Case Study: The Kadyrov Assassination

14 MINS READJun 16, 2004 | 03:47 GMT
The assassination of Chechen President Akhmed Kadyrov is a textbook example of a highly sophisticated, successful operation against a top government official. The tactics of the militants and the mistakes made by Kadyrov's security personnel provide important lessons that both Islamist militants and security professionals around the world are likely to study — though obviously for opposite reasons.
The May 9 assassination of Chechen President Akhmed Kadyrov is the only case since the beginning of the post-Sept. 11 war against terrorism in which Islamist militants succeeded in killing the leader of a regional government. In this case, the assassins were Wahhabi militants fighting Russia's rule in Chechnya; militant leader Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for the strike. Al Qaeda and other Islamist militants around the globe doubtless are dissecting this operation in order to apply the lessons against the United States and its allies. Assassinating top Western leaders, beginning with U.S. President George W. Bush, is high on the agenda of al Qaeda and its ideological brethren. These groups also have repeatedly stated their desire to kill apostate leaders in the Muslim world. Thus, it is vital for counterterrorism and security professionals to learn from this case in order to prevent major attacks. Understanding Kadyrov's assassination could provide valuable insight into the way future assassinations of VIPs around the world may be staged. The militants who killed Kadyrov are an integral part of the loosely associated al Qaeda network — where Chechen fighters are playing an increasingly important role by providing professional advice and instruction. Their hand in training others has been confirmed by Western and Middle Eastern state security services who have witnessed many high-profile actions linked to al Qaeda or its local allies. These have included militant attacks in Pakistan, a bomb-threat campaign in France and, of course, the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004. This case study represents STRATFOR's investigation into the planning and mechanics of Kadyrov's assassination. It is the result of STRATFOR intelligence-gathering within the Chechen security service and the Russian security and intelligence community — including those serving in Chechnya now and those close to or familiar with this investigation. The information provided is based on preliminary results of the ongoing investigation into the assassination, including technical evaluation of bombs, examinations of the scene of the crime, interrogation of suspects and intercepted radio and telephone messages — some in code — sent by militants before and after the attack. Attack Planning and Preparation Some Chechen-militant commando units have treated the quest for Kadyrov's head as a fulltime occupation, making at least 12 previous attempts on his life over the previous four years. Tactical preparations for the 13th and final attempt began in March, after Basayev personally determined that May 9 — when Kadyrov was certain to attend a public Victory Day event — would be the best date for an attack. Militant commanders led by Basayev first set up a special assassination team comprised of about 40 militants. The team consisted of a command unit, a bomb-making unit, a demolition unit, surveillance units, agents working inside the Chechen government, counterintelligence and physical protection units, logistics people, and a communications staff that served as the link between all the units and reported directly to the central leadership, including Basayev. Each unit included backup operatives, and each worked independently of the others. Thus, the operation never was compromised, even after Russian and Chechen security services apprehended or killed members of the team. Penetrating Presidential Security In late March, moles strategically planted inside the Chechen government in Grozny told Basayev that Kadyrov's Presidential Security Service — known also as the Presidential Guard — was in need of new hires. The service was stretched thin because agents had been assigned to hunt militant field commanders throughout Chechnya. The militants' assassination team moved immediately to ensure that some of its operatives were hired. It is believed that at least one established security service agent, a mid-ranking company commander by the name of "Gushi," either had been planted in the service long before or was bribed into cooperating with the assassination plan. Gushi, who remained in Grozny while other commanders loyal to the president were fighting in the mountains in April and May, eased these new militant recruits into jobs with the service. (Gushi, in fact, is a former militant commander whose entire Security Service company consisted of former militants who had surrendered their arms). Because the Security Service's commanding officer, Kadyrov's own son, and his most experienced officers were in the mountains chasing militants, the new agents were hired without proper background checks. Penetrating Physical Security Long before Victory Day, the team began focusing on the annual celebration marking the Allied victory over the Nazis in World War II. Kadyrov had attended the event at Grozny's central sports venue, Dynamo Stadium, in previous years, and there was no reason to believe his plans would alter in 2004. The assassination squad could estimate where the president would sit, as it was customary for the ranking official to occupy the middle seat of the first row of the stadium's VIP box. Additionally, the militants knew that annual repairs to Dynamo Stadium would be made in preparation for the celebration. Of course, the militants also were aware that security would be at its height during the event itself, although they believed the presence of a large crowd of spectators would offer enough cover, and instability, to offset that risk. Based on their own feasibility study, militant leaders felt confident that they could penetrate the physical security of the stadium a few weeks before the event. Team member Lo-Ali Chupalayev (now in custody) was hired as a mason with the government's construction and repair works department. Likely with Gushi's aid, Chupalayev was included among the crew of workers assigned to repair Boxing Ring Hall, located just beneath the VIP box. The work was done April 15-16 — about three weeks before the attack. No background check was performed on the repair crew members. If checks had been made, Chupalayev, and perhaps others, never would have been allowed near the stadium. Consider these facts, at least some of which likely would have come to light with a background review: Chupalayev's brother was a militant killed by Russian troops in 1996. Another brother was a Basayev assistant who was captured and is serving 16 years in prison on numerous murder and torture charges. Also, it is quite possible that Chupalayev himself had fought Russian troops for years. Instead, Chupalayev was permitted to work on a crew that poured an iron-reinforced concrete ceiling above Boxing Ring Hall — a ceiling that served also as the floor of the stadium's VIP box. Chupalayev smuggled three explosive devices into Dynamo Stadium, embedding two bombs inside the wet concrete of this ceiling. He then ran electrical cords from the bombs across a section of the ceiling, through the floor of the viewing stands and, finally, along the stands, about 80 to 100 yards from the VIP section. These cords were then hidden under fresh strips of plaster. The repair workers labored without supervision — even though a platoon of Presidential Security Service agents stood vigil last year as the work was done. This fact suggests that someone, most likely Gushi, did not send agents to supervise the job, and the government's own construction department apparently did not request that its workers be monitored. Method of Operation A few days before May 9, a militant spy inside the president's administration (whose identity remains unknown) informed the assassination team that two public events would be held simultaneously on Victory Day and that Kadyrov would have to choose which to attend: a military parade in Khankala, the main Russian military base near Grozny, or the performance and celebration at Dynamo Stadium. Penetrating the security perimeter of the Khankala base appeared impossible — especially at such a late date — but security at the stadium already had been successfully breached. Hence, team commanders decided to proceed with final preparations for an attack at the stadium. Even if Kadyrov did not appear, they reasoned, the VIP box still would be filled with other dignitaries, including several Russian generals and Kadyrov's deputies. A captured member of the team has since outlined the plan of attack to Russian interrogators. Explosive Devices and Tactical Measures The militant now in custody has told interrogators that four operatives — two of them recent hires in the Presidential Security Service — were given responsibility for four separate explosive devices in efforts to ensure the success of the attack. The first bomb — the one that killed Kadyrov and six others — consisted of a 122mm artillery shell packed with 2.2 kilograms of trotil-hexane, a mining explosive commonly used in homemade bombs, especially by the Chechen militants. The bomb also had an extremely long electric cord and a push-button trigger to activate it. (It is believed that a militant smuggled in the trigger on the day of the event). This shell-turned-bomb was embedded in the wet concrete of the VIP box's floor, almost precisely below the seat to be occupied by Kadyrov. This bomb was intended to kill Kadyrov instantly. An identical bomb was encased in the floor of the same box, about 10 to 15 yards away, to be detonated if the first bomb malfunctioned. Unlike the primary bomb, however, this device was connected via an electrical cord to a timer that was to be set for 20 minutes after the first blast occurred. An analysis of the timer found after the attack determined that it was not technically designed to be programmed far in advance, meaning that an operative must have set it while Kadyrov was in the stadium. The third bomb was hidden in a pile of construction debris in Boxing Ring Hall, almost directly underneath the VIP box's first row. This homemade device, filled with 1.5 kilos of trotil-hexane and an assortment of sharp metal objects, had a shaped charge to ensure it would penetrate the reinforced concrete. This device was designed to be set off by remote control, by either a radio or cell phone signal. It also was intended as a backup, in case the first two bombs failed to explode. Yet another backup device, a 1.5-liter bottle filled with plastid (a plastic explosive similar to C4), apparently would have targeted security personnel rushing to the scene after the first blast. This bomb, which failed to explode, was found later next to the VIP box. EOD Sweeps and Other Security Measures Before spectators entered the stadium, Russian soldiers performed Explosive Ordnance Device (EOD) sweeps on each row of stadium seating. Although metal detectors were used, the fact that the first two bombs were buried in the reinforced concrete floor meant they went undetected. Overall, the EOD sweepers paid scant attention to detail: For instance, security personnel carelessly overlooked the fresh strips of plaster that hid the bombs' electrical cords. The third device underneath the VIP box also went undetected, for one of two reasons: Either real — but inept — security guards failed to use metal detectors and to examine the pile of debris, or the downstairs sweep was conducted by militant operatives posing as security workers — who, naturally, found nothing. Bomb-sniffing dogs also were used at the stadium, but only in the main arena, not below. The dogs failed to locate the concrete-encased bombs, and — for some reason — were not used in the Boxing Hall below. All of the EOD sweeps were conducted less than two hours before spectators began entering the stadium. Before they were allowed in, spectators passed through two rows of security personnel operating metal detectors, but they were not subjected to body searches. Execution Security appeared tight during the Victory Day event itself. Kadyrov appeared to be well protected with his VIP box, surrounded by three rings of his own security agents. Additionally, two agents were positioned just behind the president. The militants waited until Kadyrov and other state officials finished their opening speeches. As the performance on the stadium field got under way, an operative sitting in the stands — most likely a new security hire — loosened the plaster that hid one electric cord, connected the push-button trigger to the primary bomb, and detonated it. The explosion instantly killed Kadyrov and several others, and seriously wounded Col. Gen. Valery Baranov, the commander of Russian Grouping of Forces in the Caucasus. Knowing the pre-established time of this blast, another militant had set the timer for the second bomb. This timer malfunctioned, however, and the bomb failed to detonate. Investigators later found — and destroyed — this bomb on site. As panic broke out in the stadium, a third operative hurled the plastid bottle bomb toward the VIP box, perhaps hoping to take out security personnel rushing to the scene. For unknown reasons, however, this bomb also failed. A special Russian EOD tech team did do one thing right: It worked throughout the celebration to jam radio, cell phone and other remote-control signals that could have set off a blast. This likely prevented the third bomb from exploding. Presidential Security Service Reaction Just after the explosion, several jeeps filled with security agents rushed across the field to the half-ruined VIP box. The leader of a special police unit immediately carried Kadyrov's body to one of the jeeps, while Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov, who had been wounded in the leg, began coordinating response actions. But the scene was one of utter chaos as security agents and police panicked. Some began firing weapons above the heads of panic-stricken spectators who were storming the exits. Security personnel apparently disregarded standard operating procedures for a crisis such as this. They failed to secure the stadium exits, and instead began detaining spectators at random. While some of the militants blended in with the fleeing crowds and escaped, none of those detained could be linked to the attack. Militants within the Security Service, meanwhile, remained on the scene, pretending to help apprehend the perpetrators. The blast was not captured on video, because the event was not monitored by video cameras. Investigators, however, are reviewing photographs taken at the scene by security agents and journalists. Conclusions 1. Kadyrov's assassination — a remarkably sophisticated attack — was carefully planned for two months and then methodically executed. Given that the Chechen Wahhabi militants who carried out the attack are connected to al Qaeda — and often train other militants from Europe through the Middle East to Pakistan — militants across the globe likely will try to emulate this operation. 2. The fact that militants used four explosive devices greatly enhanced their chances of success. Also, the assassins gave absolute priority to hitting their primary target: Kadyrov. To achieve that goal, the primary bomb was given triple backup, and each explosive had a unique method of detonation. That three of the bombs failed meant nothing to this operation; the objective was achieved. 3. In this case, militants penetrated not only the president's administration but also his security service. The access to inside information and to the site itself helped them immeasurably in planning and executing the attack, and then escaping unnoticed from the scene. 4. The militants "owned" Dynamo Stadium. Hence, the site was thoroughly prepared for the attack. Even before penetrating security, they scrupulously studied the scene. The choice of the site itself, a stadium during a mass celebration, suggests that despite heavy security and the high level of alert, such places offer an excellent opportunity for well-trained and sophisticated militants to perpetrate attacks. 5. The attackers masterfully exploited the incompetence of the Presidential Security Service, especially the lax EOD sweeps and the failure of security personnel to secure the scene of the blast, which led to the assassination team's escape. Had the other bombs exploded, or had the militants sprayed gunfire at the scene, this attack might have resulted in many more casualties.

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