It’s a bad summer to be a terrorist. Within the last five weeks, the top field commanders of terrorist cadres battling both the United States and Russia have been killed while plotting further attacks against civilization. Moscow received their victory on July 10 as the most wanted terrorist operating out of Chechnya, Shamil Basayev, was killed in a massive explosion in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said that Basayev and eleven of his cohorts were killed in a special operation by security forces while the militants were preparing for an attack timed for the country’s hosting of the G-8 Summit. However, the exact cause of death is unclear at this point. What is crystal clear, however, is that the demise of this leading fanatic is yet another victory for all nations engaged in the global war on terror.
Named after the 19th century anti-Russian Muslim warrior Imam Shamil, and believed to have trained in Afghanistan in 1994, Basayev was a relatively insignificant Chechen rebel leader until 1995 when he emerged as a substantial terrorist threat to the Russian Federation. By mid-1995 the Chechens began to sustain heavy losses against state forces and were driven into the mountains of Chechnya. A desperate Basayev realized he had an opportunity to turn the tables on the Russians and make a name for himself. As the Carnegie Center’s Dmitri Trenin noted, he thus “discovered the power of mass terrorism as an effective weapon in asymmetric warfare against the Russian state.” In June 1995, in the Russian town of Budyonnovsk, Basayev captured a hospital taking 1,000 hostages. This set the stage for a decade of terror to come largely inspired by the radicalized Basayev.
Nevertheless, for three years Moscow provided Chechens with the opportunity to attain relative autonomy after signing the Khasavyurt Accords in 1996. The agreement was a five-year cease-fire to determine how the Chechens would govern themselves if given the chance. Unsurprisingly, the republic fell into chaos, and by 1999, Shamil Basayev decided to break the cease-fire and take the war to the Russians.
Basayev and Saudi-born Ibn al-Khattab led a 1999 invasion into Dagestan, a republic of Muslim majority on Chechnya’s eastern border. This ignited the second Chechen war which between 1999 and 2001 claimed the lives of 3,220 Russian soldiers with an additional 9,000 wounded. The invasion of Dagestan by Chechen and foreign fighters coincided with a series of terrorist attacks in Moscow that cost the lives of 75 people. Basayev is widely believed to be behind these attacks; yet it was not until 2002 that he was able to raise the stakes to an unprecedented level.
On October 23, 2002, the Theatrical Center on Dubrovka in Moscow was seized by terrorists during a nighttime performance. For several days the people inside were held hostage until Russian forces stormed the theatre and overtook their captors. In the end, 130 people died, and Basayev soon boasted of masterminding the operation.
The same year witnessed Basayev set his sights on terror targets abroad as he plotted to assassinate British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, and that December a Chechen terrorist network was discovered in Paris by French intelligence. The group was purportedly planning attacks against the Russian embassy with chemical weapons. Yet Chechnya remained a target. On the December 27, 2002, Basayev claimed direct responsibility for a truck packed with explosives that exploded in a Chechen government administration building in Grozny that killed eighty-three people and wounded 150 others.
Additionally, on August 1, 2003 a truck bomber killed fifty at a military hospital in Mozdok, North Ossetia, while train and subway attacks in late 2003 and early 2004 killed nearly 100. And finally after numerous attempts by Chechen terrorists, Chechen pro-Moscow president Akhmat Kadyrov was assassinated at World War II Victory Day celebrations on May 9, 2004. The year also saw Basayev’s Islamist followers briefly capture the Ingush capitol of Nazran, resulting in the deaths of approximately 100 police officers and government officials. If Basayev was not responsible for all of these attacks, he was certainly the inspiration.
Perhaps his most notorious terrorist operation, however, was the September 2004 attack on a school in Beslan, just north of Chechen territory. Basayev later claimed responsibility for the atrocity that claimed the lives of 331 hostages – many of whom were young children – as well as for dispatching two female suicide bombers that brought down two Russian commercial airliners carrying a total of nearly 100 people. As Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute stated at the time, “With the murder of more than six hundred men, women, and children by Chechen-based Islamic terrorists in Russia since late June – including the simultaneous downing of two civilian airplanes and the massacre of school children in Beslan – Russia is again at war.”
Basayev, in other words, had all of the worst traits of both Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Many Russians considered him as their bin Laden as he too had organized well orchestrated attacks in the heart of Russia that claimed countless lives and captured the nation’s attention. But like Zarqawi in Iraq, however, he was also a brutal field commander who was eager to bring terror tactics into an insurgency.
Thus, a sense of not only vindication for their resolve, but of reckoning for the terror Basayev has caused is evident from the Kremlin. Russian president Vladimir Putin revealed his satisfaction with the following: “This is merited retribution meted out to the bandits for our children in Beslan, in Budennovsk, for all the acts of terrorism they have committed in Moscow and in other regions of Russia, including Ingushetia and the Chechen Republic.”
Such sentiments should be aided by the fact that a true successor to Basayev is unlikely to emerge. Doku Umarov, the current president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria – the secessionist government – is a radical with extensive terrorist ties, but he does not have the history of success, foreign terrorist contacts, or the charisma of Basayev. In fact, in the last decade Basayev had remained relatively unchallenged among Chechen radicals.
It is also worth noting that the vast majority of Chechens adhere to Sufism, a moderate form of Islam that rejects the Saudi inspired Wahhabist teachings that have infiltrated Chechnya in the last decade. The religious leadership has rejected that Basayev should be considered a martyr, and as Chechen Mufti Sultan-Haji Mirzayev told the Russian news agency Interfax on July 11, Basayev “was an enemy of the Chechen people and the first enemy of Allah.”
Moscow has been less than helpful in Washington’s dealings with the Islamic Republic of Iran – the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism – and certainly has a less than perfect record in Chechnya. However, this is a time of solidarity as all protagonists in the global war on terror should celebrate the death of one of the world’s worst terrorists. It is also a testament to Russia’s commitment, and should provide encouragement to Americans for the country’s operations in Iraq and elsewhere. The jury is still out on the impact that Basayev’s death will have on the situation in the Caucasus, but there certainly is ample reason to be optimistic. The real question is: who’s going to be next?
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