“Flying to the Moon on a Balloon”: Islamist Coups and Conspiracies in the Northwest Caucasus

Andrew McGregor

Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, John Hopkins University

November 20, 2002

In the courts of several southern Russian cities a series of sensational trials has described ‘an attempted seizure of power’ by Islamists in the republics of Karachai-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Though strong ethnic tensions exist between the Cherkess, the related Kabards, and the Turkic Balkars and the Karachai, most conflict in the region has until now been politically or economically motivated. This fact, combined with the traditionally mild interpretation of Islam practiced in the region, made revelations of a violent attempt to overthrow the Russian state in favor of an Islamic Caliphate highly perplexing. Critics of the trials suggest that the proceedings were unfair and that the conspiracies are creations of the FSB and Russian prosecutors.

North CaucasusBACKGROUND: 

In 1996-99 jama’at-s (religious communities) began to be set up in Karachai-Cherkessia, centred on Imam Ramazan Borlakov’s mosque in Uchkeken. Borlakov was aided by Achimez Gochiyayev and Ibragim Bairamkulov, allegedly using funds supplied by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, Saudi mujahidin leader Ibn al-Khattab, and Dagestani Wahhabist leader Bagaudin Magomedov.  Borlakov recruited a poorly educated but highly energetic young man, Khyzyr Salpagarov, who quickly became the leader of a Karachai jama’at. Salpagarov’s militancy was reinforced by attendance at one of al-Khattab’s guerrilla training camps in Chechnya in 1998. Borlakov, a charismatic speaker, attracted many to hear his militant sermons. By 1998 there were reports of Islamic missionaries from Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia spreading ‘Wahhabi’ beliefs, and cash, through the northwest Caucasus. The term ‘Wahhabi’ is used in Russia to describe any Sunni revivalist movement, regardless of their actual ties to the Wahhabi homeland of Saudi Arabia.

In the fall of 2001, Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov announced that investigators had uncovered a ‘Wahhabi’ group that intended to stage a coup d’état, and assassinate government officials in Karachai-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. It was alleged that the 11 suspects had received military training from Arab commanders in Chechnya, and were working with ‘foreign Islamic organizations’. Security officials in the republics were puzzled by the case brought by federal authorities; one even responded that ‘to suggest that the 11 arrested men were preparing a rebellion in Kabardino-Balkaria, one of the most stable republics in the Federation, is like claiming someone is going to fly to the moon on a balloon.’ The head of the North Caucasus organized crime unit revealed that ‘investigations have yielded no evidence as to their aims, nor is there any clear definition of their activities. The statement that they were preparing a coup is groundless’. All the accused were ethnic Karachai and Balkars, leading to accusations that the charges were politically motivated by leading Cherkess individuals.

Salpagarov and 16 others were tried earlier this year for plotting to seize power. On the dock, Salpagarov outlined a plot in which his tiny jama’at group would lead an armed uprising to create an Islamic Caliphate across the northern Caucasus with the aid of Ruslan Gelayev’s Chechen guerrilla group. He further claimed that his jama’at had received $2 million from al-Khattab for the 1999 bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk.  Most of Salpagarov’s fellow defendants maintained that they were innocent and being persecuted for their religious faith. Russian sources claim that Salpagarov’s version of events has since been confirmed in the interrogation of Adam Dekkushev, another alleged conspirator extradited from Georgia in July of this year.


Other trials of Cherkess, Balkar and Karachai defendants have convicted about thirty people this year for offences such as conspiracy to overthrow the state, membership in illegal armed formations, staging terror attacks, and murder. Many were found guilty for a wave of bombings that the Northern Caucasus experienced over the last three years. The convictions represent part of a much larger problem in the Russian Federation – of over 2000 bombings in the Federation in the last three years, only 15% have been attributed to terrorists.

Many of the defendants were accused of receiving military and ideological training at so-called ‘Taliban training-camps’ in Chechnya. Gochiyayev, who is still at large, has been accused by the FSB of responsibility for the 1999 apartment block bombings in Russia. Several of his alleged accomplices have since been killed fighting Russian forces in Chechnya. Gochiyayev has stated that he was framed in an FSB operation to blow up the buildings to create pro-war sentiment in Russia.

The arsenal that the plotters were allegedly intending to use included two grenade launchers, a dozen rifles, two submachine guns, and a handful of grenades. It was barely enough to equip the conspirators, and was certainly inadequate to arm supporters. Several of the suspects were underage at the time of their offences; others were claimed to be vagrants or outpatients at local psychiatric hospitals. For the time being several of the leaders of the alleged plot remain at large, including Borlakov and Bairamkulov. Shamyl Basayev is about to be tried by a Chechen Shari’a court for his role in the October hostage-taking in Moscow.

The trials of the young militants were conducted in strict secrecy. Defence lawyers charge that the secrecy was required since the conspiracy charges were baseless and without evidence. Some proceedings were conducted amidst charges that the defendants had been tortured during interrogation. Stavropol newspapers unsuccessfully protested the secrecy as a violation of the Russian constitution and criminal code.


For many young people, Islamism offers an alternative to the corruption and ethnic dissonance that dominates the North Caucasus. In this sense, the conspiracy charges may be regarded as more pre-emptive than punitive. One of the more bizarre theories behind the conspiracy charges suggests the involvement of Western security agencies in promoting Wahhabism as a means to the secession of the North Caucasus from Russia. More plausible is the suggestion that state authorities have promoted the Wahhabist threat to counter attention to their own corruption. Unlike the zeal with which the Islamists have been prosecuted, there have been few arrests and fewer convictions in ongoing political violence in Karachai-Cherkessia. In the last year alone, three leading politicians have been assassinated and the chairman of the Supreme Court nearly killed. This violence has little to do with Islam, but is rather the result of different clans battling for control of the republic’s resources.

Ethnic discord and a general crackdown on Islamic activities have fostered an atmosphere in which otherwise improbable accusations are easily believed. Shrinking democracy, declining economic prospects and the growing influence of military and security figures in local politics contribute to the radicalization of young people in the northwest Caucasus. According to Circassian author Amjad Jaimoukha, ‘the authorities must provide the young men with hope and a decent living, so as not to be attracted to extremism. With the oppression of national culture and traditions, the youth are turning to foreign ideas that are undermining the fabric of society.’ There is no doubt that the Russian authorities are alarmed by the appeal of jama’at organizations to disaffected youth from all the major nationalities of the northwest Caucasus. While federal authorities have exaggerated the threat posed by such groups at present, the recent trials suggest that the use of Soviet style methods remain a useful tool in the ongoing consolidation of the Russian Federation.

Vichy versus Asia: The Franco-Siamese War of 1941

Dr. Andrew McGregor
November 16, 2002

In 1940 the Vichy government of French Indo-China was isolated and threatened by the imperialist Japanese, the neighbouring Thais and by native rebel movements. The French had about 50,000 colonial and metropolitan troops stationed in the colony. They outnumbered the small French civilian population of 40,000 colonists in a territory of 25 million Indo-Chinese. The French collapse in the spring of 1940 resulted in the German occupation of 60% of France, but Marshall Pétain’s Vichy government retained control of the remainder, as well as France’s colonial empire. Indo-China was, however, cut off from re-supply from Vichy France. A British blockade proved effective, meaning that troops could not be rotated for the duration of the war, nor could parts be obtained for military equipment. Fuel supplies could also not be replenished so long as the petroleum-short Japanese Empire controlled the Asian theatre.
Vichy Siam 1
Legionnaires of the 5e Régiment étranger d’infanterie (5e REI) during the Vichy campaign against Thailand

Vichy diplomats attempted to persuade Germany to allow them to ship arms and equipment to Indo-China, appealing to the Germans on racial grounds, pointing out the possibility of the ‘white race’ losing ground in Asia. The Germans would promise only to speak to the Japanese. At the same time Vichy was fending off offers from the Chinese to occupy Indo-China to ‘protect’ it from the Japanese. Aware of China’s own irredentist claims in the area, the French doubted they would ever get their colony back if the Chinese were allowed in.

The Japanese deliver a shock

As France fell, the Japanese began to make demands of the Governor-General of Indo-China, General Catroux. When the General acceded to demands that rail traffic to China be stopped he was promptly replaced. Vichy named the loyal commander of the FNEO (Forces Navales d’Extreme-Orient), Vice-Admiral Jean Decoux, as Governor General. By September Decoux was facing far greater demands from the Japanese, including the right to station and transport troops through Indo-China, the use of selected airfields, and the evacuation of a hard-pressed Japanese division fighting in China through the port of Haiphong. An appeal to the Americans for help was poorly received.

Aware of his predecessor’s fate, Decoux hesitated, signing the agreement just before the Japanese ultimatum ran out. The Japanese division was tired of waiting, however, and proceeded to cross the border on September 22, 1940, attacking the Tonkinese cities of Dong Dang and Lang Son with tanks and infantry. The Japanese navy made landings along the coast, Haiphong was bombed, and the Japanese Air Force flew repeatedly over Hanoi. The Japanese offensive came as a shock to some senior French officers, who still believed in natural European superiority and often talked about taking tough action against the Japanese. Dong Dang fell immediately, and Lang Son fell two days later, with many of the locally raised colonial units breaking and running before their first experience of artillery and disciplined infantry attacks carried out by veteran soldiers. French intelligence had reported that the Japanese were demoralized, but it was the French who collapsed under pressure. Local villagers revealed French positions to the Japanese, French artillery fired on French positions, ammunition ran out quickly, and over a thousand Indo-Chinese troops deserted.

A statement issued by the Japanese emperor on October 5 called the Lang Son attack unfortunate but not important. The French prisoners were released, but 200 German legionnaires who had been separated from the other French prisoners were not released until the 13th of October. The pursuing Chinese army made numerous forays across the frontier, and the French administration remained fearful of a full-scale Chinese invasion until the end of the war. The French had lost 800 men in two days of battle with the Japanese.

Nationalist rebellions

The fall of Lang Son had almost immediate consequences for French rule. Discontented locals had witnessed how easily an Asian army defeated the whites. Vietnamese nationalist Tran Trung Lap was able to raise some 3,000 men in the Lang Son region, many of them deserters from the Indo-Chinese units defeated by the Japanese. Their arms were provided from French stocks captured by the Japanese. The returning French demonstrated they could still deal with a poorly trained rabble, and quickly drove the revolutionaries into the mountains, where planes and artillery hammered them. Tran Trung Lap was ambushed, and though he escaped the massacre of his men by machine-gun, he was shortly after captured and executed at Lang Son in December.

In the south of Vietnam, then known as Cochin China, an even more dangerous rebellion broke out in late November. Thai troops had begun to deploy along the Cambodian border and most of the garrisons in Cochin China had been sent to the frontier. Fighting broke out in the My Tho region and French police found themselves overwhelmed. The rebellion spread to Saigon and a number of southern provinces. A battalion of the Foreign Legion and a battalion of Tonkinese colonial troops on their way to Cambodia were diverted to the south and, with the help of artillery, air and naval detachments, quickly repressed the rebellion with utmost ruthlessness. The French had made their point, and could now send their forces west to deal with the Thais.

War with Thailand

The French now had to deal with a growth of militarism and Thai nationalism in neighbouring Thailand (the name was changed from Siam in 1938). Just as Germany sought to regain the territories lost in the Treaty of Versailles, Thailand was eager to retake the ethnic Thai lands along the Mekong River it was forced to cede to the French colony of Laos in 1904. In 1907 the French had also forced Siam to cede the largely Khmer provinces of Siemreap, Sisophon and Battambang to French Cambodia. The pro-Japanese government of Marshal Pibul Songgram sensed an exploitable weakness in the now isolated French colony, and began a military campaign to retake these territories after the French rejected demands for their return in October 1940.

The Thais had signed a non-aggression pact with the French in June 1940, but failed to ratify it after the collapse of metropolitan France. By October Marshal Songgram had mobilized 50,000 troops (in five divisions) and obtained 100 modern fighters, bombers and seaplanes from Japan. The Thai air-force was now three times the size of that available to the French, with the new aircraft added to the 100 American planes obtained between 1936 and 1938 (mostly Vough Corsairs and Curtiss Hawks). The Thai navy had also been equipped with modern ships and outclassed the French colonial fleet on paper at least. Border skirmishes began in November and the Thais crossed the Mekong in December. Hard-pressed elsewhere, the French could only commit fourteen battalions to the defence of Battambang Province.

On January 5, 1941, the Thais launched a full attack with artillery and aerial bombardment of French positions. The Thai offensive covered four fronts:

1) North Laos, where the Thais took the disputed territories with little opposition
2) South Laos, where the Thais crossed the Mekong by the 19th of January
3) The Dangreks Sector, where confused fighting went back and forth
4) Colonial Route 1 (RC 1) in Battambang province, where the heaviest fighting occurred.

The initial advance on the RC 1 was repulsed by the Cambodian Tirailleurs (riflemen). The main Thai column ran into a French counter-attack on January 16, colliding with the French at Yang Dam Koum in Battambang. The Thai force was equipped with Vickers 6-ton tanks while the French lacked any armour. The French counter-offensive had three parts:

1) A counter-attack on the RC 1 in the region of Yang Dam Koum
2) An assault by the Brigade d’Annam-Laos on the islands of the Mekong River
3) Operations by the naval ‘Groupement occasionnel’ against the Thai fleet in the Gulf of Siam

The main thrust of the offensive was by Col. Jacomy’s forces along the RC 1. The attack at Yang Dam Koum was a debacle from the start. The assault forces consisted of one battalion of Colonial Infantry (European) and two battalions of ‘Mixed Infantry’ (European and Indo-Chinese). The forest made artillery operations difficult, French aircraft never showed, leaving the skies to the Thai air-force, and radio communications were poor. The French transmitted orders using Morse code, perhaps explaining why the Thais often anticipated their movements. A complete rout was prevented when the Thais ran into a battalion of the Fifth regiment of Legion infantry at Phum Préau. The legionnaires were hit hard by a Thai armoured assault, but brought up two 25mm and one 75mm gun for use against the tanks. The motorized detachment of the 11th Regiment of Colonial Infantry reinforced the line, and three Thai tanks were destroyed, the rest deciding to retire. The diversionary assault on the Mekong was successful, but the largest battle of the war was to be fought in the Gulf of Siam.

Naval War in the Gulf of Siam

The French navy was all important in Indo-China, as with any overseas colony. The modest force had a virtually non-existent role in the great Asian war of 1941-45, being unable to resist either Japanese advances or Allied blockades, but they were nevertheless to have one great, unexpected battle before meeting an ignominious end. The fleet in Indo-China was divided into two parts with separate levels of responsibility. The FNEO was assigned responsibility for the overall defence of French colonies in Indo-China and the Pacific, while the Marine Indochine with its river gunboats was responsible for interior security in Indo-China.

With the land war going badly for the French, it was decided to send the small French fleet to the Gulf of Siam to engage a Thai naval force supporting the flank of the Thai advance. The Thai ships had been spotted lying at anchorage in the Koh Chang islands by a French navy flying boat. The French task-force (or Groupement occasionel) consisted of the light cruiser Lamotte-Piquet, the two colonial sloops Dumont d’Urville and Amiral Charner, and the WW1 vintage gunboats Tahure and Marne.

Vichy Siam 2HTMS Dhonburi at the Battle of Koh Chang

During the night of January 16 the French ships closed in on the islands, dividing themselves into three groups to cover the exits from the island group. On the morning of the 17th the French roared in under cover of the mist to engage the Thais. The Thai ships included three Italian-built torpedo boats and the dual-pride of the Thai fleet, the two new Japanese-made armoured coastal defence ships with 6” guns, Donburi and Ahidéa. The French were surprised to find both coastal defence ships there, as they expected only the Ahidéa, but the Donburi had arrived the day before in a standard rotation. The French lost the advantage of surprise when an overeager Loire 130 seaplane tried to bomb the Thai ships. The Thais received the French with the opening salvoes of the battle at 6:14 AM. The Lamotte-Piquet quickly inflicted fatal damage on the Ahidéa with gunfire and torpedoes, forcing it to run aground. By 7 AM French guns had sunk all three torpedo boats.

The Donburi was spotted attempting to escape through the 200m high islands and the French cruiser set off in pursuit. The Donburi was set afire but continued to engage the cruiser and the sloops, which now began to pour fire into the Donburi. Badly damaged and listing to starboard, the Donburi eventually disappeared behind an island and the French broke off. Later in the day the Donburi was taken in tow by a Thai transport but capsized soon after. Throughout the engagement the French sailors were impressed by the courage of the Thai sailors under fire.

The French ships were unable to exploit their victory, however, due to the arrival of Thai Corsairs targeting the Lamotte-Piquet. Fierce anti-aircraft fire drove off the attacks and by 9:40 AM the French turned for home. In a brief but decisive engagement the Thai fleet had been destroyed at negligible cost to the French. It appeared at the time to be a sudden and dramatic reversal of French fortunes.


The Japanese had seen enough and accompanied an offer to mediate the conflict with the arrival of a powerful naval force off the mouth of the Mekong River to encourage negotiations. A tentative armistice was imposed on January 28, but Thai provocations on the frontier continued until a formal armistice was signed aboard the Japanese battleship Natori off Saigon. The extent of Thai-Japanese collaboration was revealed when a Japanese-imposed treaty between Vichy and Thailand was signed on May 9, 1941. The disputed territories of Laos, part of the Cambodian province of Siem Réap and the whole of Battambang were awarded to Thailand. The conflict had cost the French over 300 men and a further loss of prestige amongst its colonial subjects. European troops and material losses could not be replaced due to the blockade. The French garrison remained highly demoralized until the Japanese coup in 1945 destroyed the Vichy colonial army in Indo-China.

In the end the Thais fared little better. The Khmers largely evacuated the lost Cambodian territories, preferring French rule, and Thailand itself was soon occupied by its more powerful ally, the Japanese. American Flying Fortresses bombed Bangkok in 1942. The Thais declared war against the allies in 1944, but there was some confusion over whether the declaration was actually delivered to the US government, and after the war the Thai government certified the declaration of war as null and void. The uncomfortable affair was mutually forgotten. The disputed territories in Laos and Cambodia were returned to the new Gaullist government at the end of the war.

The French light cruiser Lamotte-Piquet was laid up shortly after the battle of Koh Chang due to the shortage of fuel. In 1945 the ship was bombed by American planes before being scuttled during the brutal Japanese coup of March 1945. The remaining naval force continued to escort convoys up and down the Vietnamese coast as best they could from 1941 to 1945. In their sudden seizure of Indo-China, the Japanese sank a number of French ships with shore fire, while the remainder were scuttled by their crews, who were then imprisoned. The French colonial armed forces in Indo-China had ceased to exist by the time the British and Chinese armies arrived after the Japanese surrender. It was the British and Chinese, rather than the men of Vichy, who would turn the colony over to Gaullist France at the end of World War II.

This article was first published on November 16, 2002 by Military History Online  http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/20thcentury/francosiamese/default.aspx#


 FNEO – Forces Navales d’Extrême-Orient  

Lamotte-Piquet Light cruiser (Flagship) 1926 9350 tons

8  6.1” guns

Sunk by aircraft, Dec.1, 1945
Dumont d’Urville Colonial sloop 1933 2,600 tons Scrapped in 1958
Amiral Charner Colonial sloop 1933 2,600 tons Scuttled, March 10, 1945
Tahure First-class sloop 1919 850 tons Sunk by U.S. submarine, April 30, 1944
Marne First-class sloop 1916 601 tons Scuttled in the River Canthro, March 10, 1945

Siamese Naval Forces



Coastal defense cutter c. 1938 2,265 tons

4  8’ guns

Capsized under tow, Jan.14, 1941

(Sri Ayuthia)

Coastal defense cutter c. 1938 2,265 tons

4  8” guns

Ran aground, Jan.14, 1941

Raised by the Japanese

Sunk by shore-fire, 1951

Chonduri Torpedo boat 470 tons Sunk, Jan.14, 1941


Torpedo boat 470 tons Sunk, Jan.14, 1941


Torpedo boat 470 tons Sunk, Jan.14, 1941


This chart was first published on November 16, 2002 by Military History Online  http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/20thcentury/francosiamese/navalforces.aspx