Hijacking Highlights Ongoing Chechnya Conflict

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Travel agency officials look at the passenger list of the hijacked plane

TIME.com: What do we know so far about the hijacking of a Russian airliner from Istanbul to Medina in Saudi Arabia?

Andrew Meier: The Turkish authorities are saying the hijackers announced themselves as Chechens before taking over the cockpit and causing the plane to take a 1,000-foot drop. But we have to treat that information with caution, particularly in light of the experience of January 1996 in which a group of "Chechen" hijackers took over a ferryboat from Turkey. Once they surrendered, it turned out most weren't Chechen, but that six of the nine were actually Turks. They were sentenced to eight years, but all later escaped. There were reports at the time that they might have been helped by corrupt officials. The Turkish police may be wondering where they are at this very moment.

Still, it's probably safe to say the hijackers are Chechen sympathizers, as the ferryboat hijackers were in 1996. There is a strong and passionate Chechen diaspora community in Turkey, which has often caused problems for the Turks before. It's not exactly a mutual admiration society, even though Istanbul is probably one of the largest centers of the Chechen diaspora, the other major one being Jordan.

And it's probably an indicator of how Chechens and their supporters are feeling right now at a time when, as in 1996, the Russians may be deluding themselves but feel they have the upper hand in Grozny, the Chechen capital. You could draw the parallel that at the time of both hijackings, there was not a lot of good news for Chechens coming out of Chechnya.

How does this play for the Kremlin?

The Russians aboard the plane are very ordinary shuttle traders heading home from Turkey, so this really hits home with the Russian public. All afternoon and evening there have been assurances that the country's elite antiterrorism squad will be dispatched to the scene and a special task force established to deal with the hijacking. However Putin has remained off camera, and his precise whereabouts are unknown to the journalists who are covering him on vacation in Siberia. His Kremlin handlers are left to assure the public that even in the Muslim holy city of Medina, their elite antiterrorist squad will have access to the plane. But that claim sounds less than probable. Landing in Medina was a very smart move.

And it reads as another sign that the Russians have failed to subdue the Chechen resistance...

Yes, the daily toll on the Russian forces there continues. Moscow's grip on Chechnya is not as strong as it would like. If I were to guess, though, I'd say these hijackers are not likely to have been sent by Khattab or Shamil Basayev, the best-known leaders of the rebel forces. Those guys have had plenty of opportunity for grandstanding acts of terror throughout Russia, but it hasn't really been their style for the most part. They're more focused on the daily grind of guerrilla warfare, making the Russian forces pay a heavy price for being in Chechnya, making it impossible for them to move around at night. That's not to say they haven't shown themselves to be quite capable of an act of this type, such as when they seized scores of hostages at a Russian hospital in June 1995. So even the fact that it's not quite in line with their recent modus operandi, we couldn't rule out the possibility that this is the work of the Chechen resistance groups. It's very difficult to determine a modus operandi, but if there is one it's that these events occur when there's a standoff in Chechnya. But it may well end up that these are freelancers volunteering to support the cause, or they may even have nothing to do with the cause.

Aside from the hijacking, of course, the struggle for control in Chechnya continues. Checkpoints in Chechnya and the territory's borders are pretty porous, and guerrillas appear to be able to move around. The hardest thing to be right now is an ordinary Chechen without work or shelter. If you're a guerrilla fighter, chances are you're a lot better fed, clothed and funded than your civilian counterpart. And you're probably a lot more confident about the future, too.