Special Guest Article
The Caucasus is on Fire
Loretta Napoleoni is a true journalist, someone willing to uncover facts that the powerful would rather keep secret. Here is an all-new article, released on the eve of the publication of her newest book, Terror, Inc.
by Loretta NapoleoniHas Osama bin Laden bankrolled the barbarous slaughter of children in Beslan? Vladimir Putin and his Western allies claim that the tactics used by the terrorists are those of Al Qaeda, therefore, so should the funding. To back this argument they point to the list of suicide attacks that, since the beginning of the year, have left a trail of dead bodies inside Russia.
According to this argument, Al Qaeda funded the Chechen chahids, perhaps even compensating their families for the loss of their daughters. But Chechen "black widows" are the cheapest suicide bombers available on the terror market, their cost is equivalent to that of the explosive they carry plus transportation. No one will ever demand compensation for their deaths, because those desperate women have no family left; brothers, fathers, husbands, even children have been killed or they have simply vanished, victims of a war whose nature the word barbarous does not begin to describe.
Putin desperately wants Beslan to be portrayed as the Russian 11 September, the opening of a new front in the international war on terror, because the alternative is too ugly even to consider. Beslan is the final chapter in the destabilization of the Caucasus, a phenomenon which is dangerously close to turning into a fully fledged multi-ethnic conflict. On the horizon there is a Hobbesian war bankrolled not by Al Qaeda, but by the Caucasus's prosperous terror economy.
The seeds of this economy came from the generosity of some of the sponsors of the mujaheedin during the anti-Soviet jihad. The dynamic is reminiscent of the wars by proxy we saw during the Cold War. In the early 1990s, in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance -- at the time funded by the Russians -- blocked the advance of the Pakistani-sponsored Taliban. To weaken the coalition of warlords from the North, Al Qaeda and its Muslim sponsors decided to force the Russians to fight on a new front by fostering a conflict in the Caucasus. The fight for independence in Chechnya offered a golden opportunity to implement this strategy.
Greatly under-funded by foreign sponsors and dependent on small crime-based financial activities, the Chechen Islamist guerrilla groups were weak. Thanks to Osama bin Laden and his network of sponsors in the 1990s they were militarily and financially strengthened. In 1994, the ISI began nurturing Shamil Basayev, a young Chechen fighter, destined to become the leader of the Chechen jihad. Trained and indoctrinated in the Amir Muawia camp, near Khost, in Afghanistan, Basayev returned to Chechnya to form the first army of mujaheedin.
Sponsored by Saudi money, veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad soon landed in Chechnya, among them was the Jordanian-born Khattab, whom Basayev had met and befriended in Pakistan. Khattab, who was close to Osama bin Laden and his network of financiers, administered the money. In 1995, a Saudi charity sponsored his journey to Chechnya together with several training camps. The same year, bin Laden contributed $25 million towards the new jihad in Chechnya.
Following the blue-print of the anti-Soviet Jihad, the mujaheddin were encouraged to become self-sufficient by linking up with the local criminal and illegal economy. In 1995, Basayev, and later on Khattab, established commercial relationships with criminal organizations in Russia as well as Albanian organized crime and the Kosovo Liberation Army. These alliances proved fruitful in generating profits from the drug trade and contraband, especially of arms.
A buoyant war economy began to take shape and soon Chechnya became an important hub in the region for various rackets, including counterfeit of dollars, money laundering and kidnapping. Khattab, in particular, showed remarkable business acumen in dealing in the murky world of crime and terror. In 1998, he negotiated with Granger Telecom, a British company installing mobile communications systems in Chechnya, the ransom of $4 million for three Britons and one New Zealander engineers kidnapped by his group. When his benefactor, Osama bin Laden, asked for their execution, Khattab requested a higher price. Bin Laden offered £4 million. The four were the first Western hostages to be beheaded by an Islamist armed organization.
Before the second Chechen war in 1999, Islamist armed groups tapped into the prosperous industry of oil theft and smuggling, a considerable source of revenues for many terror groups which operate in oil rich countries. Chechnya hosted one of the most important Russian pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Caspian region, thus the strategic importance of the country within the Russian federation. Truckloads of petrol began crossing the Caucasus, heading wherever there was demand.
From Chechnya the joint venture between crime and terror spread into neighboring countries, facilitated by porous borders and political in-fighting. Contraband, for example, found an ideal hub in the Pankisi gorge which links Chechnya, Georgia and the Kadori gorge, a valley situated between Georgia and the irredentist region of Abkhazia. As in Afghanistan, smuggling of arms, drugs and oil not only funded the insurgency, it spread Islamist insurgency, igniting old and new conflicts.
Three of the terrorist who carried out the attack in Beslan had participated in June in the siege of the capital of Ingushetia, when hundreds of Islamist warriors dressed in police uniforms took control of the city and for a few hours held the population hostage, killing 100 people among them many policemen who had mistaken then for colleagues.
Beslan is not Russia's 11 September, but a reminder that since the early 1990s, Chechen terror economics has bled into the entire region, including the orthodox North Ossetia. No one is safe any longer.
The Caucasus is on fire. Al Qaeda only supplied the match.
Loretta Napoleoni is an economist, and author of Terror Inc., Tracing The Money Behind Global Terrorism, which will be published by Penguin on the 16th September, 2004.
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