[Note: This is an unusually controversial piece, even for my blog, for reasons that will quickly become obvious. Linkages between Al-Qa’ida and Russian intelligence have been discussed in hushed tones among spies in many countries, for years, and this matter has been a “hobby file” of mine for some time. Here is a think-piece on it, in the hope of spurring additional discussion and research into this important yet murky matter. This is particularly necessary given rising tensions between Moscow and the West at present. Considering the subject, I have eschewed my usual hyperlinks in favor of proper end-notes.]
“There are two histories: The official history, mendacious, which is given to us; and the secret history, where you find the real causes of events, a shameful history.”
– Honoré de Balzac
The history of al-Qa’ida has been extensively documented in many languages. Since the 9/11 attacks on the United States, massive research has been devoted to uncovering the origins of the global jihad movement, its strategies, concepts of operations, and ultimate aspirations. Such works have been assisted by the willingness of al-Qa’ida to talk openly about some parts of its narrative. While many aspects of al-Qa’ida’s almost thirty-year history have been examined in impressive detail, other parts of the story remain shrouded in mystery. In some cases, gaps are caused by a lack of information available to analysts and researchers. However, other underreported stories in the development of the global jihad movement remain untold, or unexplained, by apparent design.
No greater example exists of this “blank page” in the al-Qa’ida story than its connections to foreign intelligence services. While it is generally known that bin Laden’s legionaries have fostered ties, at times, with secret services as varied as the Saudi, Pakistani, Sudanese, Iranian, Iraqi, and Bosnian, few details have emerged, thanks to the desire on all sides to keep the saga out of the media spotlight. The murkiest of these relations, however, has been the connection between al-Qa’ida and Russian intelligence. While the outlines of the story have been known for years, and even admitted by Moscow and the mujahidin, details remain elusive. Moreover, asking important questions about this relationship seems to be an issue few appear interested in probing deeply, even in the United States.
That Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s right-hand man and the leader of the global jihad movement since bin Laden’s death in May 2011, spent almost a half-year in the mid-1990s in the custody of Russian intelligence is admitted by both sides and is a matter of public record. Just as significant, Zawahiri’s Russian sojourn occurred at a pivotal point in the development of al-Qa’ida; the shift in strategy, resulting in attacks on the “far enemy” (i.e. the United States), the road leading to 9/11, occurred after Zawahiri’s imprisonment by the Russians.
The outline of the story is clear. At about 4 am on December 1, 1996, Zawahiri was detained in southern Russia while attempting to enter Chechnya, the breakaway province of Moscow recently roiled by war. Accompanying the doctor in the van were two other radicals from Egypt and a Chechen guide. The Egyptians, wanted men in their home country and several others, were traveling under aliases; Zawahiri was “Abdullah Imam Mohammed Amin,” according to the Sudanese passport he carried, which had stamps from many countries – among them Yemen, Malaysia, Singapore – he had visited in the 20 months before his arrest.
Zawahiri’s two Egyptian companions were veteran mujahidin from Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), the group Zawahiri had been associated with for years and had headed since 1993. Ahmad Salama Mabruk ran EIJ’s activities in Azerbaijan under the cover of a trading firm called Bavari-C, while Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi had extensive experience on jihad in parts of Asia.
The three Arabs were extensively interrogated by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), which noted the inmates’ religious fervor, and the surprising support they received from Islamic organizations around the Muslim world. Twenty-six imams signed an appeal for the release of the three “businessmen”; others denounced Russian authorities of doing “the devil’s work” by detaining the hard-praying Muslims.
The FSB had ample reason to doubt the Arabs’ cover story. Among the items confiscated from the trio included details about bank accounts in Hong Kong, mainland China, Malaysia, and the U.S. (specifically St. Louis), plus substantial cash in seven currencies. Their laptop computer was seized and subjected to forensic analysis by the FSB. “Mr. Amin,” whose Sudanese passport depicted a Western-dressed middle-aged man with a very short beard, arrived in Russia possessing two forged graduation certificates from Cairo University’s medical faculty, with differing dates. FSB investigation of Bavari-C, the EIJ front company in Baku, quickly determined that no such firm existed in Azerbaijan.
Radical Muslims in Russia, including one member of the Duma, pleaded for their release, explaining that the Arabs had come to Russia to “study the market for food trade.” Various activists from across the region likewise wrote letters on the men’s behalf, claiming they embodied “honesty and decency”; the advocates included leading Arab mujahidin, among them Tharwat Salah Shehata, later head of EIJ. When Shehata got permission to visit “Mr. Amin” in his prison cell, he was given an encrypted letter by the inmate; after the visit, the FSB claimed to have found $3,000 in the cell occupied by the Arabs.
When the case finally went to court in April 1997, “Mr. Amin” prayed hard and lied effectively, claiming that he had entered Russia “to find out the price for leather, medicine, and other goods.” Rejecting the prosecution’s request for a three-year sentence, the judge gave them six months each; almost immediately they were released, time served. The FSB returned the men their possessions, including the cash, communications gear, and the laptop. After their release, Zawahiri spent ten days clandestinely meeting with Islamists in Dagestan, which presumably had been the original purpose of his trip to the region. Shortly thereafter, he headed for Afghanistan to establish his fateful alliance with bin Laden, which was cemented in the mid-February 1998 announcement of a new partnership between the men and their organizations in a Global Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. Thus was al-Qa’ida officially born and the path to 9/11 was established.
Zawahiri has been tight-lipped about his half-year in Russia; his numerous writings and pronouncements about his life barely mention the tale. “God blinded them to our identities,” he explained. The FSB agrees that they failed to identify the leading holy warrior. “In 1997, Russian special services were not aware of al-Zawahiri,” elaborated an FSB spokesman in 2003: “However, later, using various databases, we managed to identify this former detainee.”
There are many reasons to doubt the official story told by both sides in the affair. In the first place, Zawahiri was one of the world’s most wanted terrorists in 1996, having played a leading role in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981; the doctor’s role in the subsequent public trial was televised in many countries. He was hardly a secret mujahid. Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that a security service as proficient and thorough as the FSB did not have its interest piqued by the appearance of three Arab mystery men, bearing multiple identities and cash, in the middle of a warzone. It is equally difficult to accept that the FSB was unable to uncover the mysteries contained in Zawahiri’s laptop – as the Americans would do after many such laptops belonging to al-Qa’ida leadership were captured in Afghanistan after 9/11 – had the Russians really wanted to. Last, it can be assumed that the FSB would have tortured the Arabs to obtain information, had that been deemed necessary; and Zawahiri’s breaking by the Egyptian security service through torture in the 1980s is a matter of public record, and a subject of some remorse by the al-Qa’ida leader.
What, then, is to be made of Dr. Zawahiri’s Russian sojourn? Few have bothered to ask the question in any detail. While some conspiracy theorists have touched the issue, they have shed little light on the real story. While the idea that Russian intelligence may have developed a relationship with Zawahiri sounds fantastic to most in the West, the notion is far from implausible, and is consistent with known Soviet/Russian espionage practices. During the Cold War, the KGB had robust ties with many terrorist groups, including several from the Middle East. Its links to the PLO, including arms and training for cadres, were substantial for decades, while Palestinian groups like PFLP-GC were, in effect, wholly owned subsidiaries of the KGB. It would be naïve to think such ties evaporated with the Soviet Union.
Moreover, anyone acquainted with the Russian practice of provokatsiya (provocation) as Moscow’s preferred counterterrorism technique, finds the idea of a Russian relationship with al-Qa’ida to be entirely plausible. Indeed, such is the easiest explanation for Zawahiri’s six months in Russian custody and sudden release back to wage jihad.
Hard evidence about what Zawahiri was doing in Russian custody has not been forthcoming. Dissident FSB Colonel Aleksandr Litvinenko made explosive claims. In a 2005 interview, Litvinenko asserted that Zawahiri actually underwent training by the FSB in Dagestan during his half-year in Russian custody, and that Russian intelligence then dispatched him to Afghanistan to become bin Laden’s right-hand man. “I worked in the same division [of the FSB],” he stated, “I have grounds to assert that al-Zawahiri is not the only link between the FSB and al-Qa’ida.”
Litvinenko’s assertions are impossible to substantiate, though his assassination in London a little over a year after giving that interview, apparently at the hands of Russian intelligence, gives the claims perhaps more believability than they might otherwise warrant. Just as important, it is known that Russian intelligence had ties to Islamist extremists in Chechnya long before Zawahiri entered the region. From the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian intelligence formed discreet ties with radical Islamists in the Caucasus, including men who would later become leading mujahidin.
In perhaps the best example, Shamil Basayev, the long-serving emir of the mujahidin in Chechnya, was an agent of Russian military intelligence (GRU) in the 1990s. In 1992-93, he and his brother Shirvani fought in Abkhazia against Georgian forces, leading fighters as surrogates for Moscow’s policies in the breakaway region. Although Basayev was for many years Russia’s most wanted man and alleged to be behind dozens of terrorist attacks on Russian soil, his collaboration with Russian intelligence has long been something of an open secret. Not long before Basayev’s death in July 2006, apparently at the hands of the FSB, a GRU officer cryptically noted to the media, “We know everything about him.”
Secular elements of the Chechen independence movement have long alleged collaboration between Moscow and the mujahidin, with the aim of discrediting the nationalist cause by tarring it with extremism and terrorism. Moderate imams in Chechnya have been reluctant to have ties to more radical Muslims, fearing them to be Russian agents provocateurs. Collusion between radical Islamists and Russian special services in the Caucasus would be fully consistent with traditional Soviet/Russian counterterrorism techniques; it also adds a very different dimension to understanding the Chechen wars of the last fifteen years, and their links to the global jihad.
The mujahidin-led invasion of Dagestan in August 1999 in brigade strength that helped trigger the Second Chechen War was led by Shamil Basayev. Moscow publicly blamed “Al-Qa’ida-Wahhabite aggression” for that event, using it as justification to restart the war on terms more favorable to Moscow. But what, then, is to be made of Basayev, who has been memorably described as “a GRU staff member with a great deal of work experience?” The other direct cause of the Second Chechen War, the bloody apartment bombings around Moscow in August 1999 that killed over 300 civilians, likewise remain shrouded in mystery. Basayev was blamed for those atrocities, too, but what really happened continues to be hotly controversial. The case for some FSB involvement in the bombings, always strong, has grown stronger over the past decade, yet remains a highly taboo topic in Russia.
What, then, can we conclude about al-Qa’ida’s murky Russian connection? Unsurprisingly, Dr. Zawahiri has had little to say about his half-year adventure with the FSB. He has often criticized Russia and its policies, sometimes in vehement terms. Yet he speaks of Iran with equal venom, and al-Qa’ida’s discreet yet detectable relationship with Iranian intelligence goes back to at least 1996, and apparently continues to the present day.
His two Egyptian cellmates aren’t available to add details. Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi stayed in the Caucasus, was convicted in Egypt in 1998 on terrorism charges in absentia, receiving a ten year sentence, and was reportedly killed in action in Chechnya in 2005. Ahmad Salama Mabruk was arrested in Azerbaijan in 1998 on terrorism charges, and was extradited to Egypt, where he was convicted on numerous charges and sent to prison. The FSB, to no one’s surprise, has said nothing publicly about this case except for a brief press release in 2003.
It is fanciful to suggest that any formal alliance exists between Moscow and al-Qa’ida; bin Laden’s mujahidin have worked with several foreign security agencies in the service of the jihad, but have never been willing to put themselves fully at the disposal of any of them. Nevertheless, it seems justified, based on the available evidence, to suggest that Dr. Zawahiri reached a quid pro quo with Moscow while he was in FSB custody. That he underwent FSB training appears plausible; that there may be some kind of relationship even today between Russia and al-Qa’ida exists within the realm of possibility. Russia, with its large, growing, and potentially restless Muslim minority, would have ample motivation to reach terms with al-Qa’ida, in the hope of stemming radicalism.
Might Moscow have suggested that it would look the other way about al-Qa’ida’s activities in Chechnya as long as bin Laden and Zawahiri left Russia alone otherwise? It surely appears significant that Zawahiri led bin Laden down the path of global jihad, and direct confrontation with the United States, after emerging from his half-year as a guest of the FSB. As President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly made clear, a unipolar, American-led global system is not in Russia’s interests. To this day, Russia has endured many attacks by Chechen militants, but no confirmed acts of terrorism perpetrated by al-Qa’ida Central. This vexing issue continues to offer more questions than answers, and needs additional research, particularly considering the state of relations between Moscow and the West.
 For a detailed example based on research of what al-Qa’ida thinks about these issues, see this author’s The Terrorist Perspectives Project: Strategic and Operational Views of al-Qa’ida (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2008), co-authored with Mark Stout and Jessica Huckabey.
 The most information is available about the robust ties between al-Qa’ida and Bosnian intelligence, with Iranian assistance, in the 1990s; see this author’s Unholy Terror: Bosnia, al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad (Zenith Press, 2007).
 Agentsvo Voyennykh Novostey (Moscow), 23 Apr 2003.
 The most detailed account is an article by Andrew Higgins and Alan Cullison, “A Terrorist’s Odyssey,” The Wall Street Journal, 2 Jul 2002. For a Russian perspective see the article by Yuriy Tyssovskiy, “Bin Laden nomer 2 sdelalo vremya v nashykh tyur’makh,” in the weekly newspaper Vek (Moscow), Vol.22, 12 Jul 2002.
 Agentsvo Voyennykh Novostey (Moscow), 23 Apr 2003.
 An exception is Evgenii Novikov, “A Russian Agent at the Right Hand of bin Laden?” Terrorism Monitor (Jamestown Foundation), Vol.2, No.1, 15 Jan 2004, which provides more questions than answers.
 For examples see the articles by Michel Elbaz of Axis Information and Analysis (axisglobe.com), specifically “Russian Secret Services’ Links with Al-Qaeda” (18 Jul 2005), and “Russian Secrets of Al-Qaeda’s Number Two” (19 Jul 2005).
 Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich, “Drogi terroryzmu – Kto wspiera napastnicy?,” Rzeczpospolita (Warsaw), 16 Jul 2005.
 See Alex Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko, Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB (Free Press, 2007).
 Patrick Cockburn, “Russia ‘planned Chechen war before bombings’,” The Independent (London), 29 Jan 2000.
 Svetlana Meteleva, “Chechnya: my mozhem ubit’ Basayeva, no nikto ne dolzhen,” Moskovskiy Komsolmolets (Moscow), 21 Mar 2005.
 For a detailed examination of this viewpoint see the declaration of Chechenpress, 10 Jul 2009, available in both Russian and English at chechenpress.info.
 This murky relationship is explained well by Boris Kagarlitskiy, “My ne govorim, chtoby terroristy, no my pomoch’ im?” Novaya Gazeta (Moscow), 23 Jan 2000.
 The best case for the “FSB did it” hypothesis remains David Satter, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 24-33. In September 2009, GQ magazine refused to run in its Russian edition an article by investigative journalist Scott Anderson entitled “Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power,” which added details to the FSB role in the 1999 apartment bombings, based on testimony by Mikhail Trepashin, a former KGB/FSB officer – see David Folkenflik, “Why GQ Doesn’t Want Russians to Read its Story,” National Public Radio (npr.org), 4 Sep 2009.
 “Death of Senior EIJ Member Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi Reported in the Caucasus,” 17 Apr 2005, at globalterroralert.com.
 “Razvedyvatel’naya sluzhba bor’by protiv Islamskovo dzhikhada,” Ekho (Baku), 13 Oct 2001.
 Efforts to depict such an “alliance” are overstated, e.g. Konstantin Preobazhensky, “Russia and Islam are not separate: Why Russia backs al-Qaeda,” Intel Analyses, 31 Aug 2007.
“The murkiest of these relations, however, has been the connection between al-Qa’ida and Russian intelligence. While the outlines of the story have been known for years, and even admitted by Moscow and the mujahidin, details remain elusive. Moreover, asking important questions about this relationship seems to be an issue few appear interested in probing deeply, even in the United States.”
Probably why we see similarities between AQ and Anon:
I’m glad you’ve called out the similarities between AQ and Anon, and for that matter, the Bolsheviks, AQ and Anon. People hate doing that, because they think, gosh, blowing up people and buildings isn’t like crashing a web site. But they spill out into real life, and their methods and ideologies are similar which is why they need to be opposed.
Oh people get blown up. Anon’s physical presence is Occupy. Occupy uses Black Bloc and a few more for the blowing up. Giving a group another name for plausible deniability. James Holmes was ‘said’ to be with Black Bloc.
It was once said (back when I was a pup) Russia was an enigma wrapped in a mystery (or some such .)
I keep learning !
Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
This is a topic I’ve never seen explored before.
It has crossed my mind-but only briefly-and I told myself “Nah !” and moved on.
This does explain a lot especially the extreme anti-americanism.
I’m curious to see how it plays out in Syria, (Kadyrov) Chechen v (Islamist) Chechen, and the different al Qaeda-affiliated groups there. Also, with Russia-backed Alawite Assad, and the Salafist fighters. Perhaps a post in itself.
Thank you for posting this.
It’s, ahem, complicated indeed.
Looks to be you’ve set yourself quite a task XXCommttee,
Soon as I read your opening *Note I jotted down a name to remind myself.
Then I got to your paragraph sixteen.
“Complicated indeed” has got to be the the biggest understatement I’ve yet seen since beginning reading here.
I’m glad you raised this topic. I remember an article by one of Michael Totten’s friends setting out a robust case of why collusion with state secret services is objectively necessary for Al Qaeda’s survival. Caught up in my long and probably unimpressive self-study of the Soviets at the time, i thought, upon hearing of Zawahiri’s Dagestan adventure: after all, isn’t it likely Zawahiri was known to the KGB/GRU even before his group killed Sadat? Wasn’t revenge for expulsion of the Soviets and Camp David Accords at least as plausible a motivation as the long-running Egyptian jihad – or at least weren’t the two not mutually exclusive? Wouldn’t the Soviet services be pretty familiar with domestic oppositiom to Nasr and his successors, probably in detail?
Beginning with the Comintern, the Soviets created or fostered anti-Western “national liberation” groups among every conceivable ethnic and cultural group globally. Indeed most of these crumbled or urgently sought reconciliation upon the dissolution of the USSR. But many of today’s threats, Al Qaeda only one among many, appear to have been incubated during the apparently queiscent 1990s.
What is more plausible, that Al Qaeda really is sui generis, living for decades off the funds of construction magnate bin Laden the Elder and some Gulf emirs, launching global guerilla war almost single-handedly under the quasi- and occasional patronage of such lordly services as the IRGC and ISI from the dirt towns of Sudan and rocks of Afghanistan and FATA – or that this is a much larger operation supported ultimately by countries that sit behind strategic nuclear forces, immune from significant Western (US) retaliation? Personally I think it’s the latter.
I also have a feeling Iraq was part of a plan to destroy the Soviet-sponsored terror infrastructure that provided the terrorist campaign of the 1960s-1980s with its ecosystem: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Iran, Palestine, etc. And isn’t Pakistan’s oldest and deepest ally China? Isn’t Abbotabad at the southern terminus of the Karakoram Highway, with the northern terminus at Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang Province. And so on.
Is this article a joke? Or is it on par with your analysis of Iraq that helped us get into that quagmire?
You conclude that there must be some significance because Zawahiri left a Russian jail, and then OBL started plotting against America. Your Wiki-search must have not yielded his 1996 fatwa. Hatred of America was always part of his agenda.
You’re one of those tinfoil hatters that you love to mock now that Moscow is the new enemy.
Speculative, baseless trash.
P.S. I am a paid Russian propagandist, too.
Kremlin’s really not getting it’s money’s worth with you.
You’re right. It just strikes me as odd that Russia would be telling al-Qaeda to attack Assad. But hey, anything for a nice conspiracy.
Way to infer something I never said.
Right, you’ve merely implied that Russia and AQ have a quid pro quo going on. For some reason, quid pro quo’s typically don’t consist of the one party using all of its power and might to fight against the other party’s staunch ally and current nexus in the Middle East.
But, hey, maybe Zawahiri just forgot his obligations the past 3 years, and is waiting for someone from the Kremlin to remind him. Or perhaps he’s defected from the Russians to the Israelis.
Such sophisticated analysis. So impress. Very Doge.
All through the Chechen wars, we would hear the Russians say that Al Qaeda was in Chechnya, it was all their fault, and even bin Ladn himself was there. To which I could then say after 9/11, but if you were tracking these people and had Zawahiri in custody for so long, then why couldn’t you stop 9/11? Given how the Soviets backed PLA — and frankly, how the Kremlin continues to back the PA and views its position as uninterrupted since the Soviet era — it’s not surprising to me to think they are involved with AQ. Anything to undermine the West.
Stasi’s HA XXII worked the same way with the Palestinans (including the Muslim Brotherhood in Ghaza). Since Chekists everywhere seem to think and act very similar, your conclusions re Zawahiri are convincing.
Good point, Chekists are all alike 🙂
You only have to read putins speech on the 22 june 2001,and then look what happened 3 months later,but on that point the 911 attack was meant to be on ether the 6th or 9th of august, that was what i was trying to get at in the first post i posted on here the one you did not publish ,I am glad i found your site were on the same page,what brilliant work you do,many people wont understand just how much your sticking your neck out by printing this article ,But i do,, thanks,The links between al qaida and Russia are indisputable,its not been co0nvenient to explore it until now
Reblogged this on Public Secrets and commented:
Honestly, I had never considered this possibility, given Moscow’s well-known problems with its own jihadists. But, on reading this essay, one has to wonder if there isn’t some sort of “understanding” between Zawahiri and and Russian intelligence. Very interesting speculation, here.
Interesting analysis but if you believe this, what do you think of the leaked transcript of the meeting between Putin and Prince Bandar months ago before the Sochi Olympics where Bandar (allegedly) all but admitted the hand of the Saudis in the Chechen insurgency?
Also, though Moscow did support the PLO, Libya etc. these were nationalist movements and a socialist ally respectively. I am not sure I see how that means Russia would support radical islamist elements that would come back to bite the hand that feeds them.
Tensions between Russia and KSA have quite literally nothing to do with AQ.
There’s a lot of potentially interesting circumstantial evidence here, but for me it’s all rather undermined by Russia’s actions towards the US after 9/11. Putin effectively greenlit US airbases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which was hugely unpopular with much of the security establishment. The general analysis of ‘why’, which I tend to agree with, is that Russia took the AQ threat deadly seriously and was willing to risk a major US military footprint in its backyard in order to combat it. If FSB was trying to use AQ to do damage to the US, why then use 9/11 to allow the US to massively increase its strategic presence in Central Asia?
Also – as to Litvinenko the idea that he was offed by ‘official’ Russia has never really made sense given the method. If you want to kill a dissident on foreign soil, you generally want to have plausible deniability afterwards. Even if you want to ‘send a message’ to other would be defectors, there are ways of doing so that don’t literally leave a radioactive trail back to the Kremlin. Causes unnecessary complications. The British governments attempts to prevent an inquest into the death are also a bit fishy.
Please provide ANY plausible evidence that someone NOT affiliated with the FSB assassinated Litvinenko.
I should clarify – I think on balance that it’s highly likely that someone associated with the FSB, but that it was not a sanctioned operation. It did, after all, happen during the period when Putin was preparing to leave the presidency and various Kremlin factions were jockeying for position. Its possible one of them poisoned Litvinenko as part of an internal power struggle, for reasons unknown. The stinger here remains the use of Polonium-210 – it literally leaves a radioactive trail you can follow back to Russia, inevitably leading to major diplomatic fallout. Why do that when you have other methods available?
Well done for sticking your neck out and publishing your thoughts on this. I have wondered for sometime if there are any connections between Russian intelligence and ISIL, where their invasion of Iraq would be a useful distraction for the US, which would help the Russian backed Assad in Syria and also what Russia is doing in Ukraine and probably soon in the Baltics?
Thanks for your feedback. Given known odd linkages between the Kremlin and AQ, which I’ve written about on this blog, you have to wonder.
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