Photo Polonium

by Gordon M. Hahn

Two years ago I suggested that the alleged November 2006 murder of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovskii’s associate and former Russian corruption police officer Alexander Litvinenko was more likely the result of a mishandling of the dangerous substance polonium-210 during a smuggling operation. It “probably had more to do with Berezovskii, Litvinenko, and Akhmed Zakaev’s running weapons and polonium to the Caucasus Emirate (CE) jihadists and/or their Al Qa`ida or other jihadi allies.”[1] It is well-known that polonium-210 is needed to create a trigger for a nuclear weapon. At the time of the alleged murder, the CE was called the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ChRI), and, as I discuss below, Berezovskii’s and Litvinenko’s Chechen associate Akhmed Zakaev was the ChRI’s official foreign minister.

The New Inquest

Testimony in the re-opened inquest into the Litvinenko case strengthens this line of investigation. On February 9th, during questioning by the prosecution one Garym Evans testified: “The reason that I met him was that during 2004, two Chechnyan nationals, who were later identified as Vakha Dusheyev and Russlan Aboukhanov, also known as Russlan Baysarov, also known as Zakhar, had been attempting to extort money from Boris Berezovsky. This was because one of them, Zakharov, was alleging that he had been instructed by Berezovsky to go [to] Paris and hand over either a floppy disk or a CD ROM that allegedly contained the plans for a ‘nuclear suitcase bomb’. Zakhar’s contention was that Berezovsky should have paid him for doing this and had not done so.”[2]

Who is Akhmed Zakaev

Zakaev is a known radical nationalist guerrilla who fought against Russian forces in the first post-Soviet Chechen war.  He was wounded in the second Chechen war and then fled to Britain for safe haven. Russian prosecutors say he was involved in the Al Qa`ida-Chechen hostage-taking industry aided and abetted by criminals and other unsavory elements. However, Zakaev’s checkered history did not stop with the end of the conventional phase of the second war waged by the ‘Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya’ (ChRI).

Next, the Chechens went underground and came under even greater influence from Chechnya jihadists, AQ and other North Caucasus republics––and Zakaev went with them. As the jihadists’ gained the upper hand, Zakaev refused to break with them. Personal ambition to maintain some foothold in the resistance back home held sway over the ChRI’s connections with the perpetrators of horrific October 2002 Dubrovka theatre hostage-taking in Moscow, the August 2004 twin passenger plane hijacking and explosions over Moscow, and the September 2004 Beslan school massacre in North Ossetia––along with hundreds of other attacks on Russian soil between 2001-2007. Zakaev maintained official positions within the ChRI leadership while living in London throughout all of these events.

Only in late 2007 did Zakaev and the ChRI part ways at the latter’s initiative after it finally rebranded itself the ‘Caucasus Emirate’ (CE) to reflect the reality of its jihadist orientation. Moreover, when the Chechen network briefly split in 2010, Zakaev came out and declared his allegiance to the breakaway wing, even though the latter explicitly stated that they had broken with CE amir Doku Umarov because of his bad leadership (not because they rejected global jihadism). Zakaev also acknowledged that he had maintained contact with the CE’s Chechen network and maintained fighters attached to them who were attacking Russians in the North Caucasus. Since the CE split was patched up in July 2011 and Umarov (2010) and the CE (2011) were included finally on the U.S. State Department’s list of international terrorist organizations, Zakaev has quieted down but remains in London.

The difference now is that amirs commanding some 70 percent of the CE mujahedin recently declared their loyalty to ISIS, and the rest of the CE is allied with Al Qa`ida.

The Upshot

None of this excludes the possibility that officials in Moscow might have been involved in the murder of Litvinenko and/or the smuggling to the Chechen terrorists that Berezovskii was likely engaged in. However, it does strongly suggest that someone among the Chechens was trying to build a bomb or help others to do so and that Berezovskii was assisting them. Shamil Basaev, who in 1995 planted a vile of cesium in a Moscow park and then held a press conference to announce it, died in June 2006 just months before Litvinenko’s demise. Thus, the smuggling operation could have been the continuation of a Basaeyev operation to acquire a nuclear bomb. Litvinenko may or may not have been fully aware of Berezovskii’s operations.

The larger issue is that it is now confirmed that less than 9 years ago there were and today there likely remain circles within the Caucasus branch of the global jihadi revolutionary movement pursuing a nuclear capability.

[1] Gordon M. Hahn, “Edward Snowden and the History of Post-Soviet Russian-American Relations,” Russia – Other points of View, 11 July 2013, www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2013/07/edward-snowden-and-the-history-of-post-soviet-russian-western-relations.html.

[2] Litvinenko Inquest Transcript, 9 February 2015, p. 38, http://www.litvinenkoinquiry.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/lit090215.pdf.