Russia's Systematic Hunt for Chechen Commanders

7 MINS READApr 6, 2005 | 02:06 GMT
Russia has begun a systematic effort to hunt down Chechen and foreign militant commanders. By organizing its operations instead of relying on irregular efforts as in the past, Moscow aims to weaken the insurgency — making it headless, disorganized and disoriented — and to pre-empt terrorist strikes against Russia. Moscow is more than capable of carrying out the campaign and likely will succeed in capturing or killing some enemy commanders, but will have only limited success in pre-empting terrorist attacks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has implemented a strategic effort targeting top and mid-level Chechen militants in hopes of gaining the upper hand in the Russian-Chechen war, sources in the Russian government say. This campaign is under way now and has scored its first successes. This is the first time Russia has used systematic targeting of militant leaders as a primary tool against Chechen rebels. If successful, this plan could disrupt and weaken the Chechen militancy and pre-empt at least some terrorist attacks in Russia. STRATFOR consistently said for years that Moscow lacked the political will to implement the kind of decisive measures needed to defeat the Chechens. In particular, the Russians never tried to systematically target militant commanders. Since commanders always serve as the backbone and brains for any organized military force, Russia was never able to disrupt the militants’ command-and-control system, despite the losses sometimes inflicted on the insurgents’ rank and file. With most of their commanders safe, the militants could always regroup and restore their capabilities after each tactical defeat in order to strike again. On March 8, when Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) commandos killed Aslan Maskhadov — the Chechen militants' top leader, head of their national wing and president of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria — STRATFOR said that his death alone was not enough to kill the militancy. Other, more dangerous senior commanders — those directly responsible for major guerrilla attacks — remained at large. The latest intelligence from the Russian military indicates, however, that in February, Putin finally overcame his reservations and sanctioned a systematic, sustained campaign against Chechen commanders across the board. Until then, Russians had targeted Chechen militant leaders only irregularly — mostly in situations where Russia had no other option but to assassinate a specific leader. In that "singular" way, Chechnya's first president, Jokhar Dudayev, was assassinated in 1995 — as were Khattab, the Jordanian-born leader of foreign militants in Chechnya, in 2002, and his Saudi-born successor, Abu Walid in 2004, among others. That sporadic killing of Chechen leaders did not help the Russian offensive against the militants in the long run, since the death of one leader was not enough to disrupt the militants' overall movement. This time, Russian intelligence sources say that Russian forces are specifically targeting all known senior commanders and midlevel leaders known to be responsible for preparing terrorist-style attacks against Russia. It goes without saying that Chechen leaders are aware of this campaign and are taking extra security measures to protect themselves, but Russia recently deployed enhanced capabilities that increase its chances of success. These enhanced capabilities include an increased number of highly trained spetsnaz (special operations forces), whose sole task is to hunt down the militant commanders. Spetsnaz from different agencies (military intelligence, FSB, Interior Ministry) are much more coordinated than before. Another capability is a Russian bounty system officially offering high rewards for any information leading to the apprehension of top Chechen leaders. Also, the Russians are trying to take advantage of the increasing split between the nationalist and Islamist wings of the militancy, the power struggle among various field commanders and the rebels' waning popularity among locals. Russian intelligence sources say that, in March, some Chechen commanders reported others to the Russians in order eliminate hated rivals. Since February, Russian forces have had significant victories in the campaign targeting militant leaders:
  • Abu-Dzeit, a Kuwaiti Wahhabist militant leader — aliases Little Omar and Abu-Omar of Kuwait — died Feb. 16 in a joint operation by spetsnaz from the FSB and Interior Ministry. Abu-Dzeit was considered an al Qaeda representative in Ingushetia — Russia's Muslim-dominated region where many native militants participate in the fight against Russia. Russian intelligence sources say Abu-Dzeit led a successful raid against Russian troops in Ingushetia last summer and participated in planning the Beslan hostage taking in September 2004. He also distributed funds among militants in Ingushetia to finance attacks.
  • Yunadi Turchaev and Kantash Mansarov, the two Chechen militant leaders responsible for operations in and around the Chechen capital of Grozny, were killed in February. The sources said both underwent command and sabotage training in Saudi Arabia. Their deaths disrupted Chechen militant activities in a strategically important area.
  • Rajab Aliev, top warlord Shamil Basayev’s representative in Dagestan (another Muslim-dominated Russian region next to Chechnya) was killed in a counterterrorism operation Feb. 23. That allowed a temporary disruption of militant operations in the area.
  • Doku Umarov, a top militant Islamist commander whose power rivals that of Basayev, suffered serious wounds in March 2005 when a spetsnaz team specifically targeted him in combat in Chechnya, Russian intelligence sources say. However, he managed to escape. The main targets in this campaign still at large are:
  • Basayev, the top Wahhabist warlord, responsible for strategic planning, guerrilla operations, and many militant attacks.
  • Abu Hafs, a Saudi-born top foreign militant leader in Chechnya linked to al Qaeda. He is responsible for distributing funding from Middle Eastern sponsors to all militants and also co-chairs strategic planning and militant-style attacks planning with Basayev.
  • Umarov, another top commander, heavily wounded (as mentioned above).
  • Akhmed Avtorkhanov, the late Maskhadov's head of security and the only remaining senior nationalist leader still fighting Russians. Russian intelligence sources say he is holed up in the Nozhai-Yurt District of Chechnya, where spetsnaz are trying to find him in the mountains.
  • Rappani Khalilov, a Dagestani militant leader directly subordinate to Basayev and immediately responsible for organizing militant-style attacks beyond Chechnya. Intelligence says he is working to launch new attacks soon, so detaining or killing him would be vital to the Russians. With this systematic campaign in place to hunt down militant leaders, Russia stands a better chance of weakening the Chechen rebel movement and pre-empting terrorist attacks in Russia. A weakened central authority weakens the overall Chechen movement and makes it easier for Russian forces to successfully combat and defeat the militants. Eliminating mid-level militant leaders — those immediately responsible for planning and carrying out militant-style attacks — is a pre-emptive measure against such attacks. Moscow's best chance at preventing a militant-style attack is to catch these cell leaders before they carry out any operations. However, such an approach turns the situation into a race between the Russians and Chechen militants. The billion-dollar question becomes: Who will carry out successful operations first — the militants launching new attacks, or the Russians pre-empting them by apprehending militant cell leaders? The Russians face added difficulties in this situation since some mid-level militant leaders float among — and receive orders from — various top leaders and received orders for attacks before Russian authorities intercepted the orders. As sleeper cells, they could go undetected by Russian authorities. Though Moscow will be able to eliminate some mid-level militant leaders — and thereby prevent some attacks — but it has a better chance of weakening the militancy overall than of rooting out these individual cells. For the moment, Moscow's targeting campaign seems successful. However, this system will not single-handedly win the Russian-Chechen war for Putin — at best, it will weaken the Chechen movement significantly and give Russia an opportunity to attack Chechen and foreign militants in the North Caucasus. The system could eventually give Putin his best shot at eliminating Basayev. However, Moscow will likely achieve much less success in stopping militant-style attacks.
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