Yesterday Russia announced a revised military doctrine, signed by President Vladimir Putin, that names NATO as the Kremlin’s main adversary and clarifies that Russia’s military reserves the right to respond to conventional threats with both nuclear and conventional weapons. This is no big change, since it only amplifies existing doctrine, but its explicit emphasis on NATO as the primary threat to Russia’s security has raised Western eyebrows, as intended. Anyone who thought the West, led by the United States, could lay waste to Russia’s economy through sanctions brought about by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, without significant pushback from Moscow, is too naive to deal in such important affairs. The new year promises to be a busy one, with myriad forms of retaliation emanating from Moscow, some possibly very unpleasant, as I recently explained.
My explanation back in March, on the heels of Russia’s theft of Crimea, that we are in Cold War 2.0, whether we like it or not, was dismissed as alarmist by those not well acquainted with Putin and his system, but has been borne out by events over the last nine months. One reason oft-cited by skeptics regarding the state of relations between Russia and the West is the supposed absence of an ideological component to the rivalry, which is a necessary precondition for any reborn Cold War. President Barack Obama has been one of the leading proponents of this hopeful view, stating: “This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations. No global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.”
As I explained back in April, this view is wrong, and has only gotten wronger over the last several months. In fact, Putin should be seen as the leader of what I termed the Anti-WEIRD Coalition, the vanguard of the diverse movement that is opposed to Western post-modernism in its political and social forms -- and particularly to its spread by governments, corporations, NGOs, or the bayonets of the U.S. military. While this should not be seen as any formal alliance, nor is it likely to become one, there exists an agglomeration of countries that are opposed to what the West, and especially America, represent on the world stage, and this was the year that Putin unambiguously took its helm.
What motivates this is a complex question. Putin is a complex character himself, with his worldview being profoundly shaped by his long service as a Soviet secret policeman; he exudes what Russians term Chekism -- conspiracy-based thinking that sees plots abounding and is reflexively anti-Western, with heavy doses of machismo and KGB tough-talk. Hence persistent Western efforts to view Putin as any Western sort of democratic politician, albeit one with a strange affectation for judo and odd bare-chested photo-ops with scary wild animals, invariably miss the mark.
This year ending also saw the mask drop regarding Putin’s ideology beyond his bone-deep Chekism. In his fire-breathing speech to the Duma in March when he announced Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin included not just venerable KGB classics like warnings about the Western Fifth Column and “national traitors,” but also paeans to explicit Russian ethnic nationalism buttressed by Orthodox mysticism, with citations of saints from millennia past. This was the culmination of years of increasingly unsubtle hints from Putin and his inner circle that what ideologically motivates this Kremlin is the KGB cult unified with Russian Orthodoxy. Behind the Chekist sword and shield lurks the Third Rome, forming a potent and, to many Russians, plausible worldview. That this take on the planet and its politics is intensely anti-Western needs to be stated clearly.
But what of Putin’s actual beliefs? This knotty question is, strictly speaking, unanswerable, since only he knows his own soul. Putin’s powerful Chekism is beyond doubt, while many Westerners are skeptical that he is any sort of Orthodox believer. According to his own account, Putin’s father was a militant Communist while his mother was a faithful, if quiet, Orthodox believer; one wonders what holidays were like in the Putin household. He was baptized in secret as a child but was not any sort of engaged believer during his KGB service -- that would have been impossible, not least due to the KGB’s role in persecuting religion -- but by his own account, late in the Soviet period, Putin reconciled his Chekism with his faith by making the sign of the cross over his KGB credentials. By the late 1990’s, Putin was wearing his baptismal cross openly, for all bare-chested photo ops.
The turn to faith in middle-age, after some sort of life crisis, is a staple of conversion and reversion stories. In his last years in power, Saddam Hussein began talking a lot about Islam openly, which was dismissed as political theater in the West, but in retrospect seems to have been at least somewhat sincere. Did Putin opt for Orthodoxy after a mid-life crisis? I am an Orthodox believer myself and, having carefully watched many video clips of Putin in church and at religious events, I can state without reservation that Putin knows what to do. His religious act -- kissing icons, lighting candles, interacting with clerics -- is flawless, so Putin is either a sincere Orthodox or he has devoted serious study to looking and acting like one.
Whether this faith is genuine or a well-honed pose, Putin’s potent fusion of KGB values and Orthodoxy has been building for years, though few Westerners have noticed. Early in Putin’s years in the Kremlin, the younger generation of Federal Security Service (FSB) officers embraced a nascent ideology they termed “the system” (sistema), which was a sort of elitist Chekism -- toughness free of corruption and based in patriotism -- updated for the new 21st century. However, this could have limited appeal to the masses, so its place was gradually taken by a doctrine termed “spiritual security.” This involved the ideological fusion of the FSB and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), culminating in the 2002 dedication of an Orthodox church at the Lubyanka, the FSB -- and former KGB’s -- notorious Moscow headquarters. It suddenly became fashionable for senior FSB officers to have conversion experiences, while “spiritual security” offered Putin’s Russia a way to defend itself against what it has long seen as the encroachment of decadent post-modern Western values. Just how seriously Putin took all this was his statement that Russia’s “spiritual shield” was as important to her security as her nuclear shield.
Nearly all Western experts, being mostly secularists when not atheists, paid no attention to these clear indications of where Putin was taking Russia, while the view of the few who did notice was colored by the perception that this simply had to be a put-up job by the Kremlin. But what if it is not? Skeptics are correct to note that Chekists have had a toxic and convoluted relationship with the ROC ever since Stalin, that failed Orthodox seminarian, resurrected the remnants of the Church, what little had survived vicious Bolshevik persecution, during the darkest days of the Great Patriotic War to buttress the regime with faith and patriotism -- all tightly controlled by the secret police. There was the rub. Under the Soviets, all senior ROC appointments were subject to Chekist review, while nobody became a bishop without the KGB having some kompromat on him. This was understood by all, including the fact that a distressing number of ROC senior clerics were actual KGB agents. It’s not surprising that Putin omits from his CV that he worked for a time in the KGB’s Fifth Directorate, which supervised religious bodies, leading some to speculate that Putin’s relationship with certain ROC bishops extends deep into the late Soviet period.
The ROC is not Russia’s state religion, as Putin and top bishops have been at pains to state, but it cannot be denied that the Moscow Patriarchate’s close ties to the Kremlin grant it a very special relationship with Putinism. Whether this actually is symphonia, meaning the Byzantine-style unity of state and church which is something of an Orthodox ideal, in stark contrast to American notions of separation of church and state, remains to be seen, but Orthodoxy has become the close political and ideological partner of the Kremlin in recent years, a preferred vehicle for explicit anti-Western propaganda.
ROC agitprop, which has Kremlin endorsement, depicts a West that is declining down to its death at the hands of decadence and sin, mired in confused unbelief, bored and failing to even reproduce itself. Patriarch Kirill, head of the church, recently explained that the “main threat” to Russia is “the loss of faith” in the Western style, while ROC spokesmen constantly denounce feminism and the LGBT movement as Satanic creations of the West that aim to destroy faith, family, and nation. It is in this context that Putin’s comments at last year’s Valdai Club event ought to be seen:
Another serious challenge to Russia’s identity is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.
The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote pedophilia. People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation. And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.
This week the ideological ante was upped by the Kremlin with the comments of Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, a media gadfly cleric, who gave a very long newspaper interview in which he castigated, among other things, radical Islam, usury, and the West generally, but it was his comments on the current conflict with America that got all the attention. Chaplin minced no words, proclaiming that Russia’s God-given goal today is halting the global “American project.” As he explained:
It is no coincidence that we have often, at the price of our own lives … stopped all global projects that disagreed with our conscience, with our vision of history and, I would say, with God’s own truth .. Such was Napoleon’s project, such was Hitler’s project. We will stop the American project too.”
Chaplin added the usual tropes about Western decadence compared to Russian spiritual strength, waxing nationalist and Orthodox in a manner much like Putin has done many times. This interview was viewed as strange by most Westerners, but it must be realized that Chaplin, for all his inflammatory statements, is hardly some lone cleric talking crazy. He is the official spokesman of the Moscow Patriarchate who has a very close relationship with Patriarch Kirill; he appears in the media regularly and has received a raft of decorations from the ROC and the Russian state.
The forty-six year old Chaplin regularly makes statements that reflect a patriotic and religiously hardline stance on, well, everything. To cite only a few of his utterances to the media, Chaplin recently denounced a Hobbit movie promotion in Moscow as a Satanic symbol that would bring evil to the city; he stated that the Pussy Riot case was proof that “The West gives its support to divide the people of Russia”; he advocated a national dress code for Russia, citing rising immorality (“It is wrong to think that women should decide themselves what they can wear in public places or at work … If a woman dresses like a prostitute, her colleagues must have the right to tell her that.”); and he has been particularly vocal in his opposition to Western-backed homosexuality: “it is one of the gravest sins because it changes people’s mental state, makes the creation of a normal family impossible, and corrupts the younger generation. By the way, it is no accident that the propaganda of this sin is targeted at young people and sometimes at children. It deprives people of eternal bliss.”
Chaplin’s biggest theme is that the decadent, post-modern West, led by the frankly Satanic United States -- whose separation of church and state, per Chaplin, constitutes “a monstrous phenomenon that has occurred only in Western civilization and will kill the West, both politically and morally” -- has no future. According to the ROC, speaking through its spokesman, the triumph of same-sex marriage means that the West doesn’t even have fifty years left before its collapse, and it will be up to Russia then to save what can be saved, to “make Europe Christian again, that is, go back to the ideals that once made Europe.”
While it is tempting to dismiss such talk as ravings, even when they come from the official spokesman of Putin’s own church, they have deep resonance with more serious thinkers whom Putin admires. Ivan Ilyin, a Russian philosopher who fled the Bolsheviks and died in Swiss exile, was reburied at Moscow’s famous Donskoy monastery in 2005 with public fanfare; Putin personally paid for Ilyin’s new headstone. Despite the fact that even Kremlin outlets note the importance of Ilyin to Putin’s worldview, not enough Westerners have paid attention.
They should. A devout Orthodox, Ilyin espoused a unique vision, a Slavophile take on modernity and Russia’s predicament under the militant atheists. He espoused ethnic-religious neo-traditionalism, amidst much talk about a unique “Russian soul.” Of greatest relevance today, he believed that Russia would recover from the Bolshevik nightmare and rediscover itself, first spiritually then politically, thereby saving the world. Ilyin’s take on responsibility for Bolshevism -- and its cure -- merits examination, as he explained:
The West exported this anti-Christian virus to Russia … Having lost our bond with God and the Christian Tradition, mankind has been morally blinded, gripped by materialism, irrationalism and nihilism … In order to overcome the global moral crisis, we have to return to eternal moral values, that is faith, love, freedom, conscience, family, motherland and nation, but above all faith and love.
Although Ilyin died sixty years ago, he remains to his admirers “the prophet of the new Orthodox Russia which is being born and which alone can give the contemporary world a viable future, providing that it is given time to grow to fruition in contemporary Russia.” As Ilyin wrote to a friend near the end of his life, when the fall of Communism was still decades off:
What are we to do, squeezed between Catholics, Freemasons and Bolsheviks? I answer: Stand firm, standing up with your left hand, which goes from the heart, for Christ the Lord, for His undivided tunic, and, with your right hand, fight to the end for Orthodoxy and Orthodox Russia. And, above all, vigilantly watch those groups which are preparing for Antichrist. All of this -- even if we are threatened by apparent complete powerlessness and total solitude.
The sort of uncompromising faith Ilyin stood for, which bears little similarity to Western Christianity much less to post-modern notions of “tolerance,” is made abundantly clear in his numerous writings and speeches. Of particular interest is a speech Ilyin gave in 1925, extolling Lavr Kornilov, a White Russian general who fell in the struggle against Bolshevism (and, not coincidentally, exactly the sort of Orthodox-believing yet non-noble White counter-revolutionary figure much admired by Putin). Ilyin defined what Russia and Orthodoxy now needed: “This idea is more than a single man, more than a feat of one hero. This idea is great as Russia and the sacred as her religion. This is the idea of the Orthodox sword.” He cited the fatal shortcomings of pre-revolutionary Russia as “limp sentimentality, spiritual nihilism and moral pedantry,” and to counter those Russia needed a strong dose of fighting faith. As Ilyin explained:
In calling to love our enemies, Christ had in mind personal enemies of man, not God’s enemies, and not blaspheming molesters, for them drowning with a millstone around their neck was recommended. Urging to forgive injuries, Christ was referring to personal insults to a person, not all possible crimes; no one has the right to forgive the offenses suffered by others or provide for the villains to offend the weak, corrupt children, desecrate churches and destroy the Fatherland. So therefore a Christian is called not only to forgive offenses, but to fight the enemies of God’s work on earth. The evangelical commandment of “non-resistance to evil” teaches humility and generosity in personal matters, and not limpness of will, not cowardice, not treachery and not obedience to evildoers.
This is the vision -- uncompromising faith and patriotism, without any sentimentality or weakness -- that animates Russia’s holy warriors today, from Fr. Chaplin, and perhaps Vladimir Putin too, on down. Russian Orthodoxy’s church militant is a special breed that tends to mystify Westerners. Certainly the West finds the motley crew of Kremlin-backed Orthodox adventurers and mercenaries battling in the Donbass to be equal parts comical and sinister, yet they have an ideology which they hardly hide. As an Orthodox priest ministering to Russian fighters in Donetsk explained a few months ago -- a bearded cleric and tough veteran of the Soviet Afghan war, he is a creature straight out of Ilyin’s dreams -- what they are battling against is not the Ukrainian government, nor American neoconservatives, rather the Devil himself. The goal of Moscow’s enemy, as he elaborated, is perfectly clear to the eyes of faith:
The establishment of planetary Satanic rule. What’s occurring here is the very beginning of a global war. Not for resources or territory, that’s secondary. This is a war for the destruction of true Christianity, Orthodoxy. The worldview of the wealthiest men who own almost all the material goods in the world is Satanism. Having summoned the elements of the First and Second World Wars and a Third Information War, and having laid hundreds of millions of the slain at the altar of their father, Satan, they have initiated the Fourth World War. They are intentionally hastening the reign of Antichrist.
As with Vsevolod Chaplin, it’s tempting to dismiss all this as the ravings of a lone nut, but these are no longer fringe views in Putin’s Russia. Jihad is not a word to be used lightly, given its sinister connotations to the West after 9/11, but this bears more than a little resemblance to Holy War in a Russian and Orthodox variant. Whether Putin really believes all this may be immaterial, since his regime has created and nurtured a virulent ideology, an explosive amalgam of xenophobia, Chekism and militant Orthodoxy which justifies the Kremlin’s actions and explains why the West must be opposed at all costs. Given the economic crisis that Russia now finds itself in, thanks to Western sanctions, during the long and cold winter now starting, we ought to expect more, not fewer, Russians turning to this worldview which resonates with their nation’s history and explains the root of their suffering.
We perhaps should be grateful that the Orthodox Jihad rejects suicide bombings. In the 1930’s, Romania’s fascist Legionary Movement, led by the charismatic Orthodox revolutionary Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, toyed with what terrorism mavens today might term “martyrdom operations,” but these never really caught on. Orthodoxy frowns on suicide, even in a just cause. That, at least, is the good news.
The bad news, however, is that Putin’s uncompromising worldview has more than a few admirers in the West, far beyond the Orthodox realm. Many who reject Moscow’s quasi-religious mysticism nevertheless admire its willingness to take on America directly and offer a counterpoint to armed post-modernism in world affairs. As I’ve previously explained, many European far-right parties have quite a crush on the man in the Kremlin, perhaps due to the money he gives them, but the sincerity of some of the admiration is not in question. In France, Marine Le Pen is leading her National Front to ever-greater heights of political power, and her affection for Putin is unconcealed. “In Russia today there is a mix of exalting nationalism, exalting the church and Christian values,” explained a French politico: “They are now replacing the red star with the cross, and they are representing themselves as the ultimate barrier against the Islamization of the continent.” Since it is far from impossible that Le Pen will be president of France someday, the implications of all this for NATO and the West merit serious consideration.
It would be supremely ironic if the last defender of Europe and European values comes from the East, from a Kremlin controlled by a former KGB officer who mourns the collapse of the Soviet Union yet has rediscovered traditional faith and family values. As discontentment with American-led Europe spreads, the Russian option may look plausible to more Europeans, worried about immigration, identity, and the collapse of their values and economies, than Americans might imagine. Ivan Ilyin, however, might not be surprised by this strange turn of events in the slightest.
[Note: This is an unusually controversial piece, even for my blog, for reasons that will quickly become obvious. Linkages between Al-Qa’ida and Russian intelligence have been discussed in hushed tones among spies in many countries, for years, and this matter has been a “hobby file” of mine for some time. Here is a think-piece on it, in the hope of spurring additional discussion and research into this important yet murky matter. This is particularly necessary given rising tensions between Moscow and the West at present. Considering the subject, I have eschewed my usual hyperlinks in favor of proper end-notes.]
“There are two histories: The official history, mendacious, which is given to us; and the secret history, where you find the real causes of events, a shameful history.”
-- Honoré de Balzac
The history of al-Qa’ida has been extensively documented in many languages. Since the 9/11 attacks on the United States, massive research has been devoted to uncovering the origins of the global jihad movement, its strategies, concepts of operations, and ultimate aspirations. Such works have been assisted by the willingness of al-Qa’ida to talk openly about some parts of its narrative. While many aspects of al-Qa’ida’s almost thirty-year history have been examined in impressive detail, other parts of the story remain shrouded in mystery. In some cases, gaps are caused by a lack of information available to analysts and researchers. However, other underreported stories in the development of the global jihad movement remain untold, or unexplained, by apparent design.
No greater example exists of this “blank page” in the al-Qa’ida story than its connections to foreign intelligence services. While it is generally known that bin Laden’s legionaries have fostered ties, at times, with secret services as varied as the Saudi, Pakistani, Sudanese, Iranian, Iraqi, and Bosnian, few details have emerged, thanks to the desire on all sides to keep the saga out of the media spotlight. The murkiest of these relations, however, has been the connection between al-Qa’ida and Russian intelligence. While the outlines of the story have been known for years, and even admitted by Moscow and the mujahidin, details remain elusive. Moreover, asking important questions about this relationship seems to be an issue few appear interested in probing deeply, even in the United States.
That Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s right-hand man and the leader of the global jihad movement since bin Laden’s death in May 2011, spent almost a half-year in the mid-1990s in the custody of Russian intelligence is admitted by both sides and is a matter of public record. Just as significant, Zawahiri’s Russian sojourn occurred at a pivotal point in the development of al-Qa’ida; the shift in strategy, resulting in attacks on the “far enemy” (i.e. the United States), the road leading to 9/11, occurred after Zawahiri’s imprisonment by the Russians.
The outline of the story is clear. At about 4 am on December 1, 1996, Zawahiri was detained in southern Russia while attempting to enter Chechnya, the breakaway province of Moscow recently roiled by war. Accompanying the doctor in the van were two other radicals from Egypt and a Chechen guide. The Egyptians, wanted men in their home country and several others, were traveling under aliases; Zawahiri was “Abdullah Imam Mohammed Amin,” according to the Sudanese passport he carried, which had stamps from many countries – among them Yemen, Malaysia, Singapore – he had visited in the 20 months before his arrest.
Zawahiri’s two Egyptian companions were veteran mujahidin from Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), the group Zawahiri had been associated with for years and had headed since 1993. Ahmad Salama Mabruk ran EIJ’s activities in Azerbaijan under the cover of a trading firm called Bavari-C, while Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi had extensive experience on jihad in parts of Asia.
The three Arabs were extensively interrogated by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), which noted the inmates’ religious fervor, and the surprising support they received from Islamic organizations around the Muslim world. Twenty-six imams signed an appeal for the release of the three “businessmen”; others denounced Russian authorities of doing “the devil’s work” by detaining the hard-praying Muslims.
The FSB had ample reason to doubt the Arabs’ cover story. Among the items confiscated from the trio included details about bank accounts in Hong Kong, mainland China, Malaysia, and the U.S. (specifically St. Louis), plus substantial cash in seven currencies. Their laptop computer was seized and subjected to forensic analysis by the FSB. “Mr. Amin,” whose Sudanese passport depicted a Western-dressed middle-aged man with a very short beard, arrived in Russia possessing two forged graduation certificates from Cairo University’s medical faculty, with differing dates. FSB investigation of Bavari-C, the EIJ front company in Baku, quickly determined that no such firm existed in Azerbaijan.
Radical Muslims in Russia, including one member of the Duma, pleaded for their release, explaining that the Arabs had come to Russia to “study the market for food trade.” Various activists from across the region likewise wrote letters on the men’s behalf, claiming they embodied “honesty and decency”; the advocates included leading Arab mujahidin, among them Tharwat Salah Shehata, later head of EIJ. When Shehata got permission to visit “Mr. Amin” in his prison cell, he was given an encrypted letter by the inmate; after the visit, the FSB claimed to have found $3,000 in the cell occupied by the Arabs.
When the case finally went to court in April 1997, “Mr. Amin” prayed hard and lied effectively, claiming that he had entered Russia “to find out the price for leather, medicine, and other goods.” Rejecting the prosecution’s request for a three-year sentence, the judge gave them six months each; almost immediately they were released, time served. The FSB returned the men their possessions, including the cash, communications gear, and the laptop. After their release, Zawahiri spent ten days clandestinely meeting with Islamists in Dagestan, which presumably had been the original purpose of his trip to the region. Shortly thereafter, he headed for Afghanistan to establish his fateful alliance with bin Laden, which was cemented in the mid-February 1998 announcement of a new partnership between the men and their organizations in a Global Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. Thus was al-Qa’ida officially born and the path to 9/11 was established.
Zawahiri has been tight-lipped about his half-year in Russia; his numerous writings and pronouncements about his life barely mention the tale. “God blinded them to our identities,” he explained. The FSB agrees that they failed to identify the leading holy warrior. “In 1997, Russian special services were not aware of al-Zawahiri,” elaborated an FSB spokesman in 2003: “However, later, using various databases, we managed to identify this former detainee.”
There are many reasons to doubt the official story told by both sides in the affair. In the first place, Zawahiri was one of the world’s most wanted terrorists in 1996, having played a leading role in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981; the doctor’s role in the subsequent public trial was televised in many countries. He was hardly a secret mujahid. Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that a security service as proficient and thorough as the FSB did not have its interest piqued by the appearance of three Arab mystery men, bearing multiple identities and cash, in the middle of a warzone. It is equally difficult to accept that the FSB was unable to uncover the mysteries contained in Zawahiri’s laptop – as the Americans would do after many such laptops belonging to al-Qa’ida leadership were captured in Afghanistan after 9/11 – had the Russians really wanted to. Last, it can be assumed that the FSB would have tortured the Arabs to obtain information, had that been deemed necessary; and Zawahiri’s breaking by the Egyptian security service through torture in the 1980s is a matter of public record, and a subject of some remorse by the al-Qa’ida leader.
What, then, is to be made of Dr. Zawahiri’s Russian sojourn? Few have bothered to ask the question in any detail. While some conspiracy theorists have touched the issue, they have shed little light on the real story. While the idea that Russian intelligence may have developed a relationship with Zawahiri sounds fantastic to most in the West, the notion is far from implausible, and is consistent with known Soviet/Russian espionage practices. During the Cold War, the KGB had robust ties with many terrorist groups, including several from the Middle East. Its links to the PLO, including arms and training for cadres, were substantial for decades, while Palestinian groups like PFLP-GC were, in effect, wholly owned subsidiaries of the KGB. It would be naïve to think such ties evaporated with the Soviet Union.
Moreover, anyone acquainted with the Russian practice of provokatsiya (provocation) as Moscow’s preferred counterterrorism technique, finds the idea of a Russian relationship with al-Qa’ida to be entirely plausible. Indeed, such is the easiest explanation for Zawahiri’s six months in Russian custody and sudden release back to wage jihad.
Hard evidence about what Zawahiri was doing in Russian custody has not been forthcoming. Dissident FSB Colonel Aleksandr Litvinenko made explosive claims. In a 2005 interview, Litvinenko asserted that Zawahiri actually underwent training by the FSB in Dagestan during his half-year in Russian custody, and that Russian intelligence then dispatched him to Afghanistan to become bin Laden’s right-hand man. “I worked in the same division [of the FSB],” he stated, “I have grounds to assert that al-Zawahiri is not the only link between the FSB and al-Qa’ida.”
Litvinenko’s assertions are impossible to substantiate, though his assassination in London a little over a year after giving that interview, apparently at the hands of Russian intelligence, gives the claims perhaps more believability than they might otherwise warrant. Just as important, it is known that Russian intelligence had ties to Islamist extremists in Chechnya long before Zawahiri entered the region. From the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian intelligence formed discreet ties with radical Islamists in the Caucasus, including men who would later become leading mujahidin.
In perhaps the best example, Shamil Basayev, the long-serving emir of the mujahidin in Chechnya, was an agent of Russian military intelligence (GRU) in the 1990s. In 1992-93, he and his brother Shirvani fought in Abkhazia against Georgian forces, leading fighters as surrogates for Moscow’s policies in the breakaway region. Although Basayev was for many years Russia’s most wanted man and alleged to be behind dozens of terrorist attacks on Russian soil, his collaboration with Russian intelligence has long been something of an open secret. Not long before Basayev’s death in July 2006, apparently at the hands of the FSB, a GRU officer cryptically noted to the media, “We know everything about him.”
Secular elements of the Chechen independence movement have long alleged collaboration between Moscow and the mujahidin, with the aim of discrediting the nationalist cause by tarring it with extremism and terrorism. Moderate imams in Chechnya have been reluctant to have ties to more radical Muslims, fearing them to be Russian agents provocateurs. Collusion between radical Islamists and Russian special services in the Caucasus would be fully consistent with traditional Soviet/Russian counterterrorism techniques; it also adds a very different dimension to understanding the Chechen wars of the last fifteen years, and their links to the global jihad.
The mujahidin-led invasion of Dagestan in August 1999 in brigade strength that helped trigger the Second Chechen War was led by Shamil Basayev. Moscow publicly blamed “Al-Qa’ida-Wahhabite aggression” for that event, using it as justification to restart the war on terms more favorable to Moscow. But what, then, is to be made of Basayev, who has been memorably described as “a GRU staff member with a great deal of work experience?” The other direct cause of the Second Chechen War, the bloody apartment bombings around Moscow in August 1999 that killed over 300 civilians, likewise remain shrouded in mystery. Basayev was blamed for those atrocities, too, but what really happened continues to be hotly controversial. The case for some FSB involvement in the bombings, always strong, has grown stronger over the past decade, yet remains a highly taboo topic in Russia.
What, then, can we conclude about al-Qa’ida’s murky Russian connection? Unsurprisingly, Dr. Zawahiri has had little to say about his half-year adventure with the FSB. He has often criticized Russia and its policies, sometimes in vehement terms. Yet he speaks of Iran with equal venom, and al-Qa’ida’s discreet yet detectable relationship with Iranian intelligence goes back to at least 1996, and apparently continues to the present day.
His two Egyptian cellmates aren’t available to add details. Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi stayed in the Caucasus, was convicted in Egypt in 1998 on terrorism charges in absentia, receiving a ten year sentence, and was reportedly killed in action in Chechnya in 2005. Ahmad Salama Mabruk was arrested in Azerbaijan in 1998 on terrorism charges, and was extradited to Egypt, where he was convicted on numerous charges and sent to prison. The FSB, to no one’s surprise, has said nothing publicly about this case except for a brief press release in 2003.
It is fanciful to suggest that any formal alliance exists between Moscow and al-Qa’ida; bin Laden’s mujahidin have worked with several foreign security agencies in the service of the jihad, but have never been willing to put themselves fully at the disposal of any of them. Nevertheless, it seems justified, based on the available evidence, to suggest that Dr. Zawahiri reached a quid pro quo with Moscow while he was in FSB custody. That he underwent FSB training appears plausible; that there may be some kind of relationship even today between Russia and al-Qa’ida exists within the realm of possibility. Russia, with its large, growing, and potentially restless Muslim minority, would have ample motivation to reach terms with al-Qa’ida, in the hope of stemming radicalism.
Might Moscow have suggested that it would look the other way about al-Qa’ida’s activities in Chechnya as long as bin Laden and Zawahiri left Russia alone otherwise? It surely appears significant that Zawahiri led bin Laden down the path of global jihad, and direct confrontation with the United States, after emerging from his half-year as a guest of the FSB. As President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly made clear, a unipolar, American-led global system is not in Russia’s interests. To this day, Russia has endured many attacks by Chechen militants, but no confirmed acts of terrorism perpetrated by al-Qa’ida Central. This vexing issue continues to offer more questions than answers, and needs additional research, particularly considering the state of relations between Moscow and the West.
 For a detailed example based on research of what al-Qa’ida thinks about these issues, see this author’s The Terrorist Perspectives Project: Strategic and Operational Views of al-Qa’ida (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2008), co-authored with Mark Stout and Jessica Huckabey.
 The most information is available about the robust ties between al-Qa’ida and Bosnian intelligence, with Iranian assistance, in the 1990s; see this author’s Unholy Terror: Bosnia, al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad (Zenith Press, 2007).
 Agentsvo Voyennykh Novostey (Moscow), 23 Apr 2003.
 The most detailed account is an article by Andrew Higgins and Alan Cullison, “A Terrorist’s Odyssey,” The Wall Street Journal, 2 Jul 2002. For a Russian perspective see the article by Yuriy Tyssovskiy, “Bin Laden nomer 2 sdelalo vremya v nashykh tyur’makh,” in the weekly newspaper Vek (Moscow), Vol.22, 12 Jul 2002.
 Agentsvo Voyennykh Novostey (Moscow), 23 Apr 2003.
 An exception is Evgenii Novikov, “A Russian Agent at the Right Hand of bin Laden?” Terrorism Monitor (Jamestown Foundation), Vol.2, No.1, 15 Jan 2004, which provides more questions than answers.
 For examples see the articles by Michel Elbaz of Axis Information and Analysis (axisglobe.com), specifically “Russian Secret Services’ Links with Al-Qaeda” (18 Jul 2005), and “Russian Secrets of Al-Qaeda’s Number Two” (19 Jul 2005).
 Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich, “Drogi terroryzmu – Kto wspiera napastnicy?,” Rzeczpospolita (Warsaw), 16 Jul 2005.
 See Alex Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko, Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB (Free Press, 2007).
 Patrick Cockburn, “Russia ‘planned Chechen war before bombings’,” The Independent (London), 29 Jan 2000.
 Svetlana Meteleva, “Chechnya: my mozhem ubit’ Basayeva, no nikto ne dolzhen,” Moskovskiy Komsolmolets (Moscow), 21 Mar 2005.
 For a detailed examination of this viewpoint see the declaration of Chechenpress, 10 Jul 2009, available in both Russian and English at chechenpress.info.
 This murky relationship is explained well by Boris Kagarlitskiy, “My ne govorim, chtoby terroristy, no my pomoch’ im?” Novaya Gazeta (Moscow), 23 Jan 2000.
 The best case for the “FSB did it” hypothesis remains David Satter, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 24-33. In September 2009, GQ magazine refused to run in its Russian edition an article by investigative journalist Scott Anderson entitled “Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power,” which added details to the FSB role in the 1999 apartment bombings, based on testimony by Mikhail Trepashin, a former KGB/FSB officer – see David Folkenflik, “Why GQ Doesn’t Want Russians to Read its Story,” National Public Radio (npr.org), 4 Sep 2009.
 “Death of Senior EIJ Member Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi Reported in the Caucasus,” 17 Apr 2005, at globalterroralert.com.
 “Razvedyvatel’naya sluzhba bor’by protiv Islamskovo dzhikhada,” Ekho (Baku), 13 Oct 2001.
 Efforts to depict such an “alliance” are overstated, e.g. Konstantin Preobazhensky, “Russia and Islam are not separate: Why Russia backs al-Qaeda,” Intel Analyses, 31 Aug 2007.