The apartment felt like a safe house. The curtains were drawn. Someone else's family portraits hung on the walls, and a stranger's books lined the shelves. Other than a small framed photograph of the sons he had not seen in nearly three years, Ilyas Akhmadov hadn't bothered to unpack in the two weeks that he'd been there. His meager belongings stood near the door, ready for a hasty exit.
The 44-year-old fugitive Chechen rebel leader had made more than a few hurried departures on his way to becoming one of Russia's most wanted men, and he had been almost constantly on the move since fellow insurgents smuggled him out of war-torn Grozny in 1999. But on the day intermediaries arranged for us to first meet last fall, Akhmadov seemed anxious not to leave the temporary sanctuary offered by this borrowed two-bedroom apartment.
Ilyas Akhmadov might look like a Washington wonk, but he's among Russia's most wanted fugitives.
"Will you have another coffee?" he asked shyly in Russian. It was his fifth and my fourth, and the air had grown thick from countless cigarettes. As he spoke of Chechnya's two-century struggle for independence, smoke swirled around his spiky gray mustache, and, in the dark, caffeinated atmosphere, he looked momentarily like the sinister image of the jihadist mastermind he is accused of being. "I'm a little afraid to go outside," he finally confessed. "Someone might recognize me."
Staying out of the spotlight hasn't been easy for Akhmadov, who served briefly as foreign minister of Chechnya -- an internal Russian republic in the Caucasus Mountains that is slightly larger than Connecticut -- when the territory's 1 million mostly Muslim inhabitants tried to break away from Moscow during the 1990s. Since the Kremlin launched its most recent offensive against Chechen separatists last year, following the deadly September siege of an elementary school in Beslan, in southern Russia, Akhmadov has been the object of U.N. resolutions and antiterror rallies. Thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow last fall to protest the Beslan tragedy, which claimed more than 300 lives, and many of the demonstrators carried banners calling Akhmadov a child murderer. The Russian press portrayed him as a cold-blooded killer. And just a few days before my visit, CNN had broadcast his picture for the entire world to see. Sooner or later, Akhmadov worried, someone was bound to spot him on the street and make the connection. The wrong connection, he said.
Akhmadov's story might be just another shadowy tale from the global war on terror, if not for one important twist. The apartment he was holed up in was not in some remote former Soviet republic or extremist Islamic haven. It was smack in the middle of Washington, next to the National Zoo. He was here legally, as a newly minted political refugee -- and if he was hiding, it was more or less in plain sight. American taxpayers, in fact, were about to start paying his salary at a congressionally funded think tank.
How is this possible? Well, it doesn't hurt that Akhmadov enjoys the patronage of a group of very senior Washington luminaries. His backers include two former secretaries of state, Madeleine Albright and Alexander Haig; a former defense secretary, Frank Carlucci; a former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski; and some of the biggest names in elected politics, from Ted Kennedy on one side of the Senate aisle to John McCain on the other.
Akhmadov, according to his supporters, is hardly the bloodthirsty radical that Russia claims. "I found him someone whose life was dedicated to peace, not terrorism," Albright assured then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in a 2003 letter endorsing Akhmadov's request for political asylum. "I have met with Mr. Akhmadov on three occasions," Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) petitioned then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in a similar recommendation. "I have found him to be a proponent of peace and human rights in Chechnya."
Moscow, not surprisingly, has a very different view. "He's a terrorist, there is no doubt about it," says Aleksander Lukashevich, a senior political counselor at the Russian Embassy in Washington. "We have proof . . . Our foreign minister has made Russia's position on extradition quite clear."
The Russians are not the only ones in Washington questioning Akhmadov's innocence. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), and the chairman of Judiciary's immigration, border security and claims subcommittee, John Hostettler (R-Ind.), have jointly requested that the attorney general's office review Akhmadov's asylum ruling. "If the United States had evidence that Mr. Akhmadov was involved in terrorist activities," they wrote in a letter last September to Ashcroft, "it is unclear why he was not barred from asylum as a terrorist and as a danger to the security of our nation."
Thus far, Akhmadov's backers have carried the day. But the sheer persistence of his supporters raises its own set of questions. Why would some of this country's eldest statesmen risk damaging their reputations, not to mention alienating a key international ally, on someone wanted in connection with terrorism?
And why, at a time of bitter party divisions, would liberals and conservatives find common cause defending an obscure Chechen refugee whose presence on U.S. soil has sparked demonstrations outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and infuriated the Kremlin?
"How would Americans feel if Russia offered sanctuary to Osama bin Laden?" demanded Pravda.ru, the nationalist online reincarnation of the propaganda organ of the Communist Party. The tensions, not surprisingly, have spilled over to the diplomatic front, where Russian officials have been barely able to contain their outrage. "Harboring terrorists, their henchmen and sponsors undermines the unity and mutual trust of parties to the antiterrorist front," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Washington in an emotional speech before the U.N. General Assembly last fall. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin recently weighed in on the matter, accusing the United States of hypocrisy. "We cannot have double standards while fighting terrorism," he said during a December visit to India, "and it cannot be used as a geopolitical game."
Indeed, a game does appear to be afoot in Washington over an issue that goes well beyond the conflict in Chechnya. It is a bipartisan push from outside the administration to call attention to Russia's rollback of democracy under Putin. The effort has gained momentum, as evidenced by the growing chorus of voices calling on President Bush to honor his inaugural address pledge to confront repression and to take the Russian leader to task.
"Russia, under Putin, is either already a fascist state, or close to becoming one," says former CIA director James Woolsey. "And it's time we acknowledge that." Woolsey, along with the neoconservatives William Kristol and Francis Fukuyama, Democratic mainstay Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.), former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and 95 other U.S and European signatories recently published an open letter calling for a review of policies toward Russia. "Western leaders continue to embrace President Putin in the face of growing evidence" that Russia is spiraling toward dictatorship, the 100 wrote. The West, they further warned, "must recognize that our current strategy toward Russia is failing."
In this light, the effort by a coalition of old Cold Warriors to keep a frightened Chechen refugee out of Russia's reach takes on a whole new dimension, as a point on the sharp end of a wedge forming between Washington and Moscow that could widen in the near future.
TWO WEEKS HAD PASSED since the CNN broadcast introduced Akhmadov to American viewers, and he was visibly less anxious. He had not been waylaid by angry mobs and was venturing out again, suggesting we meet at an Irish pub on Connecticut Avenue. But his newfound confidence had limits. "I'm sorry, but would you mind if I sit there?" He pointed to a bench against the wall. "I don't like to leave myself exposed with my back to the door."
With his runner's build, jeans, short graying hair and pressed, plaid shirt of the sort sold in the L.L. Bean catalogue, Akhmadov blended into the afternoon crowd. Still, it's easy to see why he's looking over his shoulder. Russia has sent hit squads after exiled Chechen officials. Two weeks ago, former Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov was killed in a Russian special forces operation. Last summer two Russian agents in Qatar were convicted of assassinating a top Chechen rebel there. And, in October, a suspicious fire badly damaged the home of Akhmed Zakayev, another prominent exile, in London. British police said the blaze was almost certainly the work of arsonists. Though it's unlikely Moscow would try a stunt like that in Washington, Akhmadov is taking seriously Putin's vow last fall to hunt down and "neutralize" Chechen terrorists wherever they hide."It's very convenient for Putin to call us all terrorists," said Akhmadov, sipping a Samuel Adams ale. "That way he does not have to negotiate with us, and he can continue killing the Chechen people at will."