- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2004

Russia yesterday identified six of the terrorists behind the Beslan school massacres as Chechen separatists, linking the bloodbath to a decades-long rebellion that has attracted money and support from a global network of Islamic extremists.

“The connections are well known and very clear,” said Michael Radu, senior fellow and terrorism expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

“Chechnya is right there with Afghanistan and the West Bank and Gaza as a clear-cut case of Islam being under attack and having to defend itself,” he said.

Moscow vowed to deal with terrorists, including pre-emptive strikes on terrorist bases outside Russia.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday accused the West of bearing “direct responsibility for the tragedy of the Chechen people when they give political asylum to terrorists.”

Without naming either the United States or Britain by name, he left no doubt he was referring to recent decisions by both to give asylum to prominent Chechen separatists.

Chechnya has fought a long and bloody guerrilla war for independence from Russia, and the Beslan killings appear to have elements of both international terrorism and an extremist wing of the Chechen independence struggle.

“I think there is clearly a dovetailing of interest,” said Sarah E. Mendelson, an expert on the region for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Russian security officials told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that six of the terrorists who seized the school in southern Russia were from Chechnya.

Moscow has repeatedly linked Chechen insurgents with international terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda.

At least 326 persons, half of them children, died in the Beslan attack, which ended in a terrifying hail of bombs and gunfire.

“There is a very dangerous Wahhabi element in southern Russia, period. That’s something to be concerned about,” said Miss Mendelson. She was referring to a militant Muslim sect that controls religious life in Saudi Arabia and provides the theology behind Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.

Miss Mendelson said there was little hard evidence of the links between al Qaeda and the Chechens.

“Here’s the puzzle we all face: On the one hand, there are international terrorist elements to this, but there also are very specific domestic Russian political aspects as well,” she said.

Russia has brushed off criticism of its handling of the Chechen insurgency, vowing to tighten security and crush the rebellion. But Miss Mendelson warned that Moscow’s use of force so far “has bred extremism rather than contained it.”

“Beslan was a primeval erosion of taboos,” she said. “If they can do that, they can do anything. I have nightmare scenarios of [their having] access to weapons of mass destruction, or of an extended network of al Qaeda penetrating Russia.”

“I’ve been saying for a long time that the war in Chechnya is not just Chechnya. I think that we should be preparing for all eventualities and we should be considering this as part of a Euro-Atlantic community security problem,” said Miss Mendelson.

But she cautioned that there may be one way to deal with terrorists and another way to deal with the other Chechen groups and the civilian population.

Mr. Radu said that no matter how the politicians cut it, “the fact is that Chechnya has become a focus of Islamic activities around the world.”

He said the immediate goal of the Wahhabi elements in Chechnya was to destabilize the northern Caucuses — the most agitated section of Russia’s southern border — and Russia itself.

“That’s their way of destroying Russia, because Russia has been a symbol of oppression of Muslims for hundreds of years,” said Mr. Radu.

An al Qaeda-linked Islamic organization, the Islambouli Brigades, has claimed responsibility for two plane bombings in August and subway suicide attacks in Russia that left more than 400 dead.

According to Mr. Radu, the brigades are named after Egyptian army lieutenant Khaled al-Islambouli who was behind the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

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