(First published for Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation in September 2013)
Recently, more confirmation (for those who need it) has emerged that the Chechen national separatist movement, the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ChRI), had close working ties with Osama bin Laden and Al Qa`ida (AQ). The sources are as varied as they could be: U.S. intelligence and ‘Caucasus Emirate’ (CE) mujahedin, the fully jihadized successors of the ChRI separatists and their jihadi associates.
A new Judicial Watch Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request has yielded a DIA report written in the wake of 9/11 on intelligence regarding a spring 2000 AQ plot to hijack an airliner taking off from Frankfurt, Germany preferably flying to the U.S. The report is based on a Russian-language summary of eight AQ letters translated from Arabic attests to the ChRI’s deep involvement with AQ (www.judicialwatch.org/document-archive/document-analysis-of-al-qaeda-plot-to-hijack-plane-in-frankfurt-germany/). The second document giving us new detail on the AQ presence in Russia’s North Caucasus in the 1990s comes from jihadi websites and translated from Arabic into Russian and posted on CE websites.
AQ’s 2000 Frankfurt Airport Hijacking Plot
The 2000 Frankfurt airliner hijacking plot was to be perpetrated by a team consisting of an Arab, a Pakistani, and a Chechen, but differing interests among the various groups and an EU statement in spring 2000 condemning Russian military actions in Chechnya scuttled the plot scheduled to occur between March and August 2000. The ChRI leadership withdrew from the plot once the EU declaration was made. At this time, the second post-Soviet Chechen-Russian war was at its peak.
The ChRI and the 2000 Frankfurt Air Hijacking Plot
The DIA IIR’s description of the AQ letter dated March 15, 2000 decribes “increased activity by Arabs, Chechens, and Taliban members in Germany” and a plot to be carried out by “three individuals” – “(o)ne Arab, one Pakistani, and one Chechen” – by hijacking a U.S. or European airliner flying to the U.S. or Asia. The contents of the April 15th letter, according to the DIA IIR, notes: “According to our information after the EU denounced Russian actions in Chechnya, the Chechen members of the operation decided to withdraw their support for the hijacking. The Arabs from Usama bin Laden’s organization believe that Chechen participation in the operation is crucial. Efforts were to be made to influence senior Chechen authorities to allow one Chechen to participate in the hijacking operation.”
According to the report’s description of an April 28th letter, meetings between Arabs and Chechens continued to discuss this problem, with “(t)he position of the Chechens” now being described as “unclear.” The leader of the operation – the 40-year old Saudi citizen, one Sheikh Dzabir – traveled to Chechnya in mid-April 2000. Dzabir was the son of Sheikh Muhamet Dzabir, who, according to the report, is “the president of a shura and advisor to the royal family,” “sends a lot of money to the Taliban, the Chechens, and the Tajik opposition,” “advocates the promotion of Wahabism,” resides in Afghanistan, and is an “active member” of AQ and the Islamic World Front. Traveling to Chechnya on the well-known terrorist transport corridor to Chechnya running through Pakistan, Turkey and Azerbaijan (and Georgia) on a Pakistani passport, Dzabir “met with Chechen leaders and commander Hatap” (Ibn al-Khattab, born Thamir Saleh Abdullah Al-Suwailem). Khattab is the infamous AQ operative who fought on various fronts of the global jihad, and in 1995 went to Chechnya where he set up a series of training and indoctrination camps and formed a small army of combined foreign, Chechen, and other North Caucasian mujahedin. “Accoding to one of the sheikh’s translators, the sheikh was very pleased with his trip to Chechnya.” This letter also contained information that “a Chechen living in Afghanistan is working closely with the hijackers,” “has good contacts” in the five former Soviet Central Asian states, and “frequently facilitates contacts between various leaders of Islam in Central Asia and Arabs in Afghanistan.” Guns for the hijackers would be purchased in Central Asia.
AQ and the 2000 Frankfurt Air Hijacking Plot
The letters summed up in the DIA IIR provide other operational details of the plot. In January 2000, bin Laden convened a two-day planning meeting in Kabul for the hijacking operation planning. According to operational details apparently decided upon at this meeting, if the intended target was a flight to the U.S., then an American carrier would be seized. If the target was not a flight to the U.S., then a Lufthansa or Air France flight should be hijacked.
The pistols purchased in Central Asia were to be transported to Germany through Turkey and be given to the hijackers in Frankfurt Airport’s transit area. The plane was to be hijacked one hour into the flight and flown to Iran, and if Iran refused landing then the flight was to land in Kandahar. If the targeted aircraft was not a flight from Frankfurt to the U.S., then a Lufthansa or Air France flight to Turkey, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan should be hijacked five hours into the flight and flown to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. If Tajikistan refused landing, then the flight should land in Kabul. Once landed, the hijackers were to demand a ransom and the release of jihadi terrorists in U.S. prisons. The reason for hijacking a European carrier was to bring attention to the EU’s failure to condemn Russian actions in Chechnya.
The report notes that AQ had penetrated the German Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan for the purpose of acquiring EU visas needed to forge Pakistani passports for the terrorists. For this purpose they recruited a 35-year old member of the Islamic Party of Pakistan named Mulana Hatak Akhun. One Ayutulah Nurzai, a Pakistani resident of Hamburg, Germany, was also involved in this aspect of the operational preparation. Nurzai worked closely with the Taliban and visited Kandahar in November-December 1999. In late January or early February, the Taliban’s Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Abdul Rakhman Zahet convened in Frankfurt a meeting of Taliban and “other Afghans” to coordinate for the operation. By the time of the March 25th letter it was reported that Akhun had finished preparing the three false passports using the Al-Fredi Travel Agency in Peshawar’s Bort district. A local Pakistani working in the German embassy in Islamabad used a good relationship with a Ms. Wagner in the embassy to secure visas for the passports.
After the Chechens pulled out in the wake of the EU declaration condemning Russian actions in Chechnya, the Arabs wrestled with the problem, and here the report describes a different in emphasis between the Arabs and the Taliban. According to the report’s summary of the April 28th letter, the Arabs were “more or less anti-American,” but the Taliban preferred hijacking an Air France flight “because French intelligence is helping the Afghan opposition to include ((Massoud)) and ((Rabbani))” and “providing money, technical assistance and medical help to the opposition.” The final, mid-April letter reports that the passports were ready, but then a May 20th letter mentions that Central Asian passports had been acquired and were on their way to Afghanistan. As noted, above the plot was abandoned apparently as a result of the Chechens’ withdrawal from the plot. However, it cannot be excluded that infighting over the target and/or difficulty in obtaining the visas contributed to, or drove the cancellation.
Abu Bakr Ak”ida: Another AQ Operative in the 1990s North Caucasus
Numerous AQ operatives are documented to have been fighting alongside the ChRI separatist militants in the first and second post-Soviet wars-turned jihad with Russia. Most infamous is the aforementioned Khattab. The newest revelation concerns an Egyptian AQ operative named Abu Bakr Ak”ida. Among other activities, he was a trainer in the Afghan training camps in the early 1990s for two years when Abdullah Al-Azzam was still the leader before Osama bin Laden took over after Azzam’s death and the outfit was remaned Al Qa`ida.
Ak”ida was imprisoned in Egypt after studying with radical sheikh Umar Abdul Rakhman and left for Afghanistan after his release in the late 1980s at the age of 25. He lost one of his legs to a mine a year and a half later in Jalalabad, and then taught in Azzam’s training camps. After the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and his stint teaching in Azzam’s Khost training camps, Ak”ida joined Khattab to fight in Tajikistan. In 1995, when the fighting died down there, Ak”ida left for Chechnya to link up with Khattab, who had left earlier and established his own global jihadi training camps there.
Ak”ida took part in every operation led by Khattab over the next two years. When the Khasavyurt peace agreement was concluded, he began training mujahedin in Khattab’s camps, and Khattab paid for his occasional trips to “the West,” as stated by the jihadi source (perhaps meaning Turkey), so he could receive a prosthetic leg. Ak”ida was killed during the joint Caucasus-foreign mujahedin incursion from Chechnya into Dagestan led by Khattab to attack the Russian military base at Buinaksk in December 1997.
During his eleven years on jihad, Ak”ida wrote two major jihadi training books, including a chapter on explosives in the Arabic-language, nine volume Afghan Encyclopedia of Jihad, for which he was specially selected A few days before his death he concluded an addendum to the Afghan Encyclopedia of Jihad titled ‘Tactics and Operational Effectiveness’, which the obituary/biography assets was based on his operational experience in Chechnya and is now used around the world by mujahedin.
Conclusions and Implications
These documents make clear once more that the ChRI, especially but not solely its jihadi wing, was deeply involved with AQ. It is clear from the Chechens’ withdrawal from the plot that the ChRI, especially its non-jihadi element, was using its association with AQ for its own purposes. Specifically, the ChRI leadership, in particular then ChRI ‘president’ Aslan Maskhadov was trying to use AQ ops to induce European/Western support for the ChRI cause or take revenge for a refusal to lend that support. The withdrawal could very well have been the result of Maskhadov overruling the ChRI’s jihadi wing. It would be until 2002 at the earliest that Maskhadov would begin to rely more heavily on them and strive at the least to give them the impression that he had thrown his lot in with them.
Both documents confirm the importance AQ placed on the Caucasus front in the global jihad. This was driven by a desire to maximize the geographical reach, international character, and pan-Sunni Islamist nature of the organization. The DIA document confirms conclusions that can be made from another such document, the so-called ‘Swift Knight’ Report. I have detailed that report and much other evidence of AQ-ChRI and global jihad-CE ties in my book The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond, forthcoming from McFarland Publishers in 2014.
There are larger implications raised by the DIA document. First, it appears the 2000 Frankfurt hijacking plot was a precursor plot to the 9/11 plot. Second, U.S. intelligence woefully underestimated the AQ threat, if the report’s claim is true that the plot “was disregarded because nobody believed that Usama bin Laden’s organization or the Taliban could carry out such an operation.” Third, both Saudi and Taliban involvement was more deep in this plot and thus perhaps in 9/11. Fourth, the Saudi involvement in Chechnya suggests that Russian complaints about the interference of foreign states in the region are not unfounded. Fifth, the depth of involvement of the Taliban in the plot and the thick net of connections reflected in this report, Swift Knight, and U.S. court documents on the Saudi Benevolence International Foundation between AQ, the Taliban, and the ChRI has been gravely underestimated.
Finally, this underestimation could explain why U.S. intelligence overlooked the so-called twentieth 9/11 attacker, Zacarias Moussaoui. One likely reason Moussaoui was not detained in time is that U.S. intelligence and other officials completely missed the AQ-ChRI connection he represented. Taking flying lessons in Minnesota, Moussaoui’s main konown foreign jihadi contact was the aforementioned Khattab, but because Khattab’s connections to AQ were suspect because analysts likely did not accept the view that AQ focused on the North Caucasus. More recently, a similar underestimation of the CE’s role in the global jihadi revolutionary alliance, despite its operatives’ involvement in several foreign operations, led to insufficient attention being paid to Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalization, his attraction to the CE, and trip to Dagestan where he sought to join up with the CE.
Continued rejection of Russia’s mischaracterization of the CE jihad as simply interethnic, criminal, or separatist ‘violence in the North Caucasus’ is fraught with future miscalaculations of the same sort that led to a narrowly missed catastrophe in Germany and unfortunately actuated ones in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania twelve years ago and Boston six months ago.