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My afternoon tea with a terrorist

The Chechen leader began as a rebel but turned into a monster in his desperate struggle against Moscow.

July 11, 2006|Sonni Efron | SONNI EFRON is an editor on the Times' Op-Ed page.

THE AFTERNOON I spent drinking tea with the man who became Russia's most-wanted terrorist was, considering the circumstances, quite civilized.

Was Shamil Basayev already a monster? I don't know. At the time I met him in 1995, he was known as a guerrilla leader, a fighter in the Chechen resistance. He was not considered a terrorist in the West. But in the months and years that followed, as the Chechen conflict grew darker and more desperate, his tactics changed.

For the next 11 years, he wreaked previously unimaginable horrors upon Russia. He masterminded assaults on a school, a hospital and a Moscow theater that killed an estimated 600 people, including 300 children.

So when I read Monday that the Russian security services claimed to have finally killed Basayev, that President Vladimir V. Putin was boasting of "payback" and that President Bush said Basayev "deserved it," I wasn't sorry about his death.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 14, 2006 Home Edition California Part B Page 13 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Shamil Basayev: A July 11 article about the death of Chechen separatist leader Shamil Basayev said the Chechens lost their independence to Catherine the Great. Conflict began in the late 18th century when Catherine attempted to annex Chechnya, but the Chechens were not defeated until 1859.

I met Basayev in April 1995 as a Times Moscow correspondent covering Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's war to keep the then-obscure region of Chechnya from seceding. Russian forces had just captured the Chechen capital, Grozny, after a long siege and devastating bombing campaign that had terrorized the civilian population. Downtown Grozny looked like the pictures of Dresden just after World War II: skeletons of buildings standing amid rubble as far as the eye could see.

The Chechen rebels had been routed, but we heard they had headed for their mountain redoubt in Vedeno, where Basayev was in command, and we went to find them.

The Chechens were hospitable people and very pro-American. They loved Ronald Reagan for branding their ancient enemies "the evil empire." They hollered "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great") but compared themselves to the American colonists fighting the British empire. At that time they still expected President Clinton to come to their aid, just as the United States had helped the Afghan mujahedin fight the Soviet invaders.

So I wasn't afraid to go see Basayev. I figured that if we could just sneak through the Russian lines, I was sure to get an interview that would shed light on the Chechen rebels' plans.

We traveled up into snowcapped mountains as beautiful as the Swiss Alps, though wilder. Hundreds of Chechen refugees from Grozny and the Russian-occupied flatlands were also making the trek. A dozen or so bearded Chechen fighters in a truck agreed to let us ride along.

We drove up a riverbed and over rough dirt trails -- avoiding the main roads, which were being bombed by the Russian air force -- past a farmhouse with a hole from a rocket in its roof. The rebels said the rocket had killed the farmer's wife, blown off the feet of the 21-month-old girl she was holding and killed six others. The father, they said, had not been a fighter. But now he had gone off to join Basayev.

In Vedeno, we went to see Basayev. He turned out to be only 30, grave, well-spoken and polite but surrounded by the scariest-looking fighters I had seen. It was clear he commanded not just their loyalty but their awe; they treated him like a celebrity, the Che Guevara of Chechnya. Later, it became clear that he already was becoming their leading strategist.

His headquarters was a stone building that was a rebuilt version of the fort his ancestors had erected in 1010, when the Chechens were already battling would-be invaders. The Basayev family later helped fight off the 14th century warlord Tamerlane, but they lost their independence to Catherine the Great in the 19th century. Basayev had been named Shamil after the imam who led that doomed struggle.

He sat on one side of a rough-hewn table; I sat across. His bodyguards stood behind him. They brandished Kalashnikovs, were draped with ammunition loops and glowered down at me. I kept glancing up at them anxiously. Basayev got the hint and sent them outside.

He stood, made tea on a small Russian army camp-stove and insisted I take sugar. He gave me the usual lecture about Russian war crimes against Chechen civilians, about Russian internment camps where Chechen males, fighters and civilians alike, were tortured. He told me that the Chechen struggle had only begun, that the Russian military colossus could win on the plains but could never beat the rebels in their own mountains. He said the Chechen fighters had studied guerrilla warfare from the losing side, in the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Now they would turn the lessons of their miserable compulsory military service against the Russians, pin them down and bleed them indefinitely.

He believed that the Russian conscripts wanted out of Chechnya, that their officers understood that the region had never truly become part of Russia -- only a grudging hostage. He boasted that he had been buying ammunition and materiel from corrupt Russian officers. "If I had enough money, I could buy a whole division," Basayev told me. "A Russian solder sees a dollar and forgets his own mother."

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