5:59 a.m. May 31, 2013

Prisoners of the Caspian, Part Three

(Previously: Part One / Part Two)

One of the biggest questions from the start of the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings is whether or not the Tsarnaev brothers committed a crime, or an act of terrorism; whether they were terrorists networked into the global jihadi network, or local "self-radicalized" jihadis. Such semantic debates are an embarrassment and reveal the crude politicized nature of how America frames terrorism.

In fact, the links between the Chechen separatists and Al Qaeda are deep and have been well-known for some time, links that have been underplayed or quashed for reasons never explained, with dire consequences for thousands of Americans.

The links between Chechen separatist rebels and the 9/11 hijackers are spelled out in the 9/11 Commission Report — it’s there, but you have to look for it. Several of the 9/11 hijackers, including their leader Mohammed Atta, were initially drawn to bin Laden’s camps in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan with a view to getting trained up to fight in Chechnya. Four of them were the main figures in the hijacking plot: Mohammed Atta, the hijackers’ ringleader and pilot of American Airlines Flight 11; Atta’s former roommate Ramzi Binalshibh, the "go-between" between Atta and Khalil Sheikh Mohammed; Marwan al Shehhi, the pilot of the second plane that crashed into the WTC’s South Tower; and Ziad Jarrah, who piloted United Flight 93 and crashed it into the ground in Pennsylvania during a hostage rebellion. According to the 9/11 Commission report:

"The new recruits had come to Afghanistan aspiring to wage jihad in Chechnya. But al Qaeda quickly recognized their potential and enlisted them in its anti-U.S. jihad. Although Bin Ladin, Atef, and KSM initially contemplated using established al Qaeda members to execute the planes operation, the late 1999 arrival in Kandahar of four aspiring jihadists from Germany suddenly presented a more attractive alternative. The Hamburg group shared the anti-U.S. fervor of the other candidates for the operation, but added the enormous advantages of fluency in English and familiarity with life in the West, based on years that each member of the group had spent living in Germany. Not surprisingly, Mohamed Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh, Marwan al Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah would all become key players in the 9/11 conspiracy."

Evidence showed that at least two other members of the 9/11 hijacking crew, Ahmed al Ghamdi and Saeed al Ghamdi, had previously fought in Chechnya.

The "architect" of the plot, Khalil Sheikh Mohammed, only wound up in Afghanistan with bin Laden because he’d failed to sneak into Chechnya and join Khattab’s forces in 1997.

But plenty of foreign jihadis had more "luck" as it were shuttling the underground terrorist railroad between Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and Chechnya. This much was admitted to an AP reporter in August 2000, during an interview with a senior Al Qaeda military trainer who went by the nom de guerre Abu Daoud:

"Suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden sent 400 Arab fighters to the Russian breakaway republic of Chechnya with explosives and weapons to help the war against Russian forces, a military instructor in his organization says.

Western intelligence sources confirm fighters went to Chechnya from Afghanistan, but cannot say whether they were Arab or Afghan.

Abu Daoud, a Yemeni national whose real name is not known, spoke in an interview this month in a remote village in Nangarhar province, northeastern Afghanistan. The meeting was arranged by a Taliban commander.

Abu Daoud said hundreds of Arab and Afghan fighters went to Chechnya about 18 months ago, and many returned. The latest 400 went there some three months ago, according to Abu Daoud's account."

And then there is the incredible story about how Al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had also tried setting up base in Chechnya, also with Khattab. It is this story that explains why so much media attention has been focused on the mosque frequented by Tamerlan Tsarnaev while he was living in Dagestan in 2012.

The story, reported by longtime Wall Street Journal Russia correspondent Alan Cullison, begins in 1996, the year that Russian forces withdrew in defeat from Chechnya. That same year, the Taliban, backed by Pakistani intelligence and Saudi funds, took control over most of Afghanistan. Those two opportunities opened up just as Sudan decided it didn’t want anything more to do with the Al Qaeda jihad, expelling its two biggest nuisances, Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.

Bin Laden moved his Al Qaeda operations to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, while Zawahiri gathered funds and support to set up his own base of operations in the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, as it was officially named.

"Conditions there were excellent," al-Zawahiri wrote.

Like KSM, Zawahiri planned to reach Chechnya through Azerbaijan, where he had local Egyptian jihadi contacts who operated a trading company in the capital Baku. In the fall of 1996, Zawahiri flew to Baku, and met the pair.

Using a fake passport under a fake name — "Mr. Amin" — Zawahiri and his two Egyptian jihadi cohorts met up with a group of Chechens near the border with the Russian republic of Dagestan. The Chechens promised to guide Zawahiri through Dagestan, and into Chechnya. But as soon as they crossed over the Azeri-Russian border, Zawahiri was arrested by local Dagestani police, and handed over to the FSB.

The FSB locked Zawahiri and his two Egyptian jihadis in a jail in Dagestan while they investigated who "Mr. Amin" really was, and why they had come there. At the same time in Dagestan, radical Salafi Islam was spreading throughout the republic, particularly on the border with Chechnya. Its popularity was a result of rampant domestic corruption and unemployment, the violence in Chechnya, and funding from outside the region (primarily the Gulf states) and from foreign jihadi radicals like the Saudi-born Ibn al-Khattab.

The FSB suspected that Zawahiri was hiding his real reason for coming, and that the reason was jihad. But thanks to the intervention of rich, powerful forces, the FSB was blocked from conducting a full investigation into Zawahiri’s true identity and intentions (sound familiar?). As the Wall Street Journal reported, Zawahiri had some powerful guardian angels looking after him:

The Russian investigators and a lawyer who defended the trio were puzzled by a groundswell of support for them from local Islamic organizations. These included groups that had embraced the fundamentalist form of Islam known as Wahhabism and received funding from Saudi Arabia, where the sect emerged two centuries ago. Twenty-six clerics signed an appeal for release of the three "merchants." One local Muslim accused a Russian investigator of doing "the devil's work" by detaining the three.

A member of Russia's parliament, Nadyr Khachiliev, who had founded a group called the Muslim Union of Russia, wrote to Dagestan's highest court that the three "businessmen" had come to "study the market for food trade" and should be freed. Mr. Khachiliev, a wiry former boxer linked by the police to a string of violent attacks, denies any tie to extremism. Interviewed in his gothic brick mansion in Makhachkala, its outer wall and metal door pock-marked from gunfire, Mr. Khachiliev today says he can't recall any imprisoned Arabs.

The name "Nadyr Khachiliev" —also spelled "Khachilaev" as other media have spelled it — is back in the news, this time involving Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The radical Salafist mosque in Makhachkala on Kotrova Street that Tamerlan regularly attended last year is also known as the "Khachilaev Mosque" — named after the same Khachilaev who sprang Al Qaeda’s current leader from his Dagestan jail.

In 1998, a year after he freed Zawahiri from jail, Khachilaev — founder of the Union of Muslims in Russia — became a wanted man after he and his brother raised an army of 200 gunmen and stormed Dagestan’s main government building in the capital Makhachkala. The Russian Duma stripped Khachilaev of his parliamentary immunity, and he fled into Chechnya. Khachilaev had long pushed for unifying Chechnya and Dagestan into a single Islamic Emirate on the Caspian Sea coast — the same goal pursued by other jihadi radicals including Khattab, Shamil Basayev and Doku Umarov.

In 2000, just as his mosque was being built on Kotrova Street, Khachilaev was arrested and put on trial in Makhachkala, in what locals called "The Trial of the Century." He was convicted, and then swiftly pardoned on the promise that he would give up radical Islamic activism. That same year, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev moved to Makhachkala, Dagestan with their family from Kyrgyzstan.

Two years later, in 2002, Khachilaev was arrested over the IED bombing of a Russian convoy in Makhachkala that left seven Russian soldiers dead. In 2003, Khachilaev was gunned down in a hail of bullets. That same year, Tamerlan joined his brother and family in Boston, where they were granted political asylum.

When the media learned that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had spent the first six months of 2012 in Makhachkala, the big question everyone wanted answered was: Did Tamerlan frequent the infamous "Khachilaev Mosque" on Kotrova Street? The mosque that Khachilaev founded and built before his murder had become a magnet for Dagestani and Chechen terrorists over the past decade. For example, the jihadis who had set off the deadly bombing at a 2002 May Day parade in southern Dagestan, killing over 40 and scattering limbs around the parade grounds, were discovered hiding in the "Khachilaev Mosque."

Finally it was confirmed: Yes, Tamerlan had frequented the "Khachilaev Mosque" — the radical Salafi mosque founded by the Al Qaeda leader’s local savior.

* *

Khattab is the most obvious link tying Chechen separatists to Al Qaeda. Zawahiri had tried and failed to meet him in Chechnya; so had Khalil Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 hijackings. Others had more luck.

A professional jihadist with a murky past, Khattab reportedly came from a wealthy Saudi Bedouin family on the border area with Jordan. In the 80s, Khattab abandoned plans to study at an American university to instead join the mujahedeen in Afghanistan fight against the Soviets. It was there in Afghanistan and Pakistan that Khattab first connected with Osama bin Laden.

After the Soviets withdrew, Khattab fought with Islamic radicals in Tajikistan, in Bosnia against Serbs, and in Azerbaijan against Armenians. In 1995, Khattab entered Chechnya posing as a journalist, and established himself as the head of the "Islamic International Brigade," made up of foreign jihadis from the Arab world, Central and South Asia. Khattab grew out a trademark shaggy beard and long hair, and hired videographers to follow him around and pump out recruitment videos to be sent throughout the Muslim world. After leading an ambush on a Russian column in 1996 that left over 100 Russian conscripts dead, Khattab had himself filmed walking triumphantly among the charred Russian corpses. One scene shows Khattab executing a wounded captured Russian, spraying him with machine gun fire as he lay on the ground. Some have implicated Khattab in the 1996 massacre of six foreign medical aid workers in an International Red Cross hospital in Chechnya; after the massacre, the Red Cross officials pulled out of Chechnya.

Numerous sources, including the US State Department, CIA, and others, have tied Khattab to Bin Laden to some degree or other. For example, a 1998 State Department report on Patterns of Global Terrorism reported:

"Mujahidin with extensive links to Middle Eastern and Southwest Asian terrorists aided Chechen insurgents with equipment and training. The insurgents were led by Habib Abdul Rahman, alias Ibn al-Khattab, an Arab mujahidin commander with links to Usama Bin Ladin."

Khattab’s power in Chechnya was cemented by his access to millions of dollars from the Gulf region, which Khattab disbursed as he saw fit. Some of that money reportedly came from bin Laden. Between the Gulf funds and the successful recruitment videos, Khattab had no problem raising fresh legions of foreign jihadis to fight the Russians.

Khattab’s most famous recruiter for the jihad in Chechnya was Zacarias Moussaoui, the convicted 9/11 plotter once called the "20th hijacker." Moussaoui had served as a recruiter for Khattab, helping send Muslims in France and Western Europe to fight the Russians in Chechnya, via training camps in Afghanistan.

In 2001, the BBC reported that Bin Laden was directly involved in overseeing the 1998 beheadings of the four engineers — three Britons and a New Zealander — working for Granger Telecom in Chechnya. At one point, the hostages were set to be released for a $10 million ransom when, according to a BBC report, bin Laden called in and offered $30 million to the Chechen captors if they would call off the deal, and cut off their heads. Which the Chechens did, but only after subjecting the hostages to brutal starvation, torture and exposure.

"The kidnappers took the view why bother wasting food on them when they are about to die."

Khattab was killed in 2002, poisoned by a tainted letter, which the FSB took credit for arranging. His job as Chechnya point-man for Gulf funders of "Wahhabis" and jihad was taken over by his Saudi-born deputy, Abu Walid. He too was killed.

I have already written extensively about some of the neocons and the old Cold Warrior/CIA crowd who coddled and whitewashed Khattab’s obvious terrorism ties. One of those "experts" who has gone around whitewashing Khattab’s ties to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda is Brian Glyn Williams — the CIA employee and University of Boston at Dartmouth professor who helped young Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with his high school project on the history of Chechnya’s wars with Russia. As I wrote, after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested in April, a worried-sounding Professor Williams told a local reporter, "I hope I didn’t contribute to it."

Professor Williams has since changed his story, in two rambling letters to NSFWCORP which failed to address why he worried he might have "contributed to" Dzhokhar’s radicalization.

* *

In March 2002, the San Jose Mercury News sent me to Tbilisi, Georgia, to cover the arrival of US Special Forces into Georgia’s border region with Chechnya. The ostensible reason: Al Qaeda terrorists were mixing with Chechen rebels who took refuge in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, a remote mountain region where Georgia’s ethnic Chechen population lives. Putin had been threatening to send in Russian forces across the border into Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge to chase down Chechen separatists, on the pretext that Al Qaeda terrorists were hiding out in the region. At first both Georgia and the US denied Putin’s claims; but then they saw how it could be used to their advantage, agreed with Putin that Al Qaeda was hiding out in the Pankisi Region, and used that as a pretext to introduce US Special Forces into the region, check-mating Putin at his own game.

Openly introducing US Special Forces into a Chechen stronghold on the border with Russia naturally created a shit-storm from the Russian military and intelligence communities. There were open grumblings that Putin had sold Russia out to the West again, just as Yeltsin had done. Putin laid low; it was one of the rare moments in his first eight years in power when Putin looked weak.

In the first weeks after 9/11, Putin and Bush briefly became best buddies. Putin granted the US military something never thought possible: Unopposed (by Putin) access to bases in former Russian client states including Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and elsewhere. In response, the Bush Administration briefly began to acknowledge the threat of Chechen terrorism, and Chechen fighters in Afghanistan.

By early 2002, the Bush Administration no longer felt it needed Putin’s help. US forces were already ensconced in Russia’s backyard. As a top Pentagon official told me, from Team Bush’s point of view, we’d already done them a huge favor by getting rid of the Taliban, the one open base of support for Chechen jihadis. The Russians simply weren’t part of our self-interested calculations anymore.

But introducing US Special Forces and US-advised Georgian forces into the Pankisi Gorge on Russia’s border raised other disturbing questions: Such as, what role, if any, did the US or its Georgia proxies play in the numerous cross-border attacks against Russian forces carried out by Chechen separatists hiding out in the Pankisi Gorge?

In September 2002, six months after US special forces took control of Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, the BBC announced, "Caspian pipeline dream becomes reality". Construction on the pipeline had officially begun. That same month, a top Chechen rebel commander based in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, Rustam Gelayev, launched a deadly attack into Russia. Dozens of Gelayev’s Chechen fighters were killed in a battle with Russian forces, who lost 10 soldiers in the fight. A British documentary filmmaker who joined Gelayev’s forces to film the battle was also killed. Gelayev — an old ally of Chechen separatist leader Zakayev in London — retreated back into the safety of the Green Berets-secured Pankisi Gorge. (Two years later, Gelayev was killed on another raid into Russia from Pankisi. His son, Rustam Gelayev, was killed fighting in Syria last year; according to Guardian reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Chechen fighters form a fearsome unit within the Al Qaeda-linked rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, which the US has designated a terrorist group.)

When American Special Forces moved into Georgia in the spring of 2002, it looked like Georgia had essentially been absorbed into the US military fold. But in 2003, with the US distracted in Iraq, Russia moved back into Georgia via the economic backdoor, and the West’s control over the Caspian Sea oil was once again up for grabs. That summer, Gazprom signed a 25-year exclusive gas supply deal with Georgia’s then-president Edward Shevardnadze — Gorbachev’s foreign minister during the perestroika years — and Russia’s national electricity monopoly, RAO-UES, announced it had taken control of Georgia’s state energy grid, cutting out US energy giant AES.

Diplomacy was furious: Bush sent his top energy adviser, Stephen Mann, to the Georgian capital Tbilisi to warn Shevardnadze,

"Georgia should do nothing that undercuts the powerful promise of an East-West energy corridor."

That same summer, James Baker — a top player in the Azerbaijan oil rush and the British Petroleum-led pipeline consortium to bring the Caspian oil through Georgia to Turkey — flew to Georgia to warn Shevardnadze to make sure he held free and fair elections. To Shevardnadze, getting a warning like that from the Bush family consigliore, a warning about democracy from same guy who led Team Bush’s effort to steal the Florida vote — was like getting a newspaper-wrapped fish in the mail.

The message from Washington was clear: Shevardnadze could not be relied on to secure the US-backed pipeline. A few months after Baker’s visit, the US-engineered "Rose Revolution" forced Shevardnadze out of power. He was replaced by a Columbia university-trained neocon, Mikheil Saakashvili, and his Georgetown University-trained Defense Minister — a story I first broke in The eXile .

By 2006, the BP pipeline was completed, and the oil began flowing. Georgia’s US-backed president brought in two of the Bush Adminstration’s favorite private military contractors — Cubic and Blackwater — to secure Georgia’s portion of the BTC oil pipeline.

By the time the oil pipeline started flowing into Western tankers, the neocons were moving on to other scams. The Chechnya lobby front changed its name to the "American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus" — the mass-slaughter of Russian children in Beslan in 2004 by Chechen terrorists meant a bit of discretion was necessary now.

* *

Most of the original heroes and leaders of the Chechen separatist movement have been killed by now, and their seconds and thirds in command are mostly gone too. Aslan Maskhadov, the "secular" Chechen president who imposed Sharia law on Chechnya in 1999, was killed in 2005, and his vice president was killed shortly afterwards.

They’ve been replaced by Islamic radicals fighting to create a Caucasus Emirate that would stretch from Dagestan’s coast on the Caspian to Chechnya, Ingushetia, and other lands.

The most prominent example is Doka Umarov, who investigators believe may have influenced Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s turn to radical jihad and anti-Americanism. Tamerlan’s YouTube page included videos by one of Doka Umarov’s underlings.

Doka Umarov had been promoted by the pro-Chechen separatist crowd, and the government-run propaganda outlet Radio Free Europe, as a "moderate" as recently as 2006-7. The exiled leader of the Chechen separatists in London, Akhmed Zakayev, vouched for Doka Umarov on numerous occasions. It was Zakayev who first brought Umarov into his fighting unit in 1996, and who helped Umarov land a job in Maskhadov’s government in 1997. In 2000, Zakayev and Umarov were wounded together in battle, and evacuated to the same hospital in the same "foreign country" which he would never name.

In 2006, when Umarov took over as president of the Chechen separatists, Zakayev told Radio Free Europe that he had retained "very warm, friendly relations" all this time. Zakayev — esteemed by the neocons and the Brian Glyn Williamses — told RFE/RL:

"Doku Umarov without doubt belongs to the ranks of thinking people, thinking politicians, thinking statesmen."

With all those bona fides, the New York Times published an editorial in the summer of 2006 calling on the Kremlin to negotiate with Doka Umarov:

"But there are people to talk to, including...Doku Umarov, who is not linked to any terror attacks."

A few years later, after Umarov’s suicide bombers killed scores of Russian civilians riding the Moscow subway and others in a Moscow airport, the New York Times reported that the United States had designated Umarov a terrorist with links to Al Qaeda. Umarov, responding to the internal demands and needs of the Chechen separatists, has broadened the jihad goal from Chechen separatism to today’s "Caucasus Emirate." Umarov also denounces the United States and argues that any country or people that kill Muslims should be avenged — the logic behind Umarov's call to kill Americans, and the logic behind Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's boat scrawlings explaining why he and his brother set off the Boston Marathon bombs.

And the Chechen separatist figure in New Hampshire whom the FBI has been investigating over his close relationship to Tamerlan Tsarnaev — he too had posted YouTube videos by Doku Umarov on his account. The separatist under investigation, Musa Khadzhimuradov, served as Akhmed Zayakev’s chief bodyguard until he was wounded in battle, and eventually settled in the US. It’s likely that the New Hampshire resident Khadzhimuradov would have known Doku Umarov from his days as a fighter.

Tamerlan drove to New Hampshire to visit Musa Khadzhimuradov on numerous occasions according to reports — including as recently as a few weeks before the Boston Marathon bombings. Tamerlan also frequented a shooting range in Manchester, just a few blocks from Khadzhimuradov’s home.

It’s one of the most damning revelations to come out so far, but it’s gone largely unnoticed. One person who did take note — and who reacted hysterically — was Glen Howard, former executive director of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya and current president of the Jamestown Foundation. He denounced the FBI’s investigation of Khadzhimuradov as an FSB plot to discredit the Chechen separatist movement, and claimed that Putin and the FSB were controlling the FBI without their own knowledge.

It’s a similar claim made by Islamophobe Frank Gaffney, who has been arguing that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was some sort of "false flag" Manchurian candidate who was being "run" by the FSB to make the Chechen separatists look bad.

Thus far, the Gaffneys and the Glen Howards have been in control of framing official American policy and attitudes towards Chechen separatism — officially always good, officially only killing Russians; and policy towards Chechen terrorism — officially non-existent, officially only a figment of the Russian secret services’ evil minds.

When Zacharias Moussaoui — the link between the 9/11 hijackers, Chechnya and Al Qaeda — was detained by local FBI agents in Minneapolis a few weeks before the 9/11 attacks, the agents learned that Moussaoui was a "recruiter" for Khattab. That meant he helped send Muslim recruits to Khattab in Chechnya to fight Russians. Those recruits were usually trained first in Afghanistan camps. That set off alarm bells in the local FBI office in Minneapolis —they wanted a FISA warrant approval to look in Moussaoui’s laptop. But the Washington headquarters wouldn’t grant the FISA warrant — officially, Chechen separatists were not terrorists; officially, Khattab was not a terrorist either. So the warrant was not approved, and the information on that laptop that would have blown the whole 9/11 hijacking plot open was instead protected by policies hatched in DC, by the neocons and Cold Warriors in control of policy.

To quote FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley:

"The post 9/11 investigations launched as a result of my 2002 "whistleblower memo" did conclude that a major mistake, which could have prevented or reduced 9/11, was the lack of recognition of al Khattab’s Chechen fighters as a "terrorist group" for purposes of FISA.

There are other theories, of course, as to why U.S. officials could not understand or grasp this "terrorist link." These involve the U.S.’s constant operating of "friendly terrorists," perhaps even al Khattab himself (and/or those around him), on and off, opportunistically, for periods of time to go against "enemy" nations, i.e., the Soviet Union, and regimes we don’t’ like."

The same thing happened again in 2011, when the FSB made several attempts to warn the FBI that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had become radicalized. At the same time the FSB was warning the FBI, professor Brian Glyn Williams was helping Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on his high school project about Chechnya's warrior past and its glorious fight against Russia, leading Williams to later worry aloud to a journalist, "I hope I didn’t contribute to it."

The Brzezinskis, the Bill Kristols, the Frank Gaffneys and Richard Perles had spent a decade controlling the framing of Chechnya and Russia policy: The Russians were evil and could not be trusted; the Chechens were heroes and our friends for life. The FSB warnings about Chechen terrorism were once again ignored.

But hey, the BP pipeline was built. Big Oil got what it wanted. What else can possibly be as important as that?