathed; his purpose in this hijacking was to make a point about Chechen sovereignty. ''We wanted to show that we would resort to anything to uphold our sovereignty,'' Basayev said on Moscow television.

There have been two distinct Chechen wars since 1990. The first war, running from 1994 to 1996, was a war for independence from Russia. The second war, which began in 1999, was precipitated by Chechen mujahideen invading Dagestan with the intention of establishing an Islamic state there (ruled by the most brutal form of sharia law, akin to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan). This second war was no war of liberation, but instead was headed up by jihadists, many of whom were foreign fighters. During the first Chechen war, Chivers notes that Basayev gained notoriety for his battlefield prowess and for his "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. In his Times article, Chivers, explores how this transformation may have occurred:

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. [Dmitri] Trenin [the deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center] 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. . . .

After Chechnya won its de facto independence from Russia in 1996, Basayev lost his bid for the Chechen presidency but was appointed prime minister. Little more than a military commander, Basayev was unsuited for this job and became politically marginalized. It is then that Basayev aligned himself with the jihadists, something that many analysts regard as "a marriage of convenience." For example, Chivers quotes Sebastian Smith of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting as saying, ''My distinct feeling is that this was not a religious conversion. This was a means to an end, but a means that led him down this horrible path.'' (Incidentally, I am skeptical of this "marriage of convenience" view. While I won't say that Basayev's conversion was genuine, my experience is that most Western analysts understand neither theology nor religious conversion, and thus tend to downplay them as salient factors.)

The rest of the story is well known. As my colleague Bill Roggio notes, Basayev's terrorist exploits while in league with the jihadists included the Beslan school massacre and the 2002 Dubrovka theater attack in Moscow.

There are many lessons to be gleaned from Basayev's life and the Chechen war as a whole. One lesson is how wars that are brutally executed can play into the jihadists' hands. Just as the killing of his family may have made Basayev more willing to engage in specatular acts of slaughter, so too has the Russian brutality in pursuing the Chechnya war made many Chechens more sympathetic to the radical Wahhabi/Salafi strains of Islam that have been aggressively peddled there.

Moreover, another lesson is that while the Chechen mujahideen are an enemy of the U.S. just as they are an enemy to Russia, we should be careful about how we engage nation-states like Russia in the war on terror. While the Russians did not initiate the second Chechen war, their brutal execution of the conflict has played one hundred percent into the hands of the terrorists.
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