by Gordon M. Hahn
In a recent piece of blissful, indeed bestial ignorance and/or stratcomm, Michael Weiss plies his ‘journalistic’ hand to Russia – in particular, its opaque North Caucasus and mujahedin – with less than sterling results (“Russia’s Playing a Double Game With Islamic Terror,” The Daily Beast, 23 August 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com). Weiss is the editor of The Daily Beast – a very fitting title for a venue featuring such work.
The author delivers some real gems. An example: “The Russian government, while it doesn’t kill or capture militants, encourages them to run away through a systematic campaign of harassment.” Now the usual Western critique of Russian counter-jihadism efforts is that they do not bother to capture but rather always kill mujahedin of the Caucasus Emirate (CE) and the new Caucasus Vilaiyat of the Islamic State (CVIS), the North Caucasus network of the Islamic State (IS or variously ISIS, ISIL, Daesh).
So this is a new twist in the West’s generally distorted reporting on Caucasus jihadists and things Russia-related overall. But it is a convenient one, indeed a vital one for Weiss’s purpose, which is to pin the rise of ISIS on ‘Putin’s Russia.’ Unfortunately, for adherents of this approach like Weiss, this is so far from reality that it would function as a good scenario for counterfactual thought experiment.
As any jihadism expert will tell you, Russian intelligence, security, military and police organs in Russia – more accurately, in the extremely corrupt North Caucasus (many of the personnel of which are native North Caucasians, not ethnic Russians from Russia proper) – have killed several thousand mujahedin since the CE’s formation in October 2007. This year alone security forces have killed two successive CE amirs along with many lesser amirs and rank-and-file mujahedin.
We learn next from Weiss’s world that while the FSB is “directly feeding Dagestanis to ISIS” from Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, suspected militants are at the same time “put on Salafist watch lists, interrogated, photographed, and fingerprinted repeatedly. Some have to submit DNA samples.” How this is done repeatedly by Russian security organs while at the same time ‘militants’ are fleeing to the Levant is not clear. Weiss’s problem here is that he fails to distinguish between ‘militants’ (boeviki) and ‘Salafists’ (salafisty). Militants are already violent and standing members of either the CE or CVIS, Salafists are potential recruits for these groups, given there already extremist Islamist views, and are allowed to operate openly with a healthy dose of harassment from police and security organs, to be sure. Weiss never mentions that numerous emigre jihadists from Russia in the Levant maintain their membership in the CE through their loyalty oath to its amir and, as I have documented extensively on this website, that the leading Caucasus emigre amirs were funneled there not by the FSB but by CE amirs as stated by the successive CE amirs ‘Abu Usman’ Doku Umarov and Ali Abu Mukhammad ad-Dagestani (born Aliaskhab Kebekov) as well as by the dispatched amirs themselves. This latter topic, however, would never be the focus of The Daily Beast or virtually any other Western media organ because it does not fit the Washington consensus-mandated agenda of ‘Russia is guilty’, always guilty of everything wrong in the world.
Quoted in Weiss’s piece are several stalwarts of apologetics for Chechen terrorists and North Caucasus jihadists, such as the Jamestown Foundation’s Glen Howard. He and a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty writer are quoted by Weiss to the effect that “Russia is very happy about (many CE amirs’ defection from the CE to IS to form the CVIS) because it means that it can now blame the local insurgency on ISIS – ‘an international group created by the West’ – rather than on local problems in the Caucasus.” Curious, that.
The full quote is even more useful for understanding the lack of knowledge and bias constructing this piece of contemporary journalism: “In June, the Caucasus Emirate, the leading radical insurgency in Russia, pledged allegiance to ISIS, giving Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s terror army a nominal affiliate in a major Eurasian country. That fact ought to be terrifying to Moscow. Except that it isn’t. ‘Russia is very happy about this because it means that it can now blame the local insurgency on ISIS-‘an international group created by the West’-rather than on local problems in the Caucasus,’ (Joanna) Paraszczuk said.” This is a new twist on another old theme cherished by the Chechen and Caucasus jihadists’ apologists. In their world, AQ and Ayman al-Zawahiri were part of an FSB false flag operation. Indeed, so was the CE, as is alluded to several times in Weiss’s ‘report.’
More fundamentally, Weiss just gets the basic facts wrong. The CE did not pledge allegiance to IS(IS). Rather, an overwhelming majority of its amirs did. A rump – perhaps 20-30 percent – of the CE retains its status as an independent jihadi organization. It is allied with Al Qa`ida against IS(IS), an alliance Jamestown, RFERL, and the entire US media denied for over a decade and about which it remains largely silent to this day. Thus, at the very time CE amirs were networking with IS(IS) and other global jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria through the fighters and CE amirs sent there, the Jamestown Foundation’s Mairbek Vatchagaev wrote: “[T]he North Caucasus resistance remains a separate movement that has not developed solidarity networks with the Middle Eastern radicals” (www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=42827&cHash=99798297faa9a0bff1163b1281d18e84#.VdwjPPlVikq).
Another hint of this bias comes in the different way when Weiss refers to the CE and IS(IS). The CE is “the leading radical insurgency” in Russia in Weiss’s and the much of the West’s world. IS(IS) is a “terror” group. In fact, the CE has been a jihadi terror group from its 2007 inception, and its predecessor organization, the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ChRI), had a strong jihadi terrorist element by 1998. I’ll return to Weiss’s perverted discussion of the ChRI further below.
The only evidence that Weiss can muster for his claim that Russia is funneling Dagestani jihadists to IS(IS) comes oddly enough from a Russian newspaper. Somehow ‘Putler’ has neglected to close down this opposition newspaper which constantly criticizes him and his regime in the harshest terms. The same is true, incidentally, of radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) funded in good part by Russia’s state-owned natural gas and oil giant GazProm and featuring broadcasts and blogs by leaders of nearly every democratic opposition party. But no reason to digress no less stop on that insignificant point. We’re talking about fascist Russia so…..
Let’s get back to the ‘support for IS’ coming from ‘Putin’s Russia’ that this article is intent on communicating to readers as a stratcomm counter to Russian claims that the US ‘created IS’ – a more reasonable claim, since the US and its allies have funneled aide to the Syrian opposition, which included radical jihadists who have ended up in IS and other jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq and have been photographed with US weapons and materiel` in hand. Recall US Senator John McCain in a photograph standing next to Al Qaida members in Syria when he visited the opposition a few years ago, but again no reason to focus on that minor point – back to Dagestan.
Weiss’s only data to support his claim that “Russia” and the “FSB” are funneling jihadi fighters to the Levant and IS is Russia’s Novaya gazeta in an article by one of its investigative reporters, Yelena Milashina (“‘Halifat – primanka dlya durakov’,” Novaya gazeta, No. 80, 29 July 2015, http://www.novayagazeta.ru/inquests/69364.html). She presents a single source relaying facts – a state negotiator who deals with jihadi fighters. Several years ago, ‘fascist Russia’s’ Dagestan Republic developed a policy of trying to convince young muhajedin to ‘come out of the forest’ – that is, leave the CE’s Dagestan network, the Dagestan Vilaiyat – and return to normal life. Such negotiators (and sometimes Dagestan’s president himself) under this policy visited the homes jihadists and even the site of counter-jihadism operations in order to convince mujahedin to turn themselves in or convince their families to help do so. Milashina’s source seems to be one such negotiator, called Abdullah.
Weiss sums up Milashina’s piece this way:
The FSB established a “green corridor” to allow them to migrate first to Turkey, and then to Syria. (Russians, including those living in the North Caucasus, can catch any of the daily non-stop flights to Istanbul and visit Turkey without a visa.)
“I know someone who has been at war for 15 years,” Akhyad Abdullaev, head of the village, tells Milashina. “He fought in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now in Syria. He surely cannot live peacefully. If such people go off to war, it’s no loss. In our village there is a person, a negotiator. He, together with the FSB, brought several leaders out of the underground and sent them off abroad on jihad. The underground resistance has been weakened, we’re well off. They want to fight-let them fight, just not here.”
Milashina next interviews the “negotiator” Abdullaev mentions. He tells her of his role as an intermediary between the FSB and local militants in arranging the latter’s departure to the Levant. In 2012, for instance, he helped arrange for a man known as the “emir of the northern sector” – a “very dangerous man,” believed by the FSB to have been behind several terrorist bombings – to go to Turkey if he agreed to quit jihadism in Dagestan. The FSB gave the emir a passport and acted as his travel agent. The condition was that he’d deal exclusively with the FSB and not inform any of his confederates of his true sponsor. The emir has since been killed in Syria, but the “negotiator” tells the journalist that he’s subsequently brought another five militants to the FSB who benefited from the same quid pro quo arrangement. “This was in 2012,” he says. “Just before the Syrian path opened up. More precisely, [the FSB] opened it.”
The dates and destination point of this alleged case of FSB funneling of CE mujahedin abroad are crucially important. Abdullah says that the mujahedin were sent by Weiss’s FSB-created “green corridor” in 2012 to Syria. IS as the ‘caliphate’ was only created in late June 2014. In 2012, IS was confined largely to Iraq, not Syria. IS(IS) first emerged in 2006 as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). Moreover, the CE mujahedin who left to Syria from the Caucasus in 2012 joined a group of emigre jihadists from various countries allied with Jabhat al-Nusra, not with IS. Jabhat al-Nusra fights in Syria, not Iraq.
So, according to Weiss/Milashina, some six militants (out of thousands that have left the Caucasus for Syria) were allegedly funneled by the FSB, according to a single, uncorrborated source, in 2012. This is when the Islamic State as we know it today did not exist. They went to Syria and joined groups other than Iraq-based IS. In Weiss’s world this merits the conclusion that today Russia is feeding untold numbers of Dagestani and presumably other North Caucasus mujahedin to IS as a counter to US counter-jihadism efforts.
The following should also be noted. If Russia is corrupt, lying, and the proverbial ‘riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma,’ then the Caucasus is that and exponentially then some. So, never mind that Milashina’s single source could be saying this for a host of different reasons connected with internal Dagestani politics, could be a double-agent working with the FSB and CE, or could simply be lying; hence, the need for corroborating sources, as journalists are taught in their first semester. Indeed, Weiss curiously deletes from Milashina’s account the following: “A resident of Novosasitel who defected from the local terrorist underground is highlighted under a lighted window. He surrendered his weapons and made an appeal for amnesty, but the ‘forest fighters’ sent (him) an ultimatum: pay a fine or leave for the war in Syria, otherwise die.” Note that Milashina writes ‘war’, not ‘jihad’, in accordance with Western journalism’s requisite liberal political correctness. More to my point: is Weiss doing journalism or something else?
Weiss attempts to strengthen the case by claiming that Russia is “a country notoriously difficult to enter and exit, without outside help.” This is patently false. Entering or exiting Russia’s North Caucasus is not difficult for any rank-and-file mujahed at all. The mountainous terrain makes for porous borders easily crossed from both sides as mujahedin from across the world and the North Caucasus have been doing for more than two decades. It is well-known that Chechen fighters were hiding out in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge for years. After a time the Georgians admitted it, and the US set up a special training program for the Georgian army to address the issue. Dagestan’s mountainous borderlands abutting Azerbaijan and Gerogia are famously permeable. Even a higher profile figure, such as the amir of the northern sector of the CE’s Dagestan Vilaiyat, not to mention lesser known mujahedin, would be able to travel openly if they had not advertised their jihadi activity in videos or otherwise.
Writing about the Boston Marathon bombing and the elder Tsarnayev brother, Tamerlan, Weiss again faults Russia: “(H)ow did Tamerlan manage to arrive unmolested at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport in January 2012, then proceed to Dagestan, after the FSB was obviously aware of his purported plans to join ‘bandit underground groups’?” But the same can be said about our own intelligence organs who had Tameraln on a watch list but made no effort to stop him from flying to Russia and then back to the states in 2012 after two warnings about him sent by the FSB to the FBI in 2011.
When Weiss writes about the ChRI and Shamil Basayev matters get frighteningly comical. He scribbles: “(D)uring the First and Second Chechen Wars jihadist-warlords such as Shamil Basayev were co-opted by Russia’s military intelligence (GRU) in order to vitiate the secular or democratic Chechen movement.” Again Weiss mixes up the timeline to arm his hit piece. First, Basayev’s only connection to the GRU came in 1992 during Georgia’s war against Abkhaziya, when the ultra-nationalist Georgian president failed to crush Abkhaz autonomy by political means and turned to force. Basayev and some 50 fighters, his so-called Abkhaz Battalion of mostly ethnic Circassians (the Abkhaz are a Circassian sub-ethnic group as are Russia’s Kabardins, Cherkess, and Adygs in the North Caucasus), were trained and deployed against the Georgians. Basayev only began to turn towards jihadism after the Georgia-Abkhaz war when he visited Osama bin Laden’s training camps in Khost, Afghanistan, in order to receive training to fight against the Russians as Chechnya had declared its independence as the ChRI and was preparing to fight Moscow. Oddly, those who think like Weiss and whom Weiss interviewed for his piece (Howard, for example) have spent years denying Basayev’s jihadi orientation right up to his death in June 2006. Now when it becomes useful for this different line of stratcomm, Basayev is transmogrified into a jihadist since 1992. Funny how that happens.
Then Weiss claims: “Basayev was a useful tool for the Kremlin-at least until the FSB (probably) assassinated him in 2006-because he wasn’t really interested in secession from the Russian Federation; he wanted to establish an “emirate” in the Caucasus. His carnage accomplished two things at once: It cast a pall on the legitimate separatist struggle and offered a wag-the-dog national security justification for a scorched-earth Russian counterinsurgency, which did nothing short of level Grozny.” There two problems here. First is that he is not sure if the FSB assassinated Basayev, but he surely knows why they might have done so. Second, if the FSB found Basayev useful because he wanted an emirate, then why did they kill him just as he was about to bring to fruition his recent efforts to do so in summer 2006? In January of that year he called for convening a council of Islamic scholars that summer for the purpose of consecrating the creation of the Caucasus Emirate. Clearly, Weiss knows nothing of what he writes.
Nevertheless, he labors on:
Anatoly Kulikov, the former chairman of the Russian Interior Ministry and a former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, told the weekly newspaper Argumenty i Fakty in 2002 that he had a “great deal of evidence” to suggest that Boris Berezovsky, then the most powerful oligarch in Russia and a key political advisor to the Yeltsin administration, was using the Russian Security Council to finance Chechen extremists, Basayev included. Much of the money paid was to buy back hostages taken by Basyev’s forces, including journalists who worked for Berezovsky’s media empire. Many observers of this period say that there was an ulterior motive of trying to split the opposition and strengthen the extremist Chechen elements at the expense of moderates.
Even one of Berezovsky’s closest friends and allies, Alex Goldfarb, conceded that by 1999, the goal in Moscow had become even more subversive than that: to prompt a guerrilla incursion into Dagestan, which would then green-light a short but popular Russian invasion of the top third of Chechnya, down to the Terek River. A state of emergency would then be declared and national elections in Russia would be postponed in the wake of a cataclysmic financial crash.
This is truly astounding. Weiss if anyone should know that it was the nasty Vladimir the Terrible and his ‘oprichniki’ who moved against Berezovskii the veritable Mob Boss. Why would Putin then move against Berezovskii when they were both working for the ChRI’s radicalization? Moreover, it was not so much that Goldfarb “conceded” that by 1999 Moscow’s goal was to prompt a Chechen invasion of Dagestan so Russian forces would have a pretext to re-take Chechnya, it was Berezovsky and what was left of his media machine and minions who enthusiastically were making this claim and charging Putin with the act. Berezovsky and Goldfarb continued such efforts in exile from London. In addition, Basayev and his Al Qa`ida-tied sidekick, the infamous Khattab, had been planning their invasion of Dagestan long before 1999 and had declared their intentions in 1997 and 1998 by creating the Congress of the Peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan and making an incursion into Buinaksk, Dagestan in 1998.
Not surprisingly, Weiss, like all other commentators of his ilk who have written on the subject of the 1999 apartment building bombings in Moscow and Volgadonsk never connects them with Berezovskii’s nefarious activities with Chechen hostages, ransoms, and general criminality in 1990s Chechnya. Could it be that Berezovskii and rogue elements then or previously in the FSB were involved in the apartment bombings and not Putin and core FSB figures? Why ask.
Naturally, Weiss tells readers nothing of this or of the ChRI’s ties to Al Qa`ida from the mid-1990s or of the latter’s vast financial, material, personnel, and theo-ideological support for the CHRI. No, it is the FSB who radicalized the ChRI and machinated the creation of the CE.
Dredging up the Aleksandr Litvinenko murder with the usual heavy prejudice favoring the long and stubbornly proselytized version that Putin ordered the killing, Weiss offers nothing new, relying on previous examinations that eschew examining any other version other than ‘Putin did it.’ Never mind that no security service, no less a fairly effective organs such as Russia’s FSB, SVR, and GRU would employ the rather clumsy method of traipsing across Europe highly volatile polonium-210 in order to kill a minor irritant like Litvinenko when a simple poisoning or abduction and shooting would do.
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 Berezovskii’s and Litvinenko’s Chechen associate Akhmed Zakaev was the ChRI’s official foreign minister. I noted more than two years ago that the November 2006 murder “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” (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).
Weiss and the like-minded colleagues he consults have ignored completely the bombshell that exploded at the recent Litvinenko inquest in London revealing that Chechens had been hired by Litvinenko’s boss, the one and same Berezovskii, to sell a design for a nuclear suitcase bomb likely to jihadi, probably Chechen terrorists. On 9 February 2015, 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” (Litvinenko Inquest Transcript, 9 February 2015, http://www.litvinenkoinquiry.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/lit090215.pdf, p. 38 cited in Gordon M. Hahn, “Chechen Nuclear Bomb Explodes in Renewed Litvinenko Inquest,” GordonHahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 10 February 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/02/10/chechen-nuclear-bomb-explodes-in-renewed-litvinenko-inquest/). This begs the question: Why have Litvinenko’s contacts in the polonium-210 affair, Kovtun and Lugovoi, been seemingly protected by Moscow. As is often the case in Russia, the answer may be that it is an attempt to hide state weakness and corruption rather than criminality.
None of this is to say that Putin is a paragon of virtue or that Russia is a haven of democratic freedom and liberty. On the other hand, Putin is no Hitler or Stalin, and Russia is not the root of all evil in this world. One can and indeed should be able to maintain a healthy suspicion of Russian claims and intentions while at the same time objectively assessing, rather than irresponsible whitewashing the Caucasus jihadist threat.
I would suggest that Weiss read my books on the subject of Caucasus jihadism and then look in the mirror and decide how he might retract or re-write his piece. Otherwise, it is difficult to accept him as a serious analyst. Sadly, in the likely interminable interim, the American public and increasingly, to be sure, U.S. policymakers will continue to be misled by such gross deception, disinformation, and beastly ignorant journalism.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation. He is also Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View and Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and publishes the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report (IIPER) at CSIS at http://csis.org/program/russia-and-eurasia-program. Dr. Hahn has been a visiting scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. (2011-2013), the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. (1995 and 2005), and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, San Francisco State, and St. Petersburg State (Russia) Universities.