When Are Terrorists Not Terrorists?
by Stephen Schwartz
Following the mysterious February 6 Moscow subway explosion, which Russian president Vladimir Putin quickly blamed on Chechen separatists, came the news on February 13 of the assassination in Qatar of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.
Yandarbiyev was an authentic supporter of Islamic extremism among Chechens -- as opposed to an Arab adventurer posing as a member of the Caucasian mountain nation. He had once led a peace delegation to meet with former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, but he also arranged for a Chechen "diplomatic office" to be opened in Kabul, Afghanistan, under the rule of the Taliban. After that absurdity, the mainstream Chechen leaders relieved Yandarbiyev of all responsibility, and repudiated any alleged link with the Taliban.
The Chechens, a small, isolated, and largely unknown and incomprehensible people, just can't seem to get a break. Although human rights monitors and experts on Russia in the West advocate in their defense, the terrorist label applied to them sticks.
A case in point is that of Ilyas Akhmadov, a 43-year old former Chechen guerrilla who has sought asylum in the U.S. Akhmadov, unlike Yandarbiyev, has made a serious commitment to peace between his tormented people and the Russian authorities. Akhmadov is foreign affairs minister in the shadow Chechen government of Aslan Maskhadov, who also advocates for peace. He has made several visits to the U.S. since spring of 2001. His legal right to remain in the U.S. expired after 14 months, in 2002.
Akhmadov's appeal for American asylum gained some distinguished endorsers: former secretary of state Alexander Haig, Jr., former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former State Department counselor Max Kampelman signed a letter supporting him in 2002. The trio warned of profound Russian antipathy to the Chechens, and noted Akhmadov's condemnation of terrorism and activism for peace, declaring that he would be "in serious risk to his freedom, health, and even life," if asylum was not granted.
In a 2003 letter, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright added her name to his cause, describing Akhmadov as "dedicated to peace, not terrorism." Others proclaiming their belief in his sincerity included former defense secretary Frank Carlucci, former National Security Agency director Lt. Gen William E. Odom (Ret.), and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers.
The roster of Akhmadov's friends hardly indicates gullibility. Although high U.S. policy circles since September 11 have had to contend with the problem of an Islamic establishment in this country that toes the Wahhabi line put forward by powerful elements in the Saudi government, the "Wahhabi lobby" played no role in Akhmadov's case. That is not surprising, because Wahhabi Arabs infiltrating Chechnya have become a major obstacle to unification of the Chechens on a peace platform.
Akhmadov's situation became more complicated when his wife and three children also applied for refugee status in the U.S. According to a letter by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, addressed in mid-2003 to Tom Ridge and John Ashcroft, the family was approved for resettlement as refugees in Boston, Mass., by UN officials. The youngest child, an infant son, suffers clubfoot, a serious medical condition. McCain pointed out that he had met personally with Akhmadov on three occasions since 1999, and repeated others' praise of him as a "proponent of peace and human rights" who "consistently condemned perpetrators of international terrorism."
McCain further wrote, "unless the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Justice has credible information suggesting that he has been involved in terrorist or other activities harmful to American national security interests, of which I am unaware, I urge you to grant Mr. Akhmadov asylum and reunite him with his wife and children."
Earlier in 2003, U.S. immigration authorities had decided against Akhmadov, mainly because he had served in Chechen militia forces under Shamil Basayev, a Chechen leader who later became aligned with Saudi/Wahhabi interests. Akhmadov was judged "a person who may have engaged in the terrorist activities of an undesignated terrorist organization" and who "may have assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of others." Nevertheless, Akhmadov convinced outside observers that he had broken completely with Basayev after the latter turned to Wahhabism.
But extensive allegations against Akhmadov, claiming he was an activist supporter of Basayev and Basayev's Saudi allies, had been furnished to the U.S. authorities by the Russian government. In particular, Akhmadov was accused of participating in a Wahhabi incursion into Daghestan, a region neighboring Chechnya to the east, in 1999.
Legal evidence originating in Moscow continues to have a problematic character, as it did (to say the very least) under the Soviets. Late last year, a British court rejected a Russian request for the extradition of another Chechen moderate, Akhmed Zakayev, who had asked for asylum in the United Kingdom in 2002. The decision of the Bow Street Magistrates' Court, in the person of Judge T. Workman, included a paragraph emblematic of Russian legal practice, which would be hilarious were it not so tragic: the Russians had "alleged that Mr. Zakaev... murdered Father Serge (now known as Father Philip). [The allegation was] later withdrawn, and indeed Father Philip has given evidence before me."
To practiced observers of Russian jurisprudence, such finagling is old news: a dead priest turns out to have a different name, and to be alive.
Chechnya is a horror show in which it is difficult, if not impossible, for most outsiders to distinguish good people from evil. While Russian leaders need Chechen extremism to prove their commitment to the war against terrorism, Wahhabi agents throughout the Islamic world need Russian atrocities in Chechnya to support terrorist recruitment.
Recently the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, which has distinguished itself as an outstanding chronicler of tragedy in the former Soviet Union, published an essay by Stephen Blank, a professor at the Army War College, in its web publication, Spotlight on Terror: Insights into Recent Events in Global Terror (at www.jamestown.org.) Titled "Cynicism Personified: Moscow and Riyadh's Collaboration Against Chechnya," Blank's work disclosed that the Russians and Saudis had signed an agreement "whereby Saudi Arabia has agreed to subsidize the reconstruction of Chechnya's education system under Russian rule... Saudi banks will allocate funds to Chechnya on the basis of a Saudi delegation's investigation of local conditions even though previous subsidies to Chechnya have vanished without any accounting. Saudi banks will also discuss joint collaboration with Russian banks for purposes of humanitarian reconstruction and even possible investment in the local petroleum industry."
Blank goes on to describe the Russian-Saudi deal as "a bribe, laundered under these auspices, to keep Russia from threatening Saudi energy interests in OPEC." Further, the scheme comes, as Blank notes, although "(s)ince the start of the war in Chechnya, Moscow has unrelentingly castigated Wahhabite terrorism, an Islamic ideology originating in Saudi Arabia, as the enemy that it is fighting." Notwithstanding that fact, Saudi-sponsored education among Chechens would doubtless reflect the standing of Wahhabism as the official sect of the Saudi state.
Ilyas Akhmadov and his supporters are challenging the denial of asylum to him. But in view of the level of chicanery and cruelty present in the Chechen conflict, it is doubtful he will be given a chance to prove his oft-stated devotion to peace as a U.S. asylee. Perhaps when more years have gone by, and more blood has been shed, his case will be judged differently. But by then he may just as likely be dead and forgotten.