A new terror-war front: the Caucasus

Russia and Georgia may attack Al Qaeda in a mountain hideaway.

The next flash point in the global war on terrorism could be the Pankisi Gorge, a lawless area in Georgia that abuts rebel Chechnya. In this remote pass, US and Russian officials say Al Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan - possibly even Osama bin Laden - have taken refuge.

Early this month, the US chargé d'affaires in Georgia, Philip Remler, told a local newspaper that dozens of Arab terrorists "connected with bin Laden" are holed up among some 7,000 Chechen refugees in the gorge. In the past week, there has been talk of a joint Georgian-Russian military action in the gorge.

For the Kremlin, Mr. Remler's comments are clear evidence that the United States has finally accepted Russia's long-standing claim that the Chechen rebellion, which spills over into neighboring Caucasus republics, is not just a local independence movement, but has become a full-blown subsidiary of the global Islamic terror network headed by Mr. bin Laden.

Though Afghanistan has been largely shut down by the US-led military campaign, areas controlled by the Chechen rebels - like the Pankisi Gorge - are still open for operations, the Russians say.

According to Russian security officials, there are between 600 and 1,500 hard-core foreign fighters still in Chechnya, funded and armed by Al Qaeda and other groups through the same shadowy channels that prepared the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Before Russian forces invaded and occupied Chechnya in 1999, there were 15 terror-training camps in Chechnya, using the same instructors and textbooks that US forces have found in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, the Russian officials say.

"We are talking about an international network that shares the same sources of funding, political support, weapons, training, and ideology, operating in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and many other places," says Sergei Ignatchenko, deputy chief spokesman of Russia's FSB security service, the domestic successor of the Soviet KGB, which oversees Moscow's counterinsurgency operation in Chechnya. "These are not nationalists or independence-seekers. They are disciplined international terrorists, united by a single aim: to seize power and bring in a new world order based on sharia [Islamic] law."

Critics say the Kremlin is exaggerating the extent of cooperation between Chechen rebels and outside militant forces - and is also ignoring Moscow's own role in destabilizing Chechnya in the mid-1990s.

Chechnya, a culturally Muslim republic of about 1 million in the oil-rich North Caucasus, declared independence as the USSR was breaking up in 1991. Russian troops invaded in 1994, and the subsequent 20-month war killed an estimated 80,000 people and destroyed most of the republic's infrastructure. Russian forces withdrew in 1996, after being defeated by Chechen irregulars.

Just before the war's end, Russian special forces assassinated the father of Chechen independence, Dzhokar Dudayev, with a special missile that homed in on his satellite phone. "Dudayev was a secular nationalist, and the Chechen independence movement had no Islamic dimension at all," says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the independent Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow. "The penetration of outside money and (Islamic) ideology occurred later, and to some extent was an inevitable consequence of Chechnya's deterioration. But the Chechen rebellion remains, at its heart, a secessionist struggle. It therefore needs a political solution, not a military one."

Some other Russian experts argue that, whatever the wrongs of the past, the situation in Chechnya and adjoining regions has now become a threat to global security that must be firmly dealt with. "We warned the West for years that a new kind of terrorism was brewing in Central Asia and Chechnya and preparing to strike out at the world," says Grigory Bondarevsky, a top Russian expert and government adviser on Islamic movements. "They are well-funded, highly disciplined, and under tight central control. Borders mean nothing to them. It took the tragedy of Sept.11 to make the Americans understand what we were talking about."

Mr. Ignatchenko declines to discuss the 200-year history of Russian-Chechen warfare. But he insists that after Russian troops were forced to withdraw in 1996, the little republic spiraled into lawlessness.

Chechen warlords, including the Arab-born al-Khattab, began to integrate their private armies with the global Islamic terror network, according to the FSB. In the summer of 1999 forces under al-Khattab and another leader, Shamil Basayev, invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan. That same year a wave of terror bombings killed 300 Russians, and in October 1999 Russia again invaded Chechnya. The FSB asserts that the 1999 bombings were the work of the same people who plotted the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US - though this has not been proven.

Though Chechnya is now almost entirely occupied, the war continues to kill about a dozen Russian soldiers weekly, and nearly a quarter of a million Chechen civilians remain refugees in neighboring areas - including the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia. The FSB says that there are 2,000 armed men in the gorge, most of them probably Chechens.

While Western governments still criticize Moscow for alleged human rights violations in the 28-month-old war with Chechnya, emphasis since Sept. 11 has been on cooperation with Russia in the global antiterror campaign.

Among items Ignatchenko is willing to share with journalists is a tape recording of recently intercepted satellite phone conversations - in Arabic - between al-Khattab and Chechen rebel operatives working in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. A Russian-language transcript provided by the FSB shows al-Khattab concerned with moving funds from unidentified sources into Chechnya, acquiring better radio equipment for his forces, and evacuating wounded fighters for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. The transcript also reveals al-Khattab's fears about using his satellite phone - an understandable concern, given Mr. Dudayev's fate.

The FSB also asserts that "hundreds" of battle-hardened Chechens served with Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, as instructors in the terror training camps and as fighters. "Chechens were in great demand because they are some of the best experts in mine warfare," says Ignatchenko.

Though Washington has so far refused to identify by nationality the 254 Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners captured by US forces in Afghanistan and now held in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Ignatchenko says they include "several" Chechens. Some, he says, have discarded their Russian passports and are masquerading as Afghans.

US-Russian cooperation since Sept. 11 could become strained, however, over Moscow's claims of a Chechen-terrorist domino effect in Georgia.

Russian military chief of staff Anatoly Kvashnin, said last week that "Russia and Georgia should destroy this terrorist center in the Pankisi Gorge together." FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev went to Georgia last week for talks.

But Georgia, a country whose independence is precarious beside its powerful Russian neighbor, fears any Moscow-led military operation on its territory. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has asked Washington to step up American security assistance to his country. In his statements to the Georgian newspaper, Remler indicated that the US may provide such aid and help creation of an antiterrorism force within the Georgian Defense Ministry.

The idea of increased US influence in Georgia has already brought a flurry of angry denunciations from Russian officials.

"Chechnya is at the heart of a very complex geopolitical knot," says Sergei Arutyunov, a Caucasus specialist at the Institute of Ethnology in Moscow. "The presence of outside terrorists is one of the complications, but it does not justify foolish simplifications," he says. "There must be negotiations and a political process in Chechnya before the terrorists can be isolated and removed. And this cannot happen as long as the Kremlin believes that more military operations are the only way."

Last week Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said of the Pankisi Gorge: "On the one hand it is, of course, sovereign Georgia's business. On the other, must we really sit and wait to see how tensions mount there and how this region is turning into a mini-Chechyna or mini-Afghanistan?"

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