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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Death of a Terrorist

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Whatever Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov may have been in 1995 or 1997, he was a terrorist on the day he died. As compared to a monster like Chechen commander Shamil Basayev, Maskhadov might have been described as a "moderate" up to 1998. In January 1997, he became the first and last legitimately elected president of Chechnya. However, his incapacity to cope with pressures endemic to Chechen society led to his drift toward radicalism beginning in the latter part of that year.

In 1999, he disbanded the Chechen parliament and abolished the same Chechen constitution that legitimized his presidency, replacing it with a legal code similar to that of Sudan. Under the ensuing sharia rule, there were public executions, amputations and punishments of offenses including adultery and homosexuality. Some of those punished were pregnant women and children. Later that year, Maskhadov did not repudiate Basayev's invasion of Dagestan, let alone assist the Dagestanis in resisting it. He then declined President Vladimir Putin's requests to extradite Basayev, to close his al-Qaida-connected training camps and to renounce terrorism -- essentially the same three requests that President George W. Bush made to the Taliban in autumn 2001.

In summer 2002, Maskhadov stated publicly that all Chechen fighters were directly under his control and warned of an upcoming campaign to wage war on Russian territory. That October, the leaders of the Dubrovka hostage atrocity clearly stated in three separate press interviews that they were acting under Maskhadov's direction. He failed to condemn the attack while it was in progress.

On June 22, 2004, bands of terrorists from Chechnya killed approximately 100 people in neighboring Ingushetia. About 60 of these fatalities were police officials. About 40 were civilians, some of whom were hacked to death. The terrorists took approximately 20 hostages. The raids had no military targets. A few weeks later, Maskhadov publicly claimed responsibility for the Ingushetia raids.

When Osama bin Laden killed police officials and civilians in the World Trade Center, there were no Western analysts who failed to call him a terrorist. When Timothy McVeigh killed law enforcement officials and civilians in an Oklahoma City blast in 1993, no Americans failed to label him a terrorist. Why do people insist that Maskhadov is anything but a terrorist after he claimed responsibility for the slaughter of police officials and civilians in Ingushetia? It is revealing that the people who claim most loudly to care about the suffering of Chechen civilians seem to care nothing at all about the suffering of Ingush civilians. The same might be said about Dagestanis, since Maskhadov claimed to control the terrorists that have killed more than 50 of Dagestan's politicians and law enforcement officers in the last three years. Why is it that Western journalists and observers seem to care about the suffering of only those North Caucasus people who are fighting the Russians?

It is true that Maskhadov was a symbol of all that was legitimate and worthy in Chechen aspirations for independence. Unfortunately, he was no more than a symbol. Perhaps because he was unworthy of his cause or because his cause itself was unworthy, he quickly proved unable to lead a semi-independent Chechnya and was himself led into radicalism.

Because of his symbolic appeal, Maskhadov retained the sympathy of as much as 30 percent of the Chechen population. Yet he was also widely blamed by Chechens for their problems. Had they been given the chance to do so, it is unlikely that more than 10 percent would have supported him in last year's presidential election. In any case, many Chechens had sworn vendettas against Maskhadov, so that he surely would have died soon after attempting to resume any sort of public life.

Thus, Maskhadov had no more than symbolic value to the Chechen resistance. He controlled no more than a few people around him, and some days he barely controlled his own bodyguards. He was not the moderate ballast to radicals like Basayev, as some have suggested. On the contrary, after 1997 Maskhadov devoted much of his energy to preserving the illusion that he maintained some sort of control over Basayev and other Islamists. Negotiations with Maskhadov would have had no effect upon Basayev or other radical leaders.

Hence, Maskhadov's death will have only three consequences for Basayev. First, without his political front man, Basayev will suffer further reductions in external funding, by which, however, he will be undeterred. Second, Basayev's own demise will become more present in his mind. Basayev does not fear death, but the narcissism of his personal mythology is a significant part of his psychology. Third, Basayev may proclaim that one of his upcoming atrocities is vengeance for the martyred Maskhadov, even though Basayev has spent the last eight years undermining him.

Because of his iconic status, Maskhadov's death was necessary for the stabilization of the North Caucasus, but it is far from sufficient. In all but his iconic status, Maskhadov will be quickly replaced, as Basayev would be. In order to begin stabilizing the North Caucasus, the Kremlin first must support human rights and genuine democratic procedures throughout the region, beginning with the upcoming Chechen parliamentary elections. Instead of consolidating corruption, the Kremlin, secondly, must strive to reduce it. Finally, Russian officials must stimulate dramatic and widespread economic development. Otherwise, poverty, unemployment, corruption and despair will continue to nourish radicalism, alienation and instability in the region. Westerners who claim to care about the peoples of the North Caucasus should put their money where their mouths are by offering tangible assistance to stimulate economic development in this region.

Robert Bruce Ware is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who has published extensively on Dagestan and Chechnya. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.