Exploring Al-Qa’ida’s Russian Connection
[Note: This is an unusually controversial piece, even for my blog, for reasons that will quickly become obvious. Linkages between Al-Qa’ida and Russian intelligence have been discussed in hushed tones among spies in many countries, for years, and this matter has been a “hobby file” of mine for some time. Here is a think-piece on it, in the hope of spurring additional discussion and research into this important yet murky matter. This is particularly necessary given rising tensions between Moscow and the West at present. Considering the subject, I have eschewed my usual hyperlinks in favor of proper end-notes.]
“There are two histories: The official history, mendacious, which is given to us; and the secret history, where you find the real causes of events, a shameful history.”
– Honoré de Balzac
The history of al-Qa’ida has been extensively documented in many languages. Since the 9/11 attacks on the United States, massive research has been devoted to uncovering the origins of the global jihad movement, its strategies, concepts of operations, and ultimate aspirations. Such works have been assisted by the willingness of al-Qa’ida to talk openly about some parts of its narrative. While many aspects of al-Qa’ida’s almost thirty-year history have been examined in impressive detail, other parts of the story remain shrouded in mystery. In some cases, gaps are caused by a lack of information available to analysts and researchers. However, other underreported stories in the development of the global jihad movement remain untold, or unexplained, by apparent design.
No greater example exists of this “blank page” in the al-Qa’ida story than its connections to foreign intelligence services. While it is generally known that bin Laden’s legionaries have fostered ties, at times, with secret services as varied as the Saudi, Pakistani, Sudanese, Iranian, Iraqi, and Bosnian, few details have emerged, thanks to the desire on all sides to keep the saga out of the media spotlight. The murkiest of these relations, however, has been the connection between al-Qa’ida and Russian intelligence. While the outlines of the story have been known for years, and even admitted by Moscow and the mujahidin, details remain elusive. Moreover, asking important questions about this relationship seems to be an issue few appear interested in probing deeply, even in the United States.
That Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s right-hand man and the leader of the global jihad movement since bin Laden’s death in May 2011, spent almost a half-year in the mid-1990s in the custody of Russian intelligence is admitted by both sides and is a matter of public record. Just as significant, Zawahiri’s Russian sojourn occurred at a pivotal point in the development of al-Qa’ida; the shift in strategy, resulting in attacks on the “far enemy” (i.e. the United States), the road leading to 9/11, occurred after Zawahiri’s imprisonment by the Russians.
The outline of the story is clear. At about 4 am on December 1, 1996, Zawahiri was detained in southern Russia while attempting to enter Chechnya, the breakaway province of Moscow recently roiled by war. Accompanying the doctor in the van were two other radicals from Egypt and a Chechen guide. The Egyptians, wanted men in their home country and several others, were traveling under aliases; Zawahiri was “Abdullah Imam Mohammed Amin,” according to the Sudanese passport he carried, which had stamps from many countries – among them Yemen, Malaysia, Singapore – he had visited in the 20 months before his arrest.
Zawahiri’s two Egyptian companions were veteran mujahidin from Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), the group Zawahiri had been associated with for years and had headed since 1993. Ahmad Salama Mabruk ran EIJ’s activities in Azerbaijan under the cover of a trading firm called Bavari-C, while Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi had extensive experience on jihad in parts of Asia.
The three Arabs were extensively interrogated by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), which noted the inmates’ religious fervor, and the surprising support they received from Islamic organizations around the Muslim world. Twenty-six imams signed an appeal for the release of the three “businessmen”; others denounced Russian authorities of doing “the devil’s work” by detaining the hard-praying Muslims.
The FSB had ample reason to doubt the Arabs’ cover story. Among the items confiscated from the trio included details about bank accounts in Hong Kong, mainland China, Malaysia, and the U.S. (specifically St. Louis), plus substantial cash in seven currencies. Their laptop computer was seized and subjected to forensic analysis by the FSB. “Mr. Amin,” whose Sudanese passport depicted a Western-dressed middle-aged man with a very short beard, arrived in Russia possessing two forged graduation certificates from Cairo University’s medical faculty, with differing dates. FSB investigation of Bavari-C, the EIJ front company in Baku, quickly determined that no such firm existed in Azerbaijan.
Radical Muslims in Russia, including one member of the Duma, pleaded for their release, explaining that the Arabs had come to Russia to “study the market for food trade.” Various activists from across the region likewise wrote letters on the men’s behalf, claiming they embodied “honesty and decency”; the advocates included leading Arab mujahidin, among them Tharwat Salah Shehata, later head of EIJ. When Shehata got permission to visit “Mr. Amin” in his prison cell, he was given an encrypted letter by the inmate; after the visit, the FSB claimed to have found $3,000 in the cell occupied by the Arabs.
When the case finally went to court in April 1997, “Mr. Amin” prayed hard and lied effectively, claiming that he had entered Russia “to find out the price for leather, medicine, and other goods.” Rejecting the prosecution’s request for a three-year sentence, the judge gave them six months each; almost immediately they were released, time served. The FSB returned the men their possessions, including the cash, communications gear, and the laptop. After their release, Zawahiri spent ten days clandestinely meeting with Islamists in Dagestan, which presumably had been the original purpose of his trip to the region. Shortly thereafter, he headed for Afghanistan to establish his fateful alliance with bin Laden, which was cemented in the mid-February 1998 announcement of a new partnership between the men and their organizations in a Global Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. Thus was al-Qa’ida officially born and the path to 9/11 was established.
Zawahiri has been tight-lipped about his half-year in Russia; his numerous writings and pronouncements about his life barely mention the tale. “God blinded them to our identities,” he explained. The FSB agrees that they failed to identify the leading holy warrior. “In 1997, Russian special services were not aware of al-Zawahiri,” elaborated an FSB spokesman in 2003: “However, later, using various databases, we managed to identify this former detainee.”
There are many reasons to doubt the official story told by both sides in the affair. In the first place, Zawahiri was one of the world’s most wanted terrorists in 1996, having played a leading role in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981; the doctor’s role in the subsequent public trial was televised in many countries. He was hardly a secret mujahid. Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that a security service as proficient and thorough as the FSB did not have its interest piqued by the appearance of three Arab mystery men, bearing multiple identities and cash, in the middle of a warzone. It is equally difficult to accept that the FSB was unable to uncover the mysteries contained in Zawahiri’s laptop – as the Americans would do after many such laptops belonging to al-Qa’ida leadership were captured in Afghanistan after 9/11 – had the Russians really wanted to. Last, it can be assumed that the FSB would have tortured the Arabs to obtain information, had that been deemed necessary; and Zawahiri’s breaking by the Egyptian security service through torture in the 1980s is a matter of public record, and a subject of some remorse by the al-Qa’ida leader.
What, then, is to be made of Dr. Zawahiri’s Russian sojourn? Few have bothered to ask the question in any detail. While some conspiracy theorists have touched the issue, they have shed little light on the real story. While the idea that Russian intelligence may have developed a relationship with Zawahiri sounds fantastic to most in the West, the notion is far from implausible, and is consistent with known Soviet/Russian espionage practices. During the Cold War, the KGB had robust ties with many terrorist groups, including several from the Middle East. Its links to the PLO, including arms and training for cadres, were substantial for decades, while Palestinian groups like PFLP-GC were, in effect, wholly owned subsidiaries of the KGB. It would be naïve to think such ties evaporated with the Soviet Union.
Moreover, anyone acquainted with the Russian practice of provokatsiya (provocation) as Moscow’s preferred counterterrorism technique, finds the idea of a Russian relationship with al-Qa’ida to be entirely plausible. Indeed, such is the easiest explanation for Zawahiri’s six months in Russian custody and sudden release back to wage jihad.
Hard evidence about what Zawahiri was doing in Russian custody has not been forthcoming. Dissident FSB Colonel Aleksandr Litvinenko made explosive claims. In a 2005 interview, Litvinenko asserted that Zawahiri actually underwent training by the FSB in Dagestan during his half-year in Russian custody, and that Russian intelligence then dispatched him to Afghanistan to become bin Laden’s right-hand man. “I worked in the same division [of the FSB],” he stated, “I have grounds to assert that al-Zawahiri is not the only link between the FSB and al-Qa’ida.”
Litvinenko’s assertions are impossible to substantiate, though his assassination in London a little over a year after giving that interview, apparently at the hands of Russian intelligence, gives the claims perhaps more believability than they might otherwise warrant. Just as important, it is known that Russian intelligence had ties to Islamist extremists in Chechnya long before Zawahiri entered the region. From the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian intelligence formed discreet ties with radical Islamists in the Caucasus, including men who would later become leading mujahidin.
In perhaps the best example, Shamil Basayev, the long-serving emir of the mujahidin in Chechnya, was an agent of Russian military intelligence (GRU) in the 1990s. In 1992-93, he and his brother Shirvani fought in Abkhazia against Georgian forces, leading fighters as surrogates for Moscow’s policies in the breakaway region. Although Basayev was for many years Russia’s most wanted man and alleged to be behind dozens of terrorist attacks on Russian soil, his collaboration with Russian intelligence has long been something of an open secret. Not long before Basayev’s death in July 2006, apparently at the hands of the FSB, a GRU officer cryptically noted to the media, “We know everything about him.”
Secular elements of the Chechen independence movement have long alleged collaboration between Moscow and the mujahidin, with the aim of discrediting the nationalist cause by tarring it with extremism and terrorism. Moderate imams in Chechnya have been reluctant to have ties to more radical Muslims, fearing them to be Russian agents provocateurs. Collusion between radical Islamists and Russian special services in the Caucasus would be fully consistent with traditional Soviet/Russian counterterrorism techniques; it also adds a very different dimension to understanding the Chechen wars of the last fifteen years, and their links to the global jihad.
The mujahidin-led invasion of Dagestan in August 1999 in brigade strength that helped trigger the Second Chechen War was led by Shamil Basayev. Moscow publicly blamed “Al-Qa’ida-Wahhabite aggression” for that event, using it as justification to restart the war on terms more favorable to Moscow. But what, then, is to be made of Basayev, who has been memorably described as “a GRU staff member with a great deal of work experience?” The other direct cause of the Second Chechen War, the bloody apartment bombings around Moscow in August 1999 that killed over 300 civilians, likewise remain shrouded in mystery. Basayev was blamed for those atrocities, too, but what really happened continues to be hotly controversial. The case for some FSB involvement in the bombings, always strong, has grown stronger over the past decade, yet remains a highly taboo topic in Russia.
What, then, can we conclude about al-Qa’ida’s murky Russian connection? Unsurprisingly, Dr. Zawahiri has had little to say about his half-year adventure with the FSB. He has often criticized Russia and its policies, sometimes in vehement terms. Yet he speaks of Iran with equal venom, and al-Qa’ida’s discreet yet detectable relationship with Iranian intelligence goes back to at least 1996, and apparently continues to the present day.
His two Egyptian cellmates aren’t available to add details. Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi stayed in the Caucasus, was convicted in Egypt in 1998 on terrorism charges in absentia, receiving a ten year sentence, and was reportedly killed in action in Chechnya in 2005. Ahmad Salama Mabruk was arrested in Azerbaijan in 1998 on terrorism charges, and was extradited to Egypt, where he was convicted on numerous charges and sent to prison. The FSB, to no one’s surprise, has said nothing publicly about this case except for a brief press release in 2003.
It is fanciful to suggest that any formal alliance exists between Moscow and al-Qa’ida; bin Laden’s mujahidin have worked with several foreign security agencies in the service of the jihad, but have never been willing to put themselves fully at the disposal of any of them. Nevertheless, it seems justified, based on the available evidence, to suggest that Dr. Zawahiri reached a quid pro quo with Moscow while he was in FSB custody. That he underwent FSB training appears plausible; that there may be some kind of relationship even today between Russia and al-Qa’ida exists within the realm of possibility. Russia, with its large, growing, and potentially restless Muslim minority, would have ample motivation to reach terms with al-Qa’ida, in the hope of stemming radicalism.
Might Moscow have suggested that it would look the other way about al-Qa’ida’s activities in Chechnya as long as bin Laden and Zawahiri left Russia alone otherwise? It surely appears significant that Zawahiri led bin Laden down the path of global jihad, and direct confrontation with the United States, after emerging from his half-year as a guest of the FSB. As President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly made clear, a unipolar, American-led global system is not in Russia’s interests. To this day, Russia has endured many attacks by Chechen militants, but no confirmed acts of terrorism perpetrated by al-Qa’ida Central. This vexing issue continues to offer more questions than answers, and needs additional research, particularly considering the state of relations between Moscow and the West.
 For a detailed example based on research of what al-Qa’ida thinks about these issues, see this author’s The Terrorist Perspectives Project: Strategic and Operational Views of al-Qa’ida (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2008), co-authored with Mark Stout and Jessica Huckabey.
 The most information is available about the robust ties between al-Qa’ida and Bosnian intelligence, with Iranian assistance, in the 1990s; see this author’s Unholy Terror: Bosnia, al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad (Zenith Press, 2007).
 Agentsvo Voyennykh Novostey (Moscow), 23 Apr 2003.
 The most detailed account is an article by Andrew Higgins and Alan Cullison, “A Terrorist’s Odyssey,” The Wall Street Journal, 2 Jul 2002. For a Russian perspective see the article by Yuriy Tyssovskiy, “Bin Laden nomer 2 sdelalo vremya v nashykh tyur’makh,” in the weekly newspaper Vek (Moscow), Vol.22, 12 Jul 2002.
 Agentsvo Voyennykh Novostey (Moscow), 23 Apr 2003.
 An exception is Evgenii Novikov, “A Russian Agent at the Right Hand of bin Laden?” Terrorism Monitor (Jamestown Foundation), Vol.2, No.1, 15 Jan 2004, which provides more questions than answers.
 For examples see the articles by Michel Elbaz of Axis Information and Analysis (axisglobe.com), specifically “Russian Secret Services’ Links with Al-Qaeda” (18 Jul 2005), and “Russian Secrets of Al-Qaeda’s Number Two” (19 Jul 2005).
 Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich, “Drogi terroryzmu – Kto wspiera napastnicy?,” Rzeczpospolita (Warsaw), 16 Jul 2005.
 See Alex Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko, Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB (Free Press, 2007).
 Patrick Cockburn, “Russia ‘planned Chechen war before bombings’,” The Independent (London), 29 Jan 2000.
 Svetlana Meteleva, “Chechnya: my mozhem ubit’ Basayeva, no nikto ne dolzhen,” Moskovskiy Komsolmolets (Moscow), 21 Mar 2005.
 For a detailed examination of this viewpoint see the declaration of Chechenpress, 10 Jul 2009, available in both Russian and English at chechenpress.info.
 This murky relationship is explained well by Boris Kagarlitskiy, “My ne govorim, chtoby terroristy, no my pomoch’ im?” Novaya Gazeta (Moscow), 23 Jan 2000.
 The best case for the “FSB did it” hypothesis remains David Satter, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 24-33. In September 2009, GQ magazine refused to run in its Russian edition an article by investigative journalist Scott Anderson entitled “Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power,” which added details to the FSB role in the 1999 apartment bombings, based on testimony by Mikhail Trepashin, a former KGB/FSB officer – see David Folkenflik, “Why GQ Doesn’t Want Russians to Read its Story,” National Public Radio (npr.org), 4 Sep 2009.
 “Death of Senior EIJ Member Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi Reported in the Caucasus,” 17 Apr 2005, at globalterroralert.com.
 “Razvedyvatel’naya sluzhba bor’by protiv Islamskovo dzhikhada,” Ekho (Baku), 13 Oct 2001.
 Efforts to depict such an “alliance” are overstated, e.g. Konstantin Preobazhensky, “Russia and Islam are not separate: Why Russia backs al-Qaeda,” Intel Analyses, 31 Aug 2007.