"Evidence of the number of nuclear weapons purchased by the Chechens for bin Laden varies between 'a few' (Russian intelligence) to 'more than twenty' (conservative Arab intelligence services). Most of the weapons were purchased in four former Soviet states - Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Russia. These weapons are a mix of suitcase bombs and tactical warhead bombs. An Arab nuclear scientist, a Western-educated expert who worked for Saddam Hussein's nuclear program before he became Islamist, supervised the acquisition process for bin Laden and now runs the program for him. He is assisted by five Muslim Turkoman nuclear experts and a team of engineers and technicians, all of them Central Asian Muslims, whom they brought with them."
Yossef Bodansky, director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare (from p. 330 of his 1999 book Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America)
A reader of this column recently wrote to say he'd shown How to Bring Down a Superpower to a friend. The friend was not impressed and said I was nuts for suggesting that Russia stirred up the Chechen and Afghan conflicts to facilitate the creation of a deniable terrorist proxy. "I generally skim by those unlikely conclusions myself," wrote the reader, "because I think your basic message is right on target." He added, "But you don't have to make Russia in control of more world events than need be."
The reader went on to ask what proof there is that Russia set up Chechen terrorists or Afghan terrorists as proxies. In games of mixed chance and skill the players (and those who analyze play) rarely have absolute proof of anything. Since deception is part of the game and proof is always obscured by lies, the good players develop an intuitive understanding of how the game works. Using fragments of information a good player quickly recognizes the pattern behind his opponent's moves. Only in this way can he adjust his counter-moves. Viewed from this standpoint, there are some fascinating stories that have come out of Afghanistan and Chechnya in recent years. And there are a few highly suggestive facts. The most widely acknowledged fact is that Kremlin oligarch Boris Berezovsky gave the al Qaeda-connected Chechen terrorist leader Shamil Basayev $1 million prior to the 1999 Dagestan incursion that triggered the latest Chechen conflict.
In his book, Godfather of the Kremlin, Forbes senior editor and historian Paul Klebnikov noted that Berezovsky supplied the Chechen terrorists with cash (according to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov). Having interviewed the leading players of the Chechen drama, Klebnikov described the Second Chechen War (that began in 1999) as a "double game." Klebnikov explained this game in the following terms: "To the extent Berezovsky represented the interests of the Yeltsin regime in Chechnya, the Kremlin had been undermining the [Chechen] moderates, supporting the extremists financially and politically, and consequently sowing the seeds of conflict." The best-case scenario would be that a hare-brained Kremlin scheme backfired. "The worst-case scenario," Klebnikov admitted, "is that the Berezovsky strategy with the Chechen warlords was a deliberate attempt to fan the flames of war." To make the case clearly: the Kremlin financed the Wahhabi extremists (i.e., commanders Basayev and Khattab) who invaded Dagestan in August 1999 and triggered the Second Chechen War.
Even more interesting, in this regard, is the real story behind the terror bombings that pushed the Russian people to war against Chechnya. Supposedly the Chechen terrorists bombed five apartment complexes in Moscow and two in provincial cities that claimed 300 Russian victims in September 1999. Klebnikov wrote, "The fact that Berezovsky, together with other members of the Yeltsin inner circle, had long maintained a secret relationship with Chechen extremists gave rise to the suspicion that the 1999 apartment bombings had been organized by the Russians themselves."
If this sounds far-fetched, then brace yourself for a further shock. Believe it or not, on Sept. 22, 1999, a bombing was thwarted against an apartment block in the provincial town of Ryazan where vigilant residents noticed suspicious persons near the building after dark. Checking the lower level after the suspects departed, the residents found a bomb. The local police came to investigate. A manhunt began. A suspicious phone call was overheard by the Ryazan telephone exchange. A frightened voice was frantically seeking a directive from his superiors. The train stations were being watched. It was dangerous for him and the others to leave as they were being hunted. What should they do?
The call was traced to the Russian security services in Moscow.
The Kremlin quickly responded. The KGB (now FSB) declared that they had planted the bomb, that it was a "fake" made of sugar and the planting had been part of an exercise to test the citizens' vigilance. The local police were ordered to stop their investigation. The evidence was confiscated. The local newspapers were burglarized and ransacked. The residents in the threatened apartment block were bribed into silence by the government. The French newspaper Le Figaro asked Gen. Aleksandr Lebed, former Security Council chief under Yeltsin, if the Russian government was behind the bombings. Lebed, who died earlier this year in a "helicopter crash," said he was "almost convinced of it."
The significant thing to remember when studying the "double game" in Russia is that Russian and Arab intelligence services have told U.S. officials that Chechen terrorists acquired Soviet nuclear weapons for al Qaeda. Therefore, the Ryazan incident is tremendously significant. The fact that the Kremlin was secretly supporting the Wahhabis simply cannot be set aside when looking at the statements of terror expert Yossef Bodansky. We are therefore forced to look deeper into these questions. Who are these Chechen terrorist leaders? What do we know about Shamil Basayev and the mysterious commander known as "Khattab"?
According to Boris Kagarlitsky's Jan. 24, 2000 article in Novaya Gazeta, there was a secret meeting in the summer of 1999 between Yeltsin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin and Shamil Basayev in France. Voloshin wanted Basayev to help Moscow start a small war in Chechnya. Kagarlitsky alleged that Shamil Basayev and his brother had long been special agents of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff (previously put to good use in Abkhazia by Anton Surikov of SPETSNAZ). The reasons for starting a small war in Chechnya were said to be political. Yeltsin's successor had to be anointed. The Russian people had to be rallied behind their new leader. In addition, the Russian General Staff had a special operation in mind, code-named "Anti-Terror." In order to execute this operation (which pitted the Russian government against 5,000 bin Laden terrorists based in Chechnya) a spectacular series of outrages had to be organized. As the principal leader of the bin Laden forces in Chechnya, Basayev was in a perfect position to get the ball rolling.
Kagarlitsky is by no means alone in making these statements. In his February 2000 Versiya article, "Who Blew Up Russia," researcher Pyotr Praynishnikov wrote that Chechnya's terrorists had been trained by the GRU - by Russia's SPETSNAZ (special diversionary troops). Praynishnikov stated that the Basayev brothers, Shamil and Shirvani, were "both recruited as agents by the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff (GRU) in 1991-2." It should be noted that SPETSNAZ troops are airborne-trained. Perhaps it falls right that Shamil Basayev was a Soviet paratrooper in the mid-1980s when he first met Gen. Djohar Dudayev, a commander of a Soviet air force regiment that was then wiping out Afghans with carpet-bombing. Dudayev would later become a born-again Muslim as well as president of "independent" Chechnya.
According to Praynishnikov, Basayev was initially recruited by the GRU to organize kidnappings, bombings and airline hijackings in Russia and Abkhazia. That is, the Russian General Staff saw fit to orchestrate terrorist attacks on Russian soil. In this regard, all operations initiated by the Russian General Staff are strategic operations, conducted after careful consideration. We might ask, in this regard, what military considerations prompted the Russian strategists to organize and train terrorists, under their own control, on Russian soil? Was Gen. Dudayev himself part of the General Staff's plan?
We are told that after Basayev's stint in Abkhazia, he next showed up in Nagorny Karabakh in 1992. After that Basayev's terrorist battalion went to Chechnya. To be sure, the Russian border guards let Basayev's merry band travel freely across the borders of the supposedly "independent" Caucasian republics (run by former KGB and MVD generals like Georgian Communist Party boss Eduard Shevardnadze and his KGB counterpart in Azerbaijan, Gen. Geidar Aliyev).
After further improbable escapades, Basayev soon found himself at the side of Chechen President Dudayev. If the second Chechen war was a provocation, then the first helped to set the stage. In their scholarly work, The War in Chechnya, Stasys Knezys and Romanas Sedlickas were puzzled by the fact that Chechen President Dudayev was always warned in advance of attacks and assassination plots. When Moscow's forces invaded Chechnya in late 1994, Dudayev had a copy of the Russian Army's battle plans on his desk. Did Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and KGB (FSB) chief Sergei Stepashin protect Dudayev on the sly? In fact, Dudayev was previously a trusted Soviet general who once commanded a long-range nuclear bomber division. Even more suspicious, Dudayev's Chechen ethnicity was open to question. Some sources allege that the village he grew up in never had any Chechen inhabitants. Furthermore, Dudayev spoke Chechen badly. Even more interesting is the story of Dudayev's death at the hands of the Russian air force. The main testimony about this comes from Shamil Basayev, an alleged operative of the Russian General Staff. It is no wonder, therefore, that Knezys and Sedlickas have questioned Dudayev's death. Nothing about this death can be determined with any certainty. For example, Dudayev's body is missing. His wife made cryptic statements about the whole thing, returned to Russia and "disappeared." Stranger still, a dead Chechen commander named Salman Radujev came back to life without explanation on July 18, 1996 to announce that Dudayev was alive. Knezys and Sedlickas admit that Dudayev might have become president of Chechnya "as the result of a special operation conducted by the Russian KGB." There is no proof, but certainly there is evidence suggesting that Moscow influenced developments in Chechnya from the beginning, just as Russia influenced developments in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s. "The game plan called for a person subservient to Russia to take power in Chechnya," wrote Knezys and Sedlickas. Dudayev became the Kremlin's agent of influence "on the ground" who hijacked Chechnya in the service of the Russian General Staff.
There are other facts about the First Chechen War that suggest a "double game." The defeated Russian general, Anatoliy Kvashnin, was not fired or demoted for his infamous bungling (i.e., he lost the war). Instead, he was promoted to become chief of the Russian General Staff. This is a deep mystery indeed if one accepts the war as a straightforward Kremlin defeat.
Of all the testimony about the wars in Chechnya, none is more fascinating than the January 7, 2000 statement of Chechen Mufti Akhmed-Khadzhi Kadyrov, who told the London Arabic language paper "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that Moscow had colluded with the Chechen terrorists to bring about the Second Chechen War in 1999. Kadyrov's testimony is of particular interest since President Vladimir Putin later co-opted Kadyrov as Chechnya's new leader. This occurred after the mufti obliquely suggested that the Russian generals controlled the conflict from both ends and that it was stupid for Chechens to participate in a war that had little to do with them. According to Kadyrov, it was all a matter of "armed gangs" that suddenly showed up. These gangs, explained Kadyrov, began kidnapping and terrorizing the Chechen people. "This is not jihad," noted Kadyrov, "it is rather a deception." He then added, "I do not rule out the possibility that Moscow had a hand in this issue [i.e., the kidnappings]."
In the January 7, 2000 interview (made available in English by the BBC), Kadyrov said he had directly confronted Russian Prime Minister (now president) Vladimir Putin about secret Kremlin support for the terrorist attack into Dagestan (including Kadyrov's assertion that Kremlin oligarch Berezovsky gave millions in cash to Basayev). Kadyrov also confronted Putin about information he had that Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stapashin (formerly head of the KGB/FSB and MVD) had supplied Dagestani rebels with two truckloads of arms that allowed them to resist the Russian army for three weeks. Putin did not deny his predecessor's intrigue. He allegedly replied to Kadyrov, "We actually made mistakes."
According to Kadyrov, "I told Putin that if Russia really wanted to, not a single foreigner [i.e., al Qaeda terrorist] could have infiltrated into Chechnya or extended a single dollar to it, which means that this whole thing was deliberately planned."
Kadyrov's penetrating intelligence impressed Putin. A realist like Kadyrov is infinitely more reliable than a dunderhead who imagines he can outwit the Russian security services or launch a genuine rebellion. At the same time, Kadyrov was yet innocent enough to miss the Kremlin's deeper strategic reason for secretly sponsoring (and then smashing) the terrorists in Chechnya.
Now that we have gone over a few representative statements put forth by historians, journalists and Chechen leaders with regard to Wahhabi (i.e., al Qaeda) terrorism in Russia's North Caucasus region, let us return to the quotation at the top of this column. It is taken from no less a person than the director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, Yossef Bodanksy. Putting everything together and viewing it as a whole: If Chechen terrorists got hold of Russian nuclear weapons and sold them to bin Laden, then we should like to know the motive as well as the method behind the madness. And we should like to know why the Chechens did not reserve a few of these weapons for their own use, to assure their own independence from Russia.
If Shamil Basayev and the other pro-Wahhabi commanders in Chechnya were operatives of the Russian General Staff, as suggested by one researcher after another, then we find ourselves face-to-face with a very serious red flag regarding Russia's strategic intentions (i.e., to facilitate a deniable nuclear attack on America via a chain of proxies). In this matter independent "Muslim" Chechnya might be viewed as a kind of device for the movement of Soviet nuclear weapons into terrorist hands. It is a device that leaves Moscow blameless and without apparent responsibility. According to Bodansky, bin Laden has been attempting to recruit former SPETSNAZ troops trained in the use of nuclear weapons. "If bin Laden succeeds in finding a nuclear-qualified former SPETSNAZ trooper, he will have overcome the greatest hurdle to carrying out a nuclear terrorist strike in the West - specifically in the United States."
In November 1998 a Russian GRU defector told me something puzzling. What he said came out of the blue, without prompting. He warned that I should not believe any future report about Muslim terrorists exploding a nuclear device on American soil. He said that such an attack would be from Russian SPETSNAZ because Muslim terrorists were not sophisticated enough to operate such weapons. He was emphatic in his statement.
The reader who questioned my suggestion of a Kremlin grand design behind the Chechen and Afghan wars could not have known, from the scant information on American television and radio, that scholars and journalists have seriously considered the possibility of a Kremlin special operation to secretly support and foster Chechen terrorism for strategic reasons. In this regard, my files on Afghanistan are no less substantial than my files on Chechnya. Secret and not-so-secret connections exist between leading mujahidin fighters and Russia's security services. Afghan generals Dostum, Masood and Fahim have deep ties to Moscow. Other Afghan commanders are also implicated in an apparent "double game" used to foster the present international terror crisis. In my opinion, this game involved decades of experimentation, false moves and constant political zig-zags.
Am I saying that the Afghan and Chechen peoples weren't seeking freedom in these wars? Of course they were. But the Afghan and Chechen masses possessed none of the sophistication or skill at subversion characteristic of the Russian government. It has to be remembered that agents of influence in key leadership bodies can manipulate national politics to serve the strategic ends of enemy states. Look at the American political scene, for example.
Many episodes from Russian and Asian history are cloaked by intrigue and deception. Oriental despotism has never been straightforward. Instead, it has always been masked and crooked. That being said, we should consider the possibility that Russia facilitated the transfer of nuclear weapons to al Qaeda through Kremlin-controlled Chechen terrorists.