The terrorists who ravaged the school and community of Beslan came from a direction startling enough to jolt Russian president Vladimir Putin into taking a hard look at the Islamic terror now rampant outside Chechnya – in at least two additional Caucasian republics.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals that the 32 hostage takers were not Chechens but members of al Qaeda cells, Arabs and natives, known locally as “Wahhabis” (after the austere state religion of Saudi Arabia), from a place whose name is even less recognizable than were the battle arenas of Afghanistan and the Balkans: Nalchik, capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, northwest of North Ossetia.
To reach Beslan, they first transited Ingushetia, which forms a wedge between North Ossetia and Chechnya. There, the terrorist gang was joined by a handful of Ingushe terrorists, along with their Chechen commander, Magomet Yevloev, nicknamed “Magas”. However, Magas did not mastermind the operation. His controller was a Wahhabi, who has not been identified, but whose voice was heard intoning Koranic verses on the videotape broadcast later.
He too came under the orders of the two new chiefs of al Qaeda’s Saudi contingent in Chechnya, who are also known only by their noms de guerre of Abu Hafs and Abu Hajr.
(See maps attached to this article.)
Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria have thus moved into center stage as the coming main arena of the global war on terror. The disclosure by Russian intelligence of the true authors of the Beslen outrage forced the Russian ruler to embark on urgent preparations for a three-front Caucasian war in a region prone historically from Byzantine times to outbreaks of ethnic, religious and clan violence.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s exclusive military and intelligence sources, Putin wasted not a moment. He immediately signed a presidential decree ordering the Russian army to mass enough strength to place Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria under military siege preparatory to going in to re-assert Kremlin control of the two republics and drive the Islamic terrorists out. He has determined to repair the damage exposed by the Beslan terror outrage before it spreads. The first Russian units are beginning to take up positions around the borders of the two republics.
The challenge ahead of the Kremlin is daunting. Military experts doubt whether the Russian army has the manpower resources to shoulder a fresh campaign on top of its commitments to the Chechen war. It is hard to see where Moscow will find the funds for opening two new fronts in the northern Caucasus. However, interestingly enough, Putin’s reaction to Beslan was identical to that of President George W. Bush immediately after the September 11 al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, to hit out at the terrorists and destroy them in their lairs.
The Russian ruler’s compulsion is even greater given that those lairs are inside his own country.
Putin went to great lengths to pin the Beslen school siege on Chechen separatists. (See next article.) However, according to our sources, this outrage was al Qaeda’s free and clear. Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov were not involved. Any Chechen involvement was incidental, by way of contacts with Saudi terrorists maintained by Chechen cells in Ingushetia or minimal logistical assistance.
The existence of Wahhabi terrorist cells in quiet, scenic Kabardino-Balkaria (see end of this article) has claimed little attention from the chroniclers of Islamic terror, even though of late Nalchik has been seeing the sort of street battles familiar to Riyadh. The last shootout between police and wanted “Wahhabis” took place on September 6. One terrorist was killed, the rest escaped.
What brought al Qaeda to the roof of the Caucasus?
The day before, Kabardino-Balkaria’s President Valery Kokov met reporters to voice a hope that, “The hearts of these proud people will not harden, and that the tragedy in Beslan will not cause destabilization of the situation in the North Caucasus.” He stressed that his law enforcement agencies knew the names of about 50 Kabardino-Balkarians, who were members of “Chechen armed rebel groups,” adding “We know who they are and will not allow this handful of people to demoralize a republic of nearly one million. We have everything under control.”
Kokov added that the families of “radical individuals”, clerics and public organizations were involved in terror prevention measures in the republic in addition to law enforcement agencies.
The Kabardino-Balkaria president’s words made little impact on the world media, any more than this remote Caucasian republic rated any mention during the three-day school siege that riveted the world. But great anxiety is plainly betrayed by his words. The way he assures his neighbors in North Ossetia that his own law enforcement agencies can deal with miscreants, whose names they know, sounds suspiciously like a plea not to come in search of revenge but leave it to him to mete out due punishment. Furthermore, the assertion, “We have everything under control” reads as an attempt to ward off outside Russian military intervention.
But Kokov was too late. By the time he spoke, Putin’s military preparations were already in train.
How did an al Qaeda Wahhabi cell come to be planted in Kabardino-Balkaria?
The republic attracted Osama bin Laden’s organization for three reasons:
Most of its inhabitants belong to the Circassian ethnic family and as Muslims are susceptible to Islamic influence. The unrecorded chapter of the Chechen intelligence war of the 1990s relates how the Circassian community of Jordan, which is the security buttress of the Hashemite throne, was used by US, British and French intelligence as a pipeline into the Chechen breakaway movement for close surveillance of its conflict with Russia. Al Qaeda, which tracks and meets every American intelligence move connected with the global war on terror, countered by going into the remote and relatively affluent Kabardino-Balkaria to quietly acquire its own Circassian asset. Since the mid-1990s, therefore al Qaeda has been working discreetly to carve out a niche in the once idyllic Caucasian republic. The town of Beslan was the first to suffer the dire consequences of this penetration.
Al Qaeda further developed its presence in the republic in 2002 when American bases went up in Georgia with a view to offsetting the US military foothold on the region.
To buy operational independence from Chechen chiefs like Maskhadov, whom al Qaeda does not entirely trust. A base in Kabardino-Balkaria also complemented and provided strategic depth for the small Saudi presence in the lawless Pankisi Gorge of the Georgian-Chechen frontier.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Caucasian sources note that these ramifications of the bloody and brutal school siege will need to be carefully weighed not only by Putin and his army chiefs but also in Washington. A Russian military operation will need to be swift and resolute to succeed in regaining control of the two recalcitrant regions and driving the Islamic terrorists out, under whatever name they go. The Russian army will have to marshal every ounce of its strength – air force, artillery, tank and firepower. If Kremlin military planners hold back on firepower and personnel here as they do in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria will slide into the mold set by Pakistan’s Waziristan and other lawless regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al Qaeda are the de facto rulers. Putin will have his work cut out to prevent this happening in the southwestern region of the Russian Federation.
KABARDINO-BALKARIA – A SKETCH
The mountainous Caucasus is home to seven Russian republics, scores of ethnic and religious groups and a turbulent history. The Chechnya stewpot stirred up by al Qaeda-backed fundamentalist terror has boiled over into Ingushetia and threatens Dagestan. Karachai-Cherkessia and Adygeya are still on the sidelines, but largely Orthodox Christian North Ossetia last week became the victim of unparalleled terrorist barbarity emanating from little Kabardino-Balkaria.
Once known as a tiny Garden of Eden next door to strife-torn Chechnya, little Kabardino-Balkaria has a total area of 12,500 sq. km and less than one-million inhabitants, who are traditionally moderate Muslims. It is compensated for its small size by spectacular, richly diverse landscape. Situated on the northern flank of the Great Caucasus Range of southwestern Russia, it boasts towering peaks – the twin-headed Elbrus (18,510 ft = 5.642m), beloved of Pushkin and Lermontov, is the highest in Europe – as well as many glaciers, vast canyons, swift-flowing rivers, blue lakes, alpine meadows and forests and a temperate climate.
Related to the Circassian ethnic group, the native language of the inhabitants is Kabardian, also called Circassian. More than half the population is urban, living in seven towns including Nalchik, the capital. Many are of Cossack descent from the time in 1557 when the Kabardins allied themselves with the Russians. Russian fortresses stand to this day at Terek on the river and Nalchik. The latter was built later when the town was at the center of the 18th and 19th century “Circassian Wars.”
The Balkars of the high mountains resisted the Russian incursion for centuries. In 1922 Kabardin and Balkar were amalgamated. Since 1936, Kabardino-Balkaria has been an autonomous republic. Its immediate neighbors are North Ossetia and Georgia to the south, Karachay Cherkessia to the west, Chechnya to the east and Stavropol of the Russian Federation to the north. It is popular with skiers from all over the world, who flock to Mt. Elbrus and Mt. Dykh Tau. Tourists and winter Olympians may now lodge at the magnificent guest houses once reserved for the Soviet nomenclatura.