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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow Eager to Link Chechens to Bin Laden

Two years ago, in the green hills of Chechnya near an old Soviet children's camp, 24-year-old Zamir Ozrokov studied what was described to him as pure Islam.

The Koran readings came with an unusual military twist. An Arab instructor taught him and about 100 other youths how to assemble and take apart AK-47 assault rifles, how to shoot and how to lay mines. After three weeks, he returned to the neighboring republic of Karbardino-Balkaria, where he was later arrested and told his story to the police.

The camp in Serzhen-Yurt no longer exists, but Ozrokov's account of his May 1999 stay there, published in his republic's newspaper, is one small sign of the role of radical Islamic groups in the bloodshed that has reduced much of Chechnya to abandoned ruins.

The camp was run by a man known as Khattab, a mysterious Arab in his mid-30s who emerged several years ago as one of Chechnya's most powerful rebel commanders. Russian intelligence and military officials identify him as the main link between the Chechen rebels and Osama bin Laden's Afghanistan-based terrorist organization.

The strength of that link is in dispute. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, said in an interview last week that bin Laden is by no means the only foreign backer of Chechen rebels and maybe not even the main one. "But he is a real sponsor," he said. "That is a fact."

At least it is a fact to Russian officials, who are eager to tie Chechnya's stubborn revolt to an international terrorist conspiracy and so win sympathy among critics of Moscow's merciless prosecution of the war. But proof of bin Laden's involvement is hard to come by, and some more dispassionate experts are far less certain of it. "I think it's a kind of misinformation sent to the mass media by Russian secret services to make it seem they are fighting not a small separatist movement, but against the world's radical Islamic community," said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Chechnya at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

The guerrillas deny any ties. "When I hear that the Taliban fights in Chechnya ... this sounds stupid," said Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya's former president and now the leader of a key rebel faction, referring to Afghanistan's ruling Taliban in an interview transmitted through an intermediary. "Why do we need weapons from abroad? There are plenty of weapons here, and much cheaper, too. We don't need military or other training from abroad, either."

What is apparent, however, is that Islamic extremists have taken partial command of the Chechen revolt since 1996 and many have come from Arab countries flush with money and weapons that the impoverished region's indigenous guerrillas could only dream of.

Estimates of bin Laden's influence over Chechen rebels range from simple moral exhortation to providing squadrons of guerrilla fighters and millions of dollars. Russian intelligence officials, citing intercepted radio conversations, insist bin Laden plays a key role in the ongoing military conflict.

Russian Interpol chief Vladimir Gordiyenko asserts that bin Laden maintains "direct contacts" with Khattab and another key commander in Chechnya, Shamil Basayev.

Intelligence officials in Moscow contend that bin Laden trains Chechen fighters in a half-dozen military camps in Afghanistan and provided Chechen fighters with 36 anti-aircraft missiles in 1999. Colonel General Valery Manilov, former first deputy chief of the General Staff, has said bin Laden sent $5.5 million to Khattab.

Many experts on Chechnya believe these are exaggerations. One recent arrest of a Saudi man identified as a courier for Khattab suggests much lower sums. The man, nabbed crossing the Azeri border into Dagestan, said he had $10,000 for the rebels.

One former high-ranking Chechen official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in 1996, he saw two checks totaling $300,000, drawn on a Malaysian bank, that were funneled to the rebels from a Philippine terrorist group called Abu Sayyaf -- "Father of the Sword." Abu Sayyaf was founded by a man who fought with bin Laden against the Soviets in Afghanistan and supposedly was financed by bin Laden's brother-in-law.

For Russian officials, such information about Chechen rebel connections is rare. "It's most difficult to determine connections between Chechens and the Islamic world," said Nikolai Kovalyov, former head of the Federal Security Service, in a recent interview. "Even if you capture a person, to extract anything from him is almost impossible."

Islamic extremists figured hardly at all in Chechnya's first war for independence from Russia, from 1994 to 1996. That was clearly a nationalist movement.

But when that war ended with no clear winner, Chechnya lay in ruins, presenting fertile ground for Islamic militants. Urus-Martan, Chechnya's third biggest city, became their base, and Khattab their military leader.