Basayev: From Rebel to Vicious Extremist

How a student radical became the mastermind of insurgent outrages.

Basayev: From Rebel to Vicious Extremist

How a student radical became the mastermind of insurgent outrages.

Thursday, 20 July, 2006
Shamil Basayev did not look like a man responsible for horrific atrocities. He was soft-spoken, and with his domed forehead, bushy beard and long Russian phrases, could have been mistaken for a Moscow intellectual. But if he was not frightening close up, few men have managed to terrify so many people across so wide an area.

Basayev played on his reputation and treated the long vain attempts of the Kremlin to catch him as a kind of game. In rare interviews over the last few years, he suggested he enjoyed being labelled a dangerous terrorist and, in the last four years of his bloody career when he planned the hideous operations to seize the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow and School No. 1 in Beslan, he lived up to the reputation. He not only planned the detail of the operations, he designed them to create maximum publicity and to cause the greatest possible humiliation for his enemies in the Kremlin.

It is misleading to label Basayev as an Islamic militant. His background was as part of a Russified generation of Chechens who developed a strong streak of nationalism and despised all authority. As a student radical, he idolised Che Guevara and had a poster of the famous revolutionary on his wall.

Basayev was born in 1965 in the traditionally warlike mountain village of Vedeno, once headquarters in the 19th century for the great Dagestani warrior leader Imam Shamil. His family had recently returned from collective Stalinist exile in Kazakstan, where they had suffered sickness from Soviet nuclear testing.

Basayev studied in Moscow, where one of his teachers was Konstantin Borovoi, who later became a famous entrepreneur and politician. In August 1991, he joined the pro-democracy demonstrators defending the White House in Moscow in opposition to the attempted coup d’etat.

In November 1991, he began his career of publicity stunts, hijacking an airliner to proclaim the Chechen pro-independence cause and then releasing all the passengers unharmed.

Basayev then became a career warrior, restless and bored unless he was fighting someone somewhere. He fought on the Azerbaijani side in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, being one of the last men to leave the besieged citadel of Shusha in May 1992 before the Armenians captured it.

He then moved on to Abkhazia, where he joined a coalition of North Caucasian volunteers, Cossacks and Russian special forces officers in helping the Abkhaz win their bitter conflict with the Georgian government. He was appointed deputy defence minister of Abkhazia and still has many supporters there - though they do not voice those views in public in what is now a very pro-Russian region. Persistent rumours that he collaborated with the Russian secret services date from this time, but they have never been substantiated by any evidence.

Basayev finally found his metier when Boris Yeltsin sent his troops into Chechnya in December 1994. He was involved in all major operations of the war of 1994-6, including the masterfully planned recapture of Grozny from the Russian army in August 1996.

He should not have got out alive from his most extraordinary operation, his raid in June 1995 deep into the heart of southern Russia, which was halted when he seized a hospital in the town of Budyonnovsk. Following a botched assault by Russian special forces and the death of over a hundred people, the then Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, negotiated the free passage of Basayev and his men out of the town in return for the release of the hostages.

In Russia, Basayev was seen as a bloodthirsty terrorist but in much of Chechnya he was regarded as a hero.

Basayev was driven by a new motive with deep roots in Chechen culture, blood revenge, after 11 members of his family were killed in a bombing raid near Vedeno. By this time, many who talked to him found him more than slightly deranged. British journalist Victoria Clark, formerly Moscow correspondent of The Observer newspaper, recalls interviewing him in August 1995, when he was at the height of his popularity in the mountains of Chechnya.

“We were spirited off to a place in the hills, where he was waiting for us,” Clark recalled. “He spoke all night without stopping. Things got really out of hand when he started talking about sprinkling radioactive dust on the Kremlin.”

In the interview, Basayev revealed a strange obsession with the history of Russia, telling Clark, “The [Russian symbol, the] double-headed eagle is the epitome of unnatural evil. No living thing can survive like that, so it has to become a parasite on the blood of other nations.”

Basayev still had sufficient prestige in January 1997 to collect around a quarter of the vote in Chechnya’s only ever internationally-monitored presidential election. But as Chechnya gained de facto independence and collapsed into chaos, his reputation began to plummet as he and other warlords were accused of corruption and involvement in kidnapping. His alliance with Saudi jihadist Emir Khattab alienated those Chechens who were tired of conflict and wanted a sensible accommodation with Moscow.

Basayev appeared to positively enjoy being Russia’s Enemy Number One, a mindset that had fatal consequences for both Russians and Chechens. In 1999, in defiance of Basayev’s rival and president Aslan Maskhadov, he and Khattab led an armed incursion into the neighbouring republic of Dagestan. This was the cue for Russia’s new prime minister Vladimir Putin to fly to Dagestan and begin preparations for a re-invasion of Chechnya.

Basayev lost a foot fleeing the Chechen capital Grozny across a minefield at the beginning of the second Chechen conflict, confirming an almost mythical reputation amongst Chechen radical fighters that he could defy death anywhere. To the amazement of many, he lasted another six years, eclipsing the more moderate Maskhadov as he took on the role of an Islamic radical. He used the Internet to mock the Kremlin and boasted that he moved freely across the North Caucasus and even that he had married for a third time to a Russian woman in the Krasnodar region.

The attacks on the Dubrovka Theatre and the school in Beslan confirmed that Basayev now had no compunction about targeting civilians anywhere in Russia. The deaths of 330 people in Beslan, half of them children, marked the final nadir in the descent of a man who had once claimed to be a democrat

Basayev was a talented warrior and brilliant propagandist, and a very twisted and cruel human being. Very few will mourn his demise, with most Chechens breathing a sigh of relief that someone who blackened their reputation round the world is dead.

Thomas de Waal is IWPR’s Caucasus Editor.

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