Bombs in Moscow, trouble in the southern republic of Dagestan, a spate of kidnappings and an armed rebellion in the Central Asian republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, war in Chechnya, assassination of the prime minister in Armenia. So what is the connection-if any-between the events?
Consider the men behind the unholy war in the North Caucasus. The man known by the single name "Khattab" was born Habib Abdel Rahman Khattab in 1965 in a wealthy Bedouin family in Arar in northern Saudi Arabia, near Jordan and Iraq. His family apparently sent him to a U.S. university, but in 1987 he dropped out and went to Pakistan, where he joined up with the mujahedin to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan.
While there he certainly met his fellow Saudi, the dissident and alleged terrorist Osama Bin Laden; whether the two actually worked together is unclear. In 1992 Khattab may have fought with the Islamist opposition in Tajikistan. In February 1995 he arrived in Chechnya with a group of Arab fighters and some money, possibly channeled through the militant Saudi-based Islamic Relief Organization.
Khattab comes from an Islamic fundamentalist background alien to the Sufi traditions of the Chechens. So it seems strange that he should have joined forces with Basayev, who had always rejected militant Islam and refuses, for example, to make women wear veils.
This is another indication that Islam is only the outward badge, not the underlying cause, of their incursions into Dagestan. Khattab and Basayev have different conceptions of Islam.
In the first place they are professional guerrillas who have fought in Afghanistan, Abkhazia, perhaps Tajikistan, Chechnya and then tried to export their permanent war to Dagestan.
The Russian security services have alleged that Osama Bin Laden himself is backing the latest Chechen and Islamic campaign. This may or may not be true, and in any case is largely irrelevant. Bin Laden is only the most prominent figure in the Sunni extremist network, which extends from Sudan to Pakistan.
Rather than a hierarchical "organization'' with a "leader,'' this is a web of groups and individuals sharing the same basic values and goals. These include hatred of the West and of Israel f and hatred of Russia, at least since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Many of the Islamic fighters received their first military experience fighting with the Afghan mujahedin against the Soviet forces. Today, they support the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which is giving shelter to Bin Laden.
As fundamentalist Sunnis, they are also, it may be noted, strongly hostile to Shiite Iran. Last year, Iran came close to an invasion of Afghanistan after Iranian diplomats there were killed by Taliban forces.
The growth of these forces in the northern Caucasus has come as a result of three main factors. The first was the Chechen War of 1994-96, when the Chechen cause naturally attracted the sympathy of many Muslims. During the war itself, a small number of Arab and Afghan volunteers fought on the Chechen side under the command of Khattab. Shamil Basayev, the co-leader of the Dagestan operation, has been quoted as saying that five Arab fighters and three Turks were killed there in August.
The real growth of modern radical Islam, or "Wahhabism,'' as it is known in the region, has come since the Chechen war. It has been produced by Gulf Arab money and the prestige of modern fundamentalist teaching in a bitterly poor region.
In war-ravaged Chechnya, but also to a lesser extent in Dagestan as well, the formal economy has collapsed. Thousands of heavily armed young men have no employment other than to fight. The appeal of religious discipline and certainties also has been increased by the breakdown of social traditions and the rise of organized crime.
There is evidence that Bin Laden, while not the instigator of the urban bombing campaign in Russia, has offered financial help to its perpetrators. And fighters under the influence of Bin Laden have certainly been active in Chechnya and Dagestan-though their presence is probably not the main reason why war is raging now.
The more worrying news is, indeed, that some evidence suggests that the latest turmoil in the North Caucasus may well be part of a larger plot to destabilize Russia-with one particular goal in view.
Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, was once the oil capital of the world. Over 100 years ago famous international business families such as Nobel and Rothschild made fortunes from exploiting natural resources from the part of the Russian empire around Baku which produced 75% of the world's oil.
As the dream of another oil bonanza was fading with the decade, economic movers and shakers in the West have been growing ever more desperate to cold-shoulder Russia out of the region-and move Caspian oil in quantity on to world markets.
American involvement in the Caucasus-both north and south-is well-documented. While in Moscow last month, only one day after the assassination of Armenia"s prime minister, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott again urged Russia, traditionally a supporter of Armenia, to work with America and France, other sponsors of the peace process between Yerevan and Baku, to keep the talks going. A deal is vital in boosting Western investor confidence in the proposed pipeline projects to export oil from the Caspian.
Politics, like nature itself, abhors a vacuum. The post-communist mishmash of nationalist fervor supervised by the apparatchiks of the old regime was and remains unable to make real the dream of true independence and security. The squalid war between Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh underlined the incoherence of the new arrangements, and the appalling quality of leadership in the region.
The modern Caucasian tragedy has been compounded by the cynical, selfish, and crazily short-sighted failure of the rich countries of the world to help fill the vacuum with aid, trade and development. The West has been happy enough to suck oil from the region, while standing on the sidelines clucking at the incompetence of the local leadership.
As for Russia, it can hardly be blamed for wanting to punish those who planted the bombs that have killed about 300 civilians this autumn, most of them in Moscow.
It is plain that fundamentalist Muslims, including some Chechens, wish to make mayhem along Russia's southern rim with a view to creating some kind of extreme Islamist regime there. Though there is no reason yet to believe the present Chechen government was responsible for the Moscow bombings-they have certainly done it no good-various Chechen zealots are indeed suspect.
Nor can Russians really be expected to welcome any further dissolution of what was once a huge empire: in less than a decade, half of Europe has gone, along with a vast slab of Asia. And now, along the southern edge of Russia itself, an array of tiny nations seems to be making a fool of the old imperial power-and killing Russian civilians to boot.
Nor can there be any denial that in the eyes of the law, in the present struggle, Russia is basically in the right. Basayev, Khattab and their forces are in opposition to their own president, Aslan Maskhadov, who, after leading the Chechen forces against Russia, was elected president of Chechnya in 1997 with 65 percent of the vote.
The Basayev and Islamic fighters are therefore no longer a "liberation force,'' and the situation is completely different from that of Chechnya in 1994-96. Indications are that they are opposed by a majority of Chechens, who are thoroughly tired of the insecurity and chaos that have afflicted Chechnya for so many years.
They definitely are opposed by the great majority of Dagestanis, who fear the Chechens on ethnic grounds and the "Wahhabis'' as a threat to the traditional, Sufi Islamic traditions of Dagestan.
The tragedy of postwar Chechnya is that the aftermath of war has led to a kind of Afghanization. Maskhadov struggles for control with Basayev and Khattab, and little warlords grown rich on kidnap ransoms. These armed leaders have pushed aside the only two groups of people who stood any chance of rebuilding the place.
The professionals of Grozny, the Soviet-educated doctors and engineers, have all either left the republic or work without pay. And the old men, whose codes of honor and respect used to moderate the strain of violence in Chechen culture, have ceded their authority to young men with guns.