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New York Times
December 9, 2001
War on Terror Casts Chechen Conflict in a New Light

URUS-MARTAN, Russia The only road from Georgia into Chechnya worms northward from the Russian border, across the Caucasus Mountains and through Russia's wild Argun River gorge. On a drizzly October day two years ago, Abdul Itslayev was standing beside it, hitchhiking.

It was the start of the Russian Army's assault on rebels in Chechnya, and Mr. Itslayev had come to Itum-Kalye, a village wedged between 7,500-foot peaks, to move relatives out of guerrilla territory that was certain to be a battle zone.

He succeeded, but in unexpected fashion. For instead of the usual sputtering Lada automobile, there appeared on that hopelessly remote dirt path two brawny Mitsubishi four-wheel-drive vehicles driven not by Chechens but by foreigners.

"In my car there were two Brits and an Arab," Mr. Itslayev said in a recent interview. "I asked them why they came here. They said they were coming to help the Chechens."

In fact, the three were coming to join a group of militant Muslims that had established a paramilitary beachhead inside Chechnya. As in Afghanistan, some were outsiders and members of the strict Wahhabi branch of Islam. Their trademarks, as in Afghanistan, were money, fancy sport utility vehicles and a taste for the best weaponry.

In the first months of the Chechen war, witnesses say, up to several thousand militants had seized Urus- Martan, a city of 40,000 just south of Chechnya's capital, Grozny.

Stories like that, Russian officials argue, bolster what the Kremlin has been saying all along: that its two- year-old war in Chechnya is a battle against international terrorism, not a brutal suppression of domestic separatists. It is also the sort of story that Americans and other Westerners shrugged off until the attacks of Sept. 11 forced a reassessment of the spread of terrorism.

Since then, President Bush has challenged Chechen rebels to sever all ties with Osama bin Laden and terrorism. The United States now not only agrees that the war in Chechnya has a terrorist element, but has moved on its own to choke off funds that fuel the conflict, a senior American diplomat said recently.

The size of the terrorist element is unclear, even to people in Urus-Martan, which many call the center of Islamic extremism in Chechnya.

On one hand, the Wahhabi takeover here, like much of the Chechen war, was clearly propelled by outside support. Residents say the Wahhabis also had ties to a notorious training camp that indoctrinated Chechens and foreigners alike in Islamic militancy and military tactics.

There are strong indications that the camp and its leader, a guerrilla from the Middle East known as Khattab, have ties to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Perhaps clearest of all, Chechnya's guerrillas are indisputably financed by a web of Islamic charities, banks and other organizations that have served as cash conduits for terrorist groups.

Still, not even the Kremlin places the current foreign presence in Chechnya at more than 700 fighters. Outside experts say the true figure is more likely about 200, or even fewer, out of several thousand rebels.

Nor has Wahhabism taken root among ordinary Chechens, whose society is bound more by clans and ethnic ties than religion. Many experts see the Chechen conflict less as an Islamic uprising than as a secular gang war against Russian authority, fueled by outside money.

"At no time did the Wahhabi element ever dominate that conflict," said John B. Dunlop, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, who closely follows Chechen issues. "It still should be seen, in my view, as a separatist struggle, like the Basques. To see it as anything else just distorts the evidence."

People in Urus-Martan agree to a point. "Of course not all of them are terrorists, and more so international terrorists," said Lyoma Goisultanov, deputy head of the Russian administration in the Urus-Martan district. "There are many who fought against Russia because they were angry at Russia, because the army destroyed their houses or killed their fathers," he said

"But there also are people whose arms are drenched in blood up to the elbows. They can't return to normal lives because in '98 and '99 they began killing civilian Chechens." In Chechen culture, survivors are honor-bound to exact a blood revenge for a relative's killing.

Gang war or not, Islamic terrorism has a presence in Chechnya.

On Nov. 28, a young woman strapped with explosives blew herself up outside Urus-Martan's military headquarters, killing the commandant and two other men.

The woman's husband, a Wahhabi, died in a mountain battle last year, Russian officials said.

In part, the equivocation about who is fighting the Russian Army in Chechnya reflects the war's own murky nature. The rebellion began in 1991 as a separatist movement by an ethnic group with its own language, traditions and history of oppression. The Chechens won quasi independence in 1996 and promptly descended into vicious feuding among clans and criminal gangs that left the region ungovernable.

Everyone agrees that Islamic extremists stepped into this vacuum.

Led in part by Khattab, who had fought in both Afghanistan and Bosnia, they reignited the war in 1999 by invading Dagestan, another Russian republic to the south, and proclaiming the goal of a fundamentalist Islamic state in southwest Russia.

Russia's Federal Security Service, the normally tight-lipped domestic successor to the K.G.B., has begun a media offensive to convince the West of the terror threat. Last month selected publications were given copies of seized videotapes depicting terrorist training camps once run by Khattab in Urus-Martan and Serzhen- Yurt, some 15 miles to the east.

In an interview, a security service spokesman said foreign terrorists financed 17 such camps in Chechnya from 1996 to 1999 "to train mainly international terrorists" from China, Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe.

He described a six-month regimen in which students learned the ideology of jihad and the honor of dying for a cause, then studied military tactics and terrorist specialties, from bomb-making to undercover finances.

The official said the camps and other rebel activities received as much as $5 million a month in outside money, largely collected by Middle Eastern charities that are terrorist fronts. Crackdowns on terrorists and diversions of cash to Palestinians and Afghanistan have cut the monthly flow to about $2 million, he said.

Local newspapers in Dagestan and elsewhere occasionally report arrests of couriers carrying $20,000, $50,000 and more to Chechen rebels from intermediaries in Azerbaijan or Georgia. Such reports are hard to verify, and Western experts call the Russian estimates exaggerated.

But a cash pipeline does exist: Russian analysts say the Fund of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab group, raises money for rebels under the guise of aid to refugees. And the Al Rashid Trust, a Pakistan charity on the Bush administration's terrorist blacklist, openly pledges to funnel donations to Chechen rebels in case of "a dire need of the mujahedeen."

As for Khattab, persistent if unverified reports link him to Mr. bin Laden. Mr. Dunlop, of the Hoover Institution, said it was likely that outsiders financed his camps.

But as the tale of Urus-Martan suggests, it is less clear that Khattab or the Wahhabis have played more than a supporting role in the latest Chechen war.

Mr. Itslayev, the hitchhiker of two years ago, is deputy editor of the Urus-Martan newspaper Marsho, or Freedom. He said the town's first Wahhabis arrived in 1997 not from abroad, but from Dagestan, Khattab's onetime home.

About 400 strong, they moved into Urus-Martan's Boarding School No. 16, built a mosque and began recruiting young people. "Some of the kids they recruited underwent three months of training in Khattab's camp in Serzhen-Yurt, and some went for six months," he said.

Foreigners arrived only later, both Mr. Itslayev and Urus-Martan's deputy administrator, Mr. Goisultanov, said. "I saw myself Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Arabs, Azeris," Mr. Goisultanov said. "They had the most expensive cars Lincolns, four-wheel drives and the most expensive weapons, which even the Russians didn't have."

The foreigners also had money, handing out $200 and automatic rifles to young Chechens who joined them. By mid-1998, civilian opponents were being murdered. In mid- 1999, the foreign fighters staged a coup: Urus-Martan's militia was replaced by Wahhabis, and the civil court was abolished for a tribunal that adopted Shariah, the legal code of Islam based on the Koran. Girls were shooed from school and women were ordered to wear veils. Alcohol was banned.

The group left Urus-Martan to join the August 1999 invasion of Dagestan, then returned to take power. By late 1999, he said, there were 2,000 Wahhabis; others estimated as many as 7,000. "Only one word would fit here," Mr. Itslayev said. "It was a mob."

When Russian troops stormed into Chechnya, Mr. Goisultanov led a delegation that asked the Wahhabis to leave to save the town from destruction. He said he was jailed in School No. 16.

Yet at the Wahhabis' peak, Mr. Itslayev said, foreigners were a distinct minority, and there were no more than 200 Arabs among the crowd. And when the Russian Army approached that December, they faded without even staging a fight.

A small Wahhabi presence remains in Urus-Martan today, Mr. Itslayev said. But among many citizens, anger has shifted away from the town's past oppressors to the Russian troops who now maintain a chokehold of roadblocks and civilian roundups on the city.

"Two or three people are killed in Urus-Martan every night for the last one or two years," he said. "Innocent people are detained. Many disappear after they are arrested. And with most people, when they're found, they're corpses.

"All the money is coming from abroad, but if the money is gone, there will still be war. That part which is revenging the Russians would continue. And it's a big part of the rebel force very big."

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