Shamil Basayev

Chechen 'terrorist No 1'

Shamil Salmanovich Basayev, guerrilla leader: born Vedeno, Soviet Union 14 January 1965; married; died Ekazhevo, Ingushetia 10 July 2006.

Charismatic, publicity- hungry and scarily violent, Shamil Basayev embodied all the attributes his fellow Chechen rebels admired. Steeped in a history of Chechen bravery in the face of centuries of Russian brutality, he combined the dedication of a fighter with cunning and imagination, and struck fear into every Russian with his ruthless attacks.

From his first terrorist venture - hijacking a Russian plane to Turkey in 1991 - to his most notorious act - seizing the hospital and its civilian occupants in the sleepy southern Russian town of Budennovsk in 1995 - he used panache and style not only to conduct his attacks but to promote his cause. Doubt remains as to whether he personally organised the seizures of the Nord-Ost theatre in Moscow in 2002 or the school in Beslan in North Ossetia in 2004, though he did little to disavow such suggestions. The Russian authorities came to regard him as terrorist No 1.

Yet, as the Russian authorities skilfully turned the fight for Chechen independence into an inter-Chechen fight, Basayev and others on the terrorist wing of the Chechen resistance began to lose their glamour among a weary population decimated by a decade of war.

The elder of two brothers, Basayev was born in the hamlet of Dyshne-Vedeno, in the home rebuilt only a decade earlier, after survivors returned from exile in Siberia, on the site where the family had lived for at least nine centuries. Even in the highlands of southern Chechnya, where nationalism remained strong, Communist ideas were inculcated. Basayev grew up as a self-confessed Soviet child, despite being named after Imam Shamil, who had bravely fought off the forces of the Russian Empire before being captured.

Basayev's encounter with the wider Soviet world came in 1982 when, after completing his education in the village school, he was called up into the Soviet army. Racism saw him being sent to a fire-fighting unit. He then worked on a collective farm in Volgograd region.

In 1986 he moved to Moscow, hoping to enrol in Moscow University's law faculty, an unlikely prospect for a not too well educated village lad, let alone a Chechen. Shocked to learn that a $5,000 bribe was needed to get in, he enrolled in the Land Institute and took odd jobs as a ticket inspector and working on building sites while living among Africans and Cubans in a Moscow hostel. Thanks to family connections, he took to selling foreign computers as the economy opened up to private trade under Mikhail Gorbachev.

It was in Moscow that he first came into contact with ideologists of Chechen and North Caucasian independence (Che Guevara was already his hero). Having rushed to the White House in Moscow to defend the Russian president Boris Yeltsin during the pro- Soviet 1991 coup attempt, he abandoned the barricades on learning of Dzhokhar Dudayev's return to Chechnya to lead a newly declared republic.

In November 1991, his terrorist career was born with the hijacking to Turkey. The following year he was leading a group of Chechen fighters across the Caucasus mountains in Abkhazia, fighting off Georgian forces in their bitter but successful struggle for independence. Ironically - and to the subsequent regret of the Russians - he was trained in commando-style warfare by Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) specialists. On the back of his success and brutality, Basayev became Abkhazia's deputy defence minister.

On his return to Chechnya in 1993, he was a key rebel commander as war with Russia began. Basayev's attack on Budennovsk - helped by wads of US dollars - raised rebel spirits. His fearless negotiations with senior Russian officials led to widespread admiration. The raid was launched just days after Basayev lost 17 relatives - including his wife and children - in a Russian air strike on his home in Dyshne-Vedeno.

By the time Russian forces had been forced out of Chechnya and a relatively free presidential poll could be held in December 1996, Basayev picked up 23 per cent of the vote, second only to Aslan Maskhadov. The following month he was appointed prime minister, but resigned after an ineffectual six months in office.

When Vladimir Putin launched a new war to retake Chechnya, Basayev was able to return to what he knew best: fighting and killing. It was almost a relief to him. He lost a foot in the Chechen retreat from Grozny in 2000 (he was shown on video unflinching as a surgeon amputated what was left of it).

Hardly a profound thinker or a strategic politician, Basayev had a rock-solid image of himself as a heroic defender of the Chechen nation whose bravery would be retold throughout history. Even Islam was subjugated to this ideal. Like many Chechens, he had a contempt for and fearlessness towards death. He always expected to die young as a martyr.

Felix Corley

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