Islamic groups aiding rebels in Chechnya

Experts see some truth in assertions by Russia

October 30, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - From the start of the Russian hostage crisis, the Kremlin has insisted that the Chechen guerrillas who seized more than 750 people in a Moscow theater were agents of international terror groups.

Yet, a week after 50 Chechen raiders infiltrated the theater and days after a Russian military assault brought the incident to a violent close, government officials have offered no evidence to support their assertions of foreign backing for the hostage-takers.

Those claims, it seems, were part of Russia's effort to cast the war in Chechnya as a fight against Islamic extremists rather than as a bid to crush a separatist rebellion in the Caucasus.

But analysts outside of Russia's government, as well as many Chechens, say there is foreign support for the Chechen rebellion - even if not as extensive as the Kremlin contends.

"Islamic organizations have given the Chechens big assistance," said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Chechnya at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "These ties exist but they should not be exaggerated, because the roots of the Chechen conflict, the roots of the hostage crisis, reside in Chechnya itself."

It is still not clear who planned and organized the hostage-taking in the heart of Moscow, an incident that led to the deaths of at least 170 people. But the Kremlin is using the episode to justify its policy of refusing to negotiate with Chechen resistance figures. And Russian officials point to the alleged foreign sponsorship of the hostage-taking as the basis for a more aggressive military posture abroad.

Col. Ilya Shabalkin, an official of the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, stationed in Chechnya, described the war as a struggle against the forces that launched last year's attacks against New York and Washington.

"The threat to the Russian Federation, the threat to the United States and the threat to Europe is coming from a quite formal organization of Islamic terrorism," Shabalkin said last week in a heavily guarded military barracks in the Chechen capital of Grozny. "They are brothers in the Muslim world."

Shabalkin, whose comments came two days before the hostage-taking, said about 200 of the estimated 1,200 separatist fighters in Chechnya were foreigners, mostly Arabs from Persian Gulf states or Turks.

He asserted that the war in Chechnya was being financed and directed by radical sympathizers in Saudi Arabia and other gulf states. Shabalkin did not name any specific organizations or say how much foreign money Chechens receive. But he claimed that a single Chechen warlord had been paid $50 million for maintaining a militia that was fighting the Russians.

"Can you imagine $50 million in Chechnya?" he asked. "For here, it is absolutely huge money."

Such claims may be exaggerated, independent analysts say. But few doubt that there is a lot of foreign financial support from Islamic groups for Chechen insurgents.

Malashenko said estimates range from $10 million to $200 million a year, but "nobody really knows."

And there is plenty of evidence that foreign fighters have fought alongside the Chechen rebels over the past 10 years.

Aukai Collins, who was born in Hawaii, joined the Chechen rebels during Chechnya's first war for independence from 1994 to 1996, as described in his 2001 book, My Jihad. Zacarias Moussaoui, the French-born man of Moroccan descent who has been charged with being the "20th hijacker" in the Sept. 11 attacks, fought in Chechnya in 1996.

Foreign Muslims continue to be drawn to the conflict. During a battle Oct. 6-8, Shabalkin said, Russian forces killed six members of a rebel reconnaissance patrol south of the Chechen village of Salazi, about 15 miles southwest of Grozny. Five carried foreign passports - two from Germany, three from Turkey.

All five had recent visas for the Republic of Georgia. Russian officials suspect that the five entered Chechnya through Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, a cleft in the southern flank of the Caucasus Mountains that climbs toward the range's snowcapped peaks and the Chechen border.

One fighter, Tarek Boughdir, a 40-year-old German citizen living in Shoerndorf, in Bavaria, had a paper folded in his passport. Under the English word Testament, he wrote, in German: "This is to express that dying in the name of Allah means life in Paradise. Allah, let me become a Shahid [a martyr for Islam]. And forgive my sin."

Another of the dead fighters, Tarik Algin, 26, who had a Turkish passport, had a tourist visa for Pakistan, valid for February 2000. Many Islamic fighters who trained in camps in Afghanistan, including those run by al-Qaida, entered Afghanistan illegally across the border with Pakistan.

Chechen villagers refused to bury the foreigners in their cemetery.

"Chechens as a nation don't like foreigners," Shabalkin said. "So, it's difficult for foreign contract killers. They can't come into a village. People will recognize they are not local."

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