It was all over the world news when Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė publicly stated that Russia was a “terrorist country”. She later explained that Russia “has attributes of a terrorist state”.
It’s difficult to evaluate how much it helped the international community to take thought of what exactly they are dealing with. But this very loud wake-up call is a perfect opportunity to shed more light on this issue that has not been widely addressed either in Lithuania or worldwide.
Therefore this essay of the Putin's Russia series will be a bit unusual. In this case I decided to examine not the current Russian government structure, the interrelation of various clans and their influence to processes in Russia and worldwide, but rather focus on why Russia can now be reasonably called a country that sponsors terrorism. I will also discuss the very suspicious links between the current regime and international terrorism, and the historical role of Soviet Union’s KGB (the foundation of Putin’s regime) in developing an international terrorism network.
How to legally evaluate the aggression in Ukraine?
Grybauskaitė’s public address about Russia being the “terrorist country” was undoubtedly related to the aggression in Ukraine. The objective of this essay is to put on the table much more disturbing and suspicious facts about Russia’s relations with international terrorism. But let’s start with Ukraine.
Alexander J. Motyl, in his essay "Putin‘s Russia as a State Sponsor of Terrorism", that was published in the World Affairs magazine this April, has substantiated that Russia can be legally considered as sponsoring terrorism based on its aggression towards Ukraine, and to be sanctioned accordingly.
Let me remind you that Motyl was using USA’s and EU’s publicly available legal definitions of terrorism, and official reports from EU and NATO officials on the affairs in Ukraine.
At the time, the Donbass plane crash was yet to happen- there were no reports from US intelligence that it was done by the so-called separatists, no public announcements from US president Obama that the plane was shot down from the area controlled by separatists, and Russia, not accidentally, provided separatists with modern weapons. There was no information about the research (carried by the independent group of journalists, the so-called Bellingcat) that drew the conclusions that the missile system that shot down the Malaysian Airlines plane was supplied to separatists by Russia. All of these reports were yet to come.
Apart from all this, there is now an official statement from Amnesty International that ‘based on the collected evidence, Russia is fueling the conflict both by direct intervention and by supporting separatists in the East’. In the US more than 100 thousand people signed the petition that Russia, based on all facts, should be declared a state sponsor of terrorism with all the awaiting consequences.
However, the international reaction remains the same: headlines raise a question -- will Russia get away with this again? Especially now, when the world’s attention is drawn to the latest report from US Senate about the CIA prisons and torture in them.
Regarding Malaysian airplane shoot down, only the formal investigation could show whether Russia was involved in this, and if there is a legal base to declare it a state sponsor of terrorism.
However, Western world is reluctant to officially declare that the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk and Lugansk are terrorist organisations. Obviously, it is a political decision in order to protect Russia from automatic recognition as a state sponsor of terrorism. This explanation was given by Jewgen Worobyov, the famous expert of Ukraine’s and Russia’s affairs, during his interview with the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN. Worobyov is working at the Polish Institute of International Relations that is closely related to country’s ministries of internal and foreign affairs.
State terrorism abroad
Legal basis for declaring Putin’s Russia a state sponsor of terrorism was there well before the aggression in Ukraine. But the West then closed their eyes on what would otherwise guarantee a place among the states sponsoring terrorism for any other country.
I have in mind the two proven terrorist acts that Putin’s Russia has performed abroad. They include the bombing of the former Chechnya’s vice-president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Doha, Qatar, in 2004, and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a fugitive officer of the Russian FSB secret service, with radionuclide polonium-210 in UK in 2006.
US laws define terrorism as ‘a conscious, politically motivated violence by the sub-group or secret agents carried out against civilian targets, mostly in order to influence the public’.
The prevailing definition of international terrorism defines it as ‘terrorism carried out by governments or the one which is carried out directly or promoted and funded by state’s legitimate government, or terrorist acts performed by the government against its own people or with support from international terrorism’.
Assassinations of Yandarbiyev and Litvinenko fall into both of these categories.
Let me remind you that Yanderbiyev was bombed in his SUV (sports utility vehicle) in Doha on February 13, 2004. Qatar’s law enforcement then arrested three Russians -- Alexander Fetisov, the first secretary at the Russian embassy in Qatar, and two Russian military intelligence agents -- Anatolij Jablochkov and Vasiliy Pugachev.
Fetisov had to be released due to his diplomatic immunity -- he was sent out of the country. However, some authors argue that this diplomat regained freedom because of yet another Russia’s action that had indications of terrorism. In Moscow’s airport two members of Qatar’s Olympic wrestling team were arrested and basically held hostage for completely inexplicable accusations. These men were not even traveling to Russia - they were on a transit to Serbia. Later they were allegedly exchanged for Fetisov.
Be that as it may, Jablochkov and Pugachev were found guilty of Yandarbiyev’s assassination, attempted murder of his 12-year old son Dauda, and gun smuggling into Qatar. The verdict was reached by Qatar’s court. The evidence was so strong that Qatar’s public prosecution sought death penalty. But again, due to the alleged secret agreements with Moscow, the judge sentenced them to life imprisonment. In his statement, the Qatari judge, Ibrahim Saleh al-Nisf, for the first time publicly accused senior Russian officials of orchestrating the killing of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.
Qatar soon agreed to extradite the prisoners to Russia where they would serve out their life sentence. The agents received a heroes' welcome on returning to Moscow in January 2005 but the Russian prison authorities admitted in February 2005 that they did not serve their life sentence after all.
There have been several public announcements that UK’s law enforcement had inconvertible evidence that Litvinenko had been poisoned by two former KGB agents -- AndreiyLugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun. UK’s authorities had no doubt that Russian government was behind this terrorist-like attack.
Truth be told, Russia refused to extradite the suspects to British law enforcement, and London itself had many doubts about holding a public hearing of the case at all. Ben Emmerson, the lawyer of victim’s widow Marina, had publicly accused British government of a possible conspiracy with Russia to shut down the inquest into the death of Alexander Litvinenko to preserve trade interests.
Furthermore, in July 2006 Russia introduced a statutory right for ‘Russian officers and special units to kill extremists outside Russia’. Knowing that the definition of the extremist is left for Russian government to decide, this law is also consistent with the description of terrorism, but already legitimised by Russian government.
The warning from a former intelligence agent
On August 24, 2006, the website of US National Review magazine published a very important, yet seemingly unheard warning from Ion Mihai Pacepa, the former head of Romanian foreign intelligence. The publication was called "Russian Footprints".
Pacepa is the highest-ranking defector to the West from the former Eastern Bloc. Due to his rank, Pacepa had a lot of personal contact with Yuri Andropov, the longtime leader of USSR KGB, and Alexander Sakharovsky, the head of KGB’s First Chief Directorate (Foreign Operations). So Pacepa’s warning should have been taken into account.
Truth is, this warning was not related neither to the aforementioned law, that was adopted in July, nor to the the future poisoning of Litvinenka which, of course, could not be predicted by Pacepa at the time.
The main thing that encouraged to react to Pacepa more seriously was the news that Russia provides guns to terrorists. Pacepa’s article started with the public information that in the so-called Israel- Hezbollah war, the latter group (widely considered a terrorist organisation) used Russian weapons.
As a matter of fact, Kremlin would have explained this in the similar manner as it does now in Ukraine -- ostensibly guns can be purchased in a supermarket. But one batch of weapons left on the battlefield by Hezbollah testified unequivocally. It had a label on it: ‘Recipient - Syrian Ministry of Defence; the sender - KBP, Tula, Russia’.
There was no doubt that the guns were provided to Syria knowing that they would end up in the hands of terrorist Hezbollah group. But instead of explaining this in more detail, Pacepa for the first time ever decided to share publicly the personal knowledge he had from the time he worked for Romanian intelligence.
Pacepa started his reminiscence with the sentence that was constantly drilled in his head by Sakharovsky: ‘In the modern world, where nuclear weapons made military force insignificant, terrorism has to become our main weapon.’
Pacepa, based of his experience and knowledge, explained how KBG built the modern Islamic terrorism. Naming the operation codes and specific terrorist acts, he revealed how it was executed not only against Israel and Jewish community but also the targets in Western Europe.
According to Pacepa, in 1971 when he was visiting Lubyanka in Moscow, Sakharovskij drew his attention to the sea of red flags pinned to a world map. Each flag symbolised hijacking of an airplane. ‘Plane hijacking is my invention’ -- he allegedly said proudly to his Romanian colleague.
Aircraft hijackings that, as stressed by Pacepa, became the main terrorist weapons on September 11, 2001, were in fact included in KGB arsenal much earlier -- in 1968.
All this information is explained more precisely in Pacepa’s book Disinformation released in 2013. The preface was written by James Woolsey, former Director of the CIA. In the aforementioned article, when the West had no idea about Russian threat, Pacepa’s warning sounded prophetic.
‘In the 1960s, when I was the head of Romanian foreign intelligence group in West Germany, I witnessed Hitler’s Third Reich being destroyed, the war criminals facing trials, military and police forces disbanded, and the Nazis expelled from public and government posts. Nothing of the sort happened in the Soviet Union. No one faced trials, although Russian communist regime killed more than a hundred million people. Many Soviet institutions were renamed, but left operative, and are now managed by the same people who led the communist state. In 2000, former KGB agents and military officers of the Red Army occupied Kremlin and Russian government. Germany would never have become a democratic state if Gestapo and SS had headed the parade,’ Pacepa urged the West to open their eyes.
He admitted that Putin was the first to offer help to US after September 11, 2001. But, according to Pacepa, who knows many KGB secrets, ‘Putin started his country’s comeback to terrorist affairs already in 2002’ -- he quietly began to supply guns to Iran's terrorist regime, as well as the construction of a controversial Bushehr nuclear power plant which may have contributed to Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon.
Need more evidence?
It was never a secret for the West that at least a major part of Pacepa’s statements were directly or indirectly based on official documents. I have in mind the ‘Mitrokhin arcive’ - a collection of handwritten notes made secretly by KGB Major Vasili Mitrokhin during his thirty years as a KGB archivist in the foreign intelligence service and the First Chief Directorate.
He offered all of these notes to UK when he contacted country’s embassy in Riga in 1992. The US embassy in Tallinn had already refused the offer as they considered these documents forged. The mistake made by US diplomats was perfectly illustrated by the later public assessment made by FBI stating that ‘Mitrokhin archive was the most comprehensive intelligence data ever received from any source.’
Exfiltrated by the Secret Intelligence Service in 1992, Mitrokhin and his documents were made available to Cristopher Andrew, British historian, after an initial and thorough review by the security services. Andrew was the first individual, not related to secret services, who was granted such unprecedented access. Based on this material, he released two books -- The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB and The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World.
The book The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World basically backs up a big part of Pacepa’s statements, and also states that the world famous terrorist Carlos Falcone was at the very least supported by KGB.
On November 23, 2007, a year after Livinenko’s poisoning - yet another article (Terror’s KGB roots) was published in the influential newspaper -- The Wall Street Journal -- by one well-informed UK-based veteran of Russia's GRU military intelligence service -- Boris Volodarsky.
In his essay Volodarsky not only openly labelled Litvinenko’s assassination a state-supported terrorist act, but also warned once again that ‘Russia, led by KGB’s lieutenant colonel Putin, is turning back to its terrorist roots’. In support of his key messages, Volodarsky reiterated a wide range of facts linking KGB to international terrorism.
Discussion goes beyond Soviet days
A bit earlier, on August 31, 2007, a warning called Russia and Islam are not Separate: Why Russia backs Al-Qaeda was published by yet another former KGB officer Konstantin Preobrazhensky, who left Russia in 2003 and was was granted the right of asylum in US in 2006. He has already written a couple of books about Russian secret service.
‘The basic difference between Russia’s and America’s attitude towards Islamic terrorist is that America regards it as an external threat, while Russia employs terrorism as an object and government tool both internally and abroad. Islamic terrorism is only a part of international terrorism. KGB was using terrorism to spread communist regime principles all over the world, and it was well before Islamic terrorism became a global threat,’ writes Preobrazheznsky.
And he was not talking about the past days. In this article, he recalled the story told to him personally by Litvinenko (the story was also published in Litvinenko’s interview for Polish media in 2005). According to Litvinenko, Ayman al-Zawahiri (the deputy leader of al-Qaeda at the time) was a long-time FSB agent. In 1996 he was arrested in Dagestan where he arrived at the invitation of Russian secret services. He allegedly spent half a year in FSB training facilities, and was later sent to Afghanistan where he joined Osama bin Laden.
By the way, Preobrazhensky has significantly expanded Litvinenko’s testimonies. He stated that, according to Litvinenko, in 1980’s and 1990’s FSB trained not only Zawahiri, but also the Uzbek Juma Namangoniy who was seen a Bin Laden’s right hand in the northern front of Afghanistan.
The information that Preobrazhensky provided about Namangoniy could be known from personal experience. Ostensibly in 1989-1991, when Preobrazhensky himself was a KGB officer, Namangoniy was the student of the Saboteur training centre where KGB had been training terrorists for many years.
Moreover, Preobrazhensky reminded the publicly announced information that Mohamed Atta, the terrorist who was piloting the hijacked plane who crashed into the World Trade Centre towers on September 11, was visiting Prague before these shocking events where he allegedly met with Iraq’s intelligence officers. Preobrazhensky then added unambiguously: ‘Iraq’s intelligence was merely a client of Russian intelligence services.’
Preobrazhevsky has also used the opportunity to present some never-before-published details about Litvinenko’s mission providing smokescreen for Zawahiri’s arrival to Russia. These controversial statements were finished with even more scandalous conclusion: ‘It gives new meaning to the fact that president Putin was the first foreign leader to call president Bush on September 11, 2001. It can be assumed that he knew in advance what was about to happen.’
As a matter of fact, Russian secret services do not try to deny the information about Zawahiri’s arrest in Dagestan. However, they claim they could not identify the globally wanted terrorist, did not try to decipher the information on his computer, and eventually, after six moth of arrest, they simply let the suspects go without even identifying them.
‘God has blinded them regarding our identities,’ Zawahiri said later. But god had to blind FSB even more as it not only returned the cash to the terrorists, but also gave back their communication equipment, computer, and documents in Arabian that were allegedly not even read. Even more so, after his release Zawahiri managed to spend ten more days with Islamists in Dagestan and even ‘present them his product’.
Interestingly, even Zawahiri’s followers in international terrorist networks had lots of doubts about this story. Two reporters from The Wall Street Journal -- Andrew Higgins and Alan Coulson -- shed more light on this story in their essay Saga of Dr. Zawahri Sheds Light On the Roots of al Qaeda Terror published in The Wall Street Journal in July 2002. They also argued that this journey basically changed Zawahiri’s target country from Egypt to US.
Experts of international terrorism agree on the fact that the plans of September 11 attacks against the US started when Zawahiri joined bin Laden. Namely the deputy leader of al-Qaeda, not bin Laden himself, is widely considered to be the main executor and inspirer behind the horrible terror acts.
Expert speaks out
However, neither this public information, nor Litvinenko’s claims, nor Preobrazhenskiy’s testimonies, nor the efforts of US right-wing reporters to highlight this topic every once in a while, encouraged the Western world to at least carry out a more careful investigation of the possible contribution of the Russian secret services to September 11 tragedies or international terrorism in general.
For a long time, even such considerations were seen as merely a conspiracy theory, and a complete waste of time. However, no one tried to answer the naturally arising question: if Russia’s suspicious links to international terrorism is only a conspiracy theory, how can the consequent conspiracy theory be explained?
If that is the case, then it should be admitted that many former secret service officers, who know a lot of secrets of Putin’s regime and KGB, have all conspired to ‘demonise Russia’, and are urging the world to take a closer look to Kremlin’s connection to terrorism.
As a matter of fact, many former officers of secret services do not tend to make up such conspiracy theories. On the contrary, they were or still are seen as the credible field experts. They release popular books and are invited to advise Western special services.
In July this year, John Schindler, the former analyst at US intelligence and the professor at the US Naval War College, decided to put to an end this weird paradox of complete denial when it comes to Russia’s potential links to international terrorism.
He carefully chose his words from the very beginning of his essay "Exploring Al Qaeda’s Murky Connection To Russian Intelligence", and stated that he only wanted to encourage discussion an further investigations. Schindler mainly focused on Zawahiri’s mysterious arrest.
Still the expert draws the conclusion that although the idea of Russia’s intelligence connection to Zawahiri seems unbelievable to the West, this thought is far from incredible. Moreover - it complies perfectly with what we know about USSR/Russia’s intelligence practice. During the cold war KGB established strong connections with various terrorist groups, as well as the ones in the Middle East.
As if it wasn’t enough, US intelligence analyst provides information about the relations between Chechnya’s famous terrorist Shamil Basayev’s and Russian military intelligence GRU. This information is often seen as a conspiracy theory in the West. However, Russian experts and political journalists has no doubt about it.
House bombings in Russia
Basayev’s links to GRU indirectly lead to yet another mysterious terrorist theory (still considered conspiracy in the West) -- house bombing in Russia in 1999. Schindler himself is hesitant to admit that these terrorist acts, that killed more than 300 people, were executed by FSB. But he claims that ‘there has always been a solid basis for such allegations, and while they became even more reasonable during the last decade, it still is a taboo topic in Russia.’
However, this topic is no longer forbidden in the West. Apart from Litvinenko and Feltshinsky, there are other experts who have written books about the mysteries behind the house bombing in 1999 and traces of Russian secret services.
Some of the investigations made by the acknowledged Western experts were turned into books: David Satter (former Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal correspondent in Moscow, currently senior fellow at Hudson University) published a book named Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State, and John B. Dunlop, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, released a work The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin's Rule.
Satter even testified at US Congress. In 2003 former presidential candidate and influential senator John McCain publicly stated that ‘there is a basis for reliable suspicion that FSB contributed to these attacks’. All other information presented in this article is also public. However, a more serious discussion about the connections between Putin’s regime and international terrorism, which is posing huge threat to US and Europe, still hasn’t started.
Therefore, I would like to go back to where I started this essay -- Grybauskaitė’s public statement that Russia is a terrorist country - as it might raise a question whether the discussion turned the right direction after this statement.
It is complicated to evaluate whether Lithuanian leader did a right thing when she has openly and not too diplomatically addressed this delicate matter while the West is still hesitant to dig deeper into the subject and start discussing or initiating some kind of transnational investigation that would admit or deny this potential threat, and finally put discussions to an end.
Especially now, when this problem is particularly relevant. Not only regarding Russia’s aggression in Ukraine that caused the biggest crisis in relationship between Russia and the West since the cold war. In the context of Putin’s presumable links to international terrorism there is a reason to take a closer look at the two Chechens in the government of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that is considered the biggest threat to the West.
But that’s a topic of another essay.
Marius Laurinavičius is Senior Analyst at the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre
This time I decided to draw attention to a significant role (which was a surprise for many experts) of Chechen terrorists in a battle of Islamic state that has become a main threat to the West. Based on this role, it is not only possible, but vital to examine the potential links between the Islamic state and Russian secret services.
One of the inspiration sources was the article published in ‘The Huffington Post’ called ‘You Can't Understand ISIS If You Don't Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia’. It was written by Alastair Crooke, a famous expert of the Middle East terrorism, a former diplomat and a ranking figure in British intelligence MI-6.
That article is definitely worth reading for all of those who want to understand more about the phenomenon and threats of the Islamic state. And I don’t even consider arguing with the famous expert, especially when I, myself, do not aspire a career of terrorism expert.
However, after long years of exploring Putin’s current regime and it’s KGB roots, I believe that Crooke’s headline can be rephrased like this: ‘Is it really possible to fully understand the phenomenon of the Islamic state without paying attention to the alleged links between Russian secret services and Chechen terrorists?’
Some things are hard to deny
In general, the links between Chechen terrorist and Russian secret services cannot be denied even by those Western experts and commentators who tend to call these links a conspiracy theory.
The fact that the famous Shamil Basayev, Ruslan Gelayev and some others Chechen terrorist commanders began their career not only fighting on the Russian side during the Georgian-Abkhaz war, but were directly trained by the special forces of Russian military intelligence (GRU), was basically never even denied in Russia. The traces of GRU agents were not a secret as well.
Even Yuri Drozdov, the legend of Russian secret services, former KGB General-Major and a longtime chairman of the board at ‘S’, in his interview for fontanka.ru in 2011 publicly admitted that all this information about Basayev was true. According to Drozdov, Basayev was ‘one of the leaders of a special military division’.
Also undenied is the fact that Basayev’s incursion into Dagestan and house bombing afterwards contributed, to say the least, to Putin’s coming to power. The Western world has less and less doubt that this was all a well-executed, although seemingly unthinkable, operation of Russian secret services.
Whether we read Litvinenko's and Felshtinsky’s book ‘FSB blowing up Russia’, David Satter’s ‘Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State’, John Dunlop’s ‘The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin's Rule’, or the especially popular investigation carried out by Karen Dawisha, professor at the Miami University, called ‘Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?’, it is difficult to deny the tons of odd coincidences and inexplicable actions of Russian government. In the meantime, Putin’s regime closed all doors to any kind of investigations, and many people, who were trying to shed some light on these allegations, were murdered or died under very strange circumstances.
What are the roots of Chechen’s Wahhabism?
However, this time the examination should not start from the aforementioned allegations. It is worth following Crooke’s example and examine the history of Wahhabism - not only in Saudi Arabia but in Chechnya and the former USSR in general. Because namely the so-called Chechen Wahhabis are now battling for Islamic terrorists -- they were always the synonym for the term ‘terrorists’ in Russia.
Russian journalist Sanobar Shermatova, who died in 2011, was considered not only a journalist, but also one of the best Russian experts of Middle Asia and Caucasus. After the events in Chechnya and Dagestan in summer 1999 she wrote a serious analytic piece called ‘The so-called Wahhabis’.
In this essay Shermatova digs into Wahhabism roots not only in Chechnya and Dagestan, but also in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kirghizia. She doesn’t tend to any conspiracy theories, and examines various links of ‘the so-called Wahhabis’ - also with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
But the story begins with the protests in Dunshanbe in autumn 1991 that resulted in Tajikistan government allowing the first free elections and registering the Islamic party (not without the help of Moscow’s go-betweens, including Vladimir Putin and Anatolij Sobczak, who is more likely Putin’s comrade rather than a democrat which he is often referred to -- aut. note).
Many authors in Tajikistan itself claim that namely the pressure from Sobczak-led delegation led to Tajikistan’s government decision to register the Islamic party, although it has already been labeled extremists and ‘Wahhabis’ by then.
After emphasising that this Islamic party was merely a ‘branch of USSR Islamic Revival party’, Shermatova continued: ‘Islamic activists played a pretty important role in the opposition. I mean those who were called ‘Wahhabis’ in KGB chronicles. At the time this term was not widely known, and not entirely understood even by those who were called this name. USSR had banned the Islamic literature, and only those few who went to study in Arab countries, had knowledge about Islam history, movements and streams. But these people, as usual, were inspected for their loyalty to KGB, and then included into ‘religious nomenclature’ while constantly being controlled by the special services. Ordinary Muslims were not familiar with Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhabi’s doctrine. In Shermatova’s research and in further investigation of Uzbekistan’s and Kirghizia’s ‘Wahhabis’, KGB traces stretch along the story.
Which theory is more reliable?
Truth is, many other Russian researchers deny any role of the KGB in spreading Wahhabism ideas in the former USSR territory. For example, a famous Russian historian of religion and Islamic researcher Roman Silantyev states that KGB allegedly had no more power to resist this spread. Aleksei Kundryavtsev, associate at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, even claims that the young generation of Islamists turned the Wahhabism direction precisely because the old religious authorities had KGB shadows on them. Other authors elaborate these ideas to a level where it turns out that KGB started to use the name ‘Wahhabis’ on those Muslim activists who were not willing to collaborate with KGB in the first place.
But none of these experts deny that establishing a USSR Islam Revival party was a main element of ‘Wahhabism’ rudiment in the former USSR territory.
In the meantime, Akhmed Zakayev (who then lived in London and was even called the Prime minister of the unrecognised Chechen Republic of Ichkeria), Aslan Maskhadov (former Chechnya’s president) and other so-called representatives of the wing of the secular battle for Chechnya’s independence has long and consistently called many radicals the agents of Russian special services. Zakayev’s attitude towards the aforementioned congress of USSR Islam Revival party in Astrakhan is also unambiguous.
‘When the the founding congress of USSR Islamic Revival party was held in Astrakhan in 1989 (other sources say 1990, so Zakayev might be mistaken - aut. note), KGB undoubtedly knew what they wanted. Just as Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s liberal democrat party, which has been preventing the true Russian liberal democrats from uniting for two decades now, the branches of USSR Islam Revival party, that have taken roots into in Muslim regions of the former USSR, have successfully separated Muslims by dividing them into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. This is how Moscow turned Islamic radicalism into an effective vaccine against various nations’ movements for national liberation’, Zakayev explained in his interview back in 2008.
A lot can be said about KGB’s role in these events from the emerged stories that KGB agents were being infiltrated into democratic movements, and tried to control them (see ‘Putin’s Russia. System’s spine - KGB: who was hiding behind Gorbachev’s and Putin’s backs’). It would have been weird if KGB had treated Islamic movement different than the democratic.
Returning to Shermatova’s idea that the rise of Wahhabism can be viewed both through the prism of Islamic Revival party congress and the events in Tajikistan, it is worth noting that there are at least three different witnesses who claim that KGB had consciously provoked the bloody events in Dushanbe in 1990. Their goal was to prevent the liberation movement in Tajikistan which was based on the examples of Ukraine and the Baltic States.
One of these testimonies was published by the then-officer of Tajikistan KGB - Abdul Nazarov. Another was announced by Kakhar Makhmarov, longtime leader of Tajikistan during Soviet days and the first president of Tajikistan. The third testimony was published by Makhmadali Khait, a former activist of folk movement ‘Rastochez’, now the deputy chairman at Tajikistan Islamic Revival party.
In this context it would be hard to believe that KGB did no longer control the situation regarding the spread of Wahhabism in the former USSR territory, let alone made effort that the congress of Islamic Revival party in Astrakhan went according to their scenario. This leads to thinking that the statements of both Shermatova and Zakayev sound much more logical than those claiming that KGB had no role in creating the aforementioned party and during the rise of Wahhabism.
Chechen terrorists forged in Tajikistan
It is also worth speaking about Tajikistan in the context of Wahhabism history in Chechnya because Basayev, ‘one of the leaders of the special purpose military unit’, went to Tajikistan where the political war had already gained momentum by then, and fought in the opposition side.
It is stated that Basayev was personally familiar with Said Abdul Nuri, the leader of United Tajik opposition and Islamic party. Ostensibly this acquaintance led to Khattab moving to Chechnya and becoming Basayev’s loyal comrade.
Moreover, some experts in Armenia claim that Basayev, just like Chechen terrorists Gelayev and Salman Raduyev, who were always linked to Russian special services, fought for Afghanistan side in another war (before Abkhazia) where the examination of the role of Soviet secret services will probably never be complete - in Nagorno-Karabakh. Namely in Nagorno-Karabakh Basayev allegedly met Khattab who was fighting in the same battlefield.
Telling links to Dugin
However, it is worth returning to the congress of USSR Islamic Revival party in Astrakhan and its main players. Though Akhman-Kadi Akhtayev, a modest Islamic teacher from Dagestan, was elected a leader of the party, the names of other organizers speak for themselves. First of all -- Geydar Dzhemal, the current chairman at the Russian Islam committee, a longtime companion of Alexander Dugin who earned fame during the aggression in Ukraine.
Although Dzhemal is sometimes even referred to as a dissident of Soviet times, and now turned into Putin’s opponent, this figure is worth taking a closer look. Not only because of his longtime friendship with Dugin. Dzhemal is a grandson of a chairman of Azerbaijani USSR supreme court, formerly a high-ranking officer at the Caucasian NKVD. He started his career in 1965 when he entered the Institute of Oriental languages (later renamed the Institute of Asian and African studies). By the way, the famous Zhirinovsky entered the same institute in 1964).
There are many testimonies on what kind of institution it was and how it was related to USSR secret services. But probably the most eloquent is the one published by a famous Russian journalist Yelena Tregubova in her book ‘The tales of a Kremlin digger’.
The journalist quotes Mikhail Margelov, a former chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council of Russia, currently a vice-president of ‘Transneft’. It should be noted that in 1997, when Tregubova published her words, Margelov was only a ‘young PR specialist’
But it is worth noting what he said to journalist’s voice recorder: ‘after my studies at the Institute of Asian and African studies I had two ways - back to KGB or ‘following a party line’. Everything else is only branches of these lines: you can go to APN (press agency ‘Novosti’), to the Ministry of Foreign affairs, and to the ideological department of the Central Committee... Or you end up in the First Chief Directorate (KGB foreign intelligence -- aut. note) in Yesenevo’.
However, the official Dzhemal’s biography says that he was expelled from the institute after his first year of studies - allegedly because of the ‘bourgeois nationalism’. Yet it is inexplicable how he managed to land a job at the publishing house when this type of institutions were carefully protected from any kind of ‘anti-Soviet elements’ during USSR times. Also inexplicable is how Dzhemal and Dugin avoided any serious problems with KGB after practicing ‘underground’ activities, spreading fascist ideas and event creating the ‘Black Order of SS’.
It is also difficult to explain why KGB did not take an interest into the fact that Dzhemal allegedly affiliated with Tajikistan Islamists back in 1979. And in 1980 he traveled to Tajikistan together with Dugin - it could hardly be overlooked by the KGB.
Truth is, Dugin’s case is much clearer. It is known that his father Gelyi Dugin was a general-lieutenant at GRU. In 1990-1992 Dugin himself was granted unprecedented access to the secret KGB archives, despite his alleged underground activities, and he later admitted that his first geopolitical textbook was written under a ‘closed regime in General Staff Academy’. Looks like the invisible hand of GRU protected Dugin during other career steps as well, thus it can be assumed that he had always been a GRU man.
It can explain things that seem inexplicable in Dzhemal’s biography -- it doesn’t matter whether he personally collaborated with GRU or KGB - for those who know USSR reality, the trace of secret services seems highly likely in this case.
By the way, after the spread of Wahhabism in USSR territory Dzhemal had publicly supported the actions of Chechen Wahhabis or even justified terror acts numerous times. However, even under Putin’s regime, he managed to avoid the attention of Russian law enforcement for many years by some miracle.
In summer 2009 Maksim Mishchenko (deputy of the State Duma, founder and leader of the youth movement ‘Young Russia’) made an official address to the Russian prosecutor general’s office regarding Dzhemal’s extremist public announcements. He demanded that the Islamic committee was declared an extremist organization, and Dzhemal was prosecuted. But again - no result.
Dzhemal was inviolable until March 2012 when he could no longer avoid the persecution against Putin’s critics after the end of 2011 and the mass protests in the beginning of 2012. FSB performed a search at his house and allegedly found extremist literature. Nevertheless, although the proceedings were instituted, Dzhemal enjoys freedom and active social lifestyle, unlike other leaders of the ‘Left front’.
A net of KGB agents
Dzhemal’s involvement in creating USSR Islamic Revival party, of course, is not a sufficient evidence of a link between Chechen Wahhabism and Russian secret services. Especially when he can only indirectly be called a supporter of Wahhabism -- at least in public he prefers to be referred to as a representative of Russian Islam in general.
So let’s take look at other famous figures from the congress in Astrakhan. Among them, apart from Basayev and Nuri, is Bagautdin Kebedov, a leader of Dagestan’s Wahhabis and active organizer of Basayev’s intrusion into Caucasus republic.
But the most attention should be drawn to the two Chechens who are considered not just representatives of the radical wing, but ideologists of Wahhabism. One of them -- Adam Deniyev -- was openly called ‘Wahhabi’ back in 1989 by the officers at the Religious board under the Chechnya-Ingush council of ministers. He denied his belonging to this Islam radical movement at the time, but nowadays even the researchers of ‘Wahhabism’ in USSR consider this man one of the first ideologists of Wahhabism in Chechnya.
Apart from the aforementioned titles, Deniyev was also a longtime KGB and FSB agent. At least he was called that by various sources not only in Chechnya but in Russian media.
For example, ‘Nezavisamaya Gazeta’ wrote after Deniyev’s death in 2001: ‘Upon his visit in Baghdad, president Dzhokhar Dudayev informed Iraq’s government about the links between Deniyev (who went to Iraq to study in 1992 after unsuccessful attempts to take roots in Chechnya -- aut. note) and Russian FSB. It was probably the first accusation for Deniyev regarding his connections with special services. Later on these accusations were following him constantly’.
In 2000, after the Russian forces uptake in Chechnya, when Deniyev was appointed the deputy of Akhmad Kadyrov, Chief Mufti of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, gazeta.ru announced that, according to their sources, Deniyev was not only an FSB agent, but would also be executing a special FSB operation in the republic’s government.
Andrei Babitsky, a famous Russian journalist, also called Deniyev an FSB agent and even accused him of kidnapping. Deniyev publicly responded that he had never been related to any special services, but “if he was a KGB agent, he would definitely be proud of that’. Deniyev has never hidden his pro-Russian position, at least after the second Chechen war. It is also known that his brother was a high-ranking officer at Chechen FSB.
There is also enough evidence in Russian media about Supyan Abdullayev (another ideologist of Wahhabism and one of the main initiators of creating a USSR Islamic Revival party) and his links with special services. But in this context it is important to emphasize not the testimonies themselves, but the fact that Abdullayev, according to these evidence, started to collaborate with KGB well before founding the USSR Islam Revival party.
For example, in 1999 (already in the current regime) ‘Moskovskij Komsomolets’ wrote: ‘Abdullayev demonstrated radical views well before the collapse of USSR and organizing the ‘Islam Revival Party’. According to some sources, Abdullayev was recruited by KGB officers back in 1980s’.
Zakayev’s insights worth noting?
So the creation of the party itself should raise serious suspicions about the key role of KGB in these processes - whether we believe Zakayev’s testimony, or not. The rudiment of Wahhabism in Chechnya is apparently also related to the suspected KGB agents.
But now we have to talk not only about historic consequences. Because Abdulayev, until his death in 2011, was the main comrade and ideologist of Dokka Umarov, leader of Caucasian emirate. And namely the role of Umarov and his other companions (also the creators of USSR Islam Revival party) is especially important talking about the current fight of Chechen Wahhabis in the Islamic state.
But first let’s go back to June 4, 2013, when the world spoke very little about the Chechens fighting in Syria. That exact day Zakayev gave a very interesting interview to radio station ‘Radio Svoboda’.
When asked about the rumours that Umarov had passed away, Zakayev put a whole theory that is definitely worth quoting: ‘according to our sources, the information about Umarov’s death is false; he is alive and healthy. The thing is that Russia, its special services and Vladimir Putin are once again preparing a surprise for theirWestern partners who are involved in intense negotiation on Syria’s situation.
Syria witnessed confronting forces who not only fought for Assad (Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad; in 2011 a revolutions against him started in Syria - aut. note) or against Assad: they represent different influence areas -- the Western world that wants to leave Russia without its last foothold in the Middle East, and Russia which understands that losing the influence in Syria means losing influence in the whole Middle East region. Therefore Russia is interested in delaying or overall preventing the process of Assad’s withdrawal. To do so, according to our information, Kremlin made a decision to transfer Umarov to Syria.
And what does Umarov’s show-up in Syria (at the opposition fighting against Assad) really mean? After all, Russia claims that for Assad opposition is not some sort of political forces or state’s population, but merely dregs from all around the world, the so-called Islam radicals who promote the global ideology of Jihad. Can you imagine what position the Western leaders, who made the decision to lift embargo of arms for the opposition, will be put in? Dokka Umarov’s show-up in Syria will become an evidence that the opposition has criminal organizations among its ranks. Moreover, those organizations have been declared terrorist by the UN and various other states.’
A journalist, in his own view, found this version ‘interesting but very extravagant’, so he asked straightforwardly whether such response of Zakayev meant that Umarov was related to Russian special services.
To which Zakayev responded calmly: “We announced it many times. In 2007 Umarov declared war to America, Great Britain and Israel. Before this statement, Dokka was in the radar of Russian secret services, but was released by some miracle, and announced this statement. Umarov is under full command of Russian special services. To this day he was (and will be, I’m sure) performing the tasks assigned to him by these structures. The emerging of his organization in Northern Caucasus complied with Kremlin’s interests because it kind of proved this: Chechnya is not fighting for independence and statehood, but rather for creating a caliphate “from sea to sea”. Russian propaganda was trying to show to the world that the ones fighting in Chechnya are not freedom fighters but radicals who will put all effort to recreate caliphate, and are the enemies of civilized world’.
In this interview Zakayev also stated that “according to our sources, Umarov’s main ideologist and the main author of emirate concept -- Isa Umarov -- is already in Syria. A few days ago he announced that the epicenter of events is namely there, and that all supporters of jihad have to be in Syria.’
Looking back to those weird (at the time) statements from today’s perspective, we can notice that everything basically came true. Umarov, of course, did not show up in Syria, but was murdered after less than a year - in winter or spring in 2014. Meanwhile, Omar al-Shishani (real name Tarkhan Batirashvili), who suddenly rose to power at Islamic state, admits openly that he came to Syria under Umarov’s command.
The rise of Wahhabis provides a lot of pabulum to Russian propaganda and political games. Based on various sources in Syria itself it can be assumed that Umarov certainly is in Syria. And it looks like he is involved in recruiting new terrorists to Islamic state. It was stated by Usman Ferzauli, a self-proclaimed Ichkeria’s minister of foreign affairs, in his interview for Russian newspaper ‘Komersant’ on July 26, 2013.
Wahhabism, Georgian intelligence or GRU?
But let’s take a sharper look at Chechens themselves (their biographies, to be specific) in Islamic state’s government which has been considered the biggest threat to the West lately. Especially in the context of other vague links between Russian regime and Islam terrorists -- both in terms of what was written in this essay, and the historic parallels in my previous essay ‘Putin’s Russia. Will Kremlin get away with this again?’
These two Chechens (originally from Pankisia, Georgia) are the aforementioned al-Shishani and Muslim Abu Walid al Shishani (real name Murad Margoshvili). The two were included into the list of the most wanted terrorists in US.
A famous British journalist and blogger Joana Paraszczuk, who is currently focusing on Chechen battle in Syria, wrote in one of her pieces about the ‘ridiculous conspiracy theory that al-Shishani is actually a KGB agent’.
Since al-Shishani is only 28 year old, this theory might seem ridiculous at first glance. When USSR collapsed and KGB was reorganized into other Russian secret services, the kid was just 5 years old. But it is important to note that these rumours are also circulating among the Chechens who are fighting in Syria. Moreover, the journalist herself thinks that it is vital to publish such rumours, and adds that they are also related to the opinion that Umarov has a strong influence on al-Shishani.
At first glance it seems that other al-Shishani’s biography facts would deny even the slightest possibility that al-Shishani is an agent of Russian secret services. It is widely known that Batirashvili (al-Shishani’s real name) was serving in Georgian army and fighting against Russian aggression in 2008. Some say he was an agent of Georgian special services or at least the special divisions of Georgian army.
But Batirashvili’s biography is worth taking a closer look. Especially interesting details were provided by his father Teimuraz Batirashvili who is an orthodox, not Islamist. He told that until the arrest for illegal possession of weapons his son was not a Wahhabi or Islamist in general. According to father, al-Shishani ended up in Syria not because of religion. He simply wanted to make money.
But the most interesting detail is that Batirashvili apparently started his career not in Georgian army but in Gelayev’s terrorist squad when he was barely 14.
The information calls for serious investigation because Gelayev, who had GRU traces stretched behind him for many years, was hiding in Pankisia at the time, and in 2001 he actually participated in the attack in Abkhazia (which was mentioned by Batirashvili’s dad). But this time Galayev was not on Russian side but allegedly aiming to help Georgia win back Abkhazia.
Gelayev’s attack is best illustrated by Irakli Alasania, former Georgian defence minister, in his interview for Georgian press in 2009. In this interview Alasania openly stated that Gelayev and his squad was a ‘weapon against Georgians in GRU hands’ during the attack in Abkhazia.
Knowing such an eloquent detail of Shishani’s career sunrise, all the aforementioned information about suspicious links between Wahhabis and Russian secret services, Zakayev’s statements in 2013 about the upcoming Chechen role in Syria, and the testimonies of Batirashvili’s father, the theory that this character has suspicious associations (not with KGB but with, say, GRU or FSB) sounds dramatically different. And this possibility should be examined more thoroughly
Terrorist who walked free
Muslim Abu Walid’s biography should raise even more thoughts. When this man was known as Margoshvili, he was arrested for terrorism in Russia, and released after two years.
Simply reading what Russian media wrote in 2003, when Margoshvili was arrested, it seemed obvious that this guy, responsible for deaths of many people, was never to see daylight again. But by some miracle he was first sentenced to two years in prison, and then suddenly acquitted during retrial.
If it wasn’t enough, a strange story happened in courtroom -- FSB officers were allegedly trying to arrest him after the acquittal, however unsuccessfully. According to experts, this can only mean one thing - Margoshvili became (or have already been) an agent of Russian special services.
Not too many consistent coincidences?
By the way, Walid became a headache not only to those worrying about the war in Syria, but to, say, Germany. In the beginning of December, a newspaper ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine’ announced that the diaspora of Chechen natives is radializing, and the biggest contributors are Walid and Shishani who has allegedly become ‘an idol of German Islamists’.
Such information would be yet another reason to examine the real story of Margoshvili - especially knowing KGB traditions to direct their agents towards weakening Western states, the unexpected story of al-Zawahiri’s (Al Qaeda’s leader) potential links to Russian special services, and the fact that many experts finally admit that the Islamic state is a bigger threat to the West than Al Qaeda.
All of this information is in no way an attempt to prove that all Islamic terrorism is directed only by Russian secret services. This is not the case. I perfectly understand that this issue is much more complex.
It would be ignorant to deny various historic facts about the links between Islam terrorists and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Middle East, and the never ending conflicts in these regions. There even is a basis to talk about the current links between some of the Muslim states and terrorism.
There are various attitudes to such theories as the one presented by Drozdov in his interview for ‘fontanka.ru’. Although he admits that Basayev was one of the leaders of a special purpose military unit, he argues that it is merely Russia’s mistake -- the same one USA made regarding bin Laden. KGB general-major had in mind the undenied theory that US supported bin Laden when they provided support to mujahideen during Afghanistan war against USSR.
But there is a basic difference between Muslim or Western states and Russia when it comes to links with terrorism. First of all, if a Western or Muslim state is accused of such links, the story receives media coverage, the facts are examined and researched. However, it seems that Russia is immune to international research or public discussions although the allegations are long-term and consistent. There is no other state (having in mind the undoubtful USSR traditions that Russia might have adopted) that can be suspected for including terrorism in its arsenal and strategies for fighting in international arena.
So I would like to finish this piece not only by encouraging you to reevaluate all these allegation and threats to the Western states. I’d like to remind once again the Preobrazhensky’s warning in 2007:
‘The basic difference between Russia’s and America’s attitude towards Islamic terrorist is that America regards it as an external threat, while Russia employs terrorism as an object and government tool both internally and abroad. Islamic terrorism is only a part of international terrorism. KGB was using terrorism to spread communist regime principles all over the world, and it was well before Islamic terrorism became a global threat.‘
After this quote and all the information presented in this essay, the rhetoric question arises: ‘Doesn’t Putin’s current regime use terrorism cynically to reach the same victories -- both internally and against the West?’
Marius Laurinavičius is senior analyst at the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre