Shamil Salmanovich Basayev
Shamil Basayev was born in the village of Dyshne-Vedeno, near Vedeno, in south-eastern Chechnya to Chechen parents from the Benoy teip. According to Gennady Troshev he has some distant Russian ancestry. He was named after Imam Shamil, the third imam of Dagestan and Chechnya and the last leader of anti-Russian Avar-Chechen forces in the Caucasian War.
His family is said to have had a long history of involvement in Chechen resistance to Russian rule. His grandfather fought for the abortive attempt to create a breakaway North Caucasian Emirate after the Russian Revolution. The Basayevs, along with most of the rest of the Chechen population, were deported to Kazakhstan during World War II on the orders of the NKVD leader Lavrenti Beria as a means of cutting off support to the 1940-1944 Chechnya insurgency. They were only allowed to return when the deportation order was lifted by Nikita Khrushchev in 1957.
Basayev, an avid football player, graduated from school in Dyshne-Vedeno in 1982, aged 17, and spent the next two years in the Soviet military serving as a firefighter (Chechens were usually kept away from the combat units). For the next four years, he worked at the Aksaiisky state farm in the Volgograd region of southern Russia before moving to Moscow.
He reportedly attempted to enroll in the law school of the Moscow State University but failed, and instead entered the Moscow Engineering Institute of Land Management in 1987. However, he was expelled for poor grades in 1988. He subsequently worked as a computer salesman in Moscow, in partnership with a local Chechen businessman, Supyan Taramov. Ironically, the two men ended up on opposite sides in the Chechen wars, during which Taramov sponsored a pro-Russian Chechen militia (Sobaka magazine’s dossier on Basayev reported that Taramov apparently equipped or “outfitted” this group of pro-Russian Chechens; they were also known as “Shamil Hunters”). In later interviews, Taramov would claim he hired Basayev as a favor for a family friend, and that the latter was an ineffectual worker who would spend whole nights playing video games, sleep during the day, and had an obsession with Che Guevara.
Basayev had four wives, a Chechen woman who was killed in the 1990’s, an Abkhaz woman he met while fighting as a mercenary leader against Georgia and a Cossack he was said to have married on Valentine’s Day, 2005. A fourth secret wife, Elina Ersenoyeva was hiding the identity of her husband from her friends and family. Following revelations about the marriage, Elina was abducted and killed, allegedly by the Kadyrovtsy (pro-Kremlin Chechen forces).
When some hardline members of Soviet government attempted to stage a coup d’état in August 1991, Basayev allegedly joined supporters of Russian President Boris Yeltsin on the barricades around the Russian White House in central Moscow, armed with hand grenades.
A few months later, in November 1991, the Chechen nationalist leader Dzhokhar Dudaev unilaterally declared independence from the newly-formed Russian Federation. In response, Yeltsin announced a state of emergency and dispatched troops to the border of Chechnya. It was then that Basayev began his long and notorious career as an insurgent — seeking to draw international attention to the crisis. Basayev, Lom-Ali Chachayev, and the group’s leader, Said-Ali Satuyev, a former airline pilot suffering from schizophrenia, hijacked an Aeroflot Tu-154 plane, en route from Mineralnye Vody in Russia to Ankara on November 9, 1991, and threatened to blow up the aircraft unless the state of emergency was lifted. The hijacking was resolved peacefully in Turkey, with the plane and passengers being allowed to return safely and the hijackers given safe passage back to Chechnya.
The following year, 1992, Basayev traveled to Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, to assist the local separatist movement against the Georgian government’s attempts to regain control of the region — a conflict in which, ultimately, a minority of 93,000 Abkhaz were successful in ethnically purging a majority of Georgians (numbering some 250,000) from the region. Basayev became the commander-in-chief of the forces of the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus (a volunteer unit of pan-Caucasian nationalists, composed mainly of Chechens and Cossacks. Their involvement was crucial in the Abkhazian war and in October 1993 the Georgian government suffered a decisive military defeat.
It was rumored that the volunteers were trained and supplied by some part of the Russian army’s GRU military intelligence service. According to The Independent, Shamil Basayev “cooperation between Mr Basayev and the Russian army is not so surprising as it sounds. In 1992-93 he is widely believed to have received assistance from the GRU when he and his brother Shirvani fought in Abkhazia, a breakaway part of Georgia. Russia did not want to act overtly against Georgia but covertly supported a battalion of volunteers led by Mr Basayev.” In any case, Russia did not provide any resistance to the volunteers, which would later prove a mistake, as Basayev’s volunteer unit would go on to form the core of his experienced and battle-hardened Abkhaz Battalion in the First Chechen War. It was during that time that he developed his now trademark affinity for a Kalashnikov assault rifles and he made the note of posing with his firearms beside him in videos and interviews.
Few authoritative accounts of Basayev’s life after Abkhazia exist. According to some sources, Basayev moved on to Azerbaijan, where he aided Azerbaijani forces in their unsuccessful war against Karabakhi-Armenian fighters in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. He was said to having led a battalion-strength Chechen contingent. According to Azeri Colonel Azer Rustamov, in 1992, “hundreds of Chechen volunteers rendered us invaluable help in these battles led by Shamil Basayev and Salman Raduyev”. Basayev was said to be one of the last fighters to leave Shusha. Basayev later said during his career, he and his battalion had only lost once, and that defeat came in Karabakh in fighting against the “Dashnak battalion”.
The First Chechen War began when Russian forces invaded Chechnya on December 11, 1994, to depose the government of Dzhokhar Dudaev. With the outbreak of war, Dudaev made Basayev one of the front-line commanders. Basayev took an active role in the resistance, successfully commanding his “Abkhaz Battalion.” The unit inflicted major losses on Russian forces in the Battle of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, which lasted from December 1994 to February 1995. Basayev’s men were among the last rebels to abandon the city.
In 1995, After capturing Grozny, the momentum changed in favor of the Russian forces, and by April Chechen forces had been pushed into the mountains with most of their equipment destroyed. Basayev’s “Abkhaz Battalion” suffered many casualties, particularly during battles around Vedeno in May and their ranks sank to as low as 200 men, critically low on supplies.
At this time, Basayev also suffered a personal tragedy. On June 3, 1995, during a Russian air raid on Basayev’s hometown of Dyshne-Vedeno, two bombs landed on the home of Basayev’s uncle, and six children, four women, and the uncle were killed. Basayev’s wife and child were among the dead, as was his sister Zinaida. Twelve members of Basayev’s family were injured in the attack. One of his brothers was also killed in fighting near Vedeno.
In an attempt to force a stop to the Russian advance, Basayev led the most famous such attack, the Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis in June 14, 1995, less than two weeks after he lost his family in the air raids. Shamil’s large band seized the Budyonnovsk hospital in southern Russia and the 1,600 people inside for a period of several days. At least 129 civilians died and 415 were wounded during the crisis as the Russian special forces repeatedly attempted to free the hostages by force. Although Basayev failed in his principal demand for the removal of Russian forces from Chechnya, he did successfully negotiate a stop to the Russian advance and an initiation of peace talks with the Russian government, saving the Chechen resistance by giving them time to regroup and recover. Basayev and his fighters then returned back to Chechnya under cover of the human shields.
The media coverage surrounding the hostage-taking and his safe retreat propelled the then mostly unknown Basayev into the international spotlight, and made him Chechnya’s most famed national hero overnight.
On November 23, Basayev announced on the Russian NTV television channel, that four cases of radioactive material had been hidden around Moscow. Russian emergency teams roamed the city with Geiger counters, and located several canisters of Caesium, which had been stolen from the Budennovsk hospital by the Chechen fighters. The incident has been called “the most important sub-state use of radiological material.”
By 1996 Basayev had been promoted to the rank of General and Commander of the Chechen Armed Forces. In July 1996 he was implicated in the death of the rogue Chechen warlord Ruslan Labazanov.
In August 1996, he led a successful operation to retake the Chechen capital Grozny, defeating the Russian garrison of the city. Yeltsin’s government finally moved for peace, bringing in former Soviet-Afghan War General Aleksandr Lebed as a negotiator. A peace agreement was concluded between the Chechens and Russians, under which the Chechens acquired de facto independence from Russia.
After the end of the war, Basayev stepped down from his military position in December 1996 to run for president in Chechnya’s second presidential elections. Basayev came in second place to Aslan Maskhadov, obtaining 23.5% of the votes. Allegedly Basayev found the defeat very painful.
In early 1997 he was appointed vice-Prime Minister of Chechnya by Maskhadov. In January 1998 he became the acting head of the Chechen government for a six month term, after which he resigned. Basayev’s appointment was symbolic because it took place on the eve of the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of his renowned namesake. Basayev subsequently reduced the government’s administrative departments and abolished several ministries. However, the collection of taxes and the Chechen National Bank’s reserves shrunk, and theft of petroleum products increased seriously.
Maskhadov worked with Basayev until 1998, when Basayev established a network of military officers. By early 1998 Basayev emerged as the main political opponent of the Chechen president, who in his opinion was “pushing the republic back to the Russian Federation.” On March 31, 1998, Basayev called for the termination of talks with Russia; on July 7, 1998, he sent a letter of resignation from the post of the Chechen Prime Minister.
During these years he wrote Book of a Mujahiddeen, an Islamic guerilla manual.
In December 1997, after Movladi Udugov’s Islamic Nation party had called for Chechnya to annex territories in neighbouring Dagestan, Basayev promised to “liberate” neighbouring Dagestan from its status as “a Russian colony”.
According to Alexander Litvinenko’s book Death of a Dissident, Kremlin-critic Boris Berezovsky said that he had a conversation with the Chechen Islamist leader Movladi Udugov in 1999, six months before the beginning of fighting in Dagestan. A transcript of the phone conversation between Berezovsky and Udugov was leaked to one of Moscow tabloids on September 10, 1999. Udugov proposed to start the Dagestan war to provoke the Russian response, topple the Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov and establish new Islamic republic of Basayev-Udugov that would be friendly to Russia. Berezovsky asserted that he refused the offer, but “Udugov and Basayev conspired with Stepashin and Putin to provoke a war to topple Maskhadov… but the agreement was for the Russian army to stop at the Terek River. However, Putin double-crossed the Chechens and started an all-out war.” However, Litvinenko and Berezovsky provided little evidence for their claims. Researcher Henry Plater-Zyberk has described Litvinenko as “a one man disinformation bureau” who was hungry for attention and provided little, if any, evidence for his claims.
In August 1999, Basayev and Khattab led a 1,400-strong army of Islamist fighters in unsuccessful attempt to aid Dagestani Wahhabists to take over the neighboring Republic of Dagestan and establish a new Chechen-Dagestan Islamic republic. By the end of the month, Russian forces had managed to repel the invasion.
In early September, a series of bombings of Russian apartment blocks took place, killing 293 people. The attacks were blamed on terrorists with Chechen links. Although Basayev and Khattab denied responsibility, the Russian government blamed the Chechen government for allowing Basayev to use Chechnya as a base. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov denied any involvement in the attacks, and offered a crackdown on the renegade warlords, which Russia refused. Commenting on the attacks, Shamil Basayev said: “The latest blast in Moscow is not our work, but the work of the Dagestanis. Russia has been openly terrorizing Dagestan, it encircled three villages in the centre of Dagestan, did not allow women and children to leave.” Al-Khattab, who is reportedly close with Basayev, 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 the Russian army bombed them out. A group called the Liberation army of Dagestan claimed responsibility for the apartment bombings.
The new Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, famously promised a harsh crackdown on “Chechen terrorists“: “We’ll get them anywhere. If we find terrorists in the shithouse, then we’ll waste them in the shithouse. That’s all there is to it.” By the end of September the Second Chechen War was underway.
Basayev stayed in Grozny for the duration of the siege of the city. His threats of “kamikaze” attacks in Russia were widely dismissed as a bluff.
During the withdrawal of Chechen fighters from Grozny in January 2000 Basayev lost a foot after stepping on a land mine while leading his men through a minefield. The operation to amputate his foot and part of his leg was videotaped by Adam Tepsurgayev and later televised by Russia’s NTV network and Reuters, showing his foot being removed by Khassan Baiev using a local anaesthetic while Basayev watched impassively.
On June 2, 2001, it was reported General Gennady Troshev, then-commander-in-chief of Russian forces in Chechnya, had offered a bounty of one million dollars to anyone who would bring him the head of Basayev.
In August, Basayev commanded a large-scale raid on the Vedensky District. A deputy commander of Russian forces in Chechnya claimed Basayev was wounded in a firefight.
In January 2002, Basayev’s father, Salman, was reputedly killed by Russian forces. This has not been independently confirmed. Shamil’s younger brother, Shirvani, was reported dead by the Russians in 2000, but is, according to numerous accounts, actually living in exile in Turkey where he is involved in coordination of the activities of the diaspora.
Around November 2, 2002, Basayev claimed on Kavkaz Center webpage that he was responsible for the Moscow theater hostage crisis (although the siege was led by Movsar Barayev) in which 50 Chechen rebels held about 800 people hostage; Russian forces later stormed the building using gas, killing the rebels and more than 100 hostages. Basayev also tendered his resignation from all posts in Maskhadov’s government apart from the reconnaissance and sabotage battalion. He defended the operation but asked Maskhadov for forgiveness for not informing him of it. The answer to who was behind the hostage taking, however, is a not so clear – some dissidents claim, including Alexander Litvinenko, claim that the FSB was behind the Moscow theater incident.
Even though Basayev had a $10 million bounty on his head, he gave an interview to Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky in which he described himself as “a bad guy, a bandit, a terrorist … but what would you call them?“, referring to his enemies. Basayev stated each Russian had to feel war’s impact before the Chechen war would stop. Basayev asked “Officially, over 40,000 of our children have been killed and tens of thousands mutilated. Is anyone saying anything about that? … responsibility is with the whole Russian nation, which through its silent approval gives a ‘yes’“. This interview was broadcast on U.S. television network ABC’s Nightline program, to the protest of the Russian government; on August 2, 2005, Moscow banned journalists of the ABC network from working in Russia.
On June 27, 2006, Shamil Basayev was made Ichkeria’s Vice-President.
On July 10, 2006, Shamil Basayev was killed in the village of Ekazhevo, in Ingushetia, a republic bordering Chechnya. According to Chechen sources Basayev was riding in one of the cars escorting a KamAZ truck filled with explosives in preparation for an attack when the truck, hitting a pothole, exploded, killing Basayev and three other rebels. Russian officials state that this explosion was the result of the planned special operation. According to the official version of Basayev’s death, a detonator with a remote control hidden in one of the explosives was detonated by FSB agents, when they had spotted Basayev’s car near the truck through UAV video surveillance. A Russian “mole” in Basayev’s force reportedly planted the explosives and was reportedly paid £250,000 for his part in the assassination. Interfax, quoting Ingush Deputy Prime Minister Bashir Aushev, reported that the explosion was a result of a truck bomb detonated next to the convoy by Russian agents. According to Russian Newsweek edition, Basayev’s death was a result of an FSB operation, whose primary aim was to prevent a planned terrorist attack in the days before the G8 summit in St Petersburg.
On December 29, 2006, forensic experts positively identified Basayev’s remains. On October 6, 2007, Basayev was promoted to the rank of Generalissimo post mortem by the Chechen President Dokka Umarov.