About two months ago, Movsar Barayev disappeared from Argun, the war-shattered town southeast of Grozny where he was a Chechen guerrilla commander. People who asked after him were told that he had moved his base elsewhere. He may already have been in Moscow, working on the theater attack where he was killed last week, at 27, after seizing more than 800 captives.
Some of Movsar's comrades from Argun almost certainly were in Moscow early. The more than 50 people with him — who dubbed themselves the 29th Suicide Division — were a composite team, drawn from Movsar's own fighters and select members of other Chechen units. The female members, who made up half the group, were probably intended to maximize the squad's potency, one Chechen well-versed in guerrilla tactics told Time. It was no coincidence, he added, that the women were wearing explosive belts; as the most determined fighters — some widowed by the conflict — they may have been more willing than the men to blow up the building, and themselves.
Movsar may have lived longer than many other guerrilla commanders. His uncle, Arbi Barayev — a commander of the Islamic Special Units, feared as a fighter and hated as a hostage-taker who allegedly once oversaw the capture and beheading of four telecommunications workers — was only slightly older when he was killed in June 2001 in a six-day shoot-out with Russian forces, who displayed his body on TV to convince skeptics he was really gone. Movsar also had an aunt, Khava Barayev, revered by Chechen guerrillas for her suicide car-bomb attack on a Russian base in the family's home village of Alkhan-Kala. She was 19 when she blew up herself and two soldiers in June 2000. Those who knew Movsar well say his turn had come. "He came to Moscow to die," says one Chechen associate.
The attack on the theater was meticulously planned, well funded (costing some $60,000, according to Chechens with a close knowledge of guerrilla operations) and, according to news reports, sanctioned by top Chechen commanders, including Shamil Basayev, one of the main Chechen rebel leaders. The rebels' titular head Aslan Maskhadov, who distanced himself from the siege, 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 of 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 and unproven firearms purchased on the Moscow black market. A few days before the attack, they bought the vehicles they needed. Moving into and around Moscow in the days before the assault posed a challenge for the rebels; Chechens are widely feared and disliked, and are frequently arrested for being in the city without registration. That's a problem easily overcome with cash to line policemen's pockets, however.
Movsar was close not only to his uncle Arbi but also to Khattab, the late Saudi-born guerrilla commander whom the U.S. claims 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 he was there "to die." A colleague remarked, while Movsar was still in the theater, "These are the happiest days of his life."