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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin Moves to Keep Rebels Offline

NAZRAN, Ingushetia -- When authorities shut down his small Internet cafe, Rustam Aldaganov did not buy their explanation that he lacked a license.

"They shut us down because it is impossible to control who sends what from an Internet cafe," Aldaganov said.

"The FSB does not like the idea of anyone coming in, sending an e-mail and leaving," he said. "It is impossible to trace the identity of the sender."

Authorities closed all Internet cafes in Ingushetia in August, and a Federal Security Service officer confirmed that the action was indeed an attempt to prevent anonymous Internet use in the restless region.

The crackdown is one of the latest steps to further isolate separatists by cutting off their access to information outlets in a drive that appears to be bearing fruit: Five years after the start of the second Chechen war, the Kremlin has managed to squash almost all of the separatists' information outlets.

Moscow has apparently learned its lesson in information warfare by not allowing a repeat of what happened during the first Chechen war in 1994-96, when rebel Information Minister Movladi Udugov was a major newsmaker on national television and in the press. Now, interviews with separatists are banned from television, and most Russian newspapers refuse to make room for them. While separatists are often interviewed and quoted in the foreign press, their primary target audience -- the Russian public -- remains largely out of reach.

Separatists until this year secretly published their own newspapers, including Ichkeria (the rebel name for Chechnya), Kinzhal (Dagger) and Mehk-Khel (Council of Elders), and distributed them within Chechnya. But they closed the newspapers in January, apparently because readership was too small and their efforts to build support were not paying off.

Moscow's tight control over information flows has allowed President Vladimir Putin to adopt harsh policies on Chechnya with minimal criticism in Russia and abroad.

How the information war is planned and whether it is carried out in coordination with other anti-terror efforts are unclear. No government media officials or media figures are members of the top anti-terror policymaking agency, the Federal Anti-Terrorist Commission, which is headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and includes representatives of almost all government agencies.

As indicated in the Ingush crackdown, the government is now going after the last and most independent media outlet used by separatists to disseminate information in the Russian language -- the Internet. The campaign is being carried out through diplomatic efforts to force the closure of rebel web sites hosted abroad and by making it much more difficult for rebel media correspondents to send information without being tracked down.

About four years ago, there were dozens of radical Chechen web sites and mirror sites, but for now only three remain -- all located outside Russia. A server in Georgia hosts Chechenpress.com, which positions itself as the official web site of rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, while Azerbaijan is home for the web sites Daymokh.info and Kavkazsky Vestnik (kvestnik.org).

The most controversial rebel site, Udugov's Kavkazcenter.com, is currently offline after being shut down by Finland. Until mid-September, when the site published warlord Shamil Basayev's claim of responsibility for the Beslan school attack, its server was kept in the Lithuanian apartment of the head of the local Helsinki Watch human rights group, Viktoras Petkus. Lithuania pulled the plug on the site after Moscow complained. The site resurfaced soon after in Finland, but was online for only a day before Finnish authorities closed it on Oct. 12 amid Russian protests.

Basayev, the web site's main newsmaker, turned to Maskhadov's Chechenpress.com over the weekend to post a lengthy interview threatening attacks against Russian civilians and foreigners whose countries support the Kremlin's actions in Chechnya. Chechenpress.com said it had passed over the questions for the interview on behalf of Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper.

Maskhadov envoy Akhmed Zakayev disavowed the remarks Monday, saying Basayev was "naive" to think that terrorist attacks would force a political solution in Chechnya.

Several times, Russian hackers have mounted cyber attacks against rebel web servers, forcing them to shut down temporarily. Rebel web administrators have usually blamed the FSB for the attacks.

Internet cafes in Ingushetia -- a republic heavily infiltrated by anti-government insurgents, as evidenced by a spate of deadly attacks there this year -- were closed because rebel correspondents could use them anonymously, an FSB officer in the North Caucasus said on condition of anonymity.

There are also indications that the FSB is monitoring home and office Internet users in the area.

"Recently, not all e-mails have been reaching us and not all the ones we sent are being delivered. And the Internet has become noticeably slower," said Taisa Isayeva, head of the Council of Nongovernmental Organizations in Ingushetia, a group critical of federal tactics in Chechnya.

The FSB took control over all Internet lines in Ingushetia in mid-August, said Ibragim Albakov, a representative of a local Internet provider, Telecom. The FSB and police are allowed to secretly tap private electronic communication under a security task force called SORM.

However, none of Ingushetia's three Internet providers feels threatened.

"There is no sense in putting us down," Magomed Sultygov, a representative of ITT, a provider. "The home addresses of all our clients are registered in our databases. If any of them sends something from his IP address, it will be easy to trace him."

Staff Writer Nabi Abdullaev reported from Moscow.