Maskhadov's Death and the Chechen Militant Movement

4 MINS READMar 8, 2005 | 23:33 GMT
Russian special forces killed Chechen militant leader Aslan Maskhadov in an operation in Tolstoi-Yurt on March 8. His death is a huge blow to the Chechen militants fighting against Russia and a huge victory for Moscow in its struggle to rein in the separatist region of Chechnya.
Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, president of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, was killed by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) special forces commandos in Tolstoi-Yurt in Chechnya on March 8. The Russians had conducted a two-week operation focusing on the area where Maskhadov was in hiding, but still could not pinpoint his location, Russian military intelligence sources said. However, two of Maskhadov's men were arrested March 7, along with one follower of Shamil Basayev, the top Wahhabi Chechen warlord who cooperated with Maskhadov in fighting Russia. The men revealed plans for a March 7 terrorist-style attack in Tolstoi-Yurt, in which militants would use grenade launchers to blast the district administration building, where they expected to find a large crowd celebrating International Women's Day. The FSB command sent a special forces unit to attack the militants concentrated in Tolstoi-Yurt, not knowing Maskhadov would be there, the sources say. Encountering resistance, the FSB commandos opened fire, and Maskhadov — whose body was recognized by both FSB commandos and locals — was among the casualties. The militant leader's nephew and two associates were detained, and the FSB operation in Tolstoi-Yurt continues. Maskhadov's death represents a significant victory for Russia. It also is a serious, but not devastating, blow to Chechen separatists. Maskhadov was the top leader for the nationalist-minded militants fighting for an independent Chechnya with an Islamic government — but not a radical Wahhabi Islamist government. Many of his associates became disillusioned with the fight, seeing the destruction the war brought to Chechnya and the excesses of their radical Wahhabist comrades-in-arms, including terrorist attacks against civilians in Russia and Chechnya. But Maskhadov's leadership kept them fighting. With his death, the nationalist wing of the Chechen militancy is likely to fade away as a fighting force and instead try to negotiate amnesty and come to an agreement with Moscow on Russian terms. This will leave the Wahhabist militants isolated. Many Chechens supported the fight against Russia because of Maskhadov and his nationalist guerrillas. Now that the fight against Russia will be carried out mostly by Wahhabists — who already have problems earning and maintaining local support — the Chechen people's support of militant separatism will be severely diminished. Maskhadov, who also was the Chechen guerrillas' top military operations planner, often commanded operations in which Wahhabi and nationalist forces participated, sources close to the Chechen militancy say; even Basayev recognized Maskhadov's superior military ability. With him gone, Chechen militants could face problems conducting the war strategically and operationally. Maskhadov's death, however, is not a mortal blow to the Chechen militancy, as the most extreme fighters surely will continue the war. Lacking Maskhadov's superior military skills, and seeing nationalists leave the ranks of the Chechen guerrillas, the Wahhabists will continue to do what they do best: stage terrorist attacks, kidnapping and the like. This will continue unabated and might even accelerate, given that Basayev will now have to prove — first and foremost to the Chechen fighters' foreign sponsors — that the war will not end with Maskhadov's death. Also, Maskhadov ceased to be the Chechens' top resistance leader years ago, when so many Chechen warlords — especially the Wahhabists — recognized Basayev and Arab militants in Chechnya as their top authority. This means Basayev and the Arab commanders — those who replaced the al Qaeda-linked Khattab, Abu al-Walid and Abu Dzeit who also were killed by Russian troops — control the Chechen militants' financial support. Therefore, Maskhadov's death will not interrupt this cash flow. Though it would be wrong to say that Maskhadov's death will lead to an increase in attacks by Wahhabist Chechen militants — who already have planned many such attacks, as STRATFOR said in our annual forecast for 2005 and other analyses — this event likely will motivate the Wahhabists to try to launch their attacks sooner rather than later. To keep the Chechen militancy alive and its foreign sponsors satisfied, Basayev will do his best to show he is avenging Maskhadov's death. And judging by the attacks Basayev already masterminded — most recently the Beslan school massacre — he could succeed in bringing major new terrorist attacks to Russia.

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