The Chechen Suicide Squad

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His Uncle Arbi was a role model for Movsar Barayev, the 25-year-old leader of the Chechen rebels who was killed last week after seizing more than 750 captives in a Moscow theater. Arbi Barayev, leader of the Chechen Islamic Special Units, famously oversaw the capture and beheading of four telecommunications workers — three from Britain, one from New Zealand — in Chechnya in 1998. Movsar also had an aunt in the rebel business. Khava Barayeva is revered by Chechen guerrillas for her suicide car-bomb attack on a Russian base in the family's home village of Alkhan-Yurt. She was 19 when she blew up herself and two soldiers in June 2000. Arbi was killed last June in a six-day shootout with Russian forces, who displayed his body on a stretcher on television to convince skeptics he was really gone. Those who knew Movsar well say his turn had come. "He came to Moscow to die," said a Chechen associate.

About two months ago, Movsar disappeared from Argun, the war-shattered town southeast of Grozny where he commanded guerrilla operations. People who asked after him were told that he had moved his base elsewhere. He may well have been already in Moscow, working on the theater attack. Some of his comrades almost certainly were. The 50-odd people with him — who dubbed themselves the 29th Suicide Division to give their group gravitas — were, according to knowledgeable Chechens, a composite team drawn from Movsar's own fighters and select members of other Chechen units. The women made up a third of the group and were probably intended to make the squad particularly potent, says a Chechen who is well versed in guerrilla tactics. It was no coincidence, he says, that the women were wearing explosive belts. Because they are the most determined members of the squad, they might have been more willing than the men to blow up the building.

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Russian authorities say the attack on the theater was meticulously planned and well-funded (costing some $60,000, Chechens familiar with guerrilla operations assert). It was sanctioned by top Chechen commanders, including the well-known Shamil Basayev, according to both Chechen and Russian sources. The same Chechen sources say the rebels' titular leader, Aslan Maskhadov, who distanced himself from the operation, was probably not consulted: most guerrillas feel he is irrelevant. Planning a raid like this takes six to eight weeks, a Chechen close to the guerrillas says. Another Chechen with experience in such operations thinks Movsar's people brought in their weapons from Chechnya since they wouldn't have wanted to undertake an operation like this with new, unproved firearms bought on the Moscow black market. A few days before the attack, say knowledgeable Chechens, Movsar's group bought the vehicles they needed. Moving into and around Moscow in the days before the assault would have posed a challenge for the rebels; Chechens are widely feared and disliked there and are frequently arrested for being in the city without permission. That's a problem easily overcome, however, by lining policemen's pockets with cash.

Movsar was close not only to his uncle Arbi but also to Khattab, the late Saudi-born guerrilla commander who U.S. officials claim represented Osama bin Laden in Chechnya. In an interview with the BBC, one of Movsar's men denied any link to al-Qaeda. Still, Movsar seemed to embrace that group's concept of martyrdom. At the start of the action, a rebel website quoted Movsar, saying the hostage takers were there "to die, not to survive." A colleague remarked, while Movsar was still in the theater, "These are the happiest days of his life."