Russia caught in sect's web of terror

THE HUNT for the bombers who have killed more than 300 people in explosions in Russian cities is leading investigators to the Caucasus and beyond, to the Arabian peninsula.

The Russians are seeking help from the West as evidence grows that they are facing a common enemy: the austere Wahhabi Muslim sect, which has links to armed uprisings from Algeria to Afghanistan.

From their base at Medina University in Saudi Arabia, according to Salih Brandt, a spokesman for the Chechen government abroad, the Wahhabis are now spreading their influence to the Caucasus, where Russian forces are trying to drive out Islamic fighters who have entered Dagestan from neighbouring Chechnya.

Panic in Russia was intensified by the initial absence of any claims of responsibility for the bombings. Suspicion immediately fell on Islamic rebels in the Caucasus, but evidence was hard to find. The Chechen government denied involvement.

After bombs destroyed two blocks of flats in Buinaksk, Dagestan, and in the Moscow suburb of Pechatniki, killing 64 and 92 people respectively, a man with a Caucasian accent phoned Interfax news agency saying: "What happened in Buinaksk and Moscow is our answer to what the Russian army is doing in Dagestan."

The Russian Interior Minister, Vladimir Rushailo, said the tape would be studied carefully and calmly; the authorities were not jumping to conclusions.

After another bomb flattened a block on Moscow's Kashirskoye Shosse last Monday, killing 118, there was a more specific call to Itar-Tass news agency. A man claiming to represent the little-known Dagestan Liberation Army (DLA) said the bombings were to avenge the deaths of Muslim women and children in Russian air raids over Dagestan. "We will answer death with death," he said.

The Caucasian connection immediately drew attention to Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord leading the fight in Dagestan, who first attained notoriety in Russia by taking civilians hostage in a hospital. He denied involvement in the bombings, saying that hurting civilians was not his style. But his comrade, the fighter Amir al-Khattab, said the attacks were a response to what the Russians had done in Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi, two Dagestani villages where followers of the Wahhabi sect were living until federal forces bombed them out this month.

Mr Brandt said Mr Khattab was involved in the aftermath of the Afghan war, a close associate of millionaire terrorist Osama Bin Laden, and well- connected in the radical Islamist world. "He has moved into Chechnya with large sums of money, fighters - mainly from Afghanistan, Algeria, Tajikistan and Arab countries - training facilities, and the Wahhabis' austere ideology," he said.

"The spread of Wahhabi influence into Chechnya and Dagestan follows a familiar pattern. In mosques, student groups and Islamic centres round the world there are graduates who have been given free tuition at Medina University, expounding the Wahhabi creed.

"The most public expression of its beliefs is in Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban has sent women home from their jobs, forced men to grow beards and beaten those who fail to attend prayers in the mosques. None of this is prescribed in the Koran or in the practice of the Prophet Mohammed."

If there is a pattern to the bombs in Russia, it is that they come after the militants have suffered defeats in Dagestan. But Russia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has also spoken of the involvement of "international saboteurs". A pointer to the possible involvement of Osama Bin Laden, say experts, is that the block bombed in the southern city of Volgodonsk on Thursday suffered the same kind of damage as the US barracks destroyed in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in 1996, a bombing to which the Saudi mastermind is linked.

The modus operandi of the bombers in Moscow has been distinctive. Experts believe that at least one bomber has experience in the construction and demolition industry, as the blocks of flats collapsed in the same way.

The bombers, investigators say, hired commercial storage space in the buildings they planned to blow up and, over time, brought in sacks of explosives. A cache of these sacks was discovered, but more might still be in Moscow. Newspaper advertisements sought van drivers to deliver "sacks of sugar" to different parts of the city.

Although Mr Khattab is regarded as something of an outsider in the Caucasus, and therefore might lack the resources to carry out bombings far away in the Russian federation, many fear he has increasing influence over Mr Basayev, even though the two are very different.

Shamil Basayev is motivated by hatred of Russia for what it did in the 1994-1996 war against Chechnya, and for its refusal to consider Chechen independence. He dreams of restoring the Islamic state that existed in the Caucasus before the tsars conquered the region in the 19th century. Mr Khattab is a mysterious figure who came originally from either Saudi Arabia or Jordan. He is married to a Dagestani Wahhabi, and it has been reported that his father-in-law was killed in the siege of Karamakhi and Chabanmahki. He could therefore have a personal desire for revenge on the Russians.

The Wahhabis first moved into the villages a year or two ago, rejecting the jurisdiction both of the Russians and the local Islamic authorities: the Mufti of Dagestan even declared a fatwa against them. When Chechen militants first invaded the craggy Botlikh district of Dagestan in early August, the Wahhabis were accused of joining them and declaring a holy war for Dagestani independence.

After the Chechens were expelled at the end of August, the Russians decided it was time to disarm the Wahhabis, but this turned out to be a far more difficult operation than they had expected. Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi had been turned into strongholds, with networks of bunkers and tunnels, and the Russians had to resort to a heavy aerial bombardment to force the Wahhabis out.

At this point, on 4 September, the apartment block in Buinaksk, home to Russian army officers and their families, was bombed. The Chechens seized their chance for a fresh invasion of Dagestan, this time in the Novolaksk district. By the end of last week the Russians seemed to be getting the upper hand, but they have learnt not to declare victory prematurely.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before