Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Basayev Eludes Russian Capture

How has the man the Kremlin calls “the world’s number-two terrorist” avoided being captured by the Russians for the last five years?
By Timur Aliev

Following the Beslan tragedy, Moscow has declared it is redoubling its efforts to capture Shamil Basayev, the notorious Chechen militant who has said he organised the school seizure.


An unprecedented reward of ten million US dollars has been offered to anyone who can report the exact whereabouts of Basayev, or of pro-independence president Aslan Maskhadov.


The price on Basayev’s head was set at five million dollars in 2003, and one million in 1999 when he led the incursion into Dagestan that helped trigger the second conflict in Chechnya.


A Chechen special services battalion Vostok (or “East” in Russian) has been given the task of capturing Basayev. Its commander Sulim Yamadayev, who formerly fought on the rebel side, says he is “absolutely certain” that it will succeed.


However, Basayev has now been at large for five years since Russian troops re-entered Chechnya in the autumn of 1999.


Nowadays, Basayev claims to head a group that goes by the Arabic name Riyadh-as-Salihin, which translates as “Gardens of the Righteous”.


He first announced the existence of the group after the seizure of the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow in October 2002. Previously, he had nominally been Maskhadov’s deputy military commander, but he then declared that he was quitting all his posts to head the Riyadh-as-Salihin brigade. He then admitted responsibility for the Beslan seizure, in which more than 330 people, the majority of them children, died, on behalf of the brigade.


The Chechen interior ministry says that Basayev and his units are mainly based in the southern mountainous parts of Chechnya, in places such as his home village of Vedeno, Shatoi and Nozhai-Yurt. He is believed to be constantly on the move between villages, woods and the mountains.


Yet many observers are astonished at his elusiveness, all the more so as he had his right leg amputated below the knee after stepping on a mine as he was retreating from Grozny in the winter of 2000. He had a good quality German prosthetic limb fitted but still walks with a slight limp.


Despite his injury, this wanted man remains very mobile. Last year he was reported to have visited Kabardino-Balkaria, some 200 kilometres from Vedeno, and his now defunct website Kavkaz Center released footage which apparently showed him leading an attack on the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia in June this year.


Although Basayev is hated by a lot of Chechens, there is a widespread belief that he owes his freedom to the loyalty of a network of supporters that stretches across the whole region and dates back to his involvement in the coalition that joined the Abkhaz fighting against Georgia in 1992-3.


Ruslan, a former fighter who was with Basayev in that conflict, told IWPR, “He’s kept a lot of old friends in the North Caucasus since the war in Abkhazia.”


In Abkhazia, Basayev led a battalion and was commander of the army troops of the Confederation of Mountain Peoples, a group formed in 1991 to unite the nations of the North and South Caucasus. Its president was Musa Shanibov, now a lecturer at the Kabardino-Balkar State University in Nalchik. Basayev later became the deputy defence minister of Abkhazia.


Ruslan believes that Basayev spends a lot of time outside Chechnya, moving constantly around the North Caucasus and relying on old comrades.


“There were people fighting in Abkhazia from practically all of the nationalities in the North Caucasus: Kabardinians, Cherkess, Balkars, even whole units of Cossacks,” Ruslan said. “And naturally, Basayev, being the deputy defence minister, had contact with all of them and continues to have contacts now.”


What is more, Basayev has retained links within the nominally pro-Moscow structures in Chechnya. For example, said Ruslan, in 2000 Basayev negotiated with Beslan Gantamirov, a veteran Chechen warrior who at that time was head of the Chechen police force supposedly loyal to Moscow. Basayev suggested to Gantamirov that the latter form a whole unit out of Basayev’s fighters – thus reducing the number of rebels and boosting police numbers.


“Gantamirov refused, firstly because such a thing was practically impossible, and secondly because he didn’t think it a good idea to have an entire militant unit not subordinate to him,” said Ruslan. “But Gantamirov did promise Basayev that he would accept his people into the police force, and took about six to eight men into every subdivision.


“For the last four years, these people have been able to make a career in the police force. They understand, of course, that for this they are indebted to Basayev and are obliged help him.”


All this suggests that the lines of division between armed Chechens loyal to Moscow and rebels opposed to it is not as clear as the Russian authorities like to say it is. In further proof of this, pro-Moscow Chechen politicians, including the late president Akhmad Kadyrov, have admitted that Maskhadov spent the whole of last winter in the western Chechen town of Gudermes, where his whereabouts cannot have been unknown to the authorities.


Magomed, another former fighter, believes that the financial reward will not be enough to persuade his men to betray him, “Money is not the most important thing in this case. Basayev himself is different from a lot of people in that he doesn’t pay anybody any money. Many people simply respect him.”


But some of Basayev’s opponents are not persuaded by this and firmly believe that he is being protected by the Russian special forces. Some say he keeps connections he made with the Russians when they fought on the same side in the war in Abkhazia.


“If they really wanted to take Basayev they would have done it long ago,” said Aslanbek Dubzaev, a member of the Chechen OMON. “Chechnya is not that big. The federals need him to keep the war going in Chechnya. That’s why they forewarn him of any danger.”


Dubzayev believes the incursion of Basayev into Dagestan was provoked by the Russian special forces in order to have a reason to invade Chechnya, “I don’t know whether they paid him to do it or just took a gamble, but many people saw how Basayev was accompanied by Russian helicopters when he was given an escape corridor to get out of Dagestan.”


“Somebody is covering Basayev, someone from the military or the GRU [Russian military intelligence,” said Pavel Solodovnikov, a captain with the FSB, the main civilian intelligence service.


Another factor frequently cited as to why Basayev is not captured is corruption. “Basayev has access to a great deal of money,” said Solodovnikov. “So, let’s say, for a thousand dollars, he can easily bribe a checkpoint militiaman, who would normally only get ten rubles (around 35 cents) from a local Chechen.”


Chechen analyst and human rights activist, Usam Baisayev, offers the most simple explanation for Basayev’s freedom: he is simply good at lying low. “He always knew how to fight, now he has learned how to hide,” Baisayev said.


“During the first war, the fighters fought openly. They were able to return to the mountains and live peacefully at home in the villages. At the beginning of the second war, they decided to do the same. But when many field commanders were arrested, particularly in the first two or three years of the second war, Basayev and Maskhadov learned from their mistakes and became even more careful. It won’t be so easy to capture them.”


Timur Aliev is IWPR coordinator in Chechnya.