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Tom de Waal profiles Shamil Basayev
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Thursday, 30 September, 1999, 14:23 GMT
Shamil Basayev: Chechen warlord
Shamil Basayev
Shamil Basayev: Russian military's enemy number one
By regional analyst Tom de Waal

Shamil Basayev obviously enjoys the terrifying image he has in Russia.

His threats of "kamikaze" attacks inside Russia have again stirred up public opinion, although they were probably just a bluff.

Yet this feared warrior looks almost unassuming in the flesh. He is of medium height, with a bushy beard and high forehead worthy of a Moscow intellectual, and a quiet voice.

Last year he gave an interview standing outside the gate of his house, wearing a turquoise T-shirt, trainers and a khaki military-style cap. There was nothing to indicate his status or that he was, at the time, Chechen prime minister.

In his interview to the BBC he was both jesting and implacable, saying he did not care that Russia did not recognise Chechen independence:

"I personally wouldn't like Russia to recognise Chechen independence today, because if she recognises us we will have to recognise her in her current borders - a colonial empire.

"I don't want to strengthen their right to rule over Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, or Tataria ... Russia is the last empire: it is built on blood. They don't even have the most elementary ability to correct that. So the fact that they don't recognise us is of absolutely no concern to us."

Basayev was born in January 1965 in the mountain village of Vedeno. He bears the name of the famous mullah and warrior Imam Shamil who led the mountain tribes' resistance to the Tsarist armies in the last century. He claims ancestry from one of Imam Shamil's Chechen lieutenants.

His early career revealed romantic and revolutionary ambitions - he said he had a poster of Che Guevara on his wall as a student in Moscow.

In August 1991, during the attempted Communist coup d'etat in Moscow, Basayev joined supporters of Boris Yeltsin on the barricades in central Moscow. He then flew back to Chechnya which was in the middle of its own anti-Russian rebellion.


Fighting in Abkhazia
Basayev fought with rebels in Abkhazia
It was then that he first won his reputation as a terrorist. Basayev hijacked a Russian passenger plane and forced it to go to Ankara, where he demanded a press conference to tell the world what was going on in Chechnya. In the end the Turkish authorities let them fly back to Russia without incident.

Basayev continued his guerrilla career, fighting with the rebels in the Black Sea republic of Abkhazia - alongside Russian volunteers - against the Georgian army.

But he really rose to prominence when Russian forces invaded Chechnya at the end of 1994, when he became one of the leading commanders of the Chechen guerrillas.

Two experiences marked Basayev during the war and made him the most aggressive and desperate of the Chechen fighters. Russian planes bombed his home village of Vedeno, killing eleven members of his family.


Aslan Maskhadov
Aslan Maskhadov beat Basayev to win the Chechen presidency
And in June 1995 he won notoriety round the world for leading what should have been a suicidal mission on Russian territory. With 150 Chechen fighters he drove north and ended up taking thousands of hostages in the town of Budyonnovsk. After a failed Russian assault on the hospital where the hostages were held, Basayev negotiated safe passage back to Chechnya.

The end of the Chechen war left Basayev without a role. He stood for president but came second to the winner, Aslan Maskhadov.

He was Chechen prime minister for a while but did not, as he had promised, manage to crack down on crime and kidnapping.

His popularity in Chechnya waned. So it was perhaps inevitable that he would turn to his favourite profession, warfare, again, this time in Dagestan and in alliance with another full-time warrior, the Saudi-born fighter Khatab, a man from a completely different fundamentalist Islamic background.

Basayev is an exceptionally fearless and cruel warrior, but increasingly that seems to be all he is.

Before the war in Chechnya he apparently showed little interest in Islam and his self-declared ambition to form an Islamic state is perhaps less important to him than a desire to fight the Russians at every opportunity and whatever the cost.

But although he has taken hostages and hijacked planes, he still has his own rules of warfare. So it is probable that he is telling the truth when he says that he has no interest in planting the recent bombs that have killed hundreds of Russian civilians. It is enough to be enemy number one of the Russian military.
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