An interview with Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel

Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel describes the terrorist network in the North Caucasus, its tactics and operations, its links to international terrorism, and some of the measures being taken against it.

Question: You have repeatedly mentioned the existence of a terrorist network in the North Caucasus. What does this entail? How many people are involved, what are their ethnic backgrounds, and how far does this extend?

Nikolai Shepel: These are hierarchical extremist-terrorist groups united by a common ideology, a common goal, and common leadership. They are currently active in practically all regions of the Southern federal district, including the Stavropol territory, the Astrakhan region, and the Volgograd region. This criminal organization is headed by Shamil Basayev, who maintains close contacts with the emissaries of international religious-extremist organizations. We don’t yet have any precise data on the number of people involved. I can only say that these terrorist groups include members of all ethnic groups in southern Russia.

Question: Including ethnic Russians?

Nikolai Shepel: Of course. As a rule, they are converts to Islam who take part in the “jihad” under Arabic names. Remember the incident last year where some police officers were shot near Mineralnye Vody? That was the work of Slavs from the “jamaat” of Kabardino-Balkaria, who were transporting explosives via back roads when they ran into the police officers. A special operation resulted in those bandits being intercepted and killed.

Question: How is this underground structured? Does it really resemble the patterns used by the Socialist Revolutionaries (Essers) and Bolsheviks a century ago? What methods do they use for communications and conspiracy? Do they gather for meetings?

Nikolai Shepel: The terrorists draw on the experience of Russian revolutionaries and espionage agents alike. Suffice it to note that members of parallel cells don’t know each other. They know only their direct superior, and obey him. And their obedience is unconditional, as confirmed by the testimony of apprehended bandits and electronic archives confiscated from some “emirs” – terrorist group leaders killed this year in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria.

Question: Who provides protection services for the terrorists? Unless someone is doing so, it would be impossible for terrorist leaders wanted in Russia and by Interpol to make “inspection tours” of the regions. It would be impossible for jamaat leaders, headed by Basayev, to assemble for meetings.

Nikolai Shepel: The bandits recruit accomplices everywhere. First and foremost, of course, they do so within the Interior Ministry and other law enforcement bodies. Severa dozen terrorist accomplices have been detected in those agencies over the past five years; some were killed resisting arrest, others prosecuted.

Question: And do we have any agents in the underground networks?

Nikolai Shepel: That’s classified information, as you’ll understand. But a series of successful operations aimed at locating and killing terrorist group leaders – even at the level of Aslan Maskhadov – speak for themselves.

Question: How is the underground funded?

Nikolai Shepel: The money comes from drug and arms trafficking, abductions for ransom, and racketeering directed at those whose incomes are unlawful and who’ll never seek help from the law enforcement agencies. The number of abductions has declined, thus also reducing the terrorists’ revenue from this line of “business,” but racketeering has become their primary source of funding.

Question: What kind of sums are available to the terrorist network in southern Russia?

Nikolai Shepel: We’re talking tens of millions of dollars a year. I’ll give you an example. During investigations into a series of terrorist attacks in the Stavropol territory in 2001, it was discovered that one of the underground leaders, Achimez Gochiyaev (currently on the wanted list), had received $2 million from Arab mercenary Khattab (subsequently killed) for the purpose of organizing and carrying out those acts of terrorism. However, Gochiyaev violated the preliminary agreements with the direct perpetrators (subsequently convicted) by failing to pay them; instead, he took the money and vanished.

Question: How much of the funding comes from foreign sponsors?

Nikolai Shepel: We don’t have any precise figures, but we’re seeing a trend of less money coming in from outside, and the bandits turning to raising their own money.

Question: Why do you say that the underground network in the Caucasus is part of an international network? Does Basayev take orders from Osama bin Laden?

Nikolai Shepel: Investigations into major acts of terrorism in recent years, and the criminal case regarding the activities of an extremist international terrorist organization in southern Russia, have resulted in the confiscation of recommendations on how to establish underground groups, conspiracy principles, ideological foundations for the work of such groups – essentially gangs, entirely in line with the gangs of Al Qaeda. Adjusted for our conditions, of course. For example, there were recommendations on bribing officials. There’s no question of Basayev being a direct subordinate of Bin Laden. It’s more a case of actions being coordinated via the emissarries of Bin Laden and other international terrorist leaders.

Question: Did they really start establishing the North Caucasus network even before Chechnya’s controversial “sovereignization”?

Nikolai Shepel: These processes may be said to have moved ahead in parallel with each other and with the weakening of Moscow’s power. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, all kinds of organizations bloomed and flourished: charity, cultural, religious organizations and centers. Some of them were involved in activities far removed from their officially-declared goals. They studied the situation, recruited supporters, bribed state officials and police. The most promising youths were sent to study at religious centers abroad. They were trained as professional Islamic preachers of the extremist kind. In fact, Astemirov and Mukozhev – the organizers and instigators of the Nalchik events – also underwent this kind of training.

Question: Do any official or unofficial religious organizations support the extremist underground? Are there any reports of blessings or material support for extremists being offered by Islamic clerics?

Nikolai Shepel: Yes, beyond any doubt. Ben Laden has spoken of his support for “spiritual brothers” in Chechnya. They use foreign hirelings’ channels to send money to Caucasus. As far as various support of extremists on the part of Islam leaders within Russia, such occasions were identified as well. Two imams of mosques from Stavropol villages were sentenced for helping criminals, hunting police.

Question: Operation North Caucasus (Budennovsk 1995, Dagestan 1999, Ingushetia 2004) has involved the personal participation of Shamil Basayev. Have you detected any traces of the most important terrorist in Nalchik or its vicinity?

Nikolai Shepel: The investigation belives so. Moreover there was information that before the state narcotics control alert force attack in Nalchik a year ago Basayev was in the suburbs of the Kabardino-Balkaria capital Hasan and Volny Aul a week before it. They were preparing to steal weapons. It is clear now what that was aimed at.

Question: Why wasn’t he captured then?

Nikolai Shepel: Data concerning his arrival only became known in the course of the attack. By that time, Basayev had fled.

Question: According to our sources, the terrorist raid on Nalchik on October 13-14 was planned to be a signal rallying the North Caucasus for an uprising. But the failure of the rally prevented the realization of the large-scale plan.

Nikolai Shepel: The investigation does not possess any such information as yet.