- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005

Since the March 8 death of Aslan Maskhadov, former president of Chechnya and supreme commander of Chechen militant forces, Russia has escalated its anti-terrorism operations in the North Caucasus region.

Last Tuesday, Russian security forces apprehended Adam Jabrailov, a Chechen terrorist responsible for capturing, killing and beheading four Red Cross workers in 1996.

Details of Maskhadov’s death remain murky. While he had limited control of the Chechen Islamist faction led by warlord Shamil Basaev, during the unilateral January 2005 cease-fire, most Chechen factions observed the truce in support of a call for peace talks with the Kremlin. However, sources close to the Russian leadership indicated in Moscow last week the Kremlin is opting for a military crackdown and leadership elimination.

Maskhadov’s legacy is complex. He was a former Soviet Army colonel cut from the same cloth as many Russian leaders and could have been a peace settlement partner. But he commanded military operations and achieved Chechnya’s near-sovereignty under the Khasav-Yurt accords (1997).

During his presidency, he allowed Chechnya’s frightful transformation into Sharia-dominated anarchy. In 1997-1999, the years of Chechnya’s quasi-independence, the region became an Islamist terrorist training ground and saw 2,000 kidnappings for ransom, slave trade and massive trafficking in weapons, drugs and stolen goods. Maskhadov couldn’t — or wouldn’t — stop any of it.

Maskhadov publicly distanced himself from mass hostage-taking operations by the jihadi warlord Shamil Basaev, such as the Dubrovka Theater and the Beslan school attack in September 2004. Nevertheless, Maskhadov took no steps to prevent such atrocities. On the contrary, in his latest interviews he advocated expansion of the “jihad” beyond Chechnya, to the rest of Northern Caucasus, and targeting Russian civilians.

The formal Maskhadov’s successor is a little-known Islamic law figure (“Sheik”) Abdul Halim Sadullaev. Not known for religious learning or military prowess, he apparently was Maskhadov’s appointed successor to keep Basaev from formally taking power and to threaten Moscow with chaos if it decided to eliminate Maskhadov. Russian sources report Sheik Abdul-Halim issued fatwas allowing murder and terror attacks.

Mr. Putin needed a great victory as his popularity began to deteriorate after Beslan and mass protests of unpopular cash payments introduced in January to replace social in-kind benefits. The secret service, the FSB, produced such a coup.

One year after Vladimir Putin handily won a second presidential term, his domestic and foreign challenges are snowballing, and his aura of almost superhuman invincibility is quickly dissipating.

Analysts in Moscow speculate he is repeating the mistakes of the czars who brutally suppressed the Chechens. In 1850, Nicholas I ordered his Caucasus viceroy, Prince Michael Vorontsov, to “firmly follow my system of destruction of dwellings and food supply, and bothering them with incursions.”

Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer who served in the Caucasus in the mid-19th as a military officer, had this to say about the reactions in Chechnya in his classic “Haji Murat”:

“Nobody even discussed hatred toward the Russians. The feeling that all Chechens experienced, from a child to a grown up, was stronger than hatred. It was not hate, but the lack of recognition of these Russian dogs as human beings. It was such a revulsion, disgust and noncomprehension, facing the irrational cruelty of these creatures, that the desire to exterminate them was a natural feeling, as natural as the instinct of self-preservation. [This] was like the desire to exterminate vermin, poisonous spiders and wolves.”

With Maskhadov’s killing, Moscow lost an opportunity to split the Chechens between the more secular supporters of national independence or broad autonomy, and radical Islamist “jihadi” terrorists. But it seems the Kremlin did not believe such an option was available and equated Maskhadov with Basaev.

Ironically, the radical Islamists do not want an independent Chechnya, as Maskhadov did. They want nothing less than a Califate, which would subsume Chechen national aspirations in favor of a pan-Islamic agenda of a Muslim superstate.

Now, according to London’s Sunday Times, the radical Islamist wing, led by Basaev and a Saudi warlord Abu Havs, which rejects diplomacy and hails jihad, and the Russian security forces and the military, will dictate the scope and pace of the North Caucasus war. Unfortunately, the likelihood also will increase of terror mega-attacks, like the September 2004 horror in a Beslan school. Quickly killing or capturing Basaev is an imperative for the Russian forces.

Islamist terrorists, with their global networks of financial support and training, would want nothing more than to have Basaev as de-facto supreme military commander of North Caucasus — without Maskhadov’s meddling. Basaev already trains and equips jihadi units, which grew out of North Caucasus Wahhabi madrassas networks. Fighting there is on the rise.

The North Caucasus Islamist movement and its allies believe their geopolitical goal — creating the North Caucasus Califate, a militaristic Sharia-based dictatorship between the Black Sea and the Caspian — just got a bit closer.

If they succeed, a disastrous scenario unfolds. Such an entity on Europe’s doorstep, controlled by ideological soulmates of Osama bin Laden, will radiate terrorism and religious extremism for decades to come. It may become one of the greatest threats to Eurasian security of this century.

Russiawide terrorism will escalate, as will “jihad” in the Russian-controlled republics of North Caucasus, where security forces increasingly impose political controls and the Kremlin moves toward setting up its loyalists as presidents and governors. A secular Shi’ite regime of Azerbaijan and its oil fields, and pipelines from the Caspian basin, will also be more prone to terrorist attacks.

It is time the United States paid attention to the threats escalating in the Northern Caucasus.

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and international energy security at the Heritage Foundation and editor of “Eurasia in Balance” (Ashgate, 2005).

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