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As the continent of Europe resolves to hold one minute’s silence on Tuesday, September 14, in support of the bereaved people of Beslan, anger is mounting in the stricken town. It is directed against two sources, the Kremlin and neighboring Ingoshetia. Why is the government in Moscow lying? they ask, certain that the correct number of school siege deaths is closer to 600 than the 335 officially admitted. And in fact around 200 of the more than 1,200 hostages are missing and 90 bodies removed from the ravaged school lie unclaimed in the Vladikavkaz morgue.
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Furthermore, there is a growing discrepancy between official statements coming from Moscow and survivors’ testimony. While Russian ministers asserted that some of the 32 hostage-takers were Arab, survivors affirm that they spoke fluent Russian. At any rate, the failure of the Russian authorities to confirm their nationalities has left grieving Beslan parents threatening revenge against Ingoshetia. Military checkpoints have closed the North Ossetia-Ingushe border. The suspicions entertained by the Russian Orthodox North Ossetians that their Muslim neighbors were involved in the slaughter of their children will hardly be allayed by the official announcement by President Vladimir Putin of sweeping changes to Russia’s political system to promote the fight against terrorism.
On September 10, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported:
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.
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.
Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria have thus moved into center stage as the coming main arenas 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 has gone to great lengths to pin the Beslen school siege on Chechen separatists. However, according to our sources, this outrage was al Qaeda’s free and clear. Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov were not directly 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 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.
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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 Pankissi Gorge on 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 hold together the southwestern region of the Russian Federation.
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