Date: 9/8/2004


.................Beslan: Lessons for India

.....................G Parthasarathy

No terrorist attack in recent times has evoked greater horror, condemnation and revulsion than the attack in the small town of Beslan located in Russia's Caucasian Region, bordering Georgia. Over one thousand school children and their parents were held as hostages there and hundreds perished in the ensuing carnage.

Few of us in India understand what is happening along Russia's Caucasian borders. What we are witnessing there is a vicious conflict being waged against a democratic, pluralistic Russia, by separatists, committed to Wahhabi extremism and medieval barbarism. The separatist aim is to create an Islamic Emirate in Chechnya and its surrounding areas.

The Chechens have historically challenged Moscow's rule ever since the Caucasian Region was incorporated into Czarist Russia in 1859. Chechnya, like many other parts of the Soviet Union, proclaimed its independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. But no Russian ruler can ever accept total Chechen independence, because of the region's crucial strategic importance. Russian access to the Black Sea and the Caspian is through Chechnya.

Russian oil and gas pipelines to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan go through Chechnya. Moscow, therefore, had no option but to use military force to deal with a separatist rebellion led by Chechen military commander Dzokhar Dudaev, who gave a call for jihad and brought in Arab, Afghan and Pakistan Jihadis to fight Russian forces in 1993.

Despite initial setbacks, the Russians reasserted their authority after Chechen President Aslan Mashkadov who was elected in 1997 defeating the Wahhabi oriented Shamil Basaev, proved incapable of preventing Basaev and his followers from seizing control of large parts of the Republic. Things came to a head when Basaev and his Arab supporters led by a fanatic Wahhabi, Ibn-ul Khattab mounted a military operation in 1999 to seize control of the neighboring Republic of Dagestan. Khattab was killed in 2002 by Russian forces. He was succeeded by a 35 year old Saudi jihadi Abu al Walid who has earlier military experience in Afghanistan and Bosnia.

The conflict in Chechnya ceased to be just another civil war and assumed international dimensions primarily because of the support that the Chechens received from Saudi Arabia, the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and from Pakistan. Saudi Arabia financed the jihad in Chechnya with hundreds of millions of dollars routed through its so called "charities" that had close links with the Saudi Royal family. The Governor of Riyadh Prince Salman who is King Fahd's brother and King Fahd's "favorite son" Prince Azouzi are known to have been involved in training and financing Chechen terrorists.

Ever since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in 1994, Afghanistan became a major base for supporting, training and arming fundamentalist Wahhabi oriented groups, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Central Asia and supporters of Chechen terrorists, like former "President" Zelmikhan Andarbaev and Shamil Basaev in Chechnya. Taliban support for terrorism in Chechnya was voiced by its Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil who accorded diplomatic recognition to Chechnya as an independent country and proclaimed: "It is the Muslim World's shame that it does not support the Chechens. They are my brothers. They are Muslim."

Given the links between the ISI and the Taliban, Pakistan also provided support to Chechen terrorists. Andarbaev visited Pakistan in 1999-2000 and collected funds for the Chechen jihad. The Naib Amir of the Jamat Islami (JI) Professor Ghafoor Ahmed welcomed Andarbaev and gave a call for jihad in Chechnya. He also set up a fund for this jihad . In January 2000 the Amir of the JI Qazi Hussein Ahmed appealed to Pakistanis to support Chechens in Grozny with weapons.

There have been a number of reports even in the Pakistan press about Chechen terrorists being ideologically indoctrinated and trained in a madarsa linked to the Haqqania Mosque in Pakistan's NWFP. After the American attack and the subsequent overthrow of the Taliban regime, the Chechen terrorists in Afghanistan were scattered, with large numbers now operating from strongholds along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, in North and South Waziristan. Support for the Chechens has been voiced and extended by groups operating in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere in India, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Over the past five years, the Russians have faced a terrorist challenge that dwarfs the challenges we face in India. Schools have been attacked, political leaders assassinated, innocent persons held hostage like in the attack on a theatre in Moscow, aircraft have been hijacked or blown up, and the capital rocked by periodic bomb blasts in crowded locations like Moscow's underground Metro. But, under President Putin's leadership, the Russians have not wavered in their determination never to yield to terrorist demands that compromise national unity, sovereignty and dignity.

They have also not hesitated to use covert means to eliminate terrorist leaders seeking refuge abroad like Andarbaev, who was killed in Qatar on February 13, 2004. While Russia denied any involvement in Andarbaev's killing, three Russian citizens charged with involvement in the killing were set free by the Qatar authorities, after what was evidently some hard Russian pressure.

Diplomatically, Russia has sought to mend fences with Saudi Arabia following a visit to Moscow by Crown Prince Abdullah in September 2003. But suspicions of continuing Saudi involvement with Chechen terrorists remain. The Russians are also obviously concerned at what are perceived as attempts by the United States and its NATO allies not only to erode Russian influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, but to also loosen Moscow's hold in outlying and strategically located Republics like Chechnya and Dagestan.

The Americans and their allies appear to have adopted policy of deliberate ambiguity on the entire question of Russia's unity and territorial integrity. This makes it difficult for the Russians to deal with more secular minded Chechens like supporters of former President Aslan Mashkadov, who appear to enjoy understanding and support from western powers. Denying Russia influence in its former Republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus seems to have become an integral part of the new "Great game" now being played out in these oil and energy rich parts of the world.

India has a track record of surrendering to terrorist demands. The disgraceful surrender by the VP Singh Government during the kidnapping of Rubaiyya Syed led to the insurgency in Kashmir getting a boost. Our anti-terrorist efforts received a further setback when terrorists who took over the Hazratbal shrine were allowed to get away. The terrorists were even served biryani by the security forces that surrounded them! The release of three hard core terrorists during the hijacking of IC 814 led to Maulana Masood Azhar masterminding the December 13, 2001 attack on Parliament and Omar Syed Sheikh brutally killing American journalist Daniel Pearl and establishing links with the hijackers of 9/11.

The third terrorist then released, Mushtaq Zargar, now operates from Muzaffarabad in POK, directing terrorist operations in J&K. Following these examples, State Governments in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu cravenly surrendered to extortionist demands by a brigand like Veerapan. We are now told that the Congress led-UPA Government acquiesced in a payment of $1 million for the release of three truck drivers kidnapped in Iraq. Is it not time that we should at least get a unanimous resolution adopted by our Parliament affirming that we will never change our national policies, pay ransom, or release detained terrorists in response to terrorist threats? And should we sit quietly with folded hands as we now do, when terrorists operate against us with impunity from safe havens in Pakistan and Bangladesh?