(AP) MOSCOW – The brutality and meticulous planning of the school hostage-taking and other recent terror attacks in Russia have focused new attention on the growing influence of Islamic extremists over Chechen rebels and raised suspicions of a global terror connection.
The conflict in Chechnya, which began a decade ago as a secular fight for independence from Moscow, has steadily evolved into what local and foreign militants have described as jihad, or “holy war” against Russia.
“Over time, a growing number of people in Chechnya have identified themselves with global jihad,” said Alexei Malashenko, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow office.
Fundamentalist Islamic groups have methodically recruited followers among Russia’s 20 million Muslims since the 1990s, often driving mainstream Muslim clerics from their mosques in such Caucasus regions as Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkariya, both near Chechnya.
“Extremist groups have turned many mosques into their headquarters,” said Alexander Sharavin, the director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis.
Along with radical Islamic doctrines, Arab fighters and instructors also have brought new tactics to Chechnya, such as suicide bombings. “They act as a catalyst and give an international dimension to these attacks … as part of global jihad,” Malashenko said.
Russian officials claimed that about 30 militants who seized the school in the southern city of Beslan included Arabs, and President Vladimir Putin said that international terrorism has unleashed a war against Russia. Many analysts believe that foreign terror groups likely played a role in twin Russian plane bombings, a suicide attack near a Moscow subway station and the school seizure, which together killed more than 430 people.
“Al-Qaida and other international terror groups view Russia as a part of Western civilization that must be broken and forced to its knees,” said Sergei Arutyunov, a prominent expert on the North Caucasus with Russia’s Academy of Sciences.
Shamil Basayev, a Chechen warlord who claimed responsibility for the latest attacks, said his militants who seized the school included two Arabs, but he sought to downplay connections to global terror, including Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization.
In a letter posted recently on a rebel Web site, Basayev claimed he had received less than $20,000 in foreign donations this year.
“I am not acquainted with bin Laden,” Basayev wrote. “I don’t receive money from him but would not refuse it.”
Basayev, who gained notoriety for cruel attacks against civilians since a 1995 hostage-taking raid on a hospital in southern Russia, was declared a threat to the United States last year by the U.S. State Department, which pointed to his alleged al-Qaida links.
A U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it isn’t clear yet whether al-Qaida was involved in recent attacks in Russia. Previous indications were that al-Qaida’s assistance to the Chechen rebels revolved around financial support, logistical support and fighters, rather than operational guidance or direction, the official said.
In his public statements, bin Laden has cited Chechnya as a region where war should be waged, and al-Qaida-associated militants still are thought to be fighting in Chechnya.
“Chechnya is a jihad that al-Qaida supports with rhetoric and money,” the U.S. official said.
In Chechnya, Basayev fought alongside Omar Ibn al-Khattab, a Saudi-born rebel leader who died in 2002, apparently after being poisoned, and later maintained close ties with another Saudi militant, Abu Walid, reportedly killed in Chechnya earlier this year.
Russian officials said yet another Saudi, Mohammed Abu Omar al-Seif, likely had played a role in plotting the school seizure and the other recent terror attacks in Russia. He is considered al-Qaida’s emissary in Chechnya.
Alexander Ignatenko, the head of the Institute for Religion and Politics, a Moscow-based independent think-tank, said that al-Seif, a radical Islamic theologian, had acted as a top spiritual counselor for rebels in Chechnya, issuing fatwas, or religious edicts, to approve specific attacks.
According to some accounts, Arab counselors were appointed co-leaders of even small rebel units, forming a separate chain of command controlled by al-Seif.
Many of the Arab fighters who joined Basayev’s group, which calls itself by an Arabic name, Riyadus Salikhin, later moved to fight in Iraq and other areas, Ignatenko said.
“The people who fought in Chechnya come back to Saudi Arabia and stage terror attacks there,” Ignatenko said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Such ‘Chechen Arabs’ are spreading now throughout the Arab world, one example being Morocco.”
Dia’a Rashwan, a leading terror researcher in Egypt, said that while Arab militants fought in Chechnya, close coordination between different Islamic militant groups was unlikely.
“There is probably a copycat tactic,” he said. “These groups are using tactics that are used elsewhere, without direct instructions from a single centralized command.”
The Saudi-based Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, which U.S. authorities accused of diverting donations to support terrorist activities, has financed rebels in Chechnya, Ignatenko said.
Al-Haramain and other Arab charities also have financed a web of fundamentalist Islamic groups in other mostly Muslim provinces across Russia’s North Caucasus.
“Foreigners act as spiritual leaders in such radical groups as Yarmuk, Tabuk and Dzhannat,” Ignatenko said.
Facing the rising tide of radical Islam at home, Saudi authorities recently have turned a more sympathetic ear to Russian requests to curb the flow of funds from Saudi charities to rebels in Chechnya.
Putin’s critics say that massive poverty and unemployment in the Caucasus, along with the continuing military abuses in Chechnya and the Kremlin’s refusal to negotiate peace with the rebels, were helping bolster support base for radical groups with links to al-Qaida.
“They have talked so much about combating international terrorism in the Caucasus that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Andrei Piontkovsky, the head of the Center for Strategic Studies, an independent think-tank. “Warlords who were pursuing separatist goals have given way to those who are part of global fundamentalist network.”
Valery Tishkov, a leading expert on Chechnya, said that foreign terror networks had attacked Russia because official negligence and corruption make it easy prey.
“They have chosen a target that can be hit more easily,” Tishkov said. “The United States is far less vulnerable, and Israel has never been a soft target.”