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Us confuses terror with struggle against repressive goverments { January 1 2004 }

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Old Enemies Enlist In U.S. Terror War
Former Soviet Republics Become Allies

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 1, 2004; Page A18

TBILISI, Georgia -- They hunted Abu Ayat for more than a year, and while it might not seem that hard to catch up with a one-legged man, he eluded all pursuers.

U.S. intelligence agencies and their allies in the Caucasus region tracked him from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, where he and other Arab militants had taken refuge alongside Chechen guerrillas for years, according to Georgian and U.S. officials. They followed the trail across the rugged Caucasus Mountains. Finally, in September 2003, they cornered him and two dozen guards in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

The unheralded capture of Abu Ayat, who intelligence agencies say was an al Qaeda commander, was a small chapter in the U.S. war against groups it designates as terrorist, a conflict played out not just in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia but, with little publicity, across the former Soviet Union.

U.S. authorities have quietly teamed up with their counterparts in Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and elsewhere across Moscow's onetime empire to go after these groups and try to deny al Qaeda and its affiliates haven from the main battlefields. As a result, the United States has found itself increasingly entangled in the region's indigenous conflicts.

"Our intent is to target international terrorists anywhere in the world," a senior U.S. law enforcement official operating out of the embassy in Moscow said on condition of anonymity. "It's our policy to pursue terrorists wherever and whenever they strike. A commonality of interest has emerged that was accelerated by the events of 9/11."

The official said cooperation with Russia, which still dominates the region and sets the tone for relations with Washington, has improved dramatically. U.S. agencies are now sharing sensitive intelligence with one of the successor agencies of the KGB, the Federal Security Service, known by its Russian initials FSB.

After years of mutual suspicion, the FBI and FSB are developing a memorandum of understanding to be signed next spring outlining joint training and operations.

"We are beginning to exchange information with the FSB the likes of which has never been exchanged before," the U.S. official said.

Terrorism has hit Russia and its surrounding neighborhood hard in the past year and a half. An attack on a Moscow theater in October 2002, when Chechen rebels took more than 900 people hostage and threatened to blow up the building, ended with 170 people dead, most of them audience members killed during a botched rescue attempt. Since then, another 300 people have died in suicide bombings at such targets as government facilities, a hospital, a rock concert and, in December, on a commuter train in southern Russia and at a hotel across from the Kremlin.

Scattered bombings and raids have taken a smaller toll in Central Asian republics near Afghanistan. U.S. authorities have detected signs that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an underground group affiliated with al Qaeda, has begun to regroup in the volatile Fergana Valley north of the Afghan border. In November, authorities in Kyrgyzstan captured three men they called Islamic extremists preparing to try to bomb a U.S. military base outside Bishkek.

The trouble for the U.S. government is separating the "global jihad," as some officials call it, from homegrown struggles against repressive governments.

In Russia, U.S. officials increasingly accept Moscow's portrayal of the Chechen war as part of an international battle against terrorism but avoid endorsing the brutal tactics Russian troops employ against civilians. Human rights groups, on the other hand, consider it an exaggeration to link Chechen rebels to al Qaeda and say that widespread Russian abuses in the southern republic perpetuate a cycle of violence that begets terrorism.

The capture of Abu Ayat offers a window into how the United States cooperates with its allies in confronting hostile groups, often in the shadows.

When Georgian troops moved into Pankisi Gorge under pressure from Washington and Moscow in 2002, they rounded up a dozen suspected Arab militants and turned them over to the United States for interrogation. But they missed Abu Ayat.

"In this region, he was the most wanted international terrorist known to different [intelligence] services," said Tedo Japaridze, who was then Georgia's national security adviser and is now foreign minister. "He was the key to the Arab elements the Americans were trying to track down."

Intelligence agencies considered Abu Ayat to be a skilled bomber and poison specialist for al Qaeda, known for designing explosive belts for suicide bombers. He had lost a leg fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

In the field, he was particularly ruthless, once sending his guards into a trap so he could escape capture, according to Georgian officials. In Pankisi Gorge, Georgian officials said, he was the top operative at an al Qaeda training and communications center for as many as 100 Arab extremists.

After missing him in Pankisi Gorge, the Georgians said, they tracked his whereabouts and provided information to the Azerbaijanis, who captured him and handed him over to the Americans. According to the Georgians, the Americans said President Bush was grateful. "That event made him happy, I learned," said Japaridze, the foreign minister.

Although Georgian forces now control Pankisi Gorge, officials believe that some Arabs remain there. U.S. Green Berets sent by Bush in 2001 to train Georgian troops are due to finish in April, but the U.S. government has hired a private firm to come in with mobile training teams and guide Tbilisi's counterterrorist operations.

The United States has also provided training and equipment to Central Asian governments, particularly Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, where a resurgent IMU appears to be gathering strength. Kyrgyzstan is receiving U.S. helicopters this fall to monitor its borders and prevent incursions from neighboring countries by Islamic radicals.

Washington and Moscow also have collaborated in the investigation of the Moscow theater siege. The U.S. government recently put Shamil Basayev, the Chechen commander who claimed responsibility for the hostage-taking, on its list of international terrorists. U.S. authorities, working in tandem with the FSB, have convened a grand jury in Washington to look into the origins of the siege.

In November, federal prosecutors brought a former hostage, Svetlana Gubareva, before the jury and questioned her about what she overheard about outside assistance during her captivity. A Kazakh citizen, she lost her teenage daughter and her American fiance, Sandy Booker, in the siege.

"It's clear to me they're conducting a criminal investigation aimed at the individuals who were responsible for the planning and execution of the takeover of the theater," said Paul Gardephe, her attorney. "Svetlana obviously doesn't have personal knowledge of who these individuals were, but . . . it was obvious to her that [the Chechens inside the theater] were taking instructions by cell phone from someone outside the building."

Some U.S.-Russian collaboration has yielded mixed results. FSB agents flew to Detroit last year to help American authorities prosecute a Chechen they accused of being linked to terrorism, but the suspect, Omar Shishani, was found not to be the man the Russians said he was.

Shishani, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was sentenced in November to 57 months in prison for smuggling $12 million in counterfeit checks. U.S. authorities, relying on witnesses provided by the Russians, initially identified Shishani as an Islamic radical named Fathi who introduced the strict Wahhabi strain of Islam to Chechnya in the 1990s.

But Shishani's attorney demonstrated that he was not Fathi. "It's frightening," said the attorney, Corbett O'Meara. "He's a United States citizen, and they go hunting for proof that he's bad, and they just unconditionally accept the KGB's nonsense."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric M. Strauss in Detroit said he had no second thoughts about working with Russian authorities in the case, noting that American agents participated in all witness interviews. "There was some confusion" about Shishani's identity, Strauss acknowledged. But "the cooperation between our governments has been very productive."

2004 The Washington Post Company

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