This isolated southwest Russian village of dirt roads and one-story clay brick houses was profoundly peaceful, its residents say, until a Jordanian cleric named Khabib Abdurrakhman arrived in the early 1990s with a seemingly irresistible deal.
To a hamlet made destitute by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Abdurrakhman brought a slaughtered cow and a free feast every week. In a place where many people were left jobless by the demise of the local collective farm, he handed out $30 to every convert who came to his simple mosque. And to those adrift in the social chaos of the Soviet breakdown, he offered a new purpose in life -- a form of their traditional Islam rooted in fundamentalism and militancy.
Few questioned where his money came from, or who were the other Arabs who began to drift into the community. By the time questions did arise, it was too late.
By 1999, Abdurrakhman's growing band of followers had transformed the little settlement into an armed enclave, crisscrossed by tunnels and trenches and stockpiled with weapons for Abdurrakhman's true mission: severing Dagestan from Russian control and merging it into an Islamic state with neighboring Chechnya.
"They tried to lure people in a friendly way at first," according to Magomed Makhdiyev, the village imam, who says he tried to withstand the fundamentalists' influence. "But by 1999, they were saying, 'Join us or we'll cut your head off.' "
Abdurrakhman was part of a militant vanguard that deeply influenced what was then a secular separatist movement in Chechnya, recasting it in part as an international jihad that spilled over from the republic to neighboring Dagestan. Today the Russian government insists that it is impossible to understand the Chechen conflict without understanding the role of people like Abdurrakhman.
Russian intelligence officials say he is just one of hundreds of Arab radicals whose fervor and funds fueled fighting that has cost the lives of more than 4,500 Russian soldiers and thousands of rebels, plus many civilians, over the past 31/2 years.
Interviews with Chechen exiles, villagers in Chechnya and Dagestan, Western diplomats and terrorism experts confirm that Arab militants have played a significant role in the conflict. The full story has yet to emerge, however. Arab and Chechen commanders waging war in the republic are in hiding and could not be interviewed.
In the Russian government's view, Chechnya's war is nothing more or less than a terrorist enterprise, paid for by a combination of al Qaeda money and fraudulent charitable donations, commanded by Arabs trained in Afghanistan and fomented by outsider clerics such as Abdurrakhman preaching armed revolution under the theological justification of an Islamic strain known as Wahhabism.
"There are no more al Qaeda camps" in Chechnya, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in February. "But there is still al Qaeda money. . . . There are instructors who are working, there are mercenaries from a number of Muslim countries recruited by radicals. Unfortunately, all that still exists there."
A Change of View
Until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the Russian argument got little hearing in the West, where officials suspected that Russia was mainly trying to deflect criticism of human rights abuses by Russian troops.
But in recent months, U.S. officials have increasingly subscribed to the Russian view that Arab militants have helped Chechen rebels with money and weapons, although the Americans say the guerrilla war still has its roots in Chechens' decades-old resentment of Soviet, and later Russian, dominance.
"Obviously there is still a strong internal impulse behind the Chechen insurgency," said a senior U.S. diplomat. "But it has become commingled with the broader international agenda of the Arab fighters."
Bush administration officials say the United States has helped cut off outside support of the conflict by routing the Taliban in Afghanistan, helping drive Islamic fighters from the nearby Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and forcing Georgia to police the Pankisi Gorge on the Chechen border. After denying for years that the valley was a rebel sanctuary, Georgian officials now say that until last summer, it was home to 800 rebels, including 80 to 100 Arabs in a unit that received funds from al Qaeda.
Some terrorism experts say the West erred by dismissing Russia's claims for so long.
"Chechnya and the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia partially replaced Afghanistan as a center for terrorist training," said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert and the author of "Inside Al Qaeda." "The initial wave of terrorists who are now coming to Europe trained in Chechnya or Algeria," he said.
Col. Ilya Shabalkin, a spokesman for Russian forces in Chechnya, said Arabs still make up about one-fifth of Chechnya's roughly 1,000 active armed militants, who are increasingly confined to the republic's forests and mountains. "The Arabs are the specialists, they are the experts in mines and communications," Shabalkin said. He identified their leader as Abu Walid, a Saudi who showed up in Chechnya in the late 1990s.
The money, Russians say, comes from known terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and from some 40 organizations masquerading as charities in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere. The flow of funds has diminished since U.S. and Russian intelligence began jointly clamping down on terrorist financing after the Sept. 11 attacks. Even so, the Russians say, $500,000 to $1 million a month still reaches Chechnya, delivered in small sums by couriers who travel Georgia's rugged mountain paths.
One source is a Saudi charity, al Haramain, according to Russia's Federal Security Service. In an internal memo provided by the agency, the FSB accused the charity of wiring $1 million to Chechen rebels in 1999 and of arranging to buy 500 heavy weapons for them from Taliban units.
The memo quotes what it calls messages exchanged between Arab commanders in Chechnya and al Haramain's director in Saudi Arabia. "Today, al Haramain has $50 million for the needs of the mujaheddin," one message from the charity read.
"The reason al Haramain provides assistance a little bit at a time is because it is afraid of the accusations it is assisting the jihad," said another.
Russia forced al Haramain to close its offices in Georgia and neighboring Azerbaijan in 2001, but its workers dispersed to similar groups that continue to work freely in Azerbaijan, Sergei Ignatchenko, the FSB spokesman, said in an interview.
A year ago, the United States and Saudi Arabia shut down al Haramain branches in Somalia and Bosnia after U.S. officials asserted those offices used charitable donations to finance terrorist activities.
Al Haramain says it distributed blankets, clothing and food in Chechnya but stopped its work there 14 months ago. "We do not have any relationship with any terrorist activities," said Shaykh Aqeel Aqeel, the charity's director. "We work under the supervision of the Saudi government."
Money From Bin Laden
Russian intelligence officials assert that Osama bin Laden donated at least $25 million and dispatched numerous fighters to Chechnya, including Ibn Khattab, a Saudi who led one of the best-trained contingents. The United States now agrees that Khattab had al Qaeda ties, and cited those links when it added three Chechen rebel units to its list of terrorist organizations earlier this year.
American officials said that several hundred Chechen fighters were trained at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and that bin Laden sent "substantial amounts of money" to equip Chechen rebels in 1999. Some reports suggest al Qaeda urgently requested that Islamic organizations in Kuwait provide $2 million to the Chechen fighters as recently as last May, the U.S. government said in a five-page explanation of its decision to add Chechen groups to the list.
Gunaratna, the author, said Russia is exaggerating al Qaeda's contribution but not bin Laden's interest in the Chechen rebel cause. According to Gunaratna, the terrorist leader used a Persian Gulf bank to help finance the militants, at one point ordering an investigation into whether some Chechen leaders had siphoned off funds for themselves.
U.S. officials said they uncovered one source of support for Chechen rebels close to home: a Chicago-based charity called the Benevolence International Foundation, which investigators said funneled $300,000 to rebels in Chechnya and Bosnia. The foundation's director, Enaam Arnaout, denied any connections with al Qaeda.
But U.S. investigators said they found handwritten correspondence to and from bin Laden in the group's office in Bosnia. In one letter, according to court records, bin Laden declared: "The time has come for an attack on Russia."
Ayman Zawahiri, who is the United States' most-wanted terror fugitive after bin Laden, also saw potential in Chechnya as a sanctuary for his Egyptian militant followers before he merged his organization with al Qaeda in early 1998, Russian officials have said. Zawahiri's plans for Chechnya fell apart after Russian authorities arrested him in Dagestan in 1997, jailed him for six months and then freed him before learning his true identity, according to FSB spokesman Ignatchenko.
Arab influence in the first war between Chechen separatists and Russian soldiers, from 1994 to 1996, was minimal. Independence-minded Chechens considered themselves able to handle their own affairs, said Shamil Beno, who served as Chechnya's foreign minister in 1992 and as the republic's representative in Moscow in 2000-2001.
Dzhokhar Dudayev, Chechnya's president from 1991 until his death in 1996, was afraid of terrorist funds, Beno said in an interview: "He wanted checks done to see if it was terrorist money or not."
Those scruples faded in the mid-1990s, as more and more Arab missionaries and fighters flocked to the republic, proclaiming Islamic law, or sharia, and promoting Wahhabist traditions. Warlords had come to dominate Chechen society, and some of them embraced the fundamentalist cause.
The Arabs' goal went beyond preserving Chechnya's freedom: They wanted to merge Chechnya and Dagestan to create an Islamic state. Chechnya and Dagestan were poorer than the rest of Russia, and Dagestan, though home to a mosaic of ethnic groups, was predominantly Muslim. Its access to the Caspian Sea and its oil and gas reserves gave it a strategic importance to Russia that Chechnya did not share.
One of the new leaders was Khattab, who fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan as a teenager and who had publicly praised the al Qaeda leader as the "main commander of the mujaheddin worldwide." Khattab's position in the rebel movement was assured when he won over Shamil Basayev, Chechnya's best-known militant.
Planning a Takeover
Beno, who was once Basayev's close friend, said Basayev changed after he met Khattab in 1995. "He started moving from freedom for Chechnya to freedom for the whole Arab world. He changed from a Chechen patriot into an Islamic globalist," Beno said.
Basayev has told reporters he visited training camps in Afghanistan three times in the early 1990s to study the tactics of guerrilla warfare. In Chechnya, he and Khattab built their own training camp in the village of Serzhen-Yurt, complete with advanced communications equipment.
Their plans to take over Dagestan revolved partly around the village of Karamakhi, where Abdurrakhman, the Jordanian cleric, had begun preparing for jihad years earlier. By mid-1999, the village had been turned into a fortified base for rebels and religious fundamentalists.
Residents recall the sign that stood on the dirt road that led off the main highway: "This territory is under the jurisdiction of sharia law." A green Muslim flag was posted on a hill.
The hamlet's 14 policemen had been kicked out, and the Russian constitution declared invalid. Those caught drinking alcohol were beaten with sticks. Religious edicts were announced over a new broadcasting system, residents said.
Two rocket launchers, machine guns and explosives were hauled in and hidden. "There were so many Chechens and Arabs here we couldn't count them," said Makhdiyev, the imam. "They would come in carloads, 10 or 15 cars at a time."
Khattab visited the village, solidifying his ties by marrying a local 17-year-old girl. But the settlement remained divided between opponents and supporters of the Wahhabis. "Some people joined because they believed it was the right way," said Makhdiyev. "Others were just in dire straits. They went for these kopecks," or coins.
In August 1999, Chechen rebels launched incursions into Dagestan, but the operation failed miserably. Within a few weeks, Russian troops had driven hundreds of rebels under Khattab and Basayev back across the border into Chechnya. Russian troops announced the capture of Karamakhi in September.
That month, Moscow apartment houses were hit by a series of bombings that killed close to 300 people and were blamed by Russian authorities on Chechen rebels. Russian warplanes began hitting their positions and by October, 80,000 Russian troops were marching into Chechnya to reclaim the republic. Khattab was killed by Russian troops last year.
Villagers are still rebuilding what was destroyed by the Russian bombers. A new beige mosque is nearly finished, the ground around it a sea of mud.
A few rebel supporters, after being released from jail, asked their neighbors to forgive them and were accepted back into the village, said Makhdiyev.
"They say they were lost," he said. "They swore they would never do it again."