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The Russia Journal
December 7-13, 2001
West ignored Chechnya’s dealings with bin Laden

Osama bin Laden paid $30 million to ensure that Chechen kidnappers would behead three British telephone engineers and their New Zealand colleague. The four captives had become pawns in bin Laden's enduring quest to create a rift between the Islamic world and the West. No less ominously, their decapitation was part of bin Laden’s desperate efforts to acquire nuclear weapons from former Soviet reserves.

The victims’ severed heads were found in a sack beside a road in Chechnya in December 1998. The British company that employed the engineers had been secretly negotiating with the terrorist gang that was funded by al-Qaida, only to be outbid by bin Laden himself at the eleventh hour.

Just a few days after Darren Hickey, 27, Peter Kennedy, 46, Rudolph Petschi, 42, and Stanley Shaw, 58, were assured of their imminent freedom, bin Laden agreed to pay the Chechen captors more than $30 million for their execution. The payoff included a bonus to ensure that the Chechens would redouble their efforts to purchase or pilfer nuclear material from former Soviet specialists.

It appears bin Laden knew that the kidnappers were dealing with the victims’ employer, Granger Telecom. The company has never revealed details of its negotiations with the kidnappers, but the Chechens claimed the company offered them 7 million pounds (nearly $10 million). A fellow hostage, Adurakhman Adukhov, a government official from neighboring Dagestan, was told by the kidnappers how bin Laden had won the grisly competition.

Adukhov recently told a Russian magazine and the BBC’s Money Program what the kidnappers told him of their connection with al-Qaida. He described how the captives were denied food, once bin Laden had submitted his bid: "The kidnappers took the view why bother wasting food on them when they are about to die."

The leader of the gang was the notorious Chechen warlord, Arbi Barayev, who liked to boast of his links with bin Laden and the Taliban, and who sent fighters to al-Qaida training camps. Adukhov asked Barayev why the men had to die when they had been told they would be freed. Barayev, who had the murders filmed as proof of their commission, said: "Now we'll get $30 million, not $10 million. We are helping the Taliban. Our brothers from the East wanted it to be done." Barayev said his "Arab friends" wanted to cause a rift between Islam and the West.

Imagine bin Laden’s disappointment at the time: $30 million gone and barely any Western concern. But if the West wasn’t especially bothered by the brutal decapitation of Britons, perhaps bin Laden took comfort from the fact that there was equally little attention paid to his efforts to obtain nuclear weapons by way of the Chechens.

Three years later, the incident poses three questions: 1) Did bin Laden have better luck with the acquisition of Soviet nukes than he did with the attention of the Western media? 2) Why wasn’t the West paying attention? Why did it take three years for someone to ask Adukhov? 3) Might lives have been spared if we had paid attention then; might lives be spared if we pay attention now? There is yet no answer to the first question, but that is in part because we weren’t asking it three years ago. So why weren’t we asking then?

For years, the West paid little attention to bin Laden’s operations in Chechnya. This was despite regular claims from Moscow that al-Qaida was connected to Chechen militants, and despite regular warnings from a handful of Western specialists that the Russians were right. Until Sept. 11, most of the scholars and almost all of the media in the West were basking complacently in the past.

In their eyes, Russia was a comfortable and convenient adversary, so any adversary of Russia’s was automatically an object of empathy.

Chechen militants were fighting Russia, so, without much further scrutiny, it was obvious that they were freedom fighters. Few in the West paid much attention when those fighters kidnapped thousands of people in the region in order to finance their operations. When they videotaped the torture of their victims in order to extract exorbitant ransoms, nobody noticed but the victims’ families.

Instead Western media focused largely upon the daily shootout in Chechnya, the destruction of Grozny, and Russian human-rights abuses. While many of these were important stories, virtually no Western journalists or scholars bothered to place them into the larger context of Chechnya's catastrophic years of de facto independence. Reports about Chechnya rarely mentioned the activities of al-Qaida and other radical Islamists, the hostage industry and other forms of organized criminality, or the invasions of Dagestan.

The result was an imbalanced view of the conflict in Chechnya that quickly became a self-legitimating, self-perpetuating mindset. Editors turned their backs on any other point of view and rejected most attempts to present the broader context. Those few scholars who tried to take a balanced approach were subject to peer pressure and personal attacks.

Soon, the climate was such that human-rights organizations found that they could satisfy their constituents by telling only half the story. Much to their credit, groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch interviewed the Chechen refugees who were victims of Russian abuse.

But these organizations discredited themselves when they failed to interview the Dagestani refugees who were victims of Chechen aggression, and the people throughout the region who were victims of the hostage industry. On the same day that the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Mary Robinson, visited a prison in Chechnya, she canceled a meeting with refugees in Dagestan's Novolaksky rayon and sought to return to Moscow directly from Makhachkala. Dagestani officials canceled her flight in hopes that she would meet with them, but she declined. As far as the West was concerned, Dagestanis did not have human rights. They had become invisible.

In the face of one-sided accounts from journalists, scholars, and human-rights organizations, those government officials who lacked much independent insight into this remote region found that there were tangible political benefits from their subscription to the Russaphobic mindset.

By 2000, there was a public push to suspend Russia's membership in the Council of Europe. In April of that year the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe suspended Russia's voting rights. Few Western journalists noticed that just before the suspension of those rights, PACE was addressed by Dagestan's Duma representative, Gadji Makhachev. Makhachev tried to explain that Russia was defending the human rights of the people of Dagestan, but it was difficult to hear him because the representative from Chechnya who was seated in the chamber shouted death threats at Makhachev.

So many were so busy building their careers on the comfortably familiar threats of 1953 that they failed to take note of the ways that the world had turned and given rise to threats of a different nature. The mindset became so pervasive and encompassing that there was no way beyond it, until that morning in September when the bubble burst.

So Sept. 11 came and went before anyone bothered about Adukhov, and before anyone noticed that the situation in the Caucasus went seriously wrong a long time ago. Perhaps the West will wake up in time to inquire whether bin Laden got the rest of what he paid for.

(Robert Bruce Ware is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who conducts fieldwork in the Caucasus.)

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