5:59 a.m. May 31, 2013

Prisoners of the Caspian, Part Two

In part one, I explained why neocons and right-wing US interest groups chose to champion the cause of Chechen separatists, ostensibly for human rights, but more likely to gain control over the world’s last big untapped oil bonanza in the Caspian. Next I'll outline how the politics of the region were manipulated to that effect.

First of all, let me make this clear: Chechens have suffered violence and persecution on a level that is almost unparalleled in the world. Before the genocide by Stalin in 1944, they faced mass ethnic cleansing by Tsarist forces in the mid-late 19th century. More recently, tens of thousands have been killed in two wars with Russia. The human rights group Memorial estimated that 50,000 civilians were killed in the First Chechen War (1994-6), and 25,000 civilians died in the Second Chechen War through 2005.

The Chechens’ reaction to suffering has not followed the Spielberg script by turning them into humanitarian angels — and why should it? In a rough neighborhood, their culture has made resistance and martial spirit and fearlessness as natural to them as smiling and yoga is to American suburbanites; Chechen fighters have earned their reputation as almost supernaturally tougher than regular human soldiers. Seeing Boston go into complete lockdown over just two amateur Chechen terrorists struck outsiders who weren’t there as sinister or cowardly; but from what I’ve seen in my years living in Russia, Boston going into lockdown over two Chechens was exactly what I’d expect.

As we’re belatedly learning, the Chechen warrior spirit may be impressive as Hell, but it can be brutal in ways that can give you nightmares. Playing with Chechen separatism and radicalism always risked a sort of blowback we’d never thought possible.

During the First Chechen War, many Western journalists and activists behaved like shameless groupies fawning over the Chechen rebels’ bravado. Their favorite was Shamil Basayev, the Chechen commander who led the bloody raid on the Russian city of Budyonnovsk in 1995. Basayev made himself accessible to ga-ga Western journalists; he knew how to play them in ways that the cruder Russian commanders didn’t, and couldn’t. Basayev was a charmer and a guaranteed source of memorable quotes. He was a mass-murderer — but at the time, he was only murdering Russians, who were largely despised and loathed by the Western press corps and financial aide community. Basayev hadn’t started sawing off foreigners’ heads or slaughtering children in their schools yet — and Western journalists being the suckers that they were, they could never imagine someone as charming as he, who merely slaughtered bovine Russian hostages, could ever turn out to be the monster he was.

In 1995, Basayev’s guerrillas took control over Budyonnovsk, a city of 60,000 about 50 miles north of Chechnya’s border. The Chechen guerrillas stormed into the town’s city center in KamAZ trucks, fired their weapons and ran through the city center, herding up to 1,800 Russian hostages into a city hospital, which they rigged up with mines. Some hostages were executed in cold blood to keep the others in line; others were forced to stand in front of the windows as human shields. At times, the TV news cameras would film a limp, lifeless Russian body dumped out of a hospital window, onto the ground below, as terrified hostages waved torn white sheets from inside.

One Russian hostage, a pregnant 18-year-old woman named Natalya Ageykina, told reporters how her captors forced her at gunpoint to stand in front of a window while the Chechen rebels fired from behind her. As Russian special forces outside fired back, her Chechens captors taunted her: "We are going to watch your own soldiers killing you." She was shot twice, and survived.

In all, over 130 hostages were killed. The commander of that raid, Shamil Basayev, awed the Western journalists who watched him fight off Russian commandoes and somehow make it back safely into Chechnya, to a hero’s welcome. In the aftermath, most of the Western anger and outrage was aimed at Russians, whom they accused of brutality and of placing little value on human life.

The Western media’s uncritical PR on behalf of Chechen killers like Basayev started to get complicated as soon as the Chechens won the war in 1996, and Russia withdrew its forces. Now we’d get a chance to see what independent Chechnya rule would look like. It was Hell on earth.

Between 1996 and 1999, armed Chechen and Wahhabi-influenced jihadis turned Chechnya into a nightmare. Kidnapping and slavery became one of the most lucrative local businesses. Chechnya’s kidnapping industry brought in as much as $200 million in revenues in a short period of time, according to former Gorbachev adviser Valeriy Tishkov, more money than was stolen by tapping the Russian oil pipelines, or from counterfeiting and narcotics trafficking. Kidnapping victims were generally sold between Chechen gangs and their underworld proxies, then hidden in makeshift pits or basement-cellar prisons. As a rule, captives were videotaped as they were tortured, usually by having their fingers shot or sliced off, and the tape was sent to relatives along with the kidnappers’ demands. When captives couldn’t be ransomed, sometimes they were executed, other times they were bought and sold into slavery in the handful of slave markets that operated during Chechnya’s brief independence.

As many as 3,000 Russians were kidnapped in the three years of independence, along with dozens of foreigners. Residents in nearby Dagestan were targeted, and the millions of dollars flowing into Chechnya from the Gulf States and from bin Laden’s network helped fuel a rise in Wahhabi radicalism in both Chechnya and in the border towns inside Dagestan — taking advantage of Russia’s staggering levels of poverty and corruption during the Yeltsin years. Outsiders were butchered — and Chechens living inside Chechnya were terrorized, divided, and forced to take sides against one another. Foreign jihadis poured into Chechnya via a network linking bin Laden’s groups and Khattab, who set up training camps with his ally, Shamil Basayev, who also served as the first prime minister in postwar Chechnya. Foreign aid workers were massacred or kidnapped; foreign specialists were also kidnapped, brutalized, raped, and murdered.

The most gruesome kidnapping of foreigners took place in 1998, when three Britons and a New Zealander hired on contract by Chechen Telecom were kidnapped, brutalized, starved, and forced to live in basements "infested with scorpions, rats and snakes" and "forced to watch videos of the beheadings of other hostages." They were nearly freed in 1998 after a $10 million ransom was ready to be paid; but at the last minute, other interests, reportedly linked to Khattab or even bin Laden, offered double the reward for beheading them. The severed heads of the three Britons and New Zealander were found on the side of a road near the border with Ingushetia.

By 1998, not a single Western journalist or aide worker dared go into Chechnya. There was no place like it on earth — only post-war Iraq, during the peak of the insurgency, compared to how dangerous Chechnya was for Westerners and Russians during its brief independence.

Dzhokhar Dudayev, the erratic air force general who first led Chechnya into war with Russia, had been killed by a Russian missile strike in 1996, just a few months before Russia’s defeat. The next president of Chechnya, elected in the early months before the region descended into complete chaos, was the top field commander, Aslan Maskhadov. He accused Islamic Jamaat — a violent, Wahhabi-influenced movement — of carrying out the kidnapping of the four foreigners, and of undermining his power.

It was Maskhadov — more soft-spoken, grim, and serious than Dudayev — who had negotiated the terms of Russia’s peace deal in 1996. Supporters of the Chechen separatist cause like to say that Maskhadov was "secular," and yet Sharia was first introduced into Chechnya in 1996, complete with public executions and lashings. The Sharia code adopted in 1996 as the basis for Chechnya's criminal code was reportedly copied directly from Sudan.

But even that wasn’t Sharia enough, because Chechnya was still structured as a constitutionally secular republic. So in early 1999, Maskhadov announced he was abolishing the secular constitution and imposing radical Sharia rule in Chechnya. He disbanded the elected parliament, and abolished the office of vice president, and instructed the now-powerless parliament to draw up the terms of a new Islamic regime under Sharia rule. Chechnya received millions from the Gulf states and Pakistan, and a year later, in early 2000, the Taliban became the first and only regime to recognize an independent Chechnya, opening a Chechen embassy in Kabul and a larger consulate in Kandahar.

Despite all of this, Frank Gaffney, Richard Perle, Bill Kristol, and the rest of the Islam-bashing neocon crowd glorified and whitewashed Maskhadov as a "moderate," making him out to be the George Washington of the Caucasus.

Members of Maskhadov’s own government during Chechnya's de facto independence were deeply involved in the lucrative kidnapping trade. Maskhadov’s vice president and main financial backer in his 1997 run for Chechnya’s presidency, Vakha Arsanov, has been fingered by numerous sources as one of Chechnya’s biggest kidnapping dons.

Chechnya was not Orwell’s Catalonia; the Chechen rebel leaders were not Oliver Stone’s Che.

A Los Angeles Times article on Chechnya’s kidnapping and slave trade offers a peek into the nightmare world of independent Chechnya:

Thousands of people have been gobbled up by the Chechen kidnapping machine, which has ravaged Russia since 1994.

The stories of survivors are like the relics of some wild, half-forgotten era of warlords and lawless barbarism. Victims have been kept in earthen pits or small cells that are often scrawled with the initials of hundreds of earlier captives. They have been used as slaves to dig trenches or build large houses for relatives of the kidnappers.

The kidnappers have been known to mutilate their captives, even children, severing their ears or fingers. Gangs have sent videotaped recordings of mutilations and beheadings to relatives to terrify them into finding the ransom. Russian authorities have used the gruesome videos to feed anti-Chechen sentiment and boost public support for Moscow's latest war in the separatist republic.

When the kidnapping industry reached its peak a few years ago, there was even a relatively open "slave market" in Grozny, near Minutka Square, where the names and details of human livestock circulated on lists for interested buyers. Gangs often traded hostages or stole them from one another.

Many kidnappings were conducted in border regions. But some kidnappings were spectacular events. In 1998, Yeltsin’s envoy to Chechnya, Valentin Vlasov, was kidnapped in broad daylight by armed Chechen gunmen, on a road inside of Russia near the Chechen border. Vlasov was released six months later, but no sooner was he released than another top Yeltsin envoy, Maj. General Gennadi Shpigun, was kidnapped while in Grozny (renamed "Dzhokhar" at the time), the Chechnya capital, on a negotiating mission with Maskhadov. Gen. Shpigun had boarded a flight back to Moscow, but as the plane was taxiing down the runway, Chechen gunmen who’d lay hidden in the luggage compartment stormed into the passenger cabin of the plane, seized Gen. Shpigun, ordered the plane to stop, and vanished with their hostage. His captors, rumored to be tied to Basayev and the Wahhabis, demanded $15 million for his release. Shpigun’s remains were found by Russian soldiers in Chechnya a year later.

Kidnappings took place as far away as Moscow, a thousand miles from Chechnya. One victim was 22-year-old Kirill Perchenko, an art dealer’s son who was nabbed off the streets of Moscow, stuffed into a truck with a double-walled compartment, and hauled down to Grozny, where he was sold off to other Chechen gangsters:

[D]uring his captivity he watched seven men being executed by his captors. One of his friends was bashed to death.

Once, a hostage, a Russian officer, attacked and wounded one of the guards with a knife. Punishment was immediate.

"They put him on the ground, and four hostages had to hold his arms and legs," Perchenko remembers. "They took a two-handed saw and killed him. He was lying on his stomach screaming. They cut from the back. From the back you hit the spine first, and it's very painful."

"The next day they took us all out of our cell and cut off the head of an 82-year-old man they had taken in Grozny. They just took it off with a knife and said, 'For Allah,' before killing him. They put both [men's] heads on poles. And they took out the heart of the old man and nailed it to a tree."

Perchenko managed to escape after six months in captivity.

One of the few detailed studies I’ve read about the Chechen kidnapping trade is found in Valery Tishkov’s book "Chechnya: Life in a War Torn Society," published by the University of California Press. Tishkov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, writes:

The largest hostage markets functioned in Urus-Martan [where Tamerlan visited in 2012 and where close relatives live — M.A.] and in Grozny, where it was always possible to buy or even place an order for a captive, pay an advance, and name the category you wanted—businessman, officer, civil servant. Lists of categories on offer were then passed from hand to hand until someone or some group decided to take one up.

One Russian with extensive experience in Chechnya in those years was Alexander Mukomolov, who served as an adviser to the Russian peace delegation in 1996 when Yeltsin agreed to withdraw his troops, and who also negotiated the freedom of several Russian hostages taken between 1996-1999.

Mukomolov says that the idea of running large-scale kidnapping rackets initially came from their experience during the first war with Russia, when scores of Chechen males detained and subjected to torture were freed either by Chechen family members offering bribes, or by kidnapping their own Russians and exchanging them for Chechens. Mukomolov described how it evolved:

"Let’s say some federal soldiers had been captured in action—if they were not all killed out of hand. Then the field commander keeps maybe five soldiers who can be exchanged or sold. That becomes his exchange fund, and it can be used for freeing some of the Chechens serving terms in Russian prisons. Their relatives can buy a captive from the bandits for themselves and exchange him later for their own jailbird. We once had to deal with a case like that where a Chechen woman bought a federal soldier from the bandits and kept him working at her house for some time while she conducted talks on a possible exchange. When we learned that her man was serving a prison term for murder, we refused outright to take part in the deal, but after spending nine months trying to get her to agree to some other option, we finally liberated that lad anyway."

One aspect of the kidnapping trade that never got any airtime in the West was the targeting of Jews, because Jews were thought to be rich, and because Jews like Boris Berezovsky made up six of the seven oligarchs widely reported to be in control of Kremlin politics during the later Yeltsin years. Quoting Mukomolov:

Next to businessmen and well-known officials or journalists, Jews were the preferred victims of kidnappers. Many bandits were anti-Semitic, and treated Jews with particular cruelty. Barayev ["The Terminator"] even declared he would kill all captured Jews.

...In another case, Savi Azariyev, a Jew from Volgograd, told me, "Arbi Barayev’s men said their task was to shake Jews down for money and then annihilate them all. Our family had scraped together $300,000, but it wasn’t enough for them and they refused to release me."

Another person, named Alla Geifman, recalled, "On July 1, they cut off one of my fingers and sent it to my parents. On August 1, another finger. One of my fellow prisoners had the tip of his tongue cut off, then an ear, then a finger. To intimidate us, they brought out a man and beheaded him before us."'

In another example, two Israelis were kidnapped in Moscow — Joseph Sharon, and his eight-year-old son, Adi. The father was released so that he could collect a ransom; the boy was sold off to Chechen kidnappers, who stored him in a pit, cut off the boy’s finger, and mailed it to the father. The boy Adi wrote a letter to his father in pencil:

"Father, I feel very bad, please give them money now. I feel very sick here. There is a very bad man. Please, please, give money now, and I shall go home."

His father managed to raise $50,000 as an initial payment, but his intermediary in Ingshetia reportedly died, and the money vanished.

The boy was rescued six months later by Russian police.

Southern Illinois Professor Robert Bruce War, author of the book "Dagestan," described on a popular Russia-watch list for journalists and academics his own recollection of that period when he lived in Dagestan:

"Body parts were regularly sawed off of people, including little girls and boys, on videotape. Then the videotapes were sent to their families along with the severed body parts. Such things were common and frequent occurrences throughout those three years. There were places in Chechnya where dozens of victims were kept in small cages, like animals. Many people were chained, sometimes by their necks in tiny dark holes. I know someone who was kept in Chechen cellar with a couple inches of water entirely covering the floor. These things happened to some of my friends.... Also, it happened to a lot of people that I don't know. When I was in Dagestan in 1998 it seemed that nearly every apartment building, sometimes nearly every stairwell, had someone who had been kidnapped, beaten and tortured in Chechnya. That was certainly true of my apartment building."

Tishkov’s book consists largely of interviews with primary sources. One of his sources described a Chechen "slave market" where hostage deals were arranged:

At the "slave market" it was possible, not only to negotiate the sale, purchase, and exchange operations, but also to secure a so-called "trademark." Well- known group leaders and field commanders accepted responsibility for abductions that might be committed a thousand kilometers from Chechnya. All the subsequent talks were conducted in that commander’s name, and should the operation be successful, he would take a percentage of the ransom "for lending his trademark." By using the name of a field commander notorious for his cruelty, a kidnapper of lesser renown could cover his tracks and also demand a larger ransom.

The best-known "trademarks" were often used by groups within Chechnya. The most notorious case culminated in the murder of four engineers, three Britons and one New Zealander, in 1998 as a result of clashes between Chechen groups over a "trademark." The kidnappers had used Arbi Barayev’s name in a prior operation, obtained the ransom, and returned the hostage to his family. Barayev, who had consented to the use of his name in the talks, demanded his share of the ransom for the use of his "trademark" but never got it. Barayev’s group then abducted the four foreigners and claimed a ransom of $10 million for them. Chechen Telecom, the organization that had invited the foreign engineers to Chechnya, agreed to pay, but Barayev unexpectedly refused to release them and beheaded them instead. There’s a popular version that some third party [i.e., Bin Laden — M.A.] had interfered and paid Barayev more for the heads of the engineers.

All of this went on under the watch of Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov — the man whom the neocons and the Jamestown crowd lionized as a "secular" freedom fighter and a democrat. Maskhadov reportedly did try to crack down, but the pushback threatened his hold on power. His government was up to its eyeballs in kidnapping kingpins, starting with his own vice president.

Maskhadov’s biggest problem in his failure to establish control over Chechnya was the powerful alliance between Chechen rebel hero Shamil Basayev and the Saudi financier and jihadi leader Ibn al-Khattab, or "Emir Khattab," commander of the Islamic Foreign Brigade, an old associate of Osama bin Laden whose name popped up all over the 9/11 hijacking reports.

Despite what Khattab apologists like Professor Brian Glyn Williams have tried arguing, there is no doubt that Khattab and Basayev were both "terrorists" with "Al Qaeda links" by any reasonable standard.

And as late as summer 2002, Maskhadov, leading the separatist movement from underground inside of Chechnya, appointed Shamil Basayev as head of the separatist military council — in effect, head of Maskhadov’s military. Two months later, in October 2002, Basayev oversaw a deadly Chechen terror attack on a Moscow theater during a musical, "Nord-Ost," that left some 129 hostages and 41 Chechen terrorists dead. A few months later, the State Department officially designated Basayev an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist. Those connections were obvious and well-known to people in the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

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"Chechnya accuses US and Saudi Arabia of supporting Islamists

The president of the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, has accused Saudi Arabia and the United States of trying to undermine Russian influence in the region, and says that America and the West are now more dangerous than Russia....He's reported to have accused the Americans of using Saudi Arabia as a proxy to provide generous funds for Muslim fundamentalists."

BBC News, October 2, 1998

Yeltsin’s people and Maskhadov’s tried several times to agree on re-opening the pipeline. As it was, in 1996-99, the pipeline was in disrepair, and Chechen warlords and "biznesmen" were stealing oil as it passed through, and selling it out the back. Grozny’s oil refineries, once among the most important in the region, were in ruins. Maskhadov wanted the agreement to get the economy going again. But every time Yeltsin’s people and Maskhadov’s would come close to an agreement, the Wahhabi radicals would kidnap or slaughter a bunch of Russians and scuttle the deal.

In September, 1997, an agreement was signed between Boris Nemtsov (now a leader of the anti-Putin opposition) and Maskhadov on sharing pipeline transit fees, and allowing in Russian specialists to repair the pipelines and get the Caspian oil flowing again. Nemtsov, who was Yeltsin’s deputy prime minister, stressed the urgency of the pipeline matter:

"Everything should be done fast, otherwise the consortium developing oilfields in Azerbaijan, including Russia's Lukoil, will find fault with us."

The next day, a truck carrying Russian workers in Chechnya was blown up by a roadside IED. Chechens executed two convicts on live Chechen television, sparking criticism from Moscow. That sparked threats from Maskhadov’s vice president to "execute" everyone in the Kremlin cabinet:

"I spit on Russia. Russia means nothing to us. We are an independent state."

It seemed that Maskhadov’s every attempt to begin the process of normalizing relations and the economy was followed by an even more spectacular kidnapping, massacre or beheading. At first, Maskhadov blamed the Russians for destabilizing Chechnya; but by 1998-9, Maskhadov understood that his problem was internal — its vortex was the funding and violence that the Saudi warlord Khattab brought into Chechnya, and the alliances Khattab made with Maskhadov’s domestic rivals. The pipeline politics and US ambitions in the region were hardly a secret to Maskhadov; nor were the sources of al-Khattab’s funds and jihadis. The normally discreet, reserved Chechen president finally lashed out, blaming "foreign agents," Saudis, and behind them pulling the strings, the US.

It was at the same time that Maskhadov was being overwhelmed by Wahhabi radicals in Chechnya that U.S. interest in the Caspian-Caucasus region was boiling over. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Dick Cheney, James Baker, Richard Armitage and others were furiously lobbying throughout the Caspian Sea region to get an agreement signed for a US-backed pipeline that circumvented Russia entirely.

As soon as Russia’s Second War in Chechnya started, Clinton announced the pipeline deal was on.

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Next: The Tsarnaevs: Criminals, terrorists, global jihadis, "self radicalized... or what?