Chechnya all over again

Dagestan, with two million inhabitants from 37 ethnic groups, as well as access to oil, has been see

The first thing to say about the Karamakhi Gorge, which Vladimir Putin has compared to "a mini-Iraq on Russia's doorstep", is that it's not really a gorge at all. It is, in fact, a rather unexpectedly fertile valley, about two miles long and half a mile wide, among the barren mountains that separate Dages- tan from the war-torn republic of Chechnya. Nor is there any obvious sign of danger as you enter the village, built in a primitive flat-roofed style on the slopes above the Terek River. Russian military helicopters sweep the sky in non-stop patrol. But the traffic on the ground consists largely of donkeys and horse carts plying the mountainside between isolated farmhouses and muddy fields. To an outsider, Karamakhi certainly doesn't look like the next capital of radical Islam.

Yet the danger is real, according to a veiled threat made by the Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev on al-Jazeera television recently, and if Dagestan explodes it will make the war in Chechnya seem like a minor security problem - which is, ironically, how the Kremlin always seeks to present it. Six years ago, Putin, as prime minister, launched a brutal military crackdown against Muslim separatists in Chechnya. The war won him the presidency, but it has also left tens of thousands of people dead, with no other discernible results. The casus belli was a raid by Chechen fighters into Dagestan, where Arab jihadists had allegedly turned Karamakhi into a fortified base for Islamic militants. ("This territory is under the jurisdiction of sharia law," read a sign by the unmade road, and a green Muslim flag was posted on a hill.) Within a month, Russian troops had driven the hundreds of rebels under Basayev back across the border into Chechnya. Putin announced the capture of Karamakhi in September 1999.

The other day I was sitting in Karamakhi, outside the new beige mosque, watching a funeral procession go by. Friends and relatives of the dead man gathered in the narrow street, beating their brows and wailing, as his body was carried out of a clay brick house and laid on a wagon. One of the guests laid the dead man's gun at his side while the other mourners climbed into an ox-drawn wagon. Half an hour later, the journey to his burial place in the mountains was interrupted by a gang of armed men who fired into the air and shouted threats at the grieving family. The gunmen forced everyone to lie on the ground, took their documents and mobile phones, and began to handcuff them. The gunmen weren't local thugs, though; they were police officers from the Dagestani Anti-Terrorist Centre, who claimed to be investigating a bomb explosion that had killed ten Russian soldiers at a bathhouse in the capital Makhachkala, and the unrelated murder of two policemen.

Terrorism in Dagestan, as elsewhere, is the result of corruption. The only business in the republic, which has just over two million inhabitants belonging to 37 fractious ethnic groups, is the sale of government jobs. The policemen in Karamakhi, in other words, belonged to a family or tribe that could afford to pay for their recruitment. The mourners in the ox-drawn cart belonged to a category of unemployed young people without money or prospects who are often recruited by the Islamic militants and then paid to kill policemen.

The Muslims of Dagestan, for whom Sufism combined with local tradition is the main faith, have generally been anxious to avoid the conflict that has afflicted Chechnya. Since the end of the first post-Soviet decade, however, more radical and militant elements, said to be linked with Wahhabism, have begun to acquire influence. In a way, the aftermath of communism is to blame. In the perception of Islamist radicals, the real Iron Curtain was not the one that separated east from west Europe, but rather the one that cut off Muslims in the Caucasus and central Asia from their co-religionists in the Muslim heartlands. To them, in other words, the fall of the Soviet Union did not mark the end of the cold war so much as the beginning of a potential Muslim reconquista, and to some extent that is what is happening in Dagestan.

The Wahhabi movement has always been viewed with suspicion in the former republics of the Soviet Union. A Sunni group that originated in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century, it has been particularly active in the Muslim regions of the Caucasus, where Wahhabism has earned a reputation for going beyond simply teaching its ultra-orthodox view of Islam. Not only does the group help to construct mosques and bring in Korans printed in local languages, but recent incidents, including the bathhouse attack, suggest the militants have absorbed sophisticated tactics used by jihadists in Iraq and elsewhere. A report issued this month by Igor Dobayev, an expert with the Russian Academy of Sciences, found that as many as 2,000 Islamist insurgents, many belonging to the Qaeda-linked Sharia Jamaat, have carried out a wave of roadside explosions, car bombings, assassinations and mass murders, as well as taking hostages, as happened a year ago in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia.

It was on the anniversary of the Beslan tragedy that I went to Dagestan in search of Basayev, the "mastermind" - if that is the right word - of the horrifying school siege in which more than 300 people, mostly women and children, were killed. One of the unemployed young men I met in Karamakhi agreed to introduce me to a friend who had contacts at the "United Headquarters of Dagestan Mujahedin" (UHDM), a motley collection of Chechen guerrillas, Dagestani rebels, Islamic extremists and mercenaries from across the Arab world and central Asia, but the friend never showed up. Basayev, the leader of the UHDM, is a one-footed staunch Muslim who does not share the extreme Wahhabism of his allies, though he does support the Arab idea that Chechnya and Dagestan should be merged into one Islamic state.

Russian intelligence officials assert that Osama Bin Laden has donated at least $25m and sent numerous fighters to Chechnya and Dagestan with a view to realising this dream. Meanwhile Ayman al-Zawahiri, America's most wanted terror fugitive after Bin Laden, also saw potential in Dagestan as a sanctuary for his Egyptian militant followers before he merged his organisation with al-Qaeda in early 1998. Sergei Ignatchenko of the Russian security service (FSB) believes that al-Zawahiri's plans for the north Caucasus fell apart after the FSB arrested him in Dagestan in 1997, jailed him for six months and then freed him before learning his true identity. Recent attacks in Dagestan have pushed coverage of the Chechen war into the background and revived fears of a new conflict that might be even more terrifying. Dagestan is a bigger place, inhabited by many ethnic groups usually not very friendly to each other. It was Dagestan, not Chechnya, where Russian troops faced most difficulties and suffered worst casualties during the Caucasus war in the 19th century. Its access to the Caspian Sea and its oil and gas reserves also give it a strategic importance that Chechnya does not share.

One morning after his friend's no-show, Dhzerbekov came rushing into the primitive clay-plastered dwelling, or saklya, where I'd slept for the night, and said: "Today I'm going to take you to see Uncle Shamil!" I could hardly believe my luck. Here was the journalistic jackpot of a face-to-face meeting with Basayev - or so I thought, as we drove through a dense forest and pulled up at a makeshift shrine dug into the patches of black earth at the roadside.

Nervously, I looked around for signs of the interviewee, but there was nobody there. With a broad grin, Dhzerbekov pointed at the shrine to the legendary 19th-century warrior Islam Shamil, who fought the Murid wars against Russia for almost a quar-ter of a century until he was undone by the defection, in 1851, of his second-in-command, Hadji Murat, a figure immortalised by Tolstoy. Four years earlier, the hill folk of Dagestan had moved down on to the steppe after tsarist forces had burned their villages to the ground. On the banks of the Terek, they built a new settlement and called it Tulatovo after its founder, Beslan Tulatov. A century later, Tulatovo was renamed Beslan.

In the view of the Russian government, the war in the Caucasus is nothing more or less than a terrorist enterprise paid for by Qaeda money. "Our forces have captured or killed citizens of 52 countries operating with the terrorists in the north Caucasus," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin adviser. "The enemy brings an ideology of radical Islam that seeks political power through terrorist methods." His analysis recently won the unexpected backing of the village imam in Karamakhi, one of the mourners at the shotgun funeral. "So many Chechens and Arabs have come here that it's impossible to count them," observes Magomed Makhdiyev. "They turn up in carloads, ten or 15 cars at a time, and try to lure our young people away. It starts off very friendly, but sooner or later what you hear is: 'Join us or we'll cut your head off.'"

A secret report by the Kremlin's special envoy to the north Caucasus, Dmitry Kozak, leaked to a Moscow newspaper last month, warned of the emergence of "Islamic sharia enclaves" in the remote villages of the Caucasus mountains. "Further ignoring the [social, economic and political] problems, and attempts to drive them deep down by force, could lead to an uncontrolled chain of events whose logical result will be open social, inter-ethnic and religious conflict in Dagestan," Kozak wrote. It seems that his boss has finally got the message. In July, Putin signalled that he was ready for a more hands-on approach to the war on terror in Dagestan by making a whistle-stop tour of the republic, though the visit was not made public until after his departure. The symbolism was clear - and reminiscent of George W Bush's occasional visits to Iraq. When the head of state has to travel unannounced for security reasons, you can bet that the place he's visiting is in trouble.

"The authorities are unable to deal with the situation in Dagestan, and the state is close to panic over it," argues Timur Musayev of the Centre of National Politics, a Moscow-based think-tank. "The inner conflicts in Dagestan have now attained crisis proportions." Shoot-outs, rallies and demonstrations happen every week. So do car bombings and other murderous attacks.

The Kremlin pins the blame on Muslim extremists from outside the region, but some independent experts say the problem is that the republic, governed since 1994 by the loyalist Magomedali Magomedov, is awash in corruption of the typical Russian kind. "In the north Caucasus we can see the total failure of Putin's policies," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the independent Centre for Strategic Studies. "It is a fairy tale to explain it as the work of outside factors, Islamic terrorists from the Middle East, or whatever. The truth is that internal problems are generating social unrest, which leads people to turn to Islamic ideas."

Hugh Barnes's Gannibal: the Moor of Petersburg is published by Profile Books

This article appears in the 26 September 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Vote Brown: get Blair!