In 1990s Russia, the years following the collapse of the USSR were defined by violence, instability, and terror. Mafia began to take over state institutions and fight for power whilst far away republics clinging on to the edge of Russia vied for independence. One of them was Chechnya and as Russia began a ruthless response to their attempts of breaking away, gruesome war soon broke out. Few people realized how bad the war would become and just what kind of sadistic and evil characters it would produce. Characters like Shamil Basayev, also known as ‘’Russia’s Bin Laden.’’ would become one of the country’s worst war criminals and terrorists.
Named after Imam Shamil, a 19th-century warlord from Dagestan who fought Russian forces in the Caucasian war, Shamil Basayev was born in Chechnya during 1965 to a family with a long history of resistance to Russian rule. Along with the rest of the Chechen population, his family had suffered during the infamous deportations of Stalin in 1944 when the entire population of Chechnya was forcibly sent to the steppes of Kazakhstan, only being allowed to return after Stalin’s death.
During the late 1980s of the Soviet Union, Shamil Basayev served in a firefighting battalion in the obligatory Soviet army before moving to Moscow to study but was soon expelled and went into business with a fellow Chechen named Supyan Taramov who would go on to form a rival militant force called the ‘Shamil Hunters’ during the Chechen wars.
As the Soviet Union began to tear apart and Moscow erupted into the infamous coup of 1991, Shamil Basayev took the side of Yeltsin and ran out into the streets carrying hand grenades to defend him during the White House Seige. However, the fondness for Yeltsin was short-lived as a few months later Yeltsin declared a state of emergency and sent Russian troops into Chechnya in response to the declarations of independence made by Dzhokhar Dudayev, a Chechen nationalist leader.
It was here that Basayev’s infamous career really began. In an attempt to bring international attention to the ongoing crisis in Chechnya, Basayev, along with a motley crew of others including a schizophrenic former airline pilot, hijacked a Russian plane mid-flight and threatened to detonate a bomb on board if Yeltsin didn’t lift the state of emergency. The situation was resolved peacefully and Basayev returned to Chechnya.
As the former Soviet Union began erupting into multiple civil wars, Shamil Basayev became a mercenary in many of them. In Nagorno-Karabakh, he joined Azerbaijani forces in their battles against separatist Armenian fighters and brought with him a battalion of Chechen fighters. As Abkhazia descended into a civil war with Georgia, Basayev appeared there to provide crucial assistance to the separatist movement. Later in 1992, Basayev traveled to Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, to assist the local separatist movement against the Georgian government’s attempts to regain control of the region. In Abkhazia, despite his existing warrant for terrorism, Basayev and other soon to be infamous Chechen fighters received intensive military training from the Russian GRU who were backing Abkhazia in their fight.
It was in Abkhazia that Basayev’s sadistic reputation began to grow. He and his men were known for decapitating Georgian civilians and soldiers. Some witnesses reported football matches being played with human heads and Basayev drinking the blood of Georgian soldiers. It was here that the Chechen Tongue execution was invented, where the victim’s throat is cut and the tongue is pulled out through the hole.
Basayev’s years following the Abkhaz war are murky, he returned to Chechnya and became prominent in Mafia activities and ran a gang that extorts cash illegally. He soon appeared in Afghanistan where it’s believed he was trained and armed by the Pakistani ISI who armed him and other Chechen fighters with Stingers, anti-tank rockets, and advanced explosives, which would be later used to shot down Russian combat airplanes and dozens of helicopters.
In December 1994, Russian forces launched a full-scale invasion of Chechnya and the first Chechen war broke out. Basayev and his Abkhaz Battalion fought throughout the battle and inflicted heavy losses on Russian troops. As the net closed on the city, Basayev took to launching terror attacks outside of Chechnya such as capturing a civilian hospital in Budyonnovsk and held over 1,600 patients inside for days. It soon erupted into a battle and over 120 civilians died with 415 wounded. Using the patients as human shields, Basayev and his men escaped back to Chechnya. That same year, Basayev would go on to launch what was called “the most important sub-state use of radiological material’’ when he created a series of dirty bombs using radioactive material stolen from the hospital in Budennovsk.
The first Chechen war ended in an uneasy peace agreement when Basayev led an attack on Grozny in 1996 and Chechnya was granted de facto independence from Russia. In the years that followed, the republic collapsed into banditry, violence, and chaos. Basayev imported foreign Mujahideen fighters such as Ibn-al Khattab and ran lucrative and violent kidnapping rings in the country. Chechnya was soon branded as one of the most dangerous places on earth.
In 1999, Basayev formed an army of radical Islamist militants alongside Khattab and launched an armed attack into neighboring Dagestan. The attack had been in the works for two years and was aimed at establishing an Islamic state of Chechnya and Dagestan. Under Armed Russian police were soon overrun and often brutally beheaded on camera. During the invasion, Basayev was snapped in an iconic photo wearing a D&G hat with a high threat concealment AK mag pouch.
That same year, Chechen terrorists were suspected of a series of bombings on Russian apartment buildings which killed 293 civilians. The Russian government blamed the Chechen government for harboring terrorists and Vladimir Putin, then the newly appointed Russian Prime Minister, promised a ruthless crackdown on terrorism. He is quoted as famously saying “We’ll get them anywhere. If we find terrorists in the shithouse, then we’ll waste them in the shithouse. That’s all there is to it.” Before long, the Second Chechen War had begun.
This time, the Russians attacked Chechnya with even more overwhelming force, and Grozny was soon labeled as by the UN as ‘’the most destroyed city on planet earth’’. Chechen forces were soon retreating from the apocalyptic city. During the retreat, Basayev stepped on a landmine and lost his foot and launched a guerilla war from the vast mountains and forests of Chechnya alongside countless new arrivals of foreign Islamists from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other Islamic countries. He also sent battle-hardened Chechen radicals to fight alongside al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Before long, Russia placed a bounty of $1 million dollars on his head and Basayev was declared a threat to U.S. security and citizens by Colin Powell, then-Secretary of State.
In the years that followed, Basayev would go on to launch a plethora of grueling terror attacks across Russia. From suicide bombings, beheadings, and hostage-taking. Multiple raids were launched into neighboring republics killing countless people. In 2004, he was behind the bombing and murder of the pro-Russian Chechen president, Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of the current president, Ramzan Kadyrov. However, his most infamous crime and the one which would bring the Chechnya crisis to the world stage was in the North Ossetian town of Beslan.
The Beslan attack took place in September 2004, and whilst Basayev didn’t participate in the attack himself, he claimed responsibility as he organized and financed it and even boasted afterward that it only cost around 8,000 Euro. His fighters seized a school in the town and took over 1,100 people hostage, 777 of them small children. The siege lasted for three days and by the end of it, 334 were dead with 783 brutally injured. The attack horrified the world and a bounty of $10 million was put up by Russia for information leading to Basayev’s capture or death.
Two years later on 10 July 2006, on the border of neighboring Ingushetia, Basayev was killed whilst expecting a landmine in a shipment of new weapons that had arrived. Basayev’s upper-torso was found at the epicenter of the blast, while smaller pieces of his remains were scattered over the distance of a mile along with pieces of his false leg. The theories surrounding his death are down to simple careless handling of the mine or an FSB targeted killing operation.
The official Russian version of Shamil Basayev’s death is that he was tracked by an FSB drone that saw his car approach a truck laden with explosives that the FSB had booby-trapped in advance with a remote explosive, as Basayev approached, the explosive was detonated.