Recent reports that Chechen rebels are attacking civilians in rebel strongholds suggest that popular support for commander Shamil Basayev in the breakaway region has fallen off. Although this does not portend an end to the conflict, it does foreshadow likely operational difficulties for Basayev — which will affect rebel activities.
The Russian headquarters for anti-terrorist operations in the North Caucasus reported Jan. 6 that militants under the command of rebel leader Shamil Basayev attacked several homes in the Chechen town of Vedeno, demanding food and valuables from the residents. Militants also stopped a car driven by a local man on the outskirts of Vedeno, beat him up and blew up his car. Incidents of this nature are not unusual in Chechnya, where rebels use every means available to support their operations. These latest attacks, however, occurred in Basayev's birthplace and tribal home. Basayev's need to forcibly extract support from residents in his primary stronghold indicates his popular support is waning. Chechen sources say demands on residents have increased over the past year in the plains regions — where support for the rebels traditionally has been less than enthusiastic. Rebel pressure on local citizens appears to be spreading to the Vedeno Gorge in the southeast, which, along with the Argun Gorge to the west, has been a rebel safe haven.
In the past, slipping Chechen support for Basayev has forced him to resort to brutality and infusions of support from foreign Wahhabist elements to impose order on local populations. However, as Basayev's Chechen supporters grow increasingly fed up with him, this strategy could fail to impose order. The Sept. 3, 2004, massacre of hundreds of school children in Beslan, Russia, likely was the last straw for many rebel supporters, who have endured extreme hardships since 1994 in the hope of achieving independence from Russia. Not only did domestic and international Islamist militant groups condemn Basayev for targeting children, but the attack also served to exponentially intensify Russia's determination to wipe out the Chechen resistance. Moreover, Basayev's increasing dependence on foreign Wahhabist elements has alienated many of his local supporters, who see him as shifting away from the nationalist goal of Chechen independence and toward a more jihadist ideology. Basayev's increasing isolation likely will have several important consequences. First, as Basayev's more moderate local supporters back away, only extremist local and foreign elements will continue to support him. These elements will demand more attacks on a grand scale along the lines of Beslan, if not greater. Without alternative bases of support, then, Basayev would have little choice but to comply with the more radical demands. As a result, STRATFOR believes large-scale attacks against civilians in Russia likely will increase in 2005. Meanwhile, the loss of local support in rebel strongholds will significantly constrain Basayev's ability to carry out guerrilla operations. Guerrilla activities depend on support from local residents to maintain supplies, secrecy and stability for planning and executing operations. Without local support, Basayev will lose some of the most important elements of the home-field advantage. Should he become unable to trust those in his home environment, Basayev — for his own protection — would need to be on the move constantly. This could mean running into Chechen clans with arms to match their desire to control their territories. Should this occur, Basayev would either have to bargain or fight, either one of which would sap his resources. This, then, would reduce his capacity to orchestrate rebel activities and impose his will upon the resistance. A weakened Basayev would create a political vacuum in Chechnya that would open the door to competition for leadership over rebel activities. As a result, Basayev likely would leave Chechnya for longer periods of time, and spend more of his efforts on attacks beyond Chechnya rather than on guerrilla attacks within it. Although Basayev's apparent struggles do not spell an end to the conflict or to himself — as the broad goal of Chechen independence remains popular — they do indicate a change in Chechnya's internal dynamics could be in the offing. Such a change would likely come in the form of competition for supremacy between Basayev's now more jihadist minions and the more nationalist separatist elements.