Sword or Samovar

Islamists on Trial

On a monthlong trip through Russia's bloody southern republics, our correspondent visits a nearly deserted courtroom looking for hints as to why the violence here has taken on a new level of viciousness.

Victim Aslan Tsipinov's mother shows a newspaper article about her son.

NALCHIK, Russia — At the end of a street lined with graffiti-scrawled apartment blocks on the edge of this city in southern Russia is a steel-roofed building the size of a small aircraft hangar.

The building was constructed for a single purpose: the trial of 58 suspects -- the largest number of defendants for a single legal proceeding in modern Russian history -- accused of joining in an Islamist guerrilla raid on Nalchik on Oct. 13, 2005.

Despite the magnitude of the charges -- 142 people died in the attack -- the trial has been going on virtually unnoticed by the outside world since March 2009. Local newspapers here in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria carry occasional reports from the process, but most Russians have no clue it is even taking place.

One morning this month, I walked through an eerily quiet neighborhood, past two police cordons and several groups of soldiers cradling automatic weapons, into the hearing room, which was almost entirely empty of spectators.

It was an extraordinary sight. Three judges occupied a podium at the end of the hall, about 60 yards from where I sat. To their right sat a handful of blue-suited prosecutors. To their left, about 30 defense lawyers bent over their papers at a long line of benches. Behind the lawyers were six cages holding the defendants, mostly thickly bearded men in tracksuits and baseball caps.

What surprised me was their demeanor. The men in the cages -- they are all men -- were facing life sentences for allegedly causing the death of scores of people in coordinated attacks on police stations, Federal Security Service (FSB) offices, military buildings, and a gun store. But they looked confident. They leaned through the bars, they lolled on each other's shoulders, they exchanged jokes and sat in twos or threes, talking and smiling. At the beginning of the hearing, they prayed loudly together, their hands upturned, their eyes closed.

During the proceedings, the defendants made occasional statements into microphones in front of their cages. Some had become skilled at legalese. Others were simply swaggering.  

One stepped forward to say that Khachim Shogenov, the republic's former interior minister, should be called to give evidence "while he was still alive." He warned, "Such people will be killed in this republic. By the time this process ends, praise be to Allah, they will all be destroyed." (Shogenov narrowly escaped harm last month in an assassination attempt in which two of his bodyguards died.)

The Nalchik raid was neither the first nor the most deadly attack on Russian towns or cities in the past decade. In 2002, at least 40 gunmen seized 850 hostages at a theater in Moscow; about 170 people were left dead. Two years later, a group of 32 armed men took 1,100 pupils, teachers, and parents captive at School Number One in Beslan, North Ossetia. Almost 400 people died.

What makes the Nalchik assault unique is that 58 suspects survived in custody, unlike earlier raids where most, if not all, the terrorists were killed in the fighting. Because of this, it's an important opportunity to explore the motivations and psyches of the militants, even if practically no one (either in Nalchik or elsewhere in Russia) appears to be watching.

Many of the accused do not deny they were involved in the 2005 events. But they dispute the details and argue that they were driven to their actions by a campaign of persecution.

"What these lads did came after months and years of provocations by the security services on the basis of their religion," said Larisa Dorogova, a lawyer who has worked with the families of the accused. "They were beaten, they were sodomized with bottles. Some had crosses shaved into their heads. Some were forced to drink vodka. It reached a point when they couldn't take any more."

That this persecution took place is widely accepted. The republic's current president, Arsen Kanokov, who came to office only two weeks before the Nalchik raid, said last September that "extreme violence" had been directed at orthodox Muslims in the years prior.

And yet no one was punished for the excesses. "The events that led up to October 13 were never properly dealt with," said Valery Khatazhukov, a Nalchik-based human rights activist. "And the ongoing sense of outrage and injustice felt by the insurgents as the trial goes on is one of the reasons they have become even more radical."

This hardening of Kabardino-Balkaria's insurgents is a demonstrable truth. Over the last three months, the guerrillas have stepped up their assassinations of policemen and state officials. And while indiscriminate mass killings using suicide bombers have been a regular tactic in the North Caucasus for at least a decade, recently the insurgents in this republic moved on to a new method of terror: gangland-style murders of individual civilians.

On Feb. 18, masked militiamen in a black car without license plates pulled over a minibus carrying a group of tourists from Moscow through Kabardino-Balkaria's Baksan district to the ski slopes at Mount Elbrus. The men asked for documents, but when the tourists refused to hand them over they opened fire, killing three. It was the first attack on tourists that anyone I spoke to here could remember.

The militants' goal, most likely, was to discredit the Kremlin's plan -- announced by President Dmitri Medvedev at Davos -- to develop a $15 billion chain of new ski resorts across the North Caucasus, one of them close to Elbrus. Attacking tourists can at least be said to have a purpose, albeit a diabolical one: using terror to disrupt Moscow's attempts to stabilize the area. But what was the point of killing Aslan Tsipinov?

Tsipinov, 51, was a beekeeper and ethnographer who organized festivals celebrating the customs of the Kabardin, a subgroup of the Circassians who are the dominant people in Kabardino-Balkaria. He was shot dead at his gate by two men on Dec. 29.

When I visited Tsipinov's large red-brick house on the edge of Shalushka village near Nalchik, the dead man's 19-year-old son, Ozdemir, showed me Makhosh, his father's horse. Tsipinov's mother, Tsatsa, received me as a mourner, laying a hand on my chest and embracing me. She showed me Aslan's picture: a handsome man standing ramrod-straight in a traditional cherkesska tunic cinched at the waist, one hand resting lightly on the hilt of an ornamental dagger. "He was only for tolerance," said Tsatsa. "Whenever he talked of a plan, he began with the words, 'If Allah allows it, I hope to do this, or that.' Why murder him?"

Ratmir Shameyev, a notorious 22-year-old leader of the Kabardino-Balkaria jamaat (as the militants call their fighting units), had a simple answer. Dressed all in black and wearing his trademark eye patch, Shameyev appeared in a video announcement on the jamaat's website 10 days after Tsipinov's death, clutching an automatic weapon. The ethnographer was a "mushrik" (idolater) who promoted pagan customs, he said. And thus, he had to die.

Tsipinov's murder caused particular bitterness because he was a prominent and much-loved public figure. But the extremists have also killed several fortunetellers (also considered mushriks) and businessmen in recent weeks -- the latter, probably, for refusing to pay a tithe to the rebels.

The growing brutality has left the republic's leadership desperately seeking a way to cut off the radicals. At an emergency parliamentary session this month, MPs sent an appeal to Medvedev asking for help with security. "This string of murders has shaken the republic," said Prime Minister Anuar Chechenov, as reported by the local paper Gazeta Yuga. "There is a mood of panic." He added: "The population is forming the conclusion that the authorities can't even protect themselves, let alone ordinary people."

A few days later, Medvedev's envoy to the North Caucasus, Alexander Khloponin, swooped into Nalchik. It was the day I arrived in the city, and groups of policemen were huddled on every street corner. Khloponin met with a group of 200 university students, who asked him the cause of the recent escalation.

"It's the fault of the authorities -- federal, regional, and municipal," he replied frankly. "It's corruption and inequality. Some people are allowed to break the law, and others are not. We have forgotten that everyone is equal before the law, and that is a systematic mistake.

"The second reason is a bandit carve-up," Khloponin added. "Under the cloak of Islam, many are just dividing property, and it has nothing in common with religion. One other reason is a low level of culture and education. The ignorant also use Islam as a cover. And, finally, there is high unemployment among the young. Without tackling that, we will have problems."

It was a neat and correct assessment. But since I've been here I've found little evidence that people believe the arrogant "power" (as state authorities are collectively called in Russia) is ready to change its spots. Kabardino-Balkaria's economy is showing healthy growth compared with other nearby republics like Ingushetia and Dagestan, yet poverty and discontent are still widespread.

And then there's the human rights issue. Khatazhukov told me that violations by the security services have been reined in, but that there are still individual officers who think torture is an acceptable tool for extracting information about the whereabouts of rebel camps.

Such tactics threaten only more bloodshed.

A few days after visiting the Nalchik trial, I met some relatives of fighters who took part in the 2005 raid. One of them was Arsen Tukov, whose son, Anatoly, 31, died in a fierce exchange of gunfire with police.

Arsen, a composed, avuncular man with a long white beard, described himself as a Salafi: a follower of the pious strain of Islam. From 2001 to 2005, he was the imam of a mosque in the Nartan suburb of Nalchik.

As we sat drinking tea in a cafe called Salaam, Arsen described how during that period, police officers would cart off young men from his and other mosques for cruel interrogations. Some came back with bruises and broken ribs. The police ignored all pleas to stop. Later his mosque and several others considered hot spots of fundamentalism were closed and bulldozed.

Arsen didn't condone his son's actions, he added. Yet there was a reason Anatoly and his friends fought on that October day six years ago.

"In Islam, there are three steps one must take in the event of persecution," said Arsen.

"The first step, if you live in a Christian state, is to apply to the authorities and request protection from harassment. Which they did: They wrote 162 official complaints, all with no result.

"The second step is to ask to be resettled to a place where you can fulfill your religious obligations. Four hundred and eighty Muslims from here wrote an appeal to the federal authorities asking assistance to move to another land. The power refused to help."

Arsen paused for a moment to sip his tea. I noticed he smelled faintly of sweet incense. And the third step? I asked.

"The third step comes if all efforts are exhausted and the persecution continues," he said, pushing away his cup. "That is when you no longer have the right to sit at home, when you must come out and defend your religion." Arsen lowered his voice and leaned forward.

"The third step," he said, "is jihad."

Tom Parfitt

Sword or Samovar

Blood Relations

The families of suspected Islamist guerrillas in the North Caucasus have always faced harassment from Russian security forces. Now a shadowy vigilante group has started targeting them as well.

View a slide show of the North Caucasus's bloody history here.

VOLNY AUL, Russia — What happens to the family of a suspected killer?

On Feb. 6 in a shabby suburb of Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, Marina Mamisheva found out. Around 3 a.m., she told me, she heard a "big bang" and her bedroom windows burst. Someone had tossed four Molotov cocktails into her front yard. When she ran outside, flames were licking up her porch. One of the bottles had hit its target, setting fire to the plastic siding of her house.

Inside, Marina's eldest son Kantemir, 30, scooped his two children off their bed onto the floor, awaiting more explosions. When none came, he and his pregnant wife followed Marina into the yard and helped her douse the blaze. In the chaos, they didn't find the note glued to their steel gate until later: "If your son kills another resident of the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, you will be destroyed," it read in typed letters. The letter was signed, "The Black Hawks -- Anti-Wahhabis."

"We are living in some kind of nightmare," said Marina.

Marina's 22-year-old son, Astemir, is a suspected Islamist guerrilla whom she says she hasn't seen for two and a half years, since he set out for work with a friend in fall 2008 and never came home. He is wanted by police for the recent murder of the republic's mufti, a moderate who had spoken out against Muslim fundamentalists and was shot dead on the doorstep of his home on Dec. 15.

Investigators believe Astemir also killed a prominent businessman six weeks earlier (a surveillance camera recorded him at the scene, they say) and may be linked to the fatal shooting of a prison official at the end of November. Newspapers in Nalchik call him the rebels' "No. 1 assassin" in Kabardino-Balkaria.

Marina and her two other sons don't dispute this may be true, though they're shocked to think it. They told me Astemir had shown no signs of sympathizing with the militants -- often called Wahhabis -- who have terrorized Russia's North Caucasus, a sweep of hills and steppe in the south of the country that is home to Europe's most determined Islamist insurgency. He had a girlfriend and had just started a small business refitting balconies in Soviet-era apartments. It was a successful venture: Many people in Russia like to close off their balconies, creating a small room for junk or drying clothes.

"Astemir was a very trusting boy," said Marina. "Maybe that's why he fell into their clutches." She heard on television that the militants pump their recruits with drugs so they become "zombies."

Whatever it was that drove him away, Astemir is lost to his family. "We have disowned him," said Marina with tears in her eyes. "If he came back now, his brothers would deal with him before he even got to the police, the trouble he's brought them. He will always be my boy, but I have never sought to justify his actions. If he's guilty of all these horrors, then I utterly condemn it. So why pick on us?"

Marina's words have been echoed again and again by the relatives of suspected rebel fighters, or boyeviki, across the North Caucasus.

Human rights groups have cataloged thousands of abuses of civilians by Russian security forces since the wars in Chechnya in the 1990s, when soldiers beat and tortured Chechen men at temporary filtration camps. Often the aim was to force innocent victims to confess the names and whereabouts of relatives among the separatist fighters.

In recent years, a more common tactic has been to try to persuade guerrillas to give themselves up by abducting their family members. In December 2004, pro-Kremlin Chechen militia seized seven relatives of Aslan Maskhadov, then the rebels' leader, and held them for six months. Doku Umarov, the militants' current chief who ordered the Domodedovo airport bombing in Moscow last month, is said to have swerved toward more radical Islam in 2007 after security operatives kidnapped and later reportedly killed his father.

In 2008, Ramzan Kadyrov -- the president of Chechnya whose militia was accused of most such abductions -- went a step further. His men began burning the homes of fighters' families (there were 25 cases in less than a year). "Those families that have relatives in the woods are all collaborators in the crime; they are terrorists, extremists, Wahhabis, and devils," Kadyrov explained in a meeting with his cabinet. Such people should be "cursed and ousted," he said.

There are, of course, better ways to approach the families of young men who have "gone to the forest," as locals euphemistically put it. Dagestan, for example, recently set up a commission for the rehabilitation of fighters that co-opts relatives in negotiating the surrender of boyeviki, who can then expect softened sentences for their crimes.

In Kabardino-Balkaria, Valery Khatazhukov, a well-known human rights advocate, is supporting a group of alleged militants' parents who have asked for a meeting with the republic's Kremlin-appointed president, Arsen Kanokov. "They want to see what they can do to help return their children and ensure they get a fair trial," said Khatazhukov when I met him.

Kanokov has indicated he is ready to meet the group, but it already seems clear he holds little sympathy for hard-pressed relatives. "We need to work with parents and families," he said on Feb. 1. "If they haven't brought up their children right, let them also take responsibility. Someone is running around in the forest, while his relative works in a shop. That can't go on; we will find measures for that."

He added: "Of course, we're not going to burn down houses in the places [fighters] were born, like they do in Chechnya.... But if [parents] have given birth to a monster, then they should answer for it, not the state."

The president's ill-judged comments were compounded when he said the violence in Kabardino-Balkaria has gotten so bad that groups of athletic young men should be armed to create anti-Islamist village militia units. ("Absurd idea," Khatazhukov told me. "It's the security services who should provide us security, not some amateur sportsmen with guns in their hands.")

Now, vigilantes like the previously unheard of Black Hawks appear to be taking this task to hand. In the last few days, a fuzzy video has gone viral here, as young people across the republic pass it between cell phones. Titled "Address from the Black Hawks," it features a man in a black balaclava and a military jacket clutching an automatic weapon and talking to the camera. "You have a 2 million [ruble] price on your heads," says the man, apparently addressing local leaders of the Islamist guerrillas. "We don't need the money; we'll liquidate you for free."

The masked man later mentions Umarov as well as Marina's missing son, Astemir, and Ratmir Shameyev, another young rebel, known for his eye patch.

"Umarov betrayed his people -- he delivers young people to the slaughter and then proclaims them martyrs," he says. "Why is he himself not hurrying to the Gardens of Paradise? You, killers, Mamishev and Shameyev. Your time is running out. We are on your trail and the reprisal will be short."

It is unclear yet how serious the Black Hawks are about their threats and whether they have the wherewithal to carry them out. But the very fact that such a group has announced itself poses the threat of a widening civil conflict, where neighbor attacks neighbor on the base of rumor and fear.

Marina Mamisheva says she is not sure how much more she can take. Since November, police have carried out five searches in her house. In December, Kantemir, a welder, was stopped on his way to work by police who -- he claims -- planted two clips of ammunition in his pockets and then arrested him for carrying them. (A judge found Kantemir not guilty this week.) Now there are the Black Hawks to contend with.

"All the time the pressure on my sons is growing," said Marina. "What do these people want, that two more of my boys go to the forest?"

STR/AFP/Getty Images