Chechen attack was 'grandiose attempt to copy September 11'

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The Independent Online

That alarming hypothesis has been put forward by an authoritative American intelligence provider called Stratfor that boasts of close links to the Russian and American security services.

The information is being checked by Russia's Deputy Prosecutor Nikolai Shepel, who is investigating the attack on 13 October that left at least 120 people dead and took thousands of special forces to repel.

It was the most significant Chechen rebel attack since last September's Beslan school siege and its precise objective remains shrouded in mystery.

The Russian authorities have made no secret of the fact that the militants tried to seize Nalchik's airport and they arrested one of the attack's planners days before the assault with a detailed copy of the airport plans.

One of the airport's top security officials was later arrested after he confessed to being the "inside man" and to having drawn the map for a relative who told him it was to be used to prosecute a jihad (holy war).

The Russian media has also reported that a stash of 500kg of explosives was uncovered in a factory close to the airport in the run-up to the attack and that a captured videotape purported to have been made for the Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev, contained extensive footage of a Russian air show with a particular emphasis on military transport planes. However Stratfor's report Nalchik: the 9/11 That Wasn't is the most detailed account of such a scenario so far.

Quoting "Russian military contacts and other sources," Fred Burton, a former counter-terrorism agent with the US State Department and the report's author, claims Basayev had closely studied al-Qa'ida's methodology and Nalchik was an attempt to replicate the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

"Russian military contacts and other sources have told us the events in Nalchik apparently were supposed to be only the first phase of a plan that ultimately was to include flying explosives-laden aircraft into high-profile targets elsewhere in Russia," the report said.

"Though the exact targets have not been confirmed, sources say possible targets included the Kremlin, a military district headquarters and railway hub in Rostov-on-Don, a nuclear plant in the vicinity of Saratov, and a hydroelectric plant or dam on the Volga."

Mr Burton suggested the only reason the Chechen-led militants had not carried out the plan, one he said combined "all the most deadly tactics of both 11 September and Beslan," was that Russian intelligence had got wind of the plot beforehand and acted resolutely to foil it. The report suggests Basayev was let down specifically by the fact that some of the fighters he used, many of whom were young local Islamist radicals and not Chechens, were not up to scratch, and by the fact information about the operation was so widely leaked beforehand.

Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel said yesterday he was taking Stratfor's claims seriously. "Our information suggests that the terrorists planned to attack 40 facilities in Nalchik and seize the local airport."

However Chechnya's rebels had less time for Stratfor's report. On the Kavkazcenter website, widely regarded as a mouthpiece for the militants, a posting called the report "complete rubbish".