Russia’s most wanted man, Shamil Basayev, was killed in what Chechen rebel groups say was an accidental explosion but the director of Russia’s security service is calling a "special operation." Basayev was a leading figure in the Chechen resistance, which has waged a relentless war against Moscow since declaring its independence from Russia in 1991. He was the mastermind of some of the region’s bloodiest attacks, including the September 2004 Beslan school siege. Andrei Babitsky of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is one of the few journalists to have personally met and interviewed Basayev. He says his death will weaken but not kill the Chechen resistance.
What does Shamil Basayev’s death mean for the Chechen separatist movement?
There are no other figures equal to him in stature, or in the breadth of the operations they undertook. He was a consolidating figure in that he united the Chechen resistance and was responsible for a front of the resistance on which the Chechens placed great hopes, which was to awaken extremist Islamist movements in various other sections of Russia, for example the adjoining sections in the Caucasus like Kabardino-Balkaria.
There is one positive aspect in his death, which is that it reopens the possibility of contact for the Chechens with international organizations and the international community. After [recently slain Chechen rebel leader] Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev appointed Basayev the first deputy premier, many international organizations broke off contact with the Chechens.
How do you think he was killed? By accident, as the Chechens are claiming?
A lot of information has appeared in Russian newspapers showing that he blew himself up by accident. In particular, there was a very detailed article in the newspaper Kommersant with interviews from local police, who were the first to arrive on the scene, and who inspected the scene for four hours before Russian security forces and secret police, the FSB, arrived. The explosion took place late at night, and the FSB arrived only in the morning, so the police who looked at the scene for four hours said that it was an accidental explosion. There’s of course the question that if this was a special operation, why is it that the FSB only arrived so late in the morning after the explosion had taken place?
Do you think it is a coincidence that his death occurred one week before the G8 summit in St. Petersburg?
Yes. I don’t see any real point in why the Russian leadership would want to time the death of Basayev on the eve of the summit. Why should Western leaders care about this Basayev terrorist that [the Russians] can’t catch in the Caucasus?
What about claims that the Chechen rebels were planning an attack to coincide with the summit?
It’s quite possible they would have been planning some sort of terrorist act to draw attention to themselves. Especially in the run-up to the summit, it would have drawn much more attention, and the Chechens always tried to draw attention. And, in particular, the fact that Basayev and his comrades-in-arms were bringing a large quantity of explosives somewhere does indicate they were planning some sort of action.
Is it possible an operation might still be carried out this week?
Yes, now is a time of heightened danger, of course, because the underground [Chechen separatist movement] is still functioning despite the loss of one of its leaders. And it’s quite possible they will try to avenge his death. This is an opportune time for them given the attention that is fixed on the summit.
Do you think Basayev’s death may mark the end of the Chechen resistance?
No, although the Chechen resistance has been fading, and Basayev’s death is a big blow. But it will continue because it’s possible to kill all those who are resisting, but you can’t kill the idea of resistance. Right now I would draw the analogy that the lid is being held very tightly on the pot, but if we look at what happened fifteen years ago when the Soviet Union fell apart, it rapidly emerged that the Chechens were not loyal to the idea of Soviet unity, and they sort of exploded. And those events of fifteen years ago could repeat themselves despite the fact that the lid is quite tightly on the pot now.
So something could set off another large-scale terrorist operation?
Within the framework of the resistance, Basayev was sort of a unique figure because only Basayev was prepared to commit large-scale terrorist acts. And even he came to the conclusion, after Beslan, that they don’t have an effect, and even that the seizure of children as hostages didn’t have an effect. And after Beslan, he didn’t really plan any terrorist attacks in that style. The attacks on Ingushetia and Nalchik, for example, were really aimed at regime targets. So whether or not there will be a terrorist response in the future is hard to see because I find it hard to imagine who else, aside from Basayev, would really plan it among the people in the resistance.
It sounds like there aren’t many Chechen resistance leaders left. Of the original group, only [Doku] Umarov [the current president], and [Movladi]Udugov are still alive. Can Umarov be a rallying point for the movement? Do we know where Udugov is?
As concerns Udugov, he was in the United Arab Emirates, and what you need to bear in mind is that he personally is an ideologist who represents sort of extreme Wahhabism [a radical form of Islam], whereas within Chechnya there is more of a symbiosis of Wahhabism and Sufism [a mystical form of Islam], so you have to take into account the difference. As concerns Umarov’s ability to act as a rallying point, bear in mind that the size of the resistance is not large. It’s a small group of fighters: 1,000; 1,500; 2,000 [fighters]. So they don’t really need a rallying point, perhaps, to operate effectively. But what changes with Basayev’s death is the extent to which the Chechen resistance can act as a support, or rallying point, for other similar-minded groups in the North Caucasus. It seems in the wake of Basayev’s death that this particular aspect of the resistance will perhaps weaken.
We’ve been talking about the reaction on the Chechen side, what has been the reaction in Russia to Basayev’s death?
Well, you know, there’s jubilation. There’s a sense the Chechen resistance has been smashed, that there was a successful special operation, and that the conflict is over. But I don’t really see much point in discussing the Russian reaction. It’s more propaganda than common sense.