Chechen blood spilled in Dubai

Chechen refugees queue up to get water in the Severny refugee camp, not far from the village of Sleptsovskaya, in December 1999. Alexander Nemenov / AFP
Apr 04, 2009
The National

By Carl Schreck

A week ago today a lone gunman entered the car park of an apartment block at Jumeirah Beach residence, walked up behind Sulim Yamadayev, 36, a former Chechen warlord who defected to the Russians, and shot him in the back of the head. Two unarmed bodyguards stood by helpless to protect him. Dubai Police said there had been 19 failed attempts on Yamadayev’s life. The 20th had succeeded.

A pistol left at the scene was later traced to Russia and police have arrested what they describe as a “prime suspect”.

It appeared that the UAE had become the outpost for a blood feud whose origins lay thousands of miles away in the Northern Caucasus mountains.

The battle-hardened people of Chechnya are fiercely independent and have endured much suffering over the past century.

Resistance to their Russian overlords dates back to the 18th century and rebellion would flare up whenever the Russian state was in crisis. During the Second World War Stalin deported the entire ethnic Chechen population to what is now Kazakhstan and Siberia as a preventative measure, because he could not be sure of their loyalty to the Soviet state.

At the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, an independent Chechen movement was formed and after a hard-fought, bloody war that claimed 41,000 Chechen lives, de facto independence was eventually won in 1996.

This was seen by most Chechens as a victory for national identity. But in the years that followed, the weak rebel government that emerged from the conflict was unable to fend off encroachment from more radical Islamist elements in the rebel ranks.

This led the more secular-minded rebels to defect to the Russian side when Moscow sent in troops to retake the region in 1999 in what became the second Chechen war. Among these defectors were Ramzan Kadyrov, the current Moscow-backed president of Chechnya, who has now cemented almost total control in the republic, and Sulim Yamadayev.

The split in the insurgency was caused by tensions between relative moderates, such as the Kadyrov and Yamadayev clans, and warlords who were pushing a very militant form of Salafism, which Russian officials have erroneously referred to as Wahhabism, said Simon Saradzhyan, a researcher at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“During the first war the two sides were happy with each other. But then the Salafites started pushing for things like sharia law.”

Among the Arabs urging a hard Islamic line in Chechnya was the Saudi fighter Khattab, while Chechen adherents to Salafism included the warlords Arbi Barayev and Shamil Basayev, who would mastermind the 2004 Beslan school attack in which some 330 people died, most of them children.

The Yamadayevs and Kadyrovs made little secret of their dislike for the Arab fighters and began referring to them as “shaitans”, or “devils”, Mr Saradzhyan said.

The animosity between the two camps flared up after Basayev and Khattab led an armed incursion into neighbouring Dagestan in 1999. As a result of this attack the Kadyrovs and the Yamadayevs decided to give up the Chechen town of Gudermes to Russian forces without a fight.

Essentially the Chechen independence movement had been “hijacked” by jihadist elements who saw the war against Russia as part of a global jihad, Nabi Abdullaev, a Moscow-based journalist and political researcher, said.

The dominance of Islamist elements in the second Chechen war can be seen in the adoption of terrorist tactics against Russian targets, including the use of female suicide bombers. These “Black Widows” were common on other jihad fronts but unheard of in the first Chechen war, Mr Abdullaev said.

In video statements made before the 2002 terrorist attack on the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow, female suicide bombers only used the word “Chechen” once, he said. Instead they described the attack as revenge against Vladimir Putin, then Russian president, for his “war against Muslims”.

Some Chechens did feel they were part of a global jihad, particularly young people, said Timur Aliyev, a journalist based in the Chechen capital of Grozny and now an aide to the Chechen president. “But not everyone shared this opinion, it was just a small percentage.”

It was this change from a rebellion in pursuit of a national mission to an insurgency as part of a global jihad that persuaded many Chechens to switch sides, he added.

“Many of the guys who fought in the first war demonstratively rejected fighting in the second, saying that it was a totally different war, and one they had not the slightest desire to participate in.” It was at this point in 1999 that Sulim Yamadayev, together with his brothers Dzhabrail, Badrudi, Isa and Ruslan, defected. He rounded up a group of battle-hardened Chechens and formed his notorious Vostok battalion. Answering directly to the Russian defence ministry’s main intelligence directorate, the GRU, the Vostok became one of the chief units responsible for hunting down the Arab insurgents.

Around 2001 or 2002, Mr Yamadayev’s battalion was charged specifically with conducting search-and-destroy operations in the mountains of Chechnya, including the republic’s Vedensky district which contained several Arab insurgent bases and training camps, Mr Aliyev said.

Dima Belyakov, a Russian photographer who met Mr Yamadayev on several occasions during both Chechen wars, has photographs on his website showing often brutal Vostok operations against militants in the Vedensky district. One 2007 photograph shows the shredded remains of what Mr Belyakov describes as an “Islamite-rebel”, who preferred to detonate himself with a grenade rather than fall into the hands of Mr Yamadayev’s troops.

It was during a 2004 Vostok raid in the Vedensky district that Abu al-Walid, a prominent Arab fighting in Chechnya, who Russian officials claimed was al Qa’eda’s key man in the region, was killed. And it was his death for which Mr Yamadayev received the Hero of Russia medal, one of Russian state’s highest awards.

So it was, perhaps, no surprise that when news of Mr Yamadayev’s assassination last weekend began filtering into Russia, speculation quickly emerged in the Russian media that he may have been targeted by Arab enemies for his ruthless pursuit and destruction of Arab jihadists fighting alongside local insurgents in Chechnya.

But Mr Yamadayev had other enemies, not least the Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov.

Tensions between the two men had increased as Mr Kadyrov tried to consolidate his presidential power base in Chechnya.

The Yamadayevs posed a possible threat to him because they answered to the GRU in Moscow and stubbornly refused to come under his control.

Things came to a head in April last year, when a Vostok convoy refused to give way to Mr Kadyrov’s motorcade on a Chechen highway. The impasse turned into a shoot-out between the rival factions with reports of up to 18 people killed.

It was after this that Mr Kadyrov went public with accusations against Sulim Yamadayev of murder, kidnapping and extortion and issued a warrant for his arrest.

Mr Yamadayev re-emerged later in the year serving in South Ossetia during Russia’s short war with Georgia and the arrest warrant was cancelled. Four months ago he moved his wife and six children to the flat in Dubai Marina having apparently retired from military life.

State-owned Russian media has largely remained quiet about Mr Yamadayev’s feud with Mr Kadyrov, despite speculation elsewhere that the Chechen president may have had a hand in his rival’s murder. Mr Kadyrov has denied any role in the deaths of Sulim Yamadayev or his brother, Ruslan Yamadayev, who was shot dead while driving his car in central Moscow in September, and has hinted that both murders may be connected to a blood feud.

With the Yamadayev clan completely sidelined in Chechnya, Mr Kadyrov is more powerful than ever. The Kremlin has decided that authoritarianism is better than chaos and grant him an almost entirely free hand.

Mr Kadyrov, meanwhile, appears to have learned some lessons from the past. In an apparent move to sidestep a challenge from religious fundamentalists, he has vocally encouraged conservative Muslim values and traditions. He has advocated polygamy among Chechens, despite a federal law banning the practice, and in February he tackled a Russian national pastime, issuing a decree restricting the sale of alcohol to only two hours every day.

Back in Dubai, the mystery of the car park shooting remains unresolved for the time being. Indeed, Mr Yamadayev’s family refuse to admit he is dead. His brother Isa Yamadayev was quoted by the Agence France-Presse news service last week as saying: “he feels fine. The doctors do not let us talk with him for a long time. They also said nothing threatens his life. Everything will be fine.”

Carl Schreck is an editor and journalist based in Moscow

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