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archive: Bin Laden helped bankroll Dagestan war, expert says

Bin Laden helped bankroll Dagestan war, expert says

San Jose Mercury News
September 10, 1999

    Title: Bin Laden helped bankroll Dagestan war, expert says
    Publication: San Jose Mercury News
    Date: September 10, 1999
    MOSCOW -- The war unfolding in Russia's Dagestan province is being
    waged by a well-trained international force of more than 10,000 that
    has been planning the insurgency for more than a year, apparently with
    the support of fugitive Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, military
    and anti-terrorism experts say.
    A top anti-terrorism adviser to the U.S. Congress said the
    insurrection is supported by Islamist militants in several countries,
    including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan, and appears to be heavily
    financed by bin Laden, accused by the United States of orchestrating
    the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania last year.
    "They're thinking about starting the whole Caucasus aflame," said
    Yossef Bodansky, director of the Task Force on Terrorism and
    Unconventional Warfare for the U.S. House of Representatives, who said
    his information is based on what he termed reliable confidential
    sources. "It's a nasty bunch."
    Said Sergei Arutyunov, one of Moscow's leading scholars on the North
    Caucasus region, "Bin Laden aspires to the world domination of Islam.
    These people are now pulling the strings to what is happening in the
    The insurrection began Aug. 7 as guerrillas crossed into Dagestan from
    neighboring Chechnya, seizing several villages. Russian forces claimed
    to have the invaders on the run after two weeks, but the conflict
    erupted again over the weekend. Hundreds of insurgents poured back
    into Dagestan and a car bomb devastated an apartment complex, killing
    more than 60.
    The insurgents' stated goal is to carve an independent Islamic state
    out of Chechnya and Dagestan, on the western side of the Caspian Sea,
    but a number of experts believe the war is part of a broader crusade
    to destabilize the oil-rich Caspian region.
    Far from being a ragtag group, Bodansky said, the insurgents are a
    multinational force of more than 10,000 disciplined and well-armed
    fighters who began training months ago at secret bases in Chechnya and
    in Muslim countries that include Pakistan, Sudan and Afghanistan.
    Many are veterans of the 1994-96 conflict in Chechnya. The principal
    field commanders are Shamil Basayev, who led the victorious rebel
    forces in that war, and "Khattab," a Jordanian of Chechen descent who
    is a leader of the militant Wahhabi movement. Bodansky asserted that
    hundreds of sub-commanders are also knowledgeable about terror
    tactics, bomb making and the use of biological weapons.
    Bodansky said the force includes fighters from Pakistan, Egypt,
    Afghanistan and other Muslim countries, many of them members of the
    mujahedeen who battled Soviet forces in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.
    Russia, which will soon reinforce its 15,000 soldiers in the troubled
    North Caucasus region, thus finds itself mired in an escalating crisis
    that many analysts now believe could be even worse than its disastrous
    war in Chechnya, which cost Russia tens of thousands of lives. 
    "It seems they have a war right now that seems unwinnable, and it's
    going to drag on for months and years," Russian defense analyst Pavel
    Felgengauer said.
    Bodansky, who is a recognized expert on bin Laden, described the Saudi
    as "a spiritual leader" behind the insurrection. He said bin Laden was
    involved in planning discussions that began in spring 1998 and
    involved militant movements in at least three other countries.
    Other participants, Bodansky said, included Basayev and his forces in
    Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya; high-ranking officers in
    Pakistani intelligence; and Husan al-Turabi, leader of Sudan's
    National Islamic Front.
    Afraid of arrest if he left Afghanistan, bin Laden, an heir to a Saudi
    construction fortune, communicated through secret emissaries to
    arrange financing, training and arms shipments, Bodansky said.
    Ben Venzke, a senior consultant with Pinkerton Global Intelligence
    Services in Arlington, Va., said the fugitive multimillionaire has
    been "actively soliciting funds" through a clandestine e-mail network
    to finance the insurgents in Dagestan.
    Bin Laden also made a weeklong visit to a training camp in the village
    of Serzhen-Yurt in Chechnya shortly before the rebels crossed into
    Dagestan, Venzke said. The camp trains up to 100 fighters at a time,
    he said.
    Arutyunov said the international Islamist groups began targeting
    Dagestan because economic instability has increased resentment toward
    More than 85 percent of the province's wealth is in the hands of 200
    families, while most of its 2.2 million residents live far below the
    poverty line. Overall unemployment is about 30 percent, and tops 80
    percent among workers younger than 25.
    Most Dagestanis have resisted the insurgents, Arutyunov said, but
    "they recruited young people and families who did construction work
    for money" on training camps and fortifications in caves with
    connecting trails that enable them to elude Russian forces. 
    Arutyunov said the rebels "are very well-armed" with anti-tank
    weapons, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, heavy mortars and armored
    After training outside Russia, guerrillas were often smuggled into
    Chechnya through the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, Bodansky
    Analysts believe the insurgents also timed the offensive to take
    advantage of political and economic instability in Russia proper. The
    latest Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, took office just days after the
    Aug. 7 invasion of Dagestan.
    The military appeared to be close to crushing the insurgency, but
    optimism was buried by the latest offensive. Russian officials concede
    they may be facing a prolonged war.
    "The Russian authorities were not quite sincere when they were saying
    this war would soon be over," said Alexander Iskandaryan, head of the
    Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow. "Of course, it did not end,
    and I'm afraid it will last for years."

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