Tag Archives: Caucasus

An unholy alliance is rattling the Kremlin

A high-profile alliance between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leader of the Chechnya region of Russia is starting to fray. And outspoken Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was mysteriously gunned down in front of the Kremlin last month, reportedly knew all about it.

Critics of Putin say that over the past decade the Russian president has empowered 38-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, “to effectively create the Islamic republic that Chechen separatists had dreamed of — albeit one entirely reliant on Moscow for financial support,” The New York Times reported this week.

The Times notes that Putin has allowed Kadyrov to rule the region for eight years while “seemingly turning a blind eye to assassinations, torture and other human rights abuses.” And critics, including Nemtsov, were warning about what happens if the warlord turned strongman’s ambitions for power spin out of Putin’s control.

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social mediaKadyrov leads his “Kadyrovtsy” troops in chants of “God is great!” at a rally in the Chechen capital’s new soccer arena.

“I cannot understand what Putin expects when arming 20,000 Kadyrovtsy gathered today in the stadium in Grozny,” Nemtsov wrote in Facebook post in December. “What will happen next? The country is entering a crisis. There is not enough money for anything, including the support of regions.

“And the unspoken contract between Putin and Kadyrov — money in exchange for loyalty — ends. And where will 20,000 Kadyrovtsy go? What will they demand? How will they behave? When will they come to Moscow?”

It seems Nemtsov was on to something.

People initially suspected Kremlin involvement in Nemtsov’s murder, but now five Chechens have been arrested in connection with the killing, and fingers are starting to point at Kadyrov as the possible architect of the hit.

One of the suspects arrested is a former deputy commander from one of Kadyrov’s security battalions, which operate independently of federal authorities. Kadyrov praised the deputy as a “real Russian patriot” after he was arrested and implied that he wasn’t guilty of taking a hit out on Nemtsov.

Moreover, four people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg that Putin was furious when he learned about what had happened.

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REUTERS/Pavel BednyakovThe covered body of Boris Nemtsov, with St. Basil’s Cathedral, right, and the Kremlin walls, left, in Moscow, February 28, 2015.

Putin is “dealing with a significant internal challenge: It’s extremely unlikely he ordered Nemtsov’s killing, but it was clearly an inside job,” Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, told Business Insider earlier this month. “Dealing with that is surely his top priority.”

Radio Free Europe noted that on March 16 — the day Putin reappeared from a mysterious 10-day absence from public view — a law enforcement official told Interfax that Nemtsov’s murder had been reclassified from a “contract killing” to a “hate crime.”

That designation all but squashes the investigation into who ordered the hit on Nemtsov. So while it’s possible that the Kremlin’s investigation might have ended up implicating Kadyrov in the murder, now it seems that possibility has been taken off the table.

In any case, Nemtsov supporters are now saying the investigation has “exposed a dangerous rift between the chiefs of the security services in Moscow and the brash Chechen leader,” The Times says.

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REUTERS/Maxim ShemetovParticipants hold a cartoon depicting Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov as they attend a “Russian March” demonstration on National Unity Day in Moscow, November 4, 2012.

‘The FSB hate Ramzan’

“The F.S.B. [the post-Soviet successor to the KGB] hate Ramzan because they are unable to control him,” Alexey Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Times. “He does whatever he wants, including in Moscow. Nobody can arrest members of his team if there is no agreement with Putin.”

Some experts think that Nemtsov’s murder fits this context.

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“Putin had to make a choice. Either feed Kadyrov to the FSB-men, or give up the FSB to Kadyrov,” political analyst Leonid Volkov wrote on Facebook. “It’s a difficult and unpleasant choice … And he chose the one and only thing he could choose: Kadyrov.”

An unnamed source close to the Kremlin told Bloomberg of another theory about Nemtsov’s murder: that rogue FSB agents killed Nemtsov in the hopes of implicating Kadyrov, whose increasingly audacious actions have become a pain for officials in Moscow.

“Putin has become a hostage to his own policy of radicalizing supporters so they can spring to action whenever he needs them,” Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Bloomberg. “His authoritarianism is sliding into decentralized terror. His backers think he’s much more radical than he really is and are acting without clear orders.”

By giving Kadyrov the power to kill extremists in Chechnya in order to stabilize the region — as well as cover to assassinate perceived critics in the capital — Putin may have inadvertently created a monster that the Kremlin can’t contain.

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A policeman stands in front of participants of an “Anti-Maidan” rally against the 2014 Kiev uprising, which ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, in Moscow, February 21, 2015.

Nemtsov’s supporters say Russian propaganda implicity encourages violence against Putin critics, according to Bloomberg. The Kremlin reportedly approved a rally in Moscow during which tens of thousands of people demanded that Putin’s critics be “purged.”

What happens next?

It’s unclear whether there will be ramifications for whoever ordered the hit on Nemtsov. Or how the murder is rattling the Kremlin.

While Putin was absent from public view, Kadyrov reaffirmed his undying loyalty to the leader in an Instagram post, writing: “I will always be his faithful companion, regardless of whether he is president or not. To give one’s life for such a person is an easy task.”

Radio Free Europe points out that this could have been a veiled threat: “I am loyal, Kadyrov seemed to be saying. But others may not be. And taking me down carries risks.”

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Russia: We warned the Yanks about Islamic State

A joke making the rounds among Russian officials and hacks who take a keen interest in what is going on in the Middle East these days goes something like this: How will the Yanks deal with the Islamic State group?

They will create “Islamic State 2”, a bigger and better armed group, and let it deal with the original Islamic State group. And what happens when “Islamic State 2” turns against them as it happened with the original Islamic State? They will create “Islamic State 3”, and so on.

But seriously, the rise and spread of the Islamic State group is no laughing matter. Now that the US and its allies have finally woken up to the dangers of the spread of the extremist group, the worry in Moscow is that the hotheads in the Pentagon and at Nato headquarters in Brussels will decide to start hitting Islamic State positions in Syria along with “other targets” there as well – for instance, Syrian army positions.

US President Barack Obama has already announced his plan to deal with the group, promising to lead a “broad coalition” that will “roll back this terrorist threat”. In Moscow, the fear is that the US will seize this opportunity to intervene in Syria.

The Libyan scenario

According to Valeriy Fenenko from the Moscow Centre for International Security, the US can actually use the presence of the Islamic State group in Syria as a pretext to implement the “Libyan scenario”.

“The Americans are bound to try to compensate for their failure last fall,” he says. “At first, it will be air strikes against terrorists and then, in parallel, it may amount to helping the moderate opposition. The US may start a creeping interference, like it happened in Bosnia,” he said.

In any event, Russian diplomatic efforts are in full swing. According to one Russian source, Moscow is trying to prevent possible air strikes in Syria by the US, UK and others, in the same way it did last year when the danger of air strikes was growing by the day.

“Our people in Arab and European capitals were desperately trying to find some sort of solution last year,” he said. “The threat of a regional war that could escalate into a world war was taken very seriously by the Kremlin. And this scenario is in the cards again.”

The feeling in Moscow is that the recent Nato summit in Newport, Wales, missed out on a great opportunity to involve Russia in finding a solution to the spread of the Islamic State group and other militant groups associated with it across Iraq and the Middle East generally. Not to mention, the very real threat of these violent men entering European countries, and even reaching the US.

“The Russians have been warning the Americans ever since the civil war broke out in Syria that it was very dangerous to arm the opposition there,” one former Russian general who was in charge of anti-terrorist operation told me. “There was no chance that the arms destined for the so-called moderate opposition would not end up with the likes of the Islamic State. Not to mention that lots of it was coming as well from ‘liberated’ Libya.”

The same bandits

What worries Russian officials is the stubborn refusal of the Obama administration to talk to President Bashar al-Assad’s government about a possible joint effort in defeating the Islamic State group in Syria.

As Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said recently, it doesn’t make sense for the West to help the Iraqi government to fight the Islamic State group but deny cooperation to Assad who is fighting “the same bandits”.

Some Russian analysts are saying that the bigger problem of the current crisis is that the Islamic State group runs its recruitment campaigns not just in the Middle East but in Europe as well.

Different figures are cited over the number of Europeans who have joined the ranks of the group in the past several months, but if you consider that the number of fighters has risen – according to Russian estimates, from about 6,000 in June to over 30,000 at present – it can be assumed that we are talking about thousands of young Muslims travelling from Europe to fight in what they believe is a holy war.

The senseless war in Gaza has probably indirectly boosted the Islamic State group’s recruitment campaign, making it easier to claim that the West and Israel are hellbent on wiping out the Muslims in the Middle East. It remains unclear as to why Israel’s armed forces attacked Gaza during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and conducted blanket air strikes that were bound to take a heavy toll on the civilian population.

In the opinion of Russian experts, this looked more like a smokescreen for US failures in Iraq and Libya rather than an attempt to wipe out Hamas’ arsenal and top commanders. From a military point of view, Benjamin Netanyahu’s war achieved absolutely nothing, except perhaps giving Hamas a boost in popularity.

The danger for Russia from the Islamic State group is that some of its members come from Chechnya and Dagestan, the two Muslim republics in the south of Russia, and there is a risk that the group can find sympathisers and supporters there and even start to build a network across the Caucasus.

That is why Moscow is now calling on all parties to make a joint effort to destroy the Islamic State group before it becomes truly international.

However, as the president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems Konstantin Sivkov points out, the military option is only part of the solution in tackling the Islamic State group.

He says that air strikes would not be enough and that it’s crucial to also fight its ideology and cut off its finances that are now flowing through perfectly legal banking channels.  The war against the Islamic State group is fraught with dangers. It might get out of control and drag the whole region into a much wider conflict.

Putin’s Armenia Shock — Protests break out against a Russian ally in the Caucasus

Demonstrators wave national flags during a protest rally against a hike in electricity prices in Yerevan, Armenia on June 27.
Demonstrators wave national flags during a protest rally against a hike in electricity prices in Yerevan, Armenia on June 27

Ten thousand protesters over the weekend poured into the streets of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, defying the government’s crackdown. Russian-media reactions suggest the Kremlin is nervous, as Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is a close Moscow ally.

The so-called Electric Yerevan protests erupted this month after the state utilities commission announced a 17% rise in electricity rates, and they have steadily grown.

At issue isn’t merely the electricity price-hike in a country with 17% unemployment but the Russian domination of the local economy and the corruption and cronyism that are hallmarks of the Kremlin business model.

The local electricity provider, the Armenian Electricity Network, is a subsidiary of Russia’s Inter RAO, whose chairman, Igor Sechin, is a close friend of President Vladimir Putin.

The protesters allege the company is corrupt, and on Saturday Mr. Sargsyan conceded their demand for an audit. He also suspended the price hike, which was set to begin in August, until the audit is complete.

The Armenian leader and his Russian patrons seem to have grasped the depth of national feeling. The Kremlin over the weekend lent $200 million in military aid to Armenia, which has a long-standing territorial dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Moscow also agreed to move the trial of a Russian soldier suspected of murdering an Armenian family in January to an Armenian court.

At stake for Mr. Putin are his military investments in Armenia. Home to some 3,000 troops, the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia, is a crucial Russian beachhead in the South Caucasus corridor, without which Moscow can’t control the Caspian Sea and Central Asia.

Mr. Putin considers the Caucasus part of Russia’s imperial domain, and the Kremlin carved out bits of sovereign territory in the region in its 2008 assault on Georgia. Mr. Putin also wants stability in his Eurasian Economic Union, which Armenia joined this year.

The U.S. and Europe should aim to deny further Russian encroachments by encouraging westward steps. But no such determination is in evidence.

The European Union last month diluted its commitment to the Eastern Partnership countries, which include the South Caucasus states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. By denying such states a clear path to association, Europe pushes them into Mr. Putin’s sphere.

The U.S., meanwhile, took a stance on Twitter. “Concerned by tense situation downtown,” the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan tweeted over the weekend. “Urge all sides to display peaceful, restrained behavior befitting democratic values.” That’s nice.

The Grozny warlord reminding Moscow who is boss

A Chechen special forces officer rides atop an infantry fighting vehicle with a flag portraying Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov during Victory Day parade in central Grozny, on May 9, 2013. Fighter jets screamed over Red Square and heavy tanks rumbled over its cobblestones as Russia flexed today its military muscle on the anniversary of its costly victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Smaller Victory Day celebrations were held on the central squares of cities across Russia as well as at Moscow's Black Sea port of Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. AFP PHOTO / ELENA FITKULINA (Photo credit should read ELENA FITKULINA/AFP/Getty Images)

Men with guns are everywhere in Grozny. They stand on street corners, hang out in hotel lobbies and swagger through shopping malls, Uzis hanging from the waist.

They are Kadyrovtsy, the fighters who became policemen after Ramzan Kadyrov, their militia leader, became head of the Chechen Republic under a deal with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.

The Kadyrovtsys’ distinctive tight black uniform with a Chechen flag patch on the right arm and a Russian one on the left reflect how many Russians regard today’s Chechnya: a rival power base to parts of the Russian security state.

Tensions between Moscow and Grozny came to the fore after the murder in February of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician, for which three former Chechen security officials were arrested.

This week, after security forces from the neighbouring Stavropol region shot dead a Chechen man in Grozny, Mr Kadyrov felt compelled to remind Moscow who was boss in Chechnya.

Mr Kadyrov instructed his security officials: “If someone appears on our territory without your knowledge — no matter if a Muscovite or someone from Stavropol — I order you to shoot to kill.”

The Chechen government insists the Stavropol officials had come as paid assassins and lacked documents for a legal operation. But Mr Kadyrov’s aggressive response raises a bigger political question: his regime may have stabilised war-torn Chechnya, but could it now weaken the Russian state as a whole?

“Kadyrov has tried to build a state within the state for a long time,” says Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a Caucasus expert at International Crisis Group. “He only listens to Putin, and nobody else.”

While other republics in the North Caucasus exchange intelligence on the Islamist insurgency with which the restive region struggles, the Chechen arm of Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB, refuses to do so.

“It shares what it feels like sharing with Moscow, and lets the centre decide what it sends back down south,” says Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services at New York University and author of a book on the Chechen wars.

Chechnya’s warlord rulers have clashed over their claim to special status with other parts of the security apparatus before. So far, they have had their way.

In 2013, Mr Putin replaced his top investigator in Chechnya after only seven months on the job following a run-in with Chechen officials.

Sergei Bobrov, a highly decorated general at the Federal Investigative Committee, had pressed on with an investigation into the murder of three women in the Chechen village of Geldagan even after his staff received threatening phone calls telling them to stop.

Two people from Geldagan said their village belonged to the area of influence of Magomed Daudov, a former fighter under Mr Kadyrov’s father and now the republic’s prime minister. “No investigator can build a case without asking him what to do,” said one of the two.

The same year Mr Bobrov was forced out, the Federal Investigative Committee released several Chechen men with links to Mr Kadyrov whom the FSB had detained on charges of extorting, kidnapping and torturing other Chechens in Moscow.

In Chechnya, some believe that Mr Kadyrov ordered Mr Nemtsov’s murder just steps from the Kremlin walls because he thought this would be a service to his political overlord.

“That man is getting really worried what will happen to him if Putin is no longer there,” said a government critic in Grozny who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “With the criticism from the west, the economic crisis and rumours about disagreements in Putin’s circle, he realised that Putin will not be there for ever. Once Putin is gone, he loses everything.”

Others see the Nemtsov murder as a result of infighting. In Grozny, speculation is rife whether Mr Daudov or Adam Delimkhanov, a Duma member and brother of the commander of interior ministry troops in Chechnya, have ambitions to replace Mr Kadyrov.

True or not, these theories point to the precarious nature and the built-in risks of Mr Putin’s solution for Chechnya. But the Russian president does not appear to share such concerns.

He considers Chechnya a model that can be applied elsewhere. Last November, he suggested to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, that Ukraine pacify its eastern Donbass region by buying it off with money and autonomy as he had done in Chechnya.

Chechen special forces fficers ride atop an armoured personnel carrier during Victory Day parade in central Grozny, on May 9, 2013. Fighter jets screamed over Red Square and heavy tanks rumbled over its cobblestones as Russia flexed today its military muscle on the anniversary of its costly victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Smaller Victory Day celebrations were held on the central squares of cities across Russia as well as at Moscow's Black Sea port of Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
The Kadyrovtsy who enforce the will of the Chechen leader

That is more than an abstract idea. Moscow is bringing other parts of the North Caucasus in line with some of Chechnya’s draconian practices. In 2013, Mr Putin replaced the head of Dagestan, who had tried to counter the creeping Islamist insurgency through dialogue with Salafi Muslims.

Since then, Dagestan has cracked down on Salafism as Chechnya has. Dagestan authorities have also started using Mr Kadyrov’s practice of punishing insurgents’ families by destroying their houses and expelling them.

Vladislav Surkov, a Kremlin adviser on Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ukraine for Mr Putin, this year negotiated treaties for a far-reaching integration of the two Georgian breakaway regions with Russia in exchange for more economic aid.

As far as Mr Kadyrov is concerned, the deal is very clear. “If you entrusted this region to me, I must ensure security [here]. If not, please be so good and fire me.”

The Secret Life of an ISIS Warlord

Abu Omar al-Shishani has a fierce, gorgeous Chechen bride. He learned intelligence operations from the U.S. And his older brother may be the real genius of ISIS.

PANKISI GORGE, Georgia—The mother of martyrs, a woman in her fifties, is delicately beautiful and visibly in pain. She covers her hazel eyes and sobs over a photo album as the call to prayer echoes throughout the Georgian village of Jokolo, just south of the Chechen border.The mother’s story involves one of the most notorious jihadists in the world, a man who served in intelligence units trained by Americans and the British, a man who is the face of the ISIS conquests, and a man who took her late son’s wife for his own bride.

The mother, Leila Achishvili, tries hard to maintain her poise, even as she discusses the death of both of her boys, Hamzat and Khalid Borchashvili. She is halfway through a box of tissues. Her story has just begun.

The eight-mile-long Pankisi Valley is notorious even in the infamous Caucasus as a lawless corridor for smuggling weapons, drugs, and jihadists into Chechnya, just a few miles to the north and the east. It is also one of the few places in Georgia where the sorrowful beauty of the call to prayer still can be heard.

These days Pankisi feels closer to Syria than to the nation of Georgia, to which it belongs.

Among the younger generations, radical versions of Sunni Wahhabism have replaced the traditional moderate Sufi Islam of Pankisi’s Kist majority. There is rampant unemployment, and many of these disillusioned young Georgian jihadists now make their way west to Syria via neighboring Turkey. They are inspired by local legend and ISIS commander Abu Omar al-Shishani, who made the same journey only a few years before.

Stories and rumors circulate—whispers of his massive villa, his fiefdom and private harem, his 40 personal guards, his armored cavalcade of SUVs, and now his stunning and fierce Chechen warrior wife. For these young men, their Pankisi native son has already become part Josef Stalin (another native son of Georgia) and part rock star of the media-savvy Islamic caliphate. But according to his father, Abu Omar al-Shishani is a mirage: It’s his older brother who is running the ISIS show.

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The name that Abu Omar al-Shishani grew up with was Tarkhan. And because we are here in his hometown talking to the people who once loved him, and perhaps still do, we’ll use that name, too.  Tarkhan’s father, Temur, a grizzled, eccentric, well-read old Christian with a bitter sense of self-irony, tells his sons’ story in an extensive—almost bizarre—interview with The Daily Beast at his small gray house in the village of Birkiani, where his boys grew up.

“I am like a hobo,” the old man declares. “My son is one of the founders of Islamic caliphate and I’m here, dying in poverty! Look! Look where I live!” According to Temur, his son even invited him to Syria. “He told me, ‘Dad, come with me. You’ll live like you are in paradise.’ I told him, ‘Save your paradise for yourself, I prefer my home here.’”

Despite Tarkhan’s fame as a holy warrior, the father doesn’t see him as particularly pious, his mother came from a Muslim family, but he didn’t show much interest. The old man claims that, in fact, before Tarkhan went to prison, he wasn’t religious at all. He supposedly warned his older brothers about the dangers of fanatical Islam, especially his brother Tamaz, who was fighting in Chechnya:

“‘Be citizens of Georgia,’ Tarkhan would say to Tamaz, ‘You are in a war, you may fight there, but do not pick up their beliefs.’ And now look what happened! Do you see how a man can change?”

Like so many of the world’s most brutal dictators, military leaders, tyrants, and jihadists, it appears Tarkhan was trained by the very best: the United States government. According to his father and former colleagues, Tarkhan worked for an elite “Spetsnaz” Georgian military-intelligence unit—at least until he caught tuberculosis, lost his job in the intelligence unit, was then framed by that same intelligence unit, and went to jail in 2010 for weapons possession.

Tarkhan’s father claims that his son worked, specifically, for the ministry of interior’s KUD or “Kudi,” basically the domestic-intelligence and special-operations service in Georgia, officially called the Constitutional Security Department. The agency was notoriously brutal. When asked if it was true that his son Tarkhan was trained by the United States, Temur says, “Of course they did. They trained all of the Georgian army back then… My boy was just 19 when he went to the army… This KUDI, where he was working, it was an intelligence and reconnaissance unit.”

The United States government has been overtly training and funding Georgian troops for more than a decade. This is no secret. Last month, when U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Georgia, he also visited U.S. Marines at the Krtsanisi National Training Center outside Tbilisi, where the leathernecks continue to train Georgian troops as they have for more than a dozen years.

The Daily Beast has learned that a young clean-shaven Tarkhan joined the U.S-funded Georgian army in 2006. He rose quickly. He was recruited into a newly created “Spetsnaz” intelligence unit and he carried out reconnaissance on Russian tank brigades during the 2008 Georgia/Russia War. Levan Amiridze, Tarkhan’s friend and military colleague, with whom he would later spend time in prison, confirmed that officers in the “secret services” of the ministry of defense were routinely trained by both U.S. and British instructors. So there is little doubt that the ISIS commander from Pankisi was either trained by the Americans or by the officers whom they had trained.

Yet despite Tarkhan’s American guidance and combat experience, Tarkhan’s father doesn’t see his son as any kind of military mastermind. Temur views his youngest boy as a kind of victim. Over the course of the interview, the father sketches a relationship that his two sons have gone to great lengths to create and to conceal in their command of ISIS troops in Syria.

“Tarkhan is 27, not more—a child! Tamaz is his teacher. Tamaz ruined everything I had,” says the father of these holy warriors. “Tamaz is everything, the main actor; Tarkhan is nothing.” It was Tamaz who went off to fight in Grozny during the gruesome Chechen rebellion against Russia in the 1990s and early in the last decade. It was Tamaz who took his whole family to Syria. “They are together. Tamaz is his mentor. He survived that huge Grozny war and came back alive. [But] in Syria, Tamaz doesn’t show himself.”

And there we have it. The conspicuous, red-bearded jihadist Tarkhan, a.k.a. Abu Omar, one of the most wanted terrorists on the planet, may well be a figurehead for his older brother, the mastermind behind the Chechen operatives running ISIS offensives in Syria and Iraq.

If this is true, it explains why, unlike the rest of the top ISIS commanders, Tarkhan allows himself to be photographed extensively. They are creating the illusion that he is the “head of snake”—while the real architect of ISIS’s Syria operation, Tamaz Batirashvili, remains in the shadows.

The two brothers have similar features, the same nose, same red beards, yet we are told that Tamaz doesn’t typically wear military fatigues. He dresses simply, in a gown with a scarf on his head. They play two very different roles, but according to a local in Pankisi, “It’s instantly recognizable that they are brothers.” The tactic is quite clever in the terrifying game of illusion and terror that is so essential to the mystique and the conquests of the self-declared caliphate.

The importance of Tamaz is not just a figment of the old man’s imagination. The elder brother’s military prowess and importance to Georgian intelligence was also confirmed by a former Georgian military official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified by name.

There were much more professional and experienced men in the group from the Pankisi who worked with the Georgian spy agency.

“Tarkhan was the only newbie,” says this source. “We only recruited him because we were interested in his brother—Tamaz and his friends, who were ‘real wolves,’ experienced soldiers, and veterans of the Chechen wars. We had certain interests toward them.” Georgia’s Anti-Terrorism Center, or ATC, allegedly ran some jihadists out of Pankisi to fight against Moscow’s troops in Grozny, a charge the Georgian government has always denied.

But when Tarkhan got sick with tuberculosis and was ushered out, the government gave him no pension or medical assistance. He grew increasingly angry, and then the government went after him, charging him with arms possession—just as it had done with his older brother years before—and throwing him in jail.

“I don’t know whether he really was involved in weapon smuggling, but most of his friends, including those who were arrested with him, presumably really were doing this,” said the same former official. “Some even were drug addicts. And Tarkhan was thought to act as a fixer, getting them in touch with people from Pankisi who wanted to buy weapons.”

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The home of Leila, the soft-spoken mother of martyrs, is warm and elegant, a far cry from the tiny cottage of the boisterous Temur, Tarkhan’s father. Yet Leila’s hearth is also the childhood home of two Wahhabi jihadists who left Pankisi to join Tarkhan’s fight in Syria. Leila’s sons, Hamzat and Khalid Borchashvili, also have not returned. And there is this curious connection as well: Leila and Temur have the same daughter-in-law.

Her name is Seda Dudurkaeva, although now she goes by the name Aisha. With big brown eyes, long lashes, and voluptuous features, she was once one of Chechnya’s most desired brides. Seda is the daughter of Asu Dudurkaev, who was a minister in the government of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov—who fired him because he could not “control” his fanatical daughter.

Kadyrov, who is very close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a strong supporter of the Assad regime in Syria, announced the dismissal of the minister on his absurdly active Instagram page in late November last year: “Dudurkaev, as the leader of one of the most important structures, has no moral right to speak with subordinates about morality and patriotism and religion.

His own daughter is in the ranks of the Wahhabis and bandits, who are shedding the blood of civilians, and blowing up Islamic shrines in Syria.”

The conspicuous red-bearded jihadist Abu Omar, one of the most wanted terrorists on the planet, may well be a figurehead for his older brother, the mastermind behind the offensives in Syria and Iraq.

Seda, the Chechen beauty, first went to Syria to marry Leila’s son Hamzat, and Leila’s sobs grow deeper as her story progresses. She says that when her two sons were just boys she sent them to live with her former husband in Austria. She thought he could provide better for them, and she wanted to get them away from the increasingly radical atmosphere in Pankisi. She remembers Hamzat coming home one day when he was only 12 years old wearing the kind of robes affected by the Wahhabi extremist. “I thought in Europe they would abandon Wahhabi teachings,” she say. “I was wrong.”

Fifteen years later, when Hamzat returned from Austria to Pankisi, he was well-educated, with an engineer’s diploma from a university in Vienna, and he could speak five languages. But he took all these skills to Syria, to fight alongside Tarkhan, now known as Abu Omar al-Shishani.

“Hamzat became his interpreter and he would travel everywhere with Abu Omar, never leaving his side and respecting him enormously,” Leila says. But she heard from him only rarely. “I begged him to call me via Skype,” she said. “It’s shameful for a mujahedin to disobey his mother’s wish.”

“I used to not sleep at night, waiting for Hamzat’s Skype call. One night he finally did. Suddenly there on the screen was my son wearing a black scarf on his head with ‘Allah u Akbar’ written in Arabic. When I saw him, I cannot express the feeling I had,” she said. “I asked him: ‘For God’s sake… For Allah’s sake, take me there with you to Syria, I just want to hug you, nothing more.’”

Hamzat agreed to let her visit. “I asked him what to bring with me,” she said. “He told me to bring natural Georgian honey and churchkhela [a traditional Georgian candy made with dried grape must and nuts] for Abu Omar al-Shishani, which he loves very much. I knew Abu Omar,” said Leila. “He grew up here in Pankisi and for some time he worked in Georgia. I took everything that my son liked and missed. And I went to Turkey by bus.”

Leila is reluctant to talk about her son’s wife—the girl who fled from her wealthy father, a life of luxury, and traveled to Syria to marry a mujahedin. She says Seda and Hamzat met online, and that the girl left her guarded house to visit Hamzat, who had been wounded and was in hospital being treated. She acknowledges that someone helped Seda get to Hamzat in Syria, although Leila declines to say if it was friend or a relative.

President Kadyrov, who famously persecutes Wahhabis in Chechnya (along with many others), declared it “a matter of honor” and “a priority” that Seda, who now calls herself Aisha, return to the land of her birth. And the Chechen government’s search for the ex-minister’s daughter eventually led to Leila. “They contacted me and told me to bring that girl back—saying ‘She doesn’t belong with the likes of you,’” Leila recalls.

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The mother of martyrs went to Syria with two objectives: to see her son and to convince the girl to return to her family. She was a worried mother navigating safehouses and borders, clandestinely making her way to a rebel stronghold in Syrian territory to retrieve a Chechen princess.

“One man was supposed to meet me in Turkey and see me off to Syria,” she remembers. “Without talking, he took me to the car, gave me a cellphone, and someone spoke to me in poor Russian, asking, ‘Are you Abu Abdula’s mother?’ I said that I was. He asked again, whether I really was the mother of the man who recently married a woman from Chechnya. Again I confirmed. We went to a big building, full of wounded people, refugees from Syria.

“I went downstairs and entered a large room,” she continued, “where I saw about 10 tables with computers and men with long beards. What can I say—they looked very frightening! A group of young boys from Chechnya again asked me: ‘Are you Abu Abdula’s mother?’ Even they knew him.” She had no idea at the time how famous her own son had become in jihadist circles after appearing on YouTube calling on the whole Muslim world, especially athletes, to take part in jihad.

“Then a man came and took us to a bus station,” Leila recalled. “They paid for our tickets. I did not spend a single coin. From there they took us to the Syrian border.” And finally she saw her son, who was no longer the boy she knew: “He was gaunt and armed with all kinds of weapons. He was not the boy I raised. Then they took me to the car surrounded by armed men with cars, who seemed to protect them. They had cars full of guns, in case something happened. When I climbed in, the girl [Seda] was there too.” According to Hamzat, the car belonged to Tarkhan. “He said that these and some other cars were brought from Iran and that he was the only person who had access to this car.”

Apart from his wheels, Hamzat was living with few comforts and little cash. “He did not even have $100 to give me,” said Leila. “He told me: ‘Mom, sorry, I’m dedicating my life to Allah and I am extremely sad that I cannot give you money because I don’t have any.’ He had just one gown that his wife would wash. He used to wear that all the time.”

Leila said her daughter-in-law did not seem to mind. “They were a loving couple,” she said. Seda told her that she was in Syria by her own free will. “She did not complain about anything. I was astonished. She was such a beautiful girl, like an angel. She said that she was freer and felt a spiritual freedom there. As it befits a Muslim woman, in front of me she was shy. I would speak to my son. I told him that her people were calling me and saying that his wife should return home and that they would take care of her. But she said that she was going to stay and die there.”

At night, Leila was awakened frequently by airstrikes. She begged her son on her knees to leave Syria with her. “I asked him why he needed to die, here in a foreign country. He told me that he was strongly following Allah’s path and he was going to sacrifice himself to the God.”

Leila also met with Tarkhan, who came to visit her:  “I was taken to a room full of men where I was told that Omar al-Shishani would come the next day and we would meet separately. I needed to give him the churchkhela that he loved very much. So the next day he came and we sat and spoke for an hour. We did not speak about anything special. He just wondered how the neighbors were and about Pankisi. He told me that he loved and respected my son, Hamzat, very much—how he was a ‘devout and exemplary Muslim.’”

Leila marvels at the reverence with which Tarkhan was treated. In her eyes he was just a boy from Pankisi: “I asked what kind of a position he held and why he was so heavily protected—why people were visiting him to get his advice and consultations or telling him their plans. I was told that he was like a second Bin Laden. He was seen this way.”

Four days after Leila returned home from Syria, she received a call from her younger son, Khalid. He informed her that Hamzat had “become a shahid,” a martyr, and he was dead. Leila desperately begged and pleaded with her youngest son not repeat the mistake of his brother, but Khalid replied: “I have been dreaming about this since my childhood.”

“When I heard these words, my heart froze,” the mother of martyrs told us there at her house in Pankisi. “After four or five weeks, I noticed that people were trying to hide something from me. My worst fear had come true: My Khalid was now dead too. They say he was shot by a sniper. But no one saw him dead or alive. Only his wallet was found. Seda, the widow of Hamzat, sent me the money she found in Khalid’s wallet. She said that it belonged to me.”

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Leila Achishvili says she believes that after Hamzat was killed, Seda was ready to leave Syria and return home, but “Abu Omar did not let her go and today she is his wife.” Partly this is tradition as old as the history of warrior Islam.

“If a shahid’s wife loses her husband, she should not stay alone without care. This is their rule and according to it now someone else had to marry her. Suddenly Seda found herself with Tarkhan, whom my son trusted and at whose side he used to stand!”

Inevitably there have been rumors and suspicions that Tarkhan might have arranged Hamzat’s death, much as King David in the Bible arranged the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah. But there is nothing to substantiate those stories. There is simply too little information.

When asked how exactly Hamzat died, Leila seems uncertain: “As I was told, my son died together with a man from Chechnya. Probably they were returning from the battle together. His car was blown up. He was alive when he was sent to Turkey, but he died there in the hospital.”

Later Leila tried to return to Syria again, to find her sons’ graves, but she was told that she had “no business left” there. The message came from Tarkhan himself.

Now the battlefield is changing. Tarkhan boldly claims that next he will bring the fight to Putin. ISIS has its sights set on the North Caucasus. After years of President Kadyrov’s reign in the Chechen Republic, ISIS may indeed find a niche as it did in Syria.

But the Georgians who trained the red-bearded ISIS commander will not welcome his return at this point, no matter how the jihadists might hurt Putin’s cronies. Indeed, some in Tbilisi fear that the Kremlin will act first and use the radicalization in the Pankisi Gorge as a reason to carry out an anti-terrorist operation there—simply put, another Russian invasion of Georgia.

The tiny valley is becoming a big problem. There is a feeling in the air that Pankisi is about to reach its tipping point. Unemployment and the lack of opportunities for young men are taking their toll. The Gorge has always been a hotbed of radicalism and arms smuggling, but now it is fast becoming a shahid factory.

The red-bearded jihadist posing frequently for the camera gives the ruthless campaigs of ISIS a glamorous allure, and so far the tactic seems to be working. This “holy war” expends young men faster than mortar rounds. And the brothers Tarkhan and Tamaz know that the ones who survive will return to their homeland soon enough as ruthless battle-hardened jihadists—as “real wolves.”

Yet for the mothers and fathers of this radicalized generation, there is only loss and uncertainty. In this valley so far away from Syria, questions loom like mist drifting off the Caucasus. Leila has lost both of her sons. In a different way, Temur, the father of Tarkhan and Tamaz, also has lost his. With grave sincerity Leila asks,

“What is the purpose of this war? With whom are they fighting and for what or why are they killing each other?  Still today I cannot find an explanation for why these little children are dying.”

Russian Government Accused of Hacking US, Nato and Eastern European Military Secrets

NATO Hacked by Russian Government

The Russian government has long been suspected of being heavily involved in cyber-espionage campaigns against a range of targets including a network compromise at the US Department of Defence in 2008, and a cyber-attack which coincided with its invasion of Georgia also in 2008.

Until now these allegations have been just that, lacking concrete evidence that the Russian government has sanctioned any such actions.

Today, security company FireEye has published a report entitled ‘APT28: A Window Into Russia’s Cyber Espionage Operations‘ which may lack details on specific buildings, personnel or government agencies, but what it does have “is evidence of long-standing, focused operations that indicate a government sponsor – specifically, a government based in Moscow.”

The report details the work of a team of “skilled Russian developers and operators” dubbed APT28 which has been collecting information from defence and geopolitical intelligence targets including the Republic of Georgia, Eastern European governments and militaries, and European security organisations – all areas which FireEye says are of interest to the Russian government.

Blackwater

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, earlier in 2014 FireEye was called into the US defence contractor Science Applications International (previously known as Blackwater) and discovered a highly sophisticated tool which was able to evade detection and even spread through a computer network which was not connected to the internet.

The cyber-weapon was coded on Russian-language machines and written during working hours in Moscow, strongly pointing to Russian government involvement in the creation of this tool.

Unlike the highly-active hacking groups backed by the Chinese government, the Russian group known as APT28 was not interested in stealing intellectual property or profiting from pilfered financial account information – it simply wanted to remain undetected, collecting information on its targets.

APT28 has been in operation since at least 2007 and in that time has been systematically evolving its malware “using flexible and lasting platforms indicative of plans for long-term use and sophisticated coding practices that suggest an interest in complicating reverse engineering efforts.”

Previous reports about the Russian government’s involvement in high-level cyber-espionage campaigns have been limited to hearsay or speculation.

“Despite rumours of the Russian government’s alleged involvement in high-profile government and military cyber-attacks, there has been little hard evidence of any link to cyber-espionage,” said Dan McWhorter, FireEye VP of Threat Intelligence.

“FireEye’s latest advance persistent threat report sheds light on cyber-espionage operations that we assess to be most likely sponsored by the Russian government, long believed to be a leader among major nations in performing sophisticated network attacks.”-

Sophistication

The report also highlights the sophistication of the campaigns carried out by APT28, including a formal code development environment and configuring malware to send data back using the victim’s own mail server to avoid detection.

APT28 targeted victims by using spear-phishing campaigns, sending emails which looked to come from reputable sources with topics which would be relevant to their targets.

APT28 has been targeting three main themes in its campaigns according to FireEye – Caucasus (especially the Georgian government), Eastern European governments and militaries, and specific security organisations including NATO and OSCE.

FireEye says the group’s sophisticated development process and long-term outlook suggests it receives “direct ongoing financial and other resources from a well-established organisation, most likely a nation state government” which is another indication that this is a group backed by the Russian government.

Armenia Gets a Monument to Kalashnikov

A monument to the legendary Russian arms-designer, creator of the AK-rifle series, Mikhail Kalashnikov, has been erected in Armenia. The full-length statue of the man whose weapons came to epitomize Russian/Soviet military might was placed in the northern town of Gyuimri, the site of Russia’s lone military base in the South Caucasus.  

The Kalashnikov monument will be unveiled officially and a museum will open on November 8, according to a press-release from the 102nd military base, cited by RIA Novosti. The base commander, Colonel Andrei Ruzinski, came up with the idea last year, when Kalashnikov passed away, leaving behind the legacy of what Russia says is the world’s most popular rifle.

“Vodka, matrioshkas, balalaikas, and commissars and Cossacks riding bears – all that kitsch can be dismissed as it has nothing to do with Russia,”  RIA Novosti wrote in an obituary for Kalashnikov. “But the three-something kilograms of iron from Izhev [firearms manufacturer] put everything in its place, because that is the real Russia, from beginning to the end. This is a symbol that is immediately recognized everywhere, and no more explanations are needed.”

Russian guns are a controversial matter in the South Caucasus, but Armenia still is a willing host to the 102nd military base, seen as a deterrent against any possible assault from neighboring Azerbaijan, which has indicated it’s willing to retake breakaway, predominantly ethnic Armenian Nagorno Karabakh by force, if not by peace.

The Russian-Armenian ties go far beyond the base and its stone-made Kalashnikov., however.  Armenia is also a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led counterweight to NATO.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own ideas, too. With an eye to Armenian voters, President Serzh Sargsyan took the CSTO to task on October 6 for allegedly not helping Armenia resist Azerbaijan, The Bug Pit reported.

The dressing-down comes on the eve of October-10 opposition protests in Yerevan that will coincide with a Minsk get-together, where, ITAR-TASS has reported, Armenia is expected to sign an agreement that will lead to it finally joining the Moscow-centric Eurasian Economic Union in 2015.

If that plan goes through, look for even more Russia-inspired statues to be in store for Armenia.
 

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