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From criminal to Islamist: US journalist traces the life of a Chechen rebel
July 16, 2003

He rose to the top of Moscow's Chechen mafia in the heady days surrounding the fall of communism, but has now turned from amassing money to striving for an Islamic state in Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya.

The story of Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev -- from violent opportunist to passionate ideologue -- is typical of many Chechen separatists, according to US journalist Paul Khlebnikov, who has released a book on Nukhayev.

After two suicide bombers killed 14 people at a Moscow rock concert this month, President Vladimir Putin said Chechen rebels must be "dug out of their basements and caves" and destroyed.

Yet Nukhayev illustrates another side to the Chechen war -- where university-educated businessmen with ties to Russia's most powerful tycoons also play a part in the drawn-out conflict.

After fighting in Chechnya's first separatist war from 1994 to 1996, Nukhayev is now sheltering in Qatar, developing a radical ideology in line with the one espoused by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, Khlebnikov told journalists Tuesday presenting the release of "Talks with a Barbarian."

While failing to provide direct links between bin Laden and Chechen separatists, Khlebnikov supports Putin's assertion that the Chechen conflict raging since October 1999 belongs to the US-led global "war on terror."

The corruption and chaos that enveloped Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union helped give rise to Chechen "terrorism," Khlebnikov said.

"Terrorism is engendered by a culture of banditism," he said.

"We see how quickly regular organized crime turns into political organized crime and how a regular bandit becomes a terrorist. A society empoisoned by crime and corruption is the best ground for the development of terrorism," he said.

Nukhayev, now 49, began innocently enough, moving to Moscow from Chechnya in 1974 to attend the Russian capital's prestigious MGU university.

By the mid-1980s, he was making his way through the ranks of the Moscow-based Chechen mafia, offering "protection" to businesses and allegedly developing ties to tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who has since exiled himself to London.

Nukhayev says he never worked directly for Berezovsky's vast LogoVaz car dealership: "But people from LogoVaz asked me for help. They asked me for protection and I gave it to them."

Khlebnikov -- whose family fled Russia for the United States during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution -- first made a name for himself in 1996, when Berezovsky sued Forbes for an article entitled "Is He the Godfather of the Kremlin?"

The suit was settled in March. Berezovsky agreed to drop financial claims Forbes while the magazine agreed not to re-publish unconfirmed information about Berezovsky's past, including alleged links to dirty financial dealings and politically-motivated murders.

Khlebnikov stumbled upon Nukhayev in the Azeri capital of Baku in December 2000 while researching information for the suit.

Yet Nukhayev told the journalist that he had left the seedy underworld far behind, turning instead to a religious life that seeks an overthrow of government and a return to clan living.

"The Islamic world is not living correctly today. Everyone is living under a government," Khlebnikov quoted the Chechen as saying.

"When the government falls, chaos will ensue right away. And from this great chaos a new order will arise."

Nukhayev also served briefly as Chechnya's deputy prime minister before the first separatist war erupted.

Khlebnikov says he has not talked with the Chechen ideologue since last year. He attempted to contact him in Baku after a band of Chechen rebels took hostage a theatre in central Moscow in October 2002.

That crisis left 129 civilians dead, in the most brazen attack by Chechen rebels since the second war broke out in October 1999.

They have carried out several major suicide attacks since then, killing around 200 people both in Chechnya and Moscow and violently contradicting Putin's unilateral declaration that the Chechen war is now over.

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