The Life and Death of a PR Terrorist

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In Shamil Basayev, public relations and terrorist cunning met in a diabolical combination. He cultivated his image as Russia's public enemy No. 1. His most hideous operations, the seizure of the theater in Moscow in 2002 and of the school in Beslan in 2004, were orchestrated with the aim of terrifying the Russian public, attracting world media attention, embarrassing the Kremlin to the greatest possible degree and winning support from jihadists abroad -- and in his own terms he succeeded. The killing of innocents was almost incidental to the design, the matter of whether hostages lived or died being a remote concern for someone whose worldview had no space for the lives of little people.

Basayev was not an Islamist. He came from a fairly pious Chechen family, but grew up in a Soviet world, studying in Moscow, selling computers and speaking Russian. Later on, he allied himself with visiting jihadists, such as the Saudi Emir Khattab, more because he valued their military and financial support than because he signed up fully to their beliefs. I have seen no evidence that he and Khattab made their incursion into Dagestan in 1999 out of a desire to set up a caliphate, as some Russians have claimed. That assumption attributes a long-term vision to a short-term military adventure.

Basayev was not a politician. In his brief and nonsensical tenure as prime minister of Chechnya, he undermined Aslan Maskhadov, his president and rival, and took no interest in matters as boring as the Chechen economy. Although he talked constantly about Chechen independence, he made nothing of the de facto independence granted to the region from 1996 to 1998. Yet he was actually more pragmatic than he liked to let on: I find it impossible to believe that he survived and evaded capture for so long in Chechnya without making deals and non-aggression pacts with his rivals in the pro-Moscow government.

The only time I met Basayev, in 1998, I ran into nothing but cynicism. I had come to Grozny to try to learn something about the fate of the two British hostages, Camilla Carr and Jon Jones. I went to his house and saw the fearsome Khattab standing outside with his black medusa-like locks. The two men were a contrasting pair. While Khattab glowered at me with a terrifying stare, but refused to speak to me, Basayev, in a T-shirt and baseball cap, willingly came out and talked. The reality was far less frightening than the image. He was soft-spoken and did not look me in the eyes as he treated me to his rambling views about world politics, the tragic fate of Russia and the future of Chechnya. The hostages did not interest him. It later transpired that Basayev knew a great deal about who was holding Camilla and Jon, but he taunted me by saying, "The country that invented James Bond should be able to find two missing people in Chechnya."

Basayev was a permanent warrior. From Nagorno-Karabakh in 1992 (he was one of the last men to leave the besieged Azeri citadel of Shusha before the Armenians came in) to Abkhazia in 1993, Chechnya in 1994, Budyonnovsk in 1995 and Dagestan in 1999, he treated life as an eternal conflict in which no opportunity to fight a battle should be ignored. To that was added an obsession with vengeance against Russia, born out of the Chechen blood revenge culture and, in particular, the deaths of 11 members of his close family in a Russian bombing in 1995.

His fearlessness, cunning, propaganda skills and cruelty made him unique. Although loathed by many Chechens, mainly women, he was a hero to a certain category of Chechen young men, who celebrated his death-defying exploits and outrageous mockery of the Kremlin.

The good news is that Basayev is almost irreplaceable. Two of his kind do not come around twice in a generation. The bad news is that his removal came many years too late -- and not just because many hundreds of people might otherwise be alive. The Russian leadership has eliminated or exiled the moderate wing of the Chechen pro-independence movement, which wanted to negotiate and could have brought alienated Chechens back into some kind of political process.

Consider the situation of a young twentysomething Chechen male who has been part of the rebel movement for the last decade. He has seen friends and family members die and quite probably has been wounded or tortured by Russian security forces. He has almost no education. If he watches Russian television he will see reports of his comrades being "destroyed" as if they were vermin.

Now this man has no leaders left. What route does he follow? One route is collaboration. The so-called "Kadyrovtsy" who comprise Chechnya's pro-Moscow security forces are mainly ex-fighters, taking a rest from the hills and earning a decent salary in a new uniform. Their loyalty is entirely provisional and on the day after their leader, Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, is replaced or arrested, there is no knowing what they will do next.

The other road is radical Islam. In the last five years, a network of shadowy jamaats, or Islamic groups, has sprung up across the North Caucasus, from Dagestan to Karachayevo-Cherkessia. Its adherents are anonymous pious young men from marginalized social groups. Not for them the theatrics of Basayev; they will operate like tiny ants gnawing away at the fundamentals of Russian power in the region.

Nine years is a long time in the North Caucasus. It is interesting to look at a set of pictures from the inauguration of Aslan Maskhadov as president of Chechnya in February 1997 -- a ceremony attended, lest we forget, by officials from more than 40 regions of Russia. In one photograph Maskhadov is seated on the right of Akhmad Kadyrov, then mufti of Chechnya, later the man who would betray him, join up with Vladimir Putin and become a hero of Russia. On Maskhadov's left are Ruslan Aushev, then president of Ingushetia and Alexander Lebed, the man who signed the agreement with Maskhadov to end the first Chechen war. Nearby is Basayev. Of these men, Aushev is the only one still alive, and he has been removed from power.

The grouping of these men together is a reminder how different and subtle the politics of the North Caucasus are. Even seeming enemies keep in touch and communicate and do deals. They do not live by the vague categories of "hero," "terrorist" or "patriot." They are driven by ties of obligation to large groups of people. But this generation of leaders is all but gone now and we now have the more difficult task of predicting the intentions of a mass of anonymous gray men, who are not interested, as Basayev was, in broadcasting their views far and wide to the outside world.

Thomas de Waal is Caucasus editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London.