Last year I wrote about the murky role Russia was playing in the Syrian war, bolstering the Assad tyranny while facilitating the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other Salafi-jihadists as a means of dividing and discrediting the Syrian opposition. Moscow’s action were in line with the strategy it had used to defeat the separatist movement in Chechnya, infiltrating the insurgency, driving it into extremism, and facilitating the arrival of al-Qaeda jihadists who displaced the Chechen nationalists. In Syria, Russia’s actions accord with the strategy adopted by the regime and its Iranian masters to present Assad as the last line of defence against a terrorist takeover of Syria and a genocide against the minorities. New evidence has emerged to underline these points.
Chechnya, Dagestan, and Abkhazia
To recap. Shamil Basayev, a participant in the fighting in Chechnya since the early 1990s and the leader of the Chechen Salafi-jihadists between 2003 and 2006, was once described as “a GRU staff member with a great deal of work experience,” GRU being Russian military-intelligence. Basayev, with his brother Shirvani, also a GRU agent, led an incursion into the Georgian province of Abkhazia in 1992 that—at the very least—Moscow did nothing to stop. Basayev’s Chechen division helped the Abkhazians expel the Georgian military, and a Russian “peacekeeping” (occupation) force moved in and remains in Abkhazia.
In August 1999, Basayev led an attack into Dagestan, using weapons from GRU stocks in Moscow, not jihadist stores in Chechnya, reigniting conflict with Moscow. Six weeks later, Basayev would be blamed for the apartment bombings in Moscow that killed three-hundred people.
With the Dagestan War in the background, plus the apartment bombings, the then-new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had casus belli to restart the war in Chechnya, which he did on October 1, 1999, and with public outrage behind him there were no restraints on Putin; “anti-terrorist” action became the destruction of Grozny.
The Second Chechen War provided a key pillar of popular legitimacy to Putin as he cemented his dictatorship. It is a long-standing accusation that this is no accident. There isclear evidence that members of the Russian government knew in advance that the bombings were coming, and the curious incident in Ryazan on September 22, 1999, which gives every appearance of being the FSB caught in the act of placing a bomb in an apartment.
Many independent analysts, numerous Russian journalists, and at least two former officers of the FSB, the primary successor to the KGB, have come to the conclusion that the apartment bombings were orchestrated by the Russian regime.
Mikhail Trepashkin, who served with the KGB and then the FSB from 1984 until his arrest and imprisonment in 2003 on deeply politicized charges, said the lead organizer of the apartment bombings was Vladimir Romanovich, an FSB agent who was known for his connections to organized crime during the 1990s.
Alexander Litvinenko, who began as an informant of the KGB in 1986, joining as an officer two years later, before defecting to Britain in 2000 after registering complaints of criminal conduct against his employer, said the Russian government bombed those apartment buildings in a false-flag operation to justify the attack on Chechnya and secure Putin and his retainers in power. That Putin felt the need to assassinate Litvinenko—in London, at great political cost—gives Litvinenko’s accusations additional weight.
In the conduct of the Second Chechen War, outside of unrestrained brutality, Russia bet onprovokatsiya (provocation), which simply means “taking control of your enemies in secret and encouraging them to do things that discredit them and help you.” Specifically, this meant strengthening the jihadist trend of the Chechen insurgency against the more nationalist/separatist forces, identifying the Chechen independence cause with al-Qaeda and terrorism, and framing Moscow’s war—and its ancillary effects of making Putin master of Russia—under the rubric of the War on Terror.
Prodding politico-military opponents into doing criminal things they would not otherwise have done to justify a legal or military crackdown and to discredit their cause, and manipulating terrorist movements for the same reason, are tactics Russia has been using for over one-hundred years, against opposition internal and external.
Moscow and Islamist Terrorism in the Soviet Days
Russia’s history of fabricating and enabling Islamist radicals is lengthy.
From the 1960s onward, there was scarcely a “national liberation movement” from Latin America to East Asia that did not receive Soviet support, if not instigation and direction. Moscow’s history of involvement with Middle Eastern terrorism is deep and broad. From Assad’s Syria, Saddam’s Iraq, and military-run Egypt (until Cairo defected to the Western camp after 1973), the Soviets waged political warfare against the West.
Soviet efforts against the West in the Arab World included starting the campaign of delegitimation against Israel, now associated with the BDS movement and the propaganda about Israel being a Nazi and/or Apartheid State, and nurturing innumerable terrorist groups, most of which took on Islamist overtones. A notable example is the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which had been formed before the 1967 Six-Day War but rose to prominence afterward when the Soviets installed an Egyptian KGB asset, Yasser Arafat, as leader. Moscow’s relationship with Clerical Iran, which lasts to this day, should also be seen in this light.
As the Soviet Union began to open up in the late 1980s and some limited opposition parties were allowed, the KGB carefully infiltrated existing parties and fabricated other “scarecrow” parties to make the Communist Party look like the most reasonable alternative.
In February 1990, a riot in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, was organized by the opposition Islamic Rastokhez (Rebirth) Party, which killed twenty-two people and injured five-hundred more. One of the things Rastokhez had played on was the presence of Christian Armenians, refugees from a pogrom in Azerbaijan two years before. Against this, the Communists looked quite reasonable. But three witnesses—Abdul Nazarov, a then-officer of Tajik KGB; Kakhar Makhmarov, a senior official in the Tajik S.S.R., and Makhmadali Khait, a then-activist for Rastokhez and now a member of an opposition party in Tajikistan—say the KGB instigated the mayhem to prevent a repeat of the (nearly) peaceful secession of the Baltics and Ukraine.
In June 1990, in Astrakhan, the U.S.S.R. Islamic Revival Party (IRP) was founded. One IRP founder was Geydar Dzhemal, a fiery agitator for Islamist extremism and against Putin to this day, who is the chairman of Russia’s Islamic Committee. Curiously, Dzhemal never meets with the legal trouble of, say, Aleksey Navalny. (Analogies with men like Abu Qaqa in Syria will occur to some.) Dzhemal might also be insulated from official retribution by his long relationship with Aleksandr Dugin, the fascist propagandist who made himself famous by calling for a “genocide” of Ukrainians in August 2014. Dugin began spreading his fascist ideas in the early 1980s, supposedly underground. A more convincing explanation of Dugin’s long immunity is that he is a GRU agent. Dugin’s father, Gelyi, was a senior GRU officer.
Movladi Udugov, a leader of the Chechen radical wing in the 1990s, declared the Caucasus Emirate in October 2007 as al-Qaeda’s local branch. “Prior to Udugov’s statements, most Americans did not regard the Chechen resistance as part of the global terrorist movement,” Dmitry Shlapentokh, associate professor at Indiana University-South Bend, writes. Chechen nationalists condemned Udugov’s announcement, asking: “Who could benefit from the provocation entitled the Caucasus Emirate”?
Akhmed Zakayev, an exiled leader of the unrecognised Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Aslan Maskhadov, a former Chechen president, and other representatives of the more secular wing of Chechen separatism consistently called the leaders of the religious radicals in Chechnya agents of the Russian special services designed to discredit their cause. Zakayev levelled this accusation against Udugov; against the ideological leader of the Caucasus Emirate idea, Isa Umarov; and against Isa’s brother, Dokka Umarov, who succeeded Basayev and was the Caucasus Emirate’s leader between 2007 and 2013.
Supyan Abdullayev, another founder of IRP, was one of the major Russian ideologists of Wahhabism/Salafism in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, was a KGB agent from the 1980s. Abdulayev was one of the founders of IRP and was appointed as “President of Chechen Republic of Ichkeria” in March 2007 by Umarov, a “post” that was abolished with the formation of the Caucasus Emirate. Abdullayev was killed in March 2011.
Adam Deniyev was the other major post-Soviet Wahhabist/Salafist ideologue. Deniyev had long been known for Islamist agitation and showed up on the radical wing of the Chechen insurgency. Deniyev went to Iraq in 1992 to study at a time when Saddam Hussein’s regime was intensifying its Islamism. That same year, Dzhokhar Dudayev, the president of the “Chechen Republic of Ichkeria”—which was then exercising some actual authority—went to Baghdad and told the Iraqi regime that their guest was a tool of Russian intelligence, according to Nezavisamaya Gazeta. This can hardly have bothered Saddam, whose intelligence services were trained by the KGB and whose regime trained thousands of Islamist terrorists of all backgrounds in the 1990s. By the time Deniyev was killed in 2001, his being a Moscow agent was hardly a secret.
Russia and Al-Qaeda’s Leader
One of the most curious episodes of all is the arrest of Ayman az-Zawahiri in Russia in December 1996 as he tried to visit the Chechen Salafi-jihadists. Zawahiri, now al-Qaeda’s leader, was at the time planning to “scope out Chechnya as a possible sanctuary” for Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), the terrorist group he led at the time which would later merge with Osama bin Laden’s group. EIJ’s cause was on the ropes inside Egypt—not least because Cairo had killed or (as in Zawahiri’s case) exiled EIJ’s leadership. Chechnya at that time was effectively independent, beset by chaos, and infested with Muslim radicals: a perfect hideout.
Carrying a fake medical degree and claiming to be interested in the possibilities of the food trade, Zawahiri travelled on a false Sudanese passport, under the name “Abdullah Imam Mohammed,” in the company of two veteran jihadists, Ahmad Salama Mabruk and Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi. In Zawahiri’s possession was “$6,400 in cash, a fake identity as a businessman, a laptop computer, a satellite phone, a fax machine and a small library of medical textbooks.” The laptop was sent to Moscow and an outcry began from the Muslim world, including Muslim leaders in Russia, demanding Zawahiri’s release.
Moscow released Zawahiri in May 1997—with his laptop, “its mostly Arabic-language documents nearly all unread”—and allowed him to travel to Chechnya, where he met various holy warriors, including Ibn al-Khattab (a.k.a. Samir Saleh Abdullah as-Suwailem), over the next ten days. Zawahiri then decamped to Afghanistan. Incredibly, Moscow claimed not to know who it had in its possession until years later. This is ridiculous on its face.
There is no way Zawahiri’s laptop will have resisted Moscow’s efforts to read it. Moreover, there is every reason to think there would have been Russian intelligence officers who recognized Zawahiri by sight. In the 1970s, after Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat halted the Soviet colonization of his country and turned West, the KGB initiated Active Measures to try to topple Sadat and began sponsoring Egyptian oppositionists, including the Communists and Islamists—the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and EIJ. Zawahiri was very publicly rounded up in the dragnet after Sadat was assassinated in 1981, and it was public record that Zawahiri broke under torture, giving up the name of a more senior conspirator, and felt guilty about it. It beggars belief that none of this led to Zawahiri’s discovery and Moscow making use of him, according to Evgenii Novikov. “Zawahiri would have had to agree to cooperation with Russian intelligence to save his life and to buy his freedom,” Novikov writes.
Zawahiri’s subsequent actions are also noteworthy. Zawahiri’s EIJ was a “national-revolutionary” movement, so much so that a large slice of EIJ left in 2001 when Zawahiri formally joined al-Qaeda, only returning to the fold to oppose the “Crusaders” after the invasion of Afghanistan. Zawahiri had been a leading proponent of the “near enemy” school of jihad, which said that the Islamists needed to focus on attacking the local regimes and forming a base of operations. In 1995, at the height of the violent insurgency EIJ led against the Egyptian State, Zawahiri even wrote an article saying that the struggle against Israel must wait until Islam reigned over Egypt. But Zawahiri quite suddenly changed after his release in Russia and his move to Afghanistan.
In February 1998, Zawahiri signed onto Osama bin Laden’s fatwa declaring global holy war against Americans and Jews. Now Zawahiri, regarded by many as the brain behind bin Laden, would become the lead espouser of the “far enemy” school of jihadism, which prescribed attacks on America as the primary goal since she stands behind the local tyrannies, which will fall if America is driven out of the region. The road to 9/11 had opened; with al-Qaeda’s switch in policy and the attacks on the African Embassies later that year, Khaled Sheikh Muhammad would be convinced that bin Laden meant business and finally consented to meet bin Laden in Afghanistan, presenting him the idea for the “Planes Operation”.
Russia and the Chechens in Syria
In June 2013, speaking to Radio Liberty at a time when Umarov had been reported dead, Zakayev said:
According to our sources, the information about Umarov’s death is false … Russia, its special services and Vladimir Putin are once again preparing a surprise for their Western partners who are involved in intense negotiation on Syria’s situation. … Russia is interested in delaying or overall preventing the process of Assad’s [overthrow]. To do so, according to our information, Kremlin made a decision to transfer Umarov to Syria. … Russia claims that for Assad opposition is … the so-called Islamic radicals … Can you imagine what position the Western leaders, who made the decision to lift embargo of arms for the opposition, will be put in?
Umarov was not dead; he died either in late 2013 or early 2014. (One source says September 2013 from poisoning.) And Zakayev’s prediction has come to pass: Assad has borrowed the Russian playbook and provocation has done its work; most Westerners now think the Islamic State (ISIS) are “rebels” and therefore Assad, and his Iranian and Russian backers, are the side we should choose in Syria.
As in Chechnya, the beleaguered Syrian population that rose in revolt against repression is squeezed between the tyranny and the fanatics, and the West looks on, identifying the population with the fanatics the tyranny has facilitated into being. Creating problems to solve them is an old Kremlin trick; it worked in Chechnya, the KGB-trained military-intelligence services in Algeria did the same, and Russia was instrumental in what appears to be another victory for this tactic in Syria.
As I pointed out last year, Russia’s involvement in Syria is extensive. Russia not only provides diplomatic protection and weapons to the Assad dictatorship, but provides Assad’s strategic framework (provocation) in fighting his war and Russian intelligence has helped Assad track and kill individuals—including rebels and Western journalists—with sophisticated capabilities like signals intelligence (SIGINT) that the Assad regime would not otherwise have. Now we have new evidence that Russian troops are directly involved in fighting for the Assad dictatorship around Latakia.
3,000 or more Salafi-jihadists from the Caucasus—Chechnya and Dagestan mostly—have gone to fight for their cause in Syria and Iraq since 2011. The Qaeda-ISIS schism among the Caucasian Salafi-jihadists has left the leadership of both camps in the hands of men with odd histories with Russian intelligence.
The pro-ISIS faction of the Chechen holy warriors in “Syraq” is led by Tarkhan Batirashvili (pseudonym: Abu Omar a-Shishani). ISIS has not allowed foreigners into its senior military positions, keeping them in the hands of former military and intelligence officers of the Saddam Hussein regime (see 1/2/3/4/5/6/7). Foreigners have instead been used in ISIS’s media and shari’a departments. The Chechens have been the one exception, and Batirashvili is the most public such exception, holding a senior military position and being a member of ISIS’s Shura Council, which among other things picks the leader and has a very strong influence on policy.
Batirashvili was born to an Orthodox family in Georgia in 1986. When Joana Paraszczuk, the British blogger who keeps the closest eye on the Chechens in Syria, denounces the “ridiculous conspiracy theory in which [Batirashvili] is actually a KGB agent,” she has a point. Batirashvili is too young to have been recruited by the Soviet Union. But Batirashvili isreported by his father to have fought with Ruslan Gelayev’s terrorist group, at age fourteen, during a little-remembered crisis in Abkhazia in October 2001 when Gelayev’s forces invaded Abkhazia from the Georgian side.
In late 2001, Gelayev’s Chechen forces were ostensibly fighting against Moscow’s allies in Abkhazia, but the net result of the incursion was to provide Moscow the space—while the world was distracted by NATO’s invasion of Afghanistan—to clear the enclave of Chechens and other anti-Moscow insurgents. Since Gelayev was, like Basayev, with whom he fought in Georgia in 1992-3, a barely-concealed GRU agent, this might not have been wholly accidental. In 2009, Irakli Alasania, a former Georgian defence minister, stated plainly that Gelayev and his group were a “weapon against Georgians in GRU hands” during the 2001 events in Abkhazia.
Batirashvili continued after 2001 to help “Chechen rebels cross secretly into Russia and sometimes he joined the fighters on missions against Russian-backed troops, his father said.” From school, Batirashvili joined the Georgian army, and fought on Tbilisi’s side during the August 2008 war with Russia. Afterward, Batirashvili “appeared to be helping Islamist rebels inside Russia, and asked [his] former commander for help finding some military-grade maps of Chechnya.” Diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2010, that September Batirashvili was arrested for possession of illegal weapons and imprisoned for sixteen months. Upon release in January/February 2012, Batirashvili had been radicalized and soon moved to Syria.
Who knows the truth? Batirashvili would not necessarily be an agent just because Gelayev was—provocation works by annexing the leadership and prodding the True Believers in the ranks below into self-destruction. If Batirashvili had GRU connections at one stage, he might easily have broken them off since. The question of ultimate loyalty is always difficult to determine—look at the trouble even now of determining who Evno Azeff was working for at what time—and ISIS now is in a radically different predicament to 2012-13; under these conditions an infiltrator could have been swayed by ISIS’s vision becoming a reality. But it wouldn’t alter the fact that ISIS is serving Russia’s and Assad’s interests by associating the anti-Assad forces with cruelty and fanaticism, and if Moscow pushed one of ISIS’s media stars into their ranks, it would only restate the point in a different way.
The pro-Qaeda Chechens are led by Murad Margoshvili (pseudonym: Muslem Abu Walid a-Shishani). Margoshvili’s story is somewhat simpler than Batirashvili’s. Involved with the Chechen jihad since 1995, including being associated with Basayev, Margoshvili was arrested in 2003. Margoshvili was—incredibly—acquitted on terrorism charges in 2006, and then managed to get free of an FSB attempt to nab him actually in the courtroom after the verdict. Margoshvili absconded to the Caucasus where he set up a Salafi-jihadist organization in 2008, before moving to Syria in 2012. There is simply no way this happens without the assistance of Russian intelligence. The only question is when Margoshvili began his relationship with Russia’s special services, what exactly it was, and what it is now.
Additionally, Batirashvili and Margoshvili are helping radicalize Chechens in the West, specifically Germany and Austria. Creating internal security problems for Western States—especially ones where Moscow can pose as part of the solution—is part of Russian tradecraft going back to the 1870s. A classic case is that of Arkadiy Harting (a.k.a. Landezen) in 1890. Landezen, a member of the Paris-based Russian opposition, organized a meeting, telling a group of his comrades to bring their bomb-making equipment with them, and had the oppositionists met by French police. Landezen was an Okhranka officer. The resultant public outcry soured French opinion, official and popular, on the Russian opposition, and led to a significant thaw in relations between autocratic Russia and republican France that contributed to formation of the Franco-Russian alliance of 1891.
Last October, I concluded by noting that Moscow was not opposed to large numbers of “Caucasus jihadis [who] are professionalised and militarily effective” removing themselves from Russia to the Fertile Crescent. “The Chechens are ostentatiously frightening, even among the takfiris, discrediting the insurgency locally and internationally, making Assad look like the lesser evil,” which makes a nice fit with the Assad-Iran-Russia policy in Syria. The question leftover was: “How many Chechen jihadists in Syria and Iraq are under Moscow’s sway? … Some of the Chechens’ military effectiveness surely comes from the long struggle against the Kremlin. Just as surely some of it comes from long experience for the Kremlin.” Serious people were—and are—proposing Assad, Iran, and Putin as allies against ISIS, but these are actors who have an interest in, and play some active part in, making the terrorism problem worse.
This was all, to some extent, old news, however.
New Evidence of Russian Assistance to ISIS
Michael Weiss, writing in The Daily Beast, provides new evidence that Putin’s Russia is playing a double-game with Islamic terrorism. Moscow is encouraging and facilitating Chechen radicals to go do holy war in Syria and Iraq, solving a Russian security problem—terrorism in the Caucasus has decreased fifty-percent since the Syrian crisis began—and not incidentally helping Russian politico-diplomatic policy by weakening the Syrian opposition and strengthening ISIS, to whom Russia’s ally Assad can be proposed as the only solution.
Weiss notes the recent investigation by Novaya Gazeta journalist, Elena Milashina, of the village of Novosasitili in Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district, where, since 2011, nearly one-percent of the 2,500 residents have gone to Syria for jihad. “Milashina has concluded that the ‘Russian special services have controlled’ the flow of jihadists into Syria,” Weiss writes. “The FSB established a ‘green corridor’ to allow [the Caucasian zealots] to migrate first to Turkey, and then to Syria.”
Rather than killing Salafi-jihadists, Russia is pushing them to emigrate, with both carrot and stick, offering to help zealots to serve their holy cause—just not in Russia—and accompanying it with a systematic campaign of harassment for those who try to do jihad locally.
Milashina spoke to the “negotiator” who came to Novosasitili and he told “her of his role as an intermediary between the FSB and local militants in arranging the latter’s departure to the Levant.” In 2012, the “negotiator” helped move the “emir of the northern sector” from Dagestan to Turkey and thence to Syria. “The FSB gave the emir a passport and acted as his travel agent. The condition was that he’d deal exclusively with the FSB and not inform any of his confederates of his true sponsor.” This one “negotiator” sent at least five other men to Syria under the same arrangement.
Whether this is a local policy—security officials seeking to impress Moscow by bringing down the figures for terrorism in their areas—or a central government policy isn’t wholly clear, though the chances that Moscow is unware of what is happening, especially now after three years, seem remote. Moscow might have “deniability,” but only by intention: it sets broad policy and then remains adequately (officially) uninformed about how it is being carried out down the chain of command.
Russia Never Was a Counter-terrorism Partner
These revelations underline the fact that “counterterrorism cooperation between Russia and the U.S. is more a comforting legend of the post-Cold War order,” as Weiss puts it.
Even if Russia were not playing a double-game with terrorists, Moscow is not exactly forthcoming with intelligence related to terrorism. The Boston bombing is the most recent case in point.
“On the Tsarnaev brothers, [Russian intelligence] did tell [the United States] once, and then they stopped,” said Mike Rogers, the former chair of the House Intelligence Committee. “When the FBI made further inquiries, they stopped cooperating. I thought that was really interesting because clearly they knew the Tsarnaevs were being radicalized.”
Whatever additional information the FSB has about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, it is not sharing it with America. This is standard.
Jose Rodriguez, the chief of staff of the Counterterrorism Centre at the CIA immediately after 9/11, wrote in his memoir:
Dealing with the Russians was quite a chore. They were always in the “receive mode,” happy to take whatever information we were willing to share with them on terrorist threats but generally reluctant to offer much in return.
Rodriguez’s superior, Cofer Black, put on a dramatic display at one meeting, slamming a heap of papers several feet high on the desk and telling the Russians, “This is the intelligence information the United States has shared with you.” Black then threw a small handful of papers in the air and announced: “This is what we have gotten from you.” This had “little effect on subsequent performance,” Rodriguez reports.
The fact that the U.S. is constantly on-guard against Russian espionage—now at its highest levels since the Cold War—also complicates any security co-operation with Moscow.
Beyond provokatsiya and spies, the corruption and incompetence of Moscow’s security services would make Russia a dangerous partner to rely on in the fight against Islamic terrorism. When holy warriors can bribe their way past border officials in Russia, there is no security in relying on Russia.
As ever, Russia’s approach to the West is deeply schizophrenic. On the one hand, Moscow wishes to sell itself as a peer of the remaining superpower and a source of invaluable information for the U.S. intelligence community. On the other hand, Moscow puts out propaganda saying the terrorism against America is the work of the U.S. government, as happened over Boston, and barely a day goes by when RT doesn’t suggest that ISIS is the creation of the U.S. (and/or Israel) in a war against the Assad regime—despite the U.S. being actively at war with ISIS and Russia facilitating ISIS’s recruitment.
These revelations should change the conversation about Islamist militancy, ISIS specifically, and its State supporters and enablers.
Questioning whether American has collaborated with Islamist extremists goes well beyond the fringe, from the old myth about the U.S. supporting Osama bin Laden against the Soviets in Afghanistan to the more serious questions about U.S. policy vis-à-vis the mujahideen in Bosnia. The accusation that various governments of the Gulf States support Islamist terrorism are well-circulated and freely debated.
But somehow, the accusation that Russia, which has used the infiltration and manipulation of terrorism as a strategy to defeat internal and external enemies for more than a century, might be up to its old tricks with al-Qaeda and now ISIS gets nothing like the attention it deserves and tends to be associated with the term “conspiracy theory” when it is raised.
A further benefit, if the conventional wisdom about Russia as a partner against ISIS can be dispelled, is that it might perhaps catalyse an assault on the final frontier of misconception—and help us recognize that Iran is no an ally against ISIS.