Russia’s Counter-Insurgency Armored Trains Enter the Electronics Age

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, February 28, 2017

Strelnikov’s Red Army Armored Train in Doctor Zhivago

Armored trains have a place in the popular imagination, having been featured in films such as Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Train (1964) and the James Bond thriller Goldeneye (1995). More fantastic armored trains are now encountered in popular video games and Japanese anime. Hundreds of these menacing iron giants armed with formidable naval guns once roamed the expanses of Eastern Europe and Asia, but today there are only four left in service; the Russian Defense Ministry’s armored trains Terek, Baikal, Amur and Don (like the cruisers of the sea, these cruisers of the rails are given individual names). The Terek is the Russian Army’s sole factory-made, purpose-designed armored train, the others having been converted from various civilian rail cars.

A Weapon Built for Russian Expanses

Russia has an extensive history of armored train use, largely due to the difficulty of moving large numbers of troops across the vast road-less regions of early 20th century Russia. Large numbers of armored trains were deployed on the mobile battlefields of World War One’s Eastern Front, but the Russian Civil War of 1917-22 saw a virtual explosion in their use, with over 200 in operation at one point.

Many of the White Russian trains passed into the service of northern Chinese warlords before falling into the hands of the Japanese after their 1931 invasion of Manchuria. Both Russia and Germany deployed armored trains on the Eastern Front in World War Two. Russian armored trains patrolled the wild east Siberian frontier during the Sino-Soviet border conflict of the 1960s and appeared again during the 1990 Nagorno-Karabakh War. During the most intensive phases of the Chechen-Russian War armored trains were successful in performing reconnaissance missions, de-mining operations and the escort of military trains carrying troops and equipment.

The defensive weaknesses of armored trains (vulnerability to ambush, derailment, capture etc.) were recognized early and by 1919 it was common for each Russian armored train to carry a desantniy ortryad (raiding team) that could be quickly deployed alongside train-borne tanks or other armored vehicles. With fire called in by forward observers deployed from the train, the armored train can provide powerful fire-support to drive away or destroy enemy forces. In modern times these raiding teams include BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles and T-62 or T-72 tanks. While mounted on flatcars, the more vulnerable sides of these vehicles are protected by timber and sandbags. The tanks have a secondary role as tractors in the event of a derailment.

Armored trains may also use small railed reconnaissance vehicles known as draisines to scout the track ahead of the main train.  The trains typically carry the material and trained men necessary to quickly repair damaged track as immobility places a train in danger of ambush or capture.

French Armored Train on Counter-Insurgency Operations in Indo-China

Use in Counter-Insurgency

Modern armored trains are vulnerable to air raids or artillery strikes, making them suitable only for counter-insurgency operations where such capabilities are typically unavailable to insurgents. Armored trains were first used for counter-insurgency work by the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1848. Later armored trains were used on counter-insurgency missions by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against Partisans on the Eastern Front in World War Two and by the French against the Viet Minh in Indo-China. Their use enabled railway troops to secure important transportation links from sabotage and provide fire support to infantry and armor.

Though armored trains have become vulnerable to modern tank tactics and armor-piercing munitions, their rail support allows the trains to carry a weight in weapons and armor that would crush paved roads or have mobility difficulties on certain types of ground. Expendable flatcars (often loaded with sandbags) are typically deployed ahead of the train to absorb the initial impact of explosives or derailment.

Antiaircraft gun of the Armored Train Terek. The Baikal is to the left. This photo was likely taken at the Russian Armored Train base at Khankala, Chechnya. © Photo:

Modernizing Russia’s Armored Train Fleet

The return of the Russian Defense Ministry’s four armored trains to service after a brief retirement is part of an expensive program to modernize and expand Russia’s armed forces by 2020, though sanctions and economic difficulties have hindered implementation.  The trains were operated by Russian Railway Troops (Zheleznodorozhniki -ZhDk) in the North Caucasus from 2002 to 2009, at which point Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov decided the trains had outlived their usefulness as the Chechen insurgency wound down. Serdyukov was sacked over corruption allegations in 2012 and his order to dismantle the trains was never carried out. His replacement, Sergey Shoigu, had seen the trains in action and decided to bring them back into service (International Business Times, August 28, 2015).

Armored train Terek © Photo:

The four corps of ZhDk railway troops are under the authority of the Defense Ministry and are responsible for securing and repairing Russia’s railway network during military operations or natural disasters.

There is no sign yet that the Defense Ministry trains will be re-joined by the Russian Interior Ministry’s sole armored train, the largely improvised Kozma Minin, which served in the Caucasus in the periods 1994-2002 and 2011-2012 before being sent for a technological overhaul in 2013. The Kozma Minin operated separately from the Army’s trains, carrying out missions for Interior Ministry forces.

Diagram of the Baikal and Amur armored trains: The Baikal (top) features 1) cover platform 2) anti-aircraft gun 3) locomotive 4) kitchen and dining car 5) sleeper car 6) radio station 7) headquarters 8) jammer; the Amur (bottom) features 1) freight car 2) anti-aircraft gun 3) locomotive 4) kitchen and dining car 5) sleeper car 6) sleeper car 7) radio station 8) jammer 9) headquarters 10) freight car 11) freight car, 12) crane 13) cover platform©

The Defense Ministry’s overhauled armored trains now include an electronic warfare wagon capable of jamming enemy communications and radar. New tactical protocols now allow the trains to operate in tandem with helicopter support, a potentially lethal combination for insurgents operating anywhere close to the railway system (Sputnik, August 15, 2016). Russia’s armored trains have also been fitted out with anti-mine technology, including the Kamysh M4K system, which uses white noise to interfere with radio-controlled IEDs at a distance of up to 20 meters. Firepower is now provided, not by naval guns, but by powerful, rapid-firing twin 23 mm ZU-23 anti-aircraft guns (MK.RU, August 12, 2016). These guns are protected by shields and their crews have access to armored shelters on both ends of the gun-car. Heavy use of camouflage nets helps reduce the visibility of the armored trains as targets.

Armored Train Baikal © Photo:

Amur and Baikal undertook intensive drills in Volgograd, Krasnodar, North Ossetia and Crimea in August 2016. One of the high points of the exercise was the construction by railroad troops of a 1300-foot long pontoon bridge over the Volga capable of supporting the armored trains (Russia Today, August 17, 2016; Video of the operation at Vesti.Ru, August 17, 2016).

Russia is also re-introducing military trains equipped with the new MS-26 Rubezh light intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), armed with multiple nuclear warheads (the whole system is known as “Barguzin”). An earlier version of these missile trains was deployed from 1984 to 1994, but the enormous weight of these missiles damaged the rail system and the entire project was shut down in 2005, partly due to strategic weapons treaties (Russian Beyond the Headlines, May 17, 2016).  The new, much lighter missile trains will be disguised by the inclusion of normal freight cars and wagons in the train to prevent their easy detection from space (Independent, November 23, 2016).


Syria’s Army of the Muhajirin Pledges Allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

Andrew McGregor

December 12, 2013

On December 2, the Islamist Army of Muhajirin and Ansar in Bilad al-Sham issued a statement announcing it had declared its baya’a (oath of allegiance) to the Amir al-Muminin (commander of the faithful) Abu Bakr al-Husseini al-Qurayshi al-Baghdadi, leader of the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). [1] According to the document, the decision to come under ISIS command came after the Muhajirin (“emigrants”) and ISIS had conducted a number of joint operations. The statement was signed by the “former Amir of the Army of the Muhajirin and Ansar, Omar al-Shishani” and the “former Shari’a judge of the Amir of the Muhajirin and Ansar, Abu Jafar al-Hattab.”

Omar al-Shishani

The Muhajirin are dominated by fighters from the Northern Caucasus, led by Abu Omar, an ethnic-Chechen from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge who has established a reputation for honesty as well as fighting skills due to his rejection of abuses by foreign fighters against Syrian civilians (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, August 9).  Besides Chechens (estimated to form at least half of the Muhajirin), the group includes a reported large number of Daghestanis and ethnic Tatars and Bashkirs from the Middle Volga region (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 25). Those components of the Ansar al-Muhajirin listed as giving their approval of the baya’a include the Arab mujahideen, the Turkish mujahideen, the mujahideen from the Caucasus, the European mujahideen, the heavy arms detachment, the commando detachment and the administrative council.

Muhajirin in Training

The statement appeared to be an elaboration of an earlier and much shorter announcement issued on November 21 in which the Muhajirin Brigade swore allegiance to the leader of ISIS, except for “those brothers from the Caucasus Emirate who had already sworn their oath to Emirate leader Dokku Umarov. The announcement provided few other details besides citing several hadith supporting the idea that only members of the Quraysh tribe (as al-Baghdadi is alleged to be) are suitable for ruling the Caliphate (a notion disputed by many Islamic scholars who claim the hadiths refer only to conditions in the first era of Islam). [2]

According to the group’s media officer, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, the group believes that:

Secularism with its different banners and various schools like nationalism, communism and Ba’athism is an obvious kufr [disbelief] that contradicts Islam… The kufr of apostasy is greater by unanimity from the original kufr, and that is why fighting the apostates has more priority to us [than] fighting the original kufr… so our jihad is with the sword and spear and with argument and clarification, and who called for another religion than Islam or slandered the religion or fought us, then he is a combatant to us. [3]

Abu Hamza also referred to the apocalyptic predictions of Islamic eschatology that are set in al-Shams (the land of the Levant, including Syria) involving the arrival of the Mahdi (the expected one), the return of the Nabi Issa (Prophet Jesus) and their battle on the day of resurrection with al-Dajjal (“the false Messiah,” roughly in the role of the Anti-Christ of Christian eschatology):

Jihad will continue to the Day of Judgment. The development of events on the land of Sham will bring what no one expected because the land of Sham is guaranteed by Allah Almighty and the angels are spreading their wings over al-Sham. This is not Afghanistan or Bosnia or Chechnya, this is the land of al-Sham, Issa, peace be upon him, will come down here, and al-Dajjal will come out here, it is the land of epics and the land of resurrection… [4]

The Muhajirin recently completed Operation Fatih in the southwestern part of Aleppo governorate, claiming to have seized seven apartment towers and two villages as well as T-72 tanks and an anti-aircraft gun. The group claims their victory brings them closer to the road connecting Aleppo with the south. [5]


1. “Statement of the Baya’a of the Army of Muhajirin and Ansar to the ISIS,” December 2, 2013,

2. “Umar al-Shisani Swears an Oath to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” November 21, 2013, 

3. Islamic News Agency Haq: |Muhajirin Battalion in a comprehensive interview:  “Our goal is to liberate Syria from the Assad regime and establish the Islamic state,” April 14, 2013,

4. Ibid

5. “Operation Fatih,”

This article first appeared in the December 12, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Russian Interior Ministry Revives its Armored Train in the North Caucasus

Andrew McGregor

May 14, 2013

In an effort to control “banditry” and rebel activity in the North Caucasus region, Russia’s Interior Ministry is returning its sole armored train to service on the often dangerous rail lines of southern Russia. The main mission of the armored train Kozma Minin, which has spent some years sitting in a rail-yard, will be to counter the insurgents’ mine attacks on Russian rail lines. The Kozma Minin is expected to join several other Ministry of Defense armored trains returned to service in the North Caucasus in 2010 (see EDM, February 23, 2010).

Armored Train Kozma MininWW II’s Armored Train Kozma Minin

The original Kozma Minin was a World War II armored train named for a Russian merchant who helped Prince Dmitri Pozharsky defend Russia against a Polish invasion in the early 17th century. Completed in February 1942, the original Kozma Minin was a formidable fire platform, with two covered wagons each having two T-34 tank turrets and six 7.62mm machine guns. Two open armored wagons each contained one M-8 rocket launcher and two 37mm anti-aircraft guns. An armored locomotive and several flat-bed cars completed the train.

Unlike its namesake, which might be described as a battleship on rails, the modern Kozma Minin is the battle cruiser of military trains – lightly shielded but highly mobile. While Russia’s other armored trains have been used to provide fire support for military operations in the Caucasus as well as rail security operations,  the armament of the Kozma Minin is intended for a defensive role that will allow the train to conduct mine-clearing operations, line maintenance and other defensive roles.

The Interior Ministry’s version of the Kozma Minin was built by a Volga-Vyatka OMON unit in 1994 from old railway platforms, railway ties, scrap metal and whatever other suitable materials might be found. The covered wagon of the train was painted in a brown and green camouflage pattern and most of the train was covered in well-worn camouflage netting, giving the entire train the appearance of a relic from a much earlier war. Despite its improvised and ramshackle construction, the Kozma Minin soon became the pride of Interior Ministry troops based in the North Caucasus, continuing its important work in the North Caucasus until it was retired to a rail-yard in 2002. Several cars of the train were marked with the acronym “OMOH,” the Cyrillic version of OMON (Otryad Mobilniy Osobogo Naznacheniya or Special Purpose Mobile Unit), the common term used for Interior Ministry units.

Before undertaking its new tasks, the Kozma Minin is being fitted with modern anti-mine technology, including the Kamysh (Cane) M4K system, made public in 2009. The mine-disabling system uses white noise to interfere with radio-controlled explosive devices, operating effectively at a distance of up to 20 meters.

Providing the new system works, it will be a vast improvement over the train’s old mine-prevention procedures, which involved the train moving at a walking pace in suspect areas behind combat engineers with mine-sniffing canines.  Measures are also being taken in the reconstruction to improve the safety of train personnel, which was usually provided for in the old train not so much by “armor,” but by an improvised mixture of sand-bags and timbers.

For armament, the Kozma Minin relies on two quad-barrel ZPU-4 air defense machine guns and ten hard-mounted AGS-17 automatic grenade launchers and machine guns.The ZPU-4 is a modification of the original ZPU, brought into Soviet service in 1949 and one of Russia’s most popular arms exports since. Mounted on a pick-up truck, the weapon was widely used by both sides in the Libyan Rebellion.

Additional firepower is provided by a BMP-2 (an amphibious infantry combat vehicle) chained to a flat-bed car with sand-bags to protect the wheels. The BMP02 is equipped with a 30mm 2A42 autocannon, a 9P135M anti-tank guided-missile launcher capable of firing a variety of anti-tank missiles and a 7.62mm machine gun. Ministry of Defense armored trains usually include one BMP-2, but also mount one to two T-62 tanks with a more powerful 115mm cannon.

The rebuilt Interior Ministry train is expected to be based either at Mozdok in North Ossetia or, more likely, at Khankala, a rail station east of Grozny in Chechnya where armored trains belonging to the Ministry of Defense are stationed. Khankala is also home to a Russian military base hosting the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division.

When finished, the train will transport Interior Ministry supplies and personnel in addition to providing rail security, much as it did in its earlier incarnation. The overhaul of the Kozma Minin is expected to be finished by December 1, 2013 and will cost an estimated $635,000.


Izvestia, April 10, 2013; Gennady Zhilin, “Baikal, Terek and Co.”;, April 11, 2013,

This article first appeared in the May 14, 2013 issue of Eurasia Daily Monitor

Former Deputy Commander Describes Work of Russia’s Alpha Counter-Terrorism Unit

Andrew McGregor

October 28, 2011

The former deputy commander and 15-year veteran of Russia’s elite Alfa counterterrorist unit, Sergey Goncharov, has shed some light on various controversial operations carried out by his former unit in a wide-ranging interview carried by a Russian magazine (Itogi, October 10). Goncharov is currently head of the Alfa Veteran Association which has engaged in anti-Yeltsin political activism in the past but is mainly concerned now with providing protection to Russian “VIPs.”

Alfa’s participation in incidents such as the January 1991 massacre of Lithuanian civilians in Vilnius has left some Alfa veterans open to prosecution (see, July 22). Nonetheless, Goncharov maintains that Alfa Group does not act as an enforcement team for politicians: “We have never been afraid to disagree with decisions imposed from above. And when some kind of TsK [Central Committee] member, who has never held anything other than a hunting rifle, orders us to resolve a problem in a particular way, he needs to be politely sent away. And they have been sent away.”

Goncharov defended the Alfa Group’s role in the 2002 Nord-Ost Theater crisis (in which 129 hostages were killed by poison gas released by Russian Special Forces) and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis (in which 334 hostages and 21 security men were killed in a bungled rescue operation): “Both operations are black marks on both the unit and on the history of Russian antiterrorist efforts. Nonetheless, in the first one, in my opinion, the tactic that was selected was the only possible solution to avoid an enormous loss of life. Of course, it is a great pity that hostages were killed and died from [gas] poisoning, but the use of the so-called “laughing gas” was just about the only solution available at that time… The use of the gas allowed us to enter the auditorium and with precise sniper fire neutralize the terrorists, without incurring huge losses [to Alfa forces]. But at Beslan actually there was no assault. There the guys saved the children, and did not kill the terrorists. They drew fire on themselves as they covered the students with their own bodies.”

In 2005, Goncharov made the surprising claim, against all available evidence, that the assassination of former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Qatar was carried out by American Special Forces rather than Russian agents (Pravda, August 20, 2005; for the assassination see Terrorism Monitor, May 17, 2005).

However, Goncharov advocates the “targeted elimination of terrorist leaders,” suggesting that the Alfa group has an important role to play in such operations: “[Assassination] is one of the most effective methods of combating terrorism under contemporary conditions. Using medical terminology, the ‘Alfa’ group is a sharp scalpel, a direct action instrument, and the final argument when pills and enemas do not help.” Goncharov notes, however, that such operations can only have a limited effect: “If someone thinks that the elimination of a single leader will result in the destruction of an entire command, this is not correct. Terrorism is an enormous business, in which many countries are engaged. This business is passed on as a legacy, from one killed leader to another.”

Turning to the ongoing conflict in the North Caucasus, Goncharov maintains that the struggle there is financed by external sources: “Fighting in our North Caucasus has been going on so long not for an ideal, but only because combat operations are so lavishly financed. And by whom? One can only speculate. But I personally think this: no matter how hard we try to become friends with the Americans, we will never become friends with them. We can only be fellow travelers with them up until the time they use us for their own purposes. And then they will continue on their own way. And instability in the North Caucasus plays into their hands.”

This article was first published in the October 28, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Armored Trains Return to the Russian North Caucasus

Eurasia Daily Monitor

Volume: 7 Issue: 36, February 23, 2010

Andrew McGregor

A weapon thought by many to belong to military museums is making a return to active anti-insurgency operations in the North Caucasus: the armored train. First used for such purposes in the American Civil War, armored trains and the tactics associated with their use were most fully developed in the vast expanses of Russia, where they were used in large numbers in World War One, the Red-White Civil War of 1917-22 (including extensive operations in the Caucasus), the Second World War and the Sino-Soviet border conflict of the 1960’s. More recently, Russian armored trains were deployed to secure railway lines against Azeri nationalists during the 1990 Soviet military intervention in Baku. Now Russia’s defense ministry has announced the return of armored trains for use against Islamist insurgents in the North Caucasus (Interfax, January 5, 2010; Russia Today, January 5, 2010).

The growing insecurity of Russia’s railway system led to an announcement by President Dmitry Medvedev on December 2 that he had just signed a special order regarding the prevention of terrorist attacks on railways (ITAR-TASS, December 2, 2009). Medvedev’s announcement followed remarks by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that called for pre-emption as the best means of eliminating attacks on the rail system (Moscow Times, December 1, 2009).

Bombings of Russian trains in Dagestan have become a major security problem, with some seven explosions occurring on trains in the last six months of 2009 alone. The attacks appear to be part of a new campaign by North Caucasus Islamist insurgents to strike Russian infrastructure, including railways (EDM, December 10, 2009).

A review of recent attacks on railway infrastructure gives some sense of the growing problem:

  • One person was killed in an explosion on railroad tracks near the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala on February 10. The bomb appears to have gone off prematurely, narrowly missing an incoming freight train carrying 20 tankers full of jet fuel (, February 11, 2010; AP, February 11, 2010).
  • Militants fired two shots from a grenade launcher at militia quarters in the railway station at Nazran (Ingushetia) on February 2 (Chechenpress, February 2, 2010).
  • Federal Security Service (FSB) forces in Dagestan announced the killing of a veteran Egyptian jihadist who had targeted railway infrastructure in the North Caucasus. Mahmud Muhammad Shaaban was killed in a shootout on February 2 (RIA Novosti, February 3, 2010).
  • A cargo train including oil tankers was derailed by an explosion in Nazran on January 4 (Caucasian Knot, January 4, 2010).
  • On November 30, 2009, a bomb went off under the Tyumen-Baku train in Dagestan, damaging the locomotive (Moscow Times, December 1, 2009; ITAR-TASS, November 30, 2009).
  • The Nevsky Express running between Moscow and St. Petersburg was derailed by a reported explosion on November 27. The FSB estimated seven kilograms of explosives were used (RIA Novosti, November 28). Though the Caucasus mujahideen claimed the explosion was carried out under the orders of their amir Dokka Umarov, elements of the police and many observers questioned the ability of the rebels to conduct such an operation. The mujahideen’s message included threats to carry out further attacks on rail lines and other Russian infrastructure (, December 2, 2010; RIA Novosti, December 2, 2010; ITAR-TASS, December 2, 2010).
  • A landmine blew up a section of rail in Makhachkala as a locomotive passed over on October 25 (Interfax, October 25, 2010).
  • A section of the Baku-Rostov rail line near Makhachkala was destroyed by a bomb blast on October 12, 2010.
  • An explosion damaged the rail line between Makhachkala and Baku and set fire to a locomotive on November 26, 2009 (ITAR-TASS, November 26, 2009).
  • A sapper was killed by an explosion on the rail line south of Makhachkala on July 2. The bombing occurred as a repair crew arrived to fix track destroyed earlier that day in another explosion (RIA Novosti, July 2, 2009).

Building on the 1919 innovation to include a desantniy ortryad (raiding team) with every armored train for offensive and defensive missions, modern armored trains include detachments of armor and infantry that can be quickly offloaded and deployed around the area of the train or sent on reconnaissance missions. This makes it difficult for insurgents to prepare ambushes or destroy sections of track without detection. Meanwhile, the armored train can provide mobile artillery fire in support of infantry operations. Anti-aircraft weapons provide a defense against air attack, though this does not figure into anti-insurgency operations such as those in the North Caucasus where control of the skies is held by state forces. Tanks carried on the armored train may also be used in a secondary role as tractors in the removal of derailed railroad cars (as a result of ambush, mines, etc).

During the Cold War, Russia deployed 56 RT-23 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s) (NATO name – SS-24 Scalpel) on military trains used as mobile launch pads. The last of these was decommissioned in 2005. Elaborate armored trains were deployed along the Soviet-Chinese border in the 1970’s. These trains carried a motorized rifle platoon, an anti-missile detachment, military engineers and communications units. The train could also deploy 12 tanks (two amphibious), eight armored personnel carriers and a variety of lighter transport. The armored trains were demobilized as border tensions with China calmed in the 1980’s (, November 26, 2009).

Russia maintains a unique formation of Railway Troops (Zheleznodorozhniki -ZhDk), composed of four railway corps, 28 railway brigades and a number of military and research units under the control of the defense ministry since 2004 (ITAR-TASS, May 2, 1999). The Railway Troops are responsible for securing and rebuilding railroads in support of combat and mobilization efforts, the construction of new railways and the repair or reconstruction of rail systems destroyed by enemy forces or natural calamities. Railway troops were active in these roles in the First Chechen War of 1994-96. Shortly after the Second Chechen War began in 1999 the Railway Troops began operating an armored train to protect commercial cargo and military supply trains (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 10, 2008).

In the wake of continuing insurgent attacks on the railroads of the North Caucasus, Russia will return two Stavropol-based armored trains to service in Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. The trains, which have been held in reserve for two years, are equipped with “special devices for the removal of landmines and heavy weapons capable of countering an attack by armed militants.” The armored trains will likely be manned by railway troops of the 76 ZhDK, based in Volgograd. The unit is considered well-trained, well-equipped and ready for combat operations. [1]


  1. C.W. Blandy, “Georgia and Russia: A Further Deterioration in Relations,” Advanced Research and Assessment Group, Caucasus Series 08/22, July 2008,

Peacekeepers or Provocateurs? Kremlin-Backed Chechen Troops Raise Tensions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Andrew McGregor

North Caucasus Analysis, December 6, 2007

The unannounced and surprising arrival of pro-Russian Chechen military units as “peacekeepers” in Georgia’s separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has sparked widespread speculation as to the reason behind their deployment. Their appearance coincided with violent protests in the Georgian capital of Tblisi against the government of President Mikhail Saakashvili. Complaints are common that Saakashvili is reversing Georgia’s democratic gains of the last few years. Chechens have played major roles in fighting both for and against Georgia since the breakup of the Soviet Union, so their renewed presence on Georgian territory is being watched closely.

Abkhazia-S.OssetiaThough the breakaway regions have proclaimed their independence from Georgia and their intention to join the Russian Federation, neither separatist government has gained international recognition—even from Moscow. The legally recognized Georgian regional government of Abkhazia is located in Georgian-controlled Upper Abkhazia, while the separatists, who declared independence in 1992, run their own government in Sukhumi. Russian citizenship was granted to 80% of the Abkhazian population in 2006. South Ossetia likewise has a separatist government in Tskhinvali and a Tblisi-approved “Provisional Administration” operating from Kurta, Georgia. Since 1989, the separatists in Tskhinvali have sought to unite South Ossetia with the Russian Federation. Joint Russian-Georgian peacekeeping forces were set up in Abkhazia and South Ossetia after violent internal conflicts erupted after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Gelayev Affair

It may not only be the Georgians who are unhappy to see Chechen fighters back in Abkhazia. Many Abkhaz recall that the last time Chechens were there (under the command of Chechen warlord Ruslan “Hamzat” Gelayev in 2001) they were acting as Georgia’s hired guns in a secret operation against the Abkhaz separatists.

Gelayev had already fought on the separatist side in Abkhazia in the civil war of 1992-93 as part of Musa Shanibov’s Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus (CMPC). In 2003, thousands of volunteers from the North Caucasus played a large part in driving the poorly trained Georgian army from Abkhazia while inflicting heavy casualties. One of Gelayev’s CMPC comrades was the late Shamil Basaev, who later suggested the volunteers may have been misused—“It was in Russia’s interest to have the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict grow into war so that both sides would be brought to their knees” (FBIS, 16 February 1994).

GelayevRuslan Gelayev

Gelayev started rebuilding his army in 2001 at Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge after his command was destroyed at the battle of Komsomolskoye the year before. In exchange for food and weapons from Georgian authorities, Gelayev and 300 of his men were taken in Georgian military trucks from their base in the Pankisi Gorge to the Abkhazian frontier. Incredibly, the entire covert operation was documented by a Japanese journalist who travelled with the Chechens and managed to escape Georgia with his life. Moreover, one of Gelayev’s men was a former Japanese Seld-Defense Force officer who had converted to Islam and joined the Chechen jihad. Russian intelligence appears to have heard of the plot in advance. Heavy fighting began on October 3, 2001, when Gelayev’s Chechens advanced into Abkhazia through the Kodori Gorge, where they were joined by Georgian partisans and a number of Ukrainians and Azeris. After a series of battles, Gelayev’s men were forced into a fighting retreat. Gelayev himself and a handful of others (including the Japanese journalist) were evacuated by helicopter (24 Saati, February 28, 2003).

A captured member of Gelayev’s band, Murtaz Maniya, claimed Gelayev’s plan called for driving right through Abkhazia to Sochi in Russia’s Krasnodar Krai, where the Chechens would seize the airport and demand independence for their homeland (Georgian Times, October 9, 2002). In February 2002, the Abkhazian government claimed that Chechens from Gelayev’s command were still in the Kodori Gorge in Georgian uniform. Georgian authorities dismissed the charge as a “fantasy” (Prime News, February 1). By December 2002, Gelayev had led a force of 800 Chechen, Turkish and Arab fighters into Chechnya. Gelayev was eventually killed by a Russian border patrol while trying to cross the border into Georgia in 2004.

Last year Alu Alkhanov, then president of the pro-Russian government of Chechnya, revived memories of the 1992-93 conflict when he suggested that “volunteers” from Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus would join any renewed fighting on the side of pro-Russian separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Interfax-AVN, October 19, 2006).

Peacekeeping in Abkhazia

There are about 1,500 Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia operating under a 1994 Commonwealth of Independent States mandate. The mission receives support from 100 unarmed UN monitors (United Nations Observer Mission to Georgia–UNOMIG). The Chechen peacekeepers in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are drawn from the Zapad (West) and Vostok (East) battalions of the Russian 42nd Motorized Rifle Division. Both battalions fall under the direct command of the GRU (Russian military intelligence). Men from the same units were deployed on a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon last year that passed without incident. There are reports that Said-Magomed Kakiev’s Zapad battalion (the more professional of the two) has already been used on covert missions in the mountainous border regions of Georgia (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 6, 2006).

The Chechen presence in Abkhazia became well known after an October 30 incident along the Abkhazian border. An APC carrying Russian troops arrived at the Ganmukhuri youth camp in Georgian controlled territory, where they handcuffed three Georgian policemen to the APC before giving them severe beatings. The incident was caught on videotape by a Georgian journalist. Learning of a growing armed standoff between Georgian and Russian troops, President Saakashvili gathered a team of cameramen and flew to Ganmukhuri where he castigated the Russian peacekeepers personally. A number of Chechen troops in Russian uniform were caught on video that was later widely broadcast in Georgia. The Russian press reported that the Chechens “did a lot” to prevent the confrontation from escalating (Gazeta, November 7).

After his first-hand encounter with the Chechens, President Saakashvili issued a press release: “I think it is incorrect and strange that a large number of ethnic Chechens have been brought to Abkhazia as peacekeepers. I met these people today. We do not have [a dispute] with the Chechens. However, to say the truth, all this has a smell of a provocation… It was absolutely beyond my understanding today that a significant part of the [peacekeeping] contingent were ethnic Chechens… However, everyone should remember that this is not the Georgia of 1992. This is not some Bantustan where one can walk about as he likes. I think the results of [the Chechens] being dispatched to Georgia for the first time should have been a good lesson for those people in [Russia’s] military leadership who dispatched them…” (President of Georgia Press Release, October 30, 2007).

In the aftermath, Georgia declared the Russian commander of the peacekeeping mission, Major General Sergei Chaban, persona non grata on Georgian soil. Georgia also withdrew its agreement to the CIS peacekeeping mandate for Abkhazia. A month later Chaban dismissed Colonel Alexander Pavlushko, Chief of Staff of CIS forces in Abkhazia. The Colonel was accused of negligence and now faces criminal proceedings (with several other officers) in connection with the Ganmukhuri incident.

The Chechen presence became news again in mid-November, when Georgia’s Minister of Conflict Resolution, David Bakradze, accused Russia of sending artillery, armor, Russian paratroopers and hundreds of Chechen troops to the Black Sea coast town of Ochamchira (Prime News, November 12). The equipment allegedly included five T-72 battle tanks, five GRAD rocket launchers and seven howitzers (Civil Georgia, November 12) .Tanks are not allowed under the peacekeepers’ mandate, while rockets and howitzers have no peacekeeping applications. The embattled Georgian president interpreted the alleged Russian troop movements as the prelude to a coup attempt within Georgia and declared a state of emergency (Kommersant, November 15).The Russian Foreign Ministry called Bakradze’s allegations “a provocation” (Kommersant, November 13). General Valeri Yevnevich, deputy commander of Russian Land Forces, used similar language: “Such statements coming from Georgian government officials can’t be described otherwise than a provocation against Russian peacekeepers in the zone of Georgian-Abkhazian conflict and, in the final run, against Russia” (ITAR/TASS, November 15). By November 21, the Georgian government declared that the flow of Russian arms and troops to Abkhazia had ceased after a successful appeal by Georgia to the international community (Prime News, November 21).

In an interview with RFE/RL, a Chechen peacekeeper named Movsar Usmanov described the goals of his detachment in Abkhazia: “Considering the fact that we have seen the tragedy of war and know what it is like, we hope that it will be possible to solve this conflict and that these people will live peacefully. Sometimes we use force, but most of the time we operate through words” (RFE/RL, November 15).

South Ossetia

A company of 150 men from the Vostok Battalion arrived in Tskinvali, capital of separatist South Ossetia, in September (Gazeta, November 7). South Ossetia had its own conflict with Georgia in 1991-92. Russian peacekeepers arrived when hostilities ceased in 1992, but Georgia has frequently charged the Russian force with bias and calls for their withdrawal. Part of the region is still controlled by Georgian authorities, who are experimenting with a new regional government composed of former separatists that the government hopes may lead to the creation of an autonomous administration under Georgian sovereignty.

The South Ossetian peacekeeping mission is known as the Joint Control Commission (JCC), with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) providing a rather ineffectual monitoring group. The JCC consists of 500-man battalions from Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia and North Ossetia. In practice, this means Russian dominance of the mission, especially since Georgia stopped deploying a full battalion in 2006. Russian troops routinely violate their mandate by providing arms and training to troops of the separatist government (EDM, October 26, 2005). Chechens from both the Vostok and Zapad battalions have been assigned to the North Ossetian peacekeeping battalion, which, despite its name, actually contains troops from across Russia (Gazeta, November 7).


Unlike the Lebanon deployment, which provided Moscow with a minor propaganda success through an international display of Chechen loyalty to the Putin regime, the Chechen presence in the Abkhazian peacekeeping force seemed designed—at least at first—to draw as little attention as possible. Nonetheless, considering the recent history of Chechen involvement in Abkhazia, the choice of Chechen troops as peacekeepers suggests Moscow intended to send a message to Tblisi as both sides inch toward war.

In Abkhazia, much depends on the decision that has yet to be reached regarding Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. Russia might use what it views as Western support for Kosovo’s independence to declare that Abkhazia has the same right to secede from Georgia. With some Georgian MPs talking of an “automatic declaration of war” in the event of Russian recognition of an independent Abkhazia, Russia’s choice of Chechen “peacekeepers” seems designed to provoke Georgian memories of the disasters that befell Georgians during the 1992-93 Abkhaz War. Facing stiff domestic opposition at home, President Saakashvili has taken up the popular cause of restoring displaced Georgians to Abkhazia: “Sukhumi is my home…and I will not rest until I return to this home with over 400,000 of its residents” (Messenger [Georgia], November 14). According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian and Chechen peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are now the only obstacle “hindering Georgia’s military machine” (Civil Georgia, November 29).

This article first appeared in the December 6, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s North Caucasus Analysis.

Achimez Gochiyayev: Russia’s Terrorist Enigma Returns

Andrew McGregor

February 1, 2007

In the wake of the London poisoning of former FSB Colonel Alexander Litvinenko came unexpected reports that the alleged “terrorist mastermind” and organizer of the September 1999 apartment block bombings in Moscow and Vologodonsk that sparked the current Russian/Chechen war was still active in the North Caucasus republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia (KCR). Though the two stories appeared to be unconnected, there may indeed be some relation between them.

gochiyayevAchimez Gochiyayev

Russian security services allege that Achimez Gochiyayev (a member of the Turkic Muslim Karachai ethnic group) directed the September bombings as retaliation for Russian attacks on “Wahhabi” villages in Dagestan in August 1999. Yet, it seems unlikely that such a carefully planned operation could have been put together in such a short period. Indeed, nearly every aspect of the bombings suggested months of planning by professional saboteurs familiar with the methods used to bring down large buildings. Gochiyayev, a small-time Moscow-based trader (by some accounts), seemed an unlikely leader for such an operation.

Russia’s FSB (the successor organization to the KGB) charges that Gochiyayev was the leader of a gang of Karachai “Wahhabis” and terrorists known as “Muslim Society no. 3” (also known as the Karachaev Jamaat) based in Karachaevsk, Uchkeken and Ust-Dzhigut. In the biography advanced by Russian security services, Gochiyayev led the movement into terrorism, organized the 1999 bombings, became involved in a failed Islamist coup in the KCR later that year and eventually emerged as a powerful rebel and terrorist leader in the first half of the present decade.

In a handwritten disposition dated April 24, 2002 and obtained by Litvinenko and historian Yuri Felshtinsky, Gochiyayev painted a very different picture of his life, beginning with his move to Moscow as a sixteen-year-old in 1986. He eventually married in Moscow, received official residency and opened a food distribution business. According to Gochiyayev, a childhood friend from the KCR capital of Cherkessk posing as a potential business partner (but in reality an agent of the FSB) persuaded him in June 1999 to rent basement units used, unknown to him, for the storage of explosives. After the second bombing, however, Gochiyayev realized that he was an unwilling accomplice in the attacks and called the police with details of the two other basements that he had rented. Police raids on these premises found timers and explosives, thus preventing two further blasts. Gochiyayev claims he was warned by his policeman brother that security services were intent on liquidating him and thus went into hiding, where he has remained ever since. The FSB declared that Gochiyayev’s account “could not be taken seriously,” coming from “a man who has besmirched the calling of an officer of the special services [i.e. Litvinenko]” (Interfax, July 25, 2002). A Chechen group claiming to be investigating the 1999 bombings later claimed that the Gochiyayev account had been obtained by them before copies were stolen from them by an “unscrupulous American journalist” and delivered to Litvinenko (Kavkaz Center, July 26, 2002).

The allegations of FSB’s involvement in the 1999 bombings were taken up by exiled Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, who funded Litvinenko and Felshtinsky’s investigation and the publication of their book, Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within. The former oligarch’s personal feud with Putin and mysterious dealings with Caucasus-based kidnapping gangs has made it easier for Moscow to discredit his efforts (and those funded by him) to expose an FSB role in the apartment bombings.

While still on the loose, two other Karachai suspects in the 1999 attacks, Yusuf Krymshamkhalov and Timur Batchiev (both alleged senior members of the “Gochiyayev gang”), confessed in a letter to the commission investigating the bombings that they had participated as “middlemen” in transporting explosives to Moscow. The two claimed that those who recruited them (FSB men under agents German Ugryumov and Max Lazovsky, both killed shortly after) told them the explosives were for use on administrative and military installations, not apartment buildings. The suspects added that reports that the Karachais had trained together in camps run by the Saudi commander of foreign mujahideen in Chechnya, Amir al-Khattab (the alleged financier of the bombings) were false: “We declare, that neither Khattab nor [late warlord Shamyl] Basayev nor someone from the Chechen field commanders and their political leaders, nor any Chechen had any relation to the September terrorist acts of 1999. They did not order, they did not finance and did not organize those terrorist acts. As for Khattab and some other field commanders, we met for the first time only after we escaped to Chechnya…” (“Open Letter to the Commission for the Investigation of the Explosions of Apartment Houses in Moscow and Volgodonsk,” July 28, 2002, published by Novaya gazeta, December 9, 2002). Aside from Gochiyayev, all other alleged members of the bombing conspiracy are presently either dead or in Russian prisons. Though the bombings are typically described in the international press as the work of “Chechen rebels,” none of the accused were Chechen.

From time to time, Gochiyayev’s name has resurfaced in Russian media and federal security reports. The September 2003 allegations that Gochiyayev had been arrested with several Chechen mujahideen in Azerbaijan were denied by Azeri security services (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 27, 2003; PRIMA, September 1, 2003). In June 2004, a Karachai “member of Gochiyayev’s gang” named Khakim Abaev was killed in Ingushetia. Two months later, Nikolai Kipkeyev, another Karachai member of “Muslim Society no.3” was killed in Moscow during the course of a subway bombing. Kipkeyev was also alleged to be Gochiyayev’s associate (Interfax, May 12, 2005). In September 2004, Russian media reported that security services suspected Gochiyayev of financing the terrorist operation in Beslan (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 11, 2004). In May 2005, a group of “Wahhabi terrorists” was killed in a police raid in Cherkessk. The six dead men and women were said to have been “under the command of Achimez Gochiyayev” (Pravda, May 19, 2005; MosNews, May 15, 2005., May 15, 2005).

In the December 25, 2006 shootout at a Cherkessk block of flats that claimed the life of one alleged rebel, Russian media were quick to note that the cornered gunmen were from “Achimez Gochiyayev’s group” (Regnum, December 25, 2006). While the other fighters escaped the siege, the deceased was identified as Ruslan Tokov, allegedly an aide to Gochiyayev in a campaign led by the latter to murder FSB agents and policemen from the KCR’s Ministry of the Interior (ITAR-Tass, December 25, 2006). Russian TV later added that a second rebel named Saltagarov had been killed, while Gochiyayev himself had left the building only moments before the assault (Channel One TV, December 26, 2006).

The FSB charged that Amir al-Khattab paid Gochiyayev $500,000 in cash to carry out the 1999 bombings. Yet, Gochiyayev has always claimed that he had nothing to do with al-Khattab, and that the photos on the FSB website showing the two of them together were either fabricated or of another man. Litvinenko engaged British forensics expert Geoffrey Oxlee to examine the digitized photos. While Litvinenko insisted (in Oxlee’s absence) that the forensics expert had declared the photos a fake, Oxlee later held short of making such a declaration in an interview with a Russian newspaper, venturing only that the images were “of poor quality” and had been “exposed to digital processing.” In short, the photographic evidence was “inconclusive” (Kommersant, July 27, 2002).

Gochiyayev is often said to be hiding in the Pankisi Gorge, but was not found there during the October 2002 Georgian security sweep of the area. Georgia promised to extradite the fugitive if found (as they did with several other Karachai suspects). FSB Lieutenant General Ivan Mironov stated that captured Chechens revealed during interrogation that they had seen Gochiyayev with Krymshamkhalov at the Pankisi base of late Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev (, December 10, 2002).


 For over seven years, Gochiyayev’s menacing shadow has loomed over the North Caucasus. He is everywhere but nowhere; always planning new terrorist outrages but staying one-step ahead of the security services. In reality, since his (unwitting or deliberate) role in the 1999 bombings, Gochiyayev cannot be decisively tied to any rebel military operation or terrorist attack in the Caucasus. To the contrary, Gochiyayev denies having any role in the Chechen resistance or the bitter war being waged between the Karachai Islamists and security forces in the KCR.

It is entirely possible that Gochiyayev is already dead. He has not been heard from for four years and there appears to have been no takers for the $3 million reward for his capture offered by the FSB. While the leaders of KCR jamaats and other militant groups make public statements and give interviews (none of which mention Gochiyayev), there is only silence from the fugitive. The banner of Chechen resistance, the Kavkaz Center website, depicts current leaders of rebel leaders across the Caucasus, a pantheon from which Gochiyayev is conspicuously absent. Kavkaz and other resistance websites never mention Gochiyayev as an active insurgent.

Much of Bombing Russia relies on the testimony of Gochiyayev, so it is perhaps not surprising that Russian security forces might resurrect his name as a current terrorist leader just as the Litvinenko poisoning investigation intensified in December. If Gochiyayev were indeed an active resistance leader, this would discredit his account of himself as an innocent patsy of the FSB who has gone underground, fearing for his life. Reviving Russia’s reluctant “terrorist mastermind” as an ongoing threat deals a strong blow to Litvinenko’s version of the events of 1999 just as Bombing Russia is released in a new edition.

This article first appeared in the February 1, 2007 issue of the Chechnya Weekly.

Death of a Jordanian Mujahid: Abu Hafs al-Urdani

Andrew McGregor

December 31, 2006

Shortly after the Jordanian Arab Abu Hafs al-Urdani succeeded the late Abu Walid as the commander of the foreign mujahideen in Chechnya, his death or detention was declared a priority for all of Russia’s secret services. (RIA Novosti, December 15, 2004) After a decade in Chechnya and two years of nearly constant combat operations as the leader of a mixed force of Turks, Arabs and diasporic Chechens, the Jordanian mujahid was finally killed on November 26 by Russian security forces. False reports of his death have circulated in the past, but this time a report from the Chechen Eastern Front headquarters confirmed the Jordanian’s death several days later (Kavkaz Center, November 29).

Abu HafsAbu Hafs al-Urdani

Abu Hafs (real name Farid Yusuf Amirat) was described by Russia as the financier of the Beslan attack and a personal acquaintance of Osama Bin Laden. What is certain is that the Jordanian was involved in fundraising for the Chechen movement while playing an important role in organizing and leading military operations. With years of combat experience in Chechnya behind him, the 33-year old Abu Hafs was heavily involved in training new mujahideen as well as commanding the Eastern Front of resistance operations. His al-Qaeda connections have never been verified; while not as dismissive of the terrorist group as other Chechen leaders, such as Aslan Maskhadov, Abu Hafs made no public claim of affiliation to Osama Bin Laden. This did not prevent Abu Hafs from being cited by then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell as a leading member of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s “terrorist network” in February 2003. The allegation, made during a presentation before the UN Security Council, was part of an unlikely description of Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge as a major centre of al-Qaeda chemical warfare activities.

At times, Abu Hafs expressed hostility to the United States, though this does not appear to have been encouraged by the Chechen leadership. In an interview earlier this month, Abu Hafs addressed the poisonous legacy of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal: “The Abu Ghraib prison serves as the greatest proof of the fallacy of the American agenda. How shall we trust America after all this?” (Vakit [Istanbul], November 12) Since the current war began in 1999, the Chechen view has been to avoid unnecessary antagonization of the United States. If the United States would not support the Chechen struggle, goes the thinking, then it would be better that it remains uninvolved, rather than provide military support to Russia.

Assault in Khasavyurt

Following a tip, Russian security forces surrounded a house in Khasavyurt. By 6:15 AM, a mixed force of Dagestani police and Alfa (Special Forces) units of the FSB were prepared for the assault on the suspects’ house. Without warning, two militants were shot by snipers through the windows, while the other three being offered a chance to surrender, according to the FSB (Kommersant, November 27). The FSB report states the operation lasted four hours, though the actual fighting lasted only 30 minutes. A later media report claimed that three women and five children ran out the back door when sharpshooters opened up on the house. In this version, security forces continually fired on the house for 2.5 hours (NTV Mir, November 26). The Chechen Eastern Front HQ report described a daylong battle with only three mujahideen killed (Kavkaz Center, November 29). When the house was searched, the body of Abu Hafs was discovered together with one Chechen and two Dagestani militants, all dead. Security forces also reported that they found an assassination list containing targets from within the local police, as well as assault rifles, machineguns, grenades, explosives and ammunition.

The FSB report claimed that Abu Hafs was in Dagestan to “engineer and commit large-scale terror acts” (ITAR-TASS, November 26), but an FSB spokesman added that Abu Hafs may have been in Dagestan attempting to flee the region, “given the lack of prospects for jihad in the North Caucasus” (Interfax, November 26,). As winter approaches, the Chechen resistance typically reduces its forces in the field, sending many to winter quarters in other parts of the Caucasus. Abu Hafs may have been in Dagestan to organize rebel operations, though travel outside of the resistance lines would have been very dangerous for the commander, who was quite obviously Arab in appearance. The killings in Khasavyurt came only days after reports had emerged that Sadval (a militant separatist group based in the Lezgin ethnic group that straddles Dagestan and northern Azerbaijan) was planning to cooperate with existing Dagestani insurgent formations to break up Dagestan in preparation for the establishment of a North Caucasus caliphate (APA [Baku], November 22).

The premier of Chechnya’s pro-Russian government, Ramzan Kadyrov, alleged that Abu Hafs was the conduit for funding headed to Wahhabist groups in the North Caucasus, but also mistakenly called him a Saudi Arabian. Ramzan was perhaps referring to an old FSB allegation that Abu Hafs also possessed Saudi citizenship. The discrepancy may be part of Ramzan’s continued posturing as a champion of native Sufi Islam over Saudi-inspired “Wahhabism.”

Implications for the Foreign Mujahideen

There seems to be no obvious successor to Abu Hafs as the leader of the foreign mujahideen. Chechnya has declined as a destination for Arab jihadis since Coalition operations began in Iraq in 2003. It may be time for a Turk to take command, reflecting the changing composition of the foreign mujahideen in Chechnya as well as the growing reliance on donations from supporters in Turkey. Abu Hafs was deeply involved in nurturing the Turkish connection, training Turkish volunteers for jihad and appearing in fundraising videos distributed in Turkey.

The FSB described Abu Hafs as “the actual head and financier of bandit formations in Chechnya,” implying that Chechen resistance to Russian rule is managed by foreign terrorists like Bin Laden (RIA Novosti, November 26). These claims seem improbable; the Chechen insurgency remains ethnic-nationalist at its core and could never be led by a foreign militant. Refuting Russian claims, Abu Hafs declared, “All commanders are in obedience to [Chechen President] Dokku Umarov.” At the moment, there is no evidence that Umarov’s command is disputed; on the contrary, he is a veteran fighter who is well respected within the ranks of the mujahideen.

While Abu Hafs may have handled some foreign donations, the Chechen resistance is unlikely to have placed all of its finances in the hands of a single person, as suggested by the FSB. The Chechen nationalist movement has been very successful in establishing systems that can withstand the death of an individual, as seen in the orderly transition of power each time a Chechen leader or foreign mujahideen commander has been killed.


It appears that Russian security forces nearly pulled off a dual decapitation of the Chechen resistance last week, with Russian reports claiming that Chechen President Dokku Umarov was wounded and nearly captured during a three-day operation in the region of Achkhoi-Martan (Kommersant, November 24). The attack was allegedly based on information regarding Umarov’s whereabouts supplied by the 35 militants who had surrendered at Gudermes. These supposedly included members of Umarov’s inner circle, though such mass surrenders in the past have included many ex-fighters who have been inactive for years.

Ironically, Russia’s success in eliminating Arab mujahideen leaders makes it increasingly difficult to maintain their depiction of the Chechen resistance as a movement led and controlled by al-Qaeda. Logic would suggest that the Chechen nation is not large enough or unified enough to be able to replace the many resistance leaders who have fallen in combat over the past few years. It has also become difficult to attract capable foreign militants in sufficient numbers and to keep the Chechen struggle in the public consciousness of the Islamic world. An important function of the foreign mujahideen and its commander is to keep foreign interest alive in order to raise much-needed funds from Muslim communities. Operational leadership is becoming a problem for the Chechens as commanders become ever younger and more inexperienced. The loss of veteran warriors like Abu Hafs is a major blow to the resistance, but before his death, the Jordanian remained optimistic about Chechnya’s ability to renew its leadership: “These young commanders are full of advantages and honor; jihad in the way of Allah has raised Chechnya. We should not forget that a lion cub is also a lion” (Vakit [Istanbul], November 12).

This article first appeared in North Caucasus Analysis, November 30, 2006

Russia Reorganizes its War on Terrorism

Andrew McGregor

September 21, 2006

In August 2006, the Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) announced changes in the security structure of the North Caucasus that would dissolve the Regional Operational Headquarters responsible for counter-terrorism, replacing it with a series of local operational headquarters in the Southern Federal District led by MVD officers. The order ensures that operational control of the region’s security element will remain under centralized MVD leadership even as the Kremlin pursues a planned withdrawal of temporarily based federal troops of the Defence Ministry and soldiers of the Interior Ministry from the region (Delo, St. Petersburg, August 26, 2006).

NurgalievRussian Interior Minister Colonel-General Rashid Gumarovich Nurgaliyev

Russian Interior Minister Colonel-General Rashid Gumarovich Nurgaliyev will head the new network, with direct administration handled by Deputy Minister General Arkadi Yedelev. The Ministry cites significant improvements in security since the death of Chechen warlord Shamyl Basaev in July, but the administrative reforms are unwelcome in the pro-Russian Chechen government, which seeks to take responsibility for its own security.

The MVD Takes Over

Russian counter-terrorism operations in the North Caucasus have been plagued by overlapping responsibilities and jurisdictions amongst the many security agencies at work there, most notably the FSB (successor to the KGB), the GRU (military intelligence) and the MVD, all of which have a historical tendency dating from Soviet days to deal with each other as rivals rather than as allies.

The scandalous failure of the security services at Beslan finally brought home the need for coordinated activity in the Caucasus. In December 2005, a parliamentary commission found that Nurgaliyev had sent warnings to the North Ossetia MVD warning it of terrorist attacks just prior to the Beslan massacre. The finding contrasted with widespread calls for Nurgaliyev’s resignation for his on-the-scene management of the disastrous response of the MVD and other security units to the mass hostage taking.

Born in 1956, Nurgaliyev is a Volga Tatar and the highest-ranking Muslim in the administration of the Russian Federation (AIS Update: Nurgaliyev was reported to have converted to Orthodox Christianity sometime in 2006 – ). After joining the FSB in 1981, Nurgaliyev made a career in that organization, picking up a Ph.D. in economics along the way. His appointment in March 9, 2004 to head of the Interior Ministry was expected to herald a series of much-needed reforms, but the new minister carried out few changes in his first year. Nurgaliyev has come under attack from Russian human rights activists for his ministry’s use of random and unproductive violence, illegal detentions and a “cynical abasement of human dignity” (Kavkazky Uzel, October 5, 2005). His predecessor, Boris Gryzlov, was sacked after the tragic mishandling of the Nord-Ost Theatre crisis in October 2003.

In October 2005, Nurgaliyev described widespread corruption in MVD police forces as a threat to the nation’s internal security and damaging to the public’s trust in the security apparatus. Police procedure was described as ‘rife with violations’ including falsification of data (RIA Novosti, October 26, 2005). Nurgaliyev outlined some of the difficulties preventing efficient Interior Ministry operations in a speech last year: “The expertise of the militia [police] offices and interior troops has not been able to meet modern requirements. Working for militia forces has not become prestigious, which leads to the considerable turnover of employees, a weaker professional backbone and fewer people eager to take up vacant positions” (MVD website, August 28, 2005). The conscripts of the MVD militias are notoriously low-paid, almost ensuring corruption as first, a means of survival, and later as a means of enrichment.

The Russian Ministry of the Interior is responsible for public security tasks, emergency relief, narcotics control and the prevention of internal disorder. Nearly all police agencies in Russia come under MVD control. The Ministry also maintains it