Portrait of a Chechen Jihadist

Meet Abu Hamza, a Chechen who went to Syria to fight.

PANKISI GORGE, Georgia — The day before brothers and Chechen émigrés Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev allegedly detonated two bombs at the Boston Marathon, I sat across from another Chechen displaced by his homeland's devastating wars with the Russian military. Having survived a childhood of violence, he had just returned to this village in the Georgian mountains from a different battlefield -- Syria.

Since the second Chechen war began in 1999, more than 190,000 Chechens (nearly 20 percent of Chechnya's population) have applied for asylum in the West, and thousands more have been displaced throughout the former Soviet Union.

With family in both Russia and Georgia, Abu Hamza, as he asked to be called, has been crossing back and forth across the border between the two countries for most of his 29 years. Late last year, in an unraveling marriage and only able to find sporadic work, he followed his brother-in-law to Syria. There, he joined a group of 60 or so militants opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- one of the thousands of independent brigades that make up the so-called Free Syrian Army.

"I went there because I saw videos on the Internet of innocent women and children being killed by the regime. I wanted to fight the [Syrian] government and help the opposition; I wanted to kill Bashar," he said.

Wearing a faded Adidas windbreaker over a camouflage T-shirt, Abu Hamza spoke of his two and a half months skirmishing with the Syrian military as if it were a summer-camp adventure at which he met like-minded men of diverse backgrounds. He declined to tell me the name of his group for fear of compromising his comrades' safety, but he said they included 10 other Chechens, several Azeris, Indians, and Arabs, and even one American, whom he described as a "cool guy" even though the American struggled with languages other than English.

It was Abu Hamza's first war, and he said the group's members ranged from grizzled veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya to 16-year-old boys who had never held a rifle. Although he spoke no Arabic before arriving, he said many of the other Chechens had picked it up through studies in Egypt or past campaigns fighting in the Middle East.

Still, most Chechens he encountered in Syria were from neither the Caucasus nor the Middle East, but from the thousands of refugee families scattered across Europe.

"They came from everywhere you can find a Chechen in Europe," he said.

Chechens are renowned for their strong martial culture and long resistance to Russian rule dating back to the 19th century, when Chechen religious and military leader Imam Shamil fought a spirited insurrection against the Russian Empire that made him an icon and celebrity among Russians even after his surrender in 1859. Chechens have carried this tradition into exile as well, where in Jordan, for instance, a relatively small community of 5,000 to 10,000 Chechens and Circassians are disproportionately represented in the country's armed forces, according to journalist and historian Oliver Bullough, who tracked the communities of scattered North Caucasus peoples in his book Let Our Fame Be Great.

Today, whether from inside or outside Chechnya, Chechens who fought in or escaped the Chechen wars are left with scant opportunities. Bullough writes, "For the 190,000 Chechens or so who have sought asylum in the West, there is the pain of homesickness, and the bureaucratic complications of life in a foreign country. For the Chechens who have chosen to remain at home there is a lack of education, a homeland strewn with mines, a destroyed economy and, still, the risk of arbitrary arrest and death."

One of the few employment opportunities within Chechnya is working for the vast private army of the federal republic's pro-Kremlin leader, former insurgent commander Ramzan Kadyrov. Russia also formed Chechen units for itself, with the nearly exclusively Chechen "Vostok" and "Zapad" battalions. They served as special forces units in 2003, and Russia used "Vostok" extensively in its 2008 war against Georgia.

Georgia, meanwhile, has also looked to the disaffected Chechen diaspora for its proxies.

Last August, just weeks before Georgia's parliamentary elections, the government announced it had surrounded a "squad of saboteurs" that had taken hostages in the Lopota Gorge in eastern Georgia. After negotiations failed, a shootout ensued, killing at least seven militants and three Georgian special forces soldiers. At the time, the government implied the armed group had passed into the country from the North Caucasus and was part of a Russian plan to destabilize Georgia and install a pro-Russian government.

But residents of villages in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge area told a different story. The Pankisi Gorge is populated by Kists, a group ethnically and linguistically linked to Chechens. During the two Chechen wars, insurgents often used the gorge, which pokes into the Caucasus mountain range south of Chechnya, as a staging ground for operations, and by the early 2000s, it was flush with refugees and both Chechen and foreign fighters alike.

After Russia bombed sites in the gorge and threatened to invade in 2002, U.S.-trained Georgian special forces reasserted control there the following year, though the situation remained tense. Many former insurgents remained in the gorge, intermarrying with locals and living in exile, afraid to return to Chechnya for fear of torture or execution by the brutal pro-Russian regime.

Georgia later revealed that two of the armed men killed in the August operation were ethnic Kist Georgian citizens, while the rest, locals told me, were Chechens living in the gorge. The aunt of one of the slain Georgians, Natela Margoshvili, told me at the time that the government had threatened the family not to talk about her nephew Aslan's death and forbade the family from holding a public funeral, telling them that he had already been buried in an empty lot in their village and they could only visit the site at night.

Georgia then changed governments in the elections that followed, and this month the new ombudsman released a report detailing its initial probe into the incident. Citing confidential sources in the country's Interior Ministry, the ombudsman reported that about 120 fighters had been recruited from Chechen refugee communities and Kist students in Georgia and elsewhere in Europe, including Margoshvili, whose family claims he was studying in Finland, then Slovakia, before they received word of his sudden death.

The recruits were allegedly promised weapons, training, and an open corridor to fight in the Russian North Caucasus. They were put up in apartments in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, while being trained by special forces at military bases. All the while, Margoshvili made regular calls back to his family, the family said, making the family believe he was still studying abroad. But then things started going awry.

The report says that the training schedule lasted longer than planned and the recruits were getting anxious. They were then deployed to the Lopota Gorge several days before the shootout took place, but at some point Georgian forces were sent to the area and told them to lay down their weapons and return to Pankisi or a military base. After they refused, a deadly shootout ensued.

The ombudsman claims to possess a gun registration certificate issued for Aslan Margoshvili by the Interior Ministry in July 2012 and has called for an extensive and official investigation into the matter, but this incident was not the first time Chechen mercenaries have been involved in Georgia's conflicts.

During the 1993-1994 Abkhazian-Georgian conflict, Chechen militants led informally by Shamil Basayev played a critical role in pushing out Georgian forces attempting to suppress Abkhazia's secessionist ambitions. Basayev would later become infamous for brutal attacks on Russian civilians and his connection to the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis, which led to the deaths of nearly 400 people, mostly children.

Nonetheless, he and his Chechen cohorts are still revered in Abkhazia for their fearless, bordering-on-suicidal fighting style. One wide-eyed Abkhazian veteran who fought alongside Basayev told me in 2011, "He was crazy. There would be fire coming from everywhere, rooftops, cars, everything, and he would just walk out in the middle of the street firing like mad at them."

Then, as the second Chechen war raged in 2001, Ruslan Gelayev, who fought alongside Basayev in Abkhazia, made his base of operations in the Pankisi Gorge and was reportedly hired by then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze for an abortive incursion into Abkhazia. Forty people were killed in the crisis, including nine U.N. peacekeepers whose helicopter was shot down.

Several Pankisi residents also claim that Georgia hired dozens of fighters from there to use as paramilitaries during the country's 2008 war with Russia, but they arrived to the battlefield after Russian forces had already forced the Georgian military into a full retreat.

Although residents say that government pressure has been lifted from the gorge and they are no longer subject to threats and extortion by the Georgian Interior Ministry since the October elections, many say they are worried about the increasing influence of a new Salafi mosque built in the gorge, allegedly by Saudi money. None would go on the record for fear of retribution from the fundamentalists.

Vladimir Lozinski, co-founder of the Roddy Scott Foundation, which provides language and computer training to youth in the gorge, said that he has seen a drop-off in attendance by young men in the villages, many of whom he now sees growing beards and spending most of their time at the mosque.

Abu Hamza denied any connection to the Salafi mosque and maintained that he went to Syria on his own volition. Although he returned from the fighting with the thick, wiry, mustache-less beard of a hard-line Muslim, he said he doesn't consider himself a jihadist.

"People can call it what they want. I went to Syria for the children, the women, the civilians, and for God," he said.

Abu Hamza estimates that about 100 Kists and Chechens from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge are currently fighting in Syria, and he wants to be with them. Now divorced, he said he yearns to return, but a female relative that he admires pulled him from the fighting the last time, pledging that if he didn't come back to Georgia, she would go and drag him from the battle herself. He said he now knows that one of his distant relatives who survived the shootout with Georgian special forces in Lopota Gorge is now in Syria and has become an "emir," or local commander.

Abu Hamza said he considers the other members of his group "closer than brothers" and they cried when he left. One, an Azeri from Moscow, has promised to find him a job in the Russian capital if he survives.

When I asked whether he would consider fighting elsewhere, in Iraq or Afghanistan, for instance, or against the Georgian government that had apparently betrayed his kin, he said, "I'll go anywhere they are murdering innocents."



Death by a Thousand Cuts

Just one year into François Hollande's presidency, he's on the ropes and praying for a miracle.

PARIS — François Hollande's presidency has been disfigured by a plastic surgeon.

Oh, the irony. The current head of state is that rare, big-time French politician who does not ooze vanity. Unlike former President Nicolas Sarkozy, an exercise freak who wore lifts in his shoes and worked hard to hide the peculiarities of his body, Hollande seems comfortable with his short stature. He battles his paunch, but it is more like a gentle competition with an old friend. His one smidgen of vanity is all the more humanizing: He dyes the little that remains of his hair with a product that looks, well, cheap.

So it was a bit surprising to see Hollande in the company of a man like Jérôme Cahuzac. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault chose the ambitious, serpentine plastic surgeon to be his budget minister soon after the May 2012 presidential election. While Cahuzac has worn many faces, it is becoming clear that the most dramatic makeover of his career may be of Hollande and his Socialist government, a group that was supposed to be an antidote to the bling-bling presidency of Sarkozy.

Cahuzac began his career in the 1980s as a traditional surgeon who rose to head the public medical clinic where he practiced until he was invited in 1988 to join the cabinet of the minister of health, Claude Évin.

In 1991, Cahuzac went into the private sector, leaping into the superficial world of plastic surgery and hair implants. It seems to have been quite lucrative given that he and his soon-to-be ex-wife own a vast apartment on the posh Avenue de Breteuil in Paris's 7th arrondissement, and that they are subject to France's wealth tax. In 1993, the ambitious surgeon began to work as a technical advisor to a wide array of pharmaceutical labs and continued to bounce between the business and political worlds, becoming the health advisor to the Socialist Party's failed presidential candidate, Lionel Jospin, in 1995. In 1997, he won election to Parliament, where, thanks to his sharp public speaking and searing criticism of the conservative government's fiscal policies, he became a notable figure in the opposition. In 2010 he was elected to preside over the parliamentary commission on finance, the economy, and budgetary control.

Cahuzac was a devoted backer of Dominique Strauss-Kahn until the popular IMF head's presidential aspirations collapsed when he was charged with sexually assaulting a cleaning lady in a New York City hotel. Thus, it was somewhat unexpected that Hollande, the eventual Socialist nominee, appointed Cahuzac to oversee France's budget. From the start, the role of budget minister was particularly crucial, as Hollande had promised to make rich people pay more, while cracking down on individual and corporate tax evaders -- a program that was designed to help shrink France's troubling budget deficit and "moralize" the country's relationship to money. The role required Cahuzac to have impeccable credentials and utter credibility. After tapping corporate France and the rich, his next step was going to be the enactment of ever increasing deficit reductions, which are expected to total more than 10 billion euros in 2013 and perhaps a greater amount in 2014. Pain will surely be inflicted on some of the sacred cows of Socialist supporters, with a possible increase in the retirement age for most people. Tax increases on corporations and the rich, along with a bevy of cuts, make for a polarizing policy, and critics on the right have lambasted the president's economic agenda. (Actor Gérard Depardieu became a poster boy for anti-Hollande-ism when he moved abroad and became France's most famous self-imposed tax exile.

But no one quite saw this coming.

The first scent of trouble came in December, when the French investigative website Mediapart published an investigative article alleging that Cahuzac, who was effectively Hollande's tax czar, had an unreported Swiss bank account. Cahuzac threatened to attack Mediapart in court and vociferously denied the allegation both in public and directly to the president. He also went before Parliament and swore to longtime colleagues: "I do not have, I have never had, an account abroad, not now, not ever."

The government looked into the accusations, while French court investigators took up the case in a more formal manner. The government concluded that the allegations were baseless, but the judicial investigation followed up on Mediapart's lead and eventually found enough evidence to issue the French equivalent of a preliminary indictment. In March, Cahuzac did what most ministers do in such a situation: He resigned to defend himself. And many of his political allies continued to talk up his probity.

Then came the bombshell. On April 2, Cahuzac confessed. In 1992, he had asked someone to open a Swiss bank account for him. His secret savings eventually grew to 600,000 euros (more than three-quarters of a million dollars), and he transferred the money to another account in Singapore in 2010. He had never reported either account on his taxes in France. "Devastated by remorse" over his "spiral of lies," Cahuzac announced that he is repatriating the money to France, and he sought "forgiveness for the damage I have caused."

If that sounds bad in the abstract, it is far worse in practice. Hollande had promised his presidency would be different. The keywords of his campaign were normal, fair, just, and clean. He vowed to be an ascetic representative of the people and take on the collusion of the political and business classes. His government would be "irreproachable." Symbols mattered. He shunned black limousines and rode a motor scooter to an interview early in his presidential primary campaign. One of his first actions after taking office was to cut the salaries of all ministers by 30 percent, and he encouraged his cabinet to take the train instead of using cars.

After Cahuzac's admission, Hollande went on television to describe his former minister's "unpardonable mistake." The provocative political magazine Marianne ran a cover summarizing the broader analysis of the French media: "The Ravages of a Disaster for the Republic." Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius put his finger on the pulse of the nation when he noted that people would conclude that politicians "are all rotten."

Even before this debacle, France was itching with impatience. Unemployment is rising toward its highest point since 1998, economic growth is near stagnant (the IMF expects just a 0.4 percent uptick in 2013), and Europe is entering the fourth year of its debt crisis. As Hollande nears the first anniversary of his victory over Sarkozy, there is little sense that the new president will turn things around anytime soon.

No wonder the president's approval ratings, at 30 percent or less in an array of polls, are the lowest of any modern French head of state at such an early point in his term. This should still be the honeymoon, but in light of the Cahuzac bombshell, six people in 10 already want a major government reshuffle.

This credibility-shattering revelation follows a never-ending array of corruption probes under the two previous conservative presidents, Jacques Chirac and Sarkozy, the latter of whom remains under investigation in several cases. The mainstream parties are suffering; 76 percent of the French say they no longer believe in political leaders, and 70 percent of voters think that France's extreme political parties will benefit from this mess.

Meanwhile, the far-right National Front party president, Marine Le Pen, is working hard to make this forecast a reality. Soon after Cahuzac's confession, she called on the government to step down and demanded new elections. The larger (and mainstream) conservative opposition party, the UMP, has called for a major ministerial shake-up and suggested that Prime Minister Ayrault should be replaced.

Hollande's desperate hope is that he can turn this free-fall into a bungee-like bounce. He almost instantly promised major reforms and suggested that people convicted of fraud would be banned from office. On April 10, he announced that all his ministers will soon publish their personal financial information -- and they did on April 15. Hollande also highlighted specific rules that will be put in place to eliminate conflicts of interest for ministers, parliamentarians, and top administrative officials -- and proposed the creation of an independent authority with the teeth to monitor and respond to such corruption.

Challenges to such change are already emerging from elements in the political class, with an array of ministers arguing that being forced to reveal information about their net worth would be a violation of their privacy. While every major country seems to find its own unique ways to corrupt its own political culture, French courts and media have, until fairly recently, often accepted an outsized "private" space for politicians when it comes to their cozy relationships with wealthy patrons.

Even if Hollande succeeds, his new transparency legislation could still weaken his government in the short term, given that journalists are desperately working to confirm an array of rumors and allegations about other ministers. A Swiss television channel reported that Cahuzac also tried to stash 15 million euros in a Swiss account in 2009, though it failed to offer credible evidence. And the leftist French daily Libération wrote a story saying that Mediapart had proof that Foreign Minister Fabius also has unreported money in Switzerland, only to apologize for the article several days later. (Mediapart's top boss quickly denied the initial report in a tweet.) The foreign minister, according to one of his lawyers, "forcefully denies" all such rumors. 

But the news kept getting worse. Two days after Cahuzac admitted his own wrongdoing, France's newspaper of record, Le Monde, revealed that the former treasurer of Hollande's presidential campaign, Jean-Jacques Augier, is part-owner of two companies registered in the Cayman Islands. The former treasurer and businessman, who is also a friend of Hollande, quickly confirmed that he had in fact invested in a company that placed money in the legendary tax haven, but he insisted that there was nothing illegal about it.

Even if all these other allegations of wrongdoing prove to be incorrect, many French people assume that other hypocritical politicians -- whether Socialists or UMP parliamentarians -- have enjoyed ill-gotten gains and avoided their taxes. As an old friend of mine, who refuses to vote for mainstream parties, commented, "How many others are there?"

That's a good question. Another one is this: Where did Cahuzac's secret money actually come from? His lawyer has said that the funds came mostly from plastic surgery clients who paid in cash. He gave that explanation as French journalists first began looking into whether Cahuzac might have garnered kickbacks from the pharmaceutical industry when he was an advisor at the Health Ministry.

While France waits to discover how widespread its morality-and-money problems are, a court will be deciding on the preliminary charge of tax fraud against Cahuzac, who faces a possible fine of up to 375,000 euros and five years in prison, if convicted. On the political front, if Hollande can seize on this scandal to purify his government and transform France's long-standing political culture, it would amount to a remarkable turnaround.

But until then, it seems Hollande's plastic surgeon has not only disfigured his boss -- he has made French politics into a far uglier place.

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