July 28, 2005
Reign of Terror
TED KOPPEL, ABC NEWS: July 28th, 2005. I'm Ted Koppel and this is
"Nightline." Tonight, he is a stone-cold killer whose very acts define him.
The 2002 Moscow theater hostage-taking and massacre. 129 dead, hundreds
The Beslan school hostage-taking and massacre. Nearly 400 dead, more than
There is a $10 million bounty on his head. The Russian government has
claimed on several occasions that he is dead. In fact, he is very much
alive and very much still a terrorist.
SHAMIL BASAYEV, CHECHEN REPUBLIC OF ICHKERIA STATE DEFENSE COMMITTEE: Okay,
I admit, I'm a bad guy. A bandit, a terrorist. So, I'm a terrorist. But
what would you call them?
TED KOPPEL: Tonight, reign of terror. An exclusive interview with Shamil
(Off Camera) You may not know the name Shamil Basayev. But as you have just
seen, the entire world is familiar by now with his bloody handiwork. Even
he, who insists that everything he does is in the name of Chechen
nationalism and of driving out the Russian occupation army, even Basayev
concedes that he is a terrorist. It should not surprise anyone then that
the Russian government has tried in a number of different ways to convince
us not to run this interview tonight. It is, one Russian diplomat told me
the other day, a matter of the gravest concern at the highest level of the
government. That almost certainly means Vladimir Putin himself. In
response, I pointed out that broadcasting an interview with someone does
not imply any sort of approval of that person or his actions. I have
interviewed thieves and conmen, child molesters, murderers and dictators
with the blood of thousands on their hands. I bear the responsibility of
putting an interview like this in its proper context but not of keeping it
from you altogether.
(Voice Over) Perhaps, during the long and dreadful hours that Basayev's
terrorists seized and held a Russian school in the town of Beslan last
year, you may wondered how anyone could even try to justify an action that
left 338 civilians, many of them children, dead. Tonight, you'll hear
(Voice Over) He was interviewed by a Russian journalist, Andrei Babitsky.
He came to us with the interview. Babitsky is well known in Russia. He was
the only non-Chechen reporter who remained in the capital of Grozny after
it came under Russian attack. He's been arrested and detained more than
once by the Russian government, which clearly feels that his coverage of
the Chechens have been altogether too sympathetic. Babitsky has met Shamil
Basayev before. But he insists that on this last trip into Chechnya, he was
not expecting to meet him again. The purpose of this trip, he says, was to
interview the Chechen rebel vice president, Doku Umarov.
ANDREI BABITSKY, REPORTER: I went by my own car. From Prague, I went
through Ukraine, and got to Kerch. Across the Ukrainian Russian border, and
then by taxi, got to Ingushetia. There I was met by someone connected to
the resistance movement. It was late at night and I was then taken to the
village of Nesterovsk. There I changed cars. As I got into the other car,
much to my surprise - actually, more than just surprise, it was a difficult
moment for me, a shock. I saw Shamil Basayev seated in it. The shock was
not out of fear. I've known Basayev for a long time. But I realized the
consequences I'll have to deal with. I understood immediately that the
Russian authorities would definitely charge me with collaborating with a
terrorist, with terrorists. I want to say that the meeting was totally
unexpected. Frankly speaking, I had no idea where I was. This was done so
that, intentionally or not, I couldn't tell anyone where I'd been, and lead
anyone to their hideout.
TED KOPPEL: (Off Camera) The Russians have been after Basayev for a long
time. They have a $10 million bounty on his head. In 1995, the Russian
military reportedly killed 11 of Basayev's relatives, including his
brother, his wife and two of his daughters. In early 2000, during the
Russian offensive on Grozny, the Chechen capital, Basayev lost part of a
leg leading a retreat across a Russian minefield. He wears a prosthesis
now, and has a fondness for digital watches, which he likes to use as
triggers for time bombs. It would be a mistake, though, says Andrei
Babitsky, to draw too close a comparison between Basayev and Osama Bin
Laden. They're both terrorists but ...
ANDREI BABITSKY: Their motives are different. In my opinion, Basayev does
of course draw from fundamentalist Islamic ideology. He's basing on the eye
for an eye, a tooth for a tooth philosophy. For Bin Laden, it's important
to destroy the Western world, Western values. For him, it's the world of
Satan. For Basayev, the borders of his republic are enough.
Tell me, please, you're the second-most wanted terrorist in the world. How
long have you managed to stay alive this long?
SHAMIL BASAYEV: First of all, I'm not the second. And secondly, I'm not
wanted. I, myself, am trying to find these terrorists. I'm looking for them
in all of Russia. And I'll keep on looking and I'll keep on finding them.
And I'll keep on punishing them. So, don't tell me they're trying to find
me. I'm trying to find them.
ANDREI BABITSKY: I was completely stunned by how free they move about, how
confident they are and how much at ease they are. Two years ago, I was in
the forest with Chechen field commander (unintelligible) unit. And then,
the situation was completely different. That everyone was very tense. This
time, I had the feeling I was with a group of hunters camping in the woods.
TED KOPPEL: (Voice Over) Babitsky spent two days and nights in the woods
with Basayev and his people. The longer he was with them, the harder he
realized conditions are.
ANDREI BABITSKY: The living conditions of these armed units are very basic,
extremely basic. They're all very sick. They sleep on barren ground.
Tuberculosis is widespread. As Russian troops leave, as you want them to,
who should then rule Chechnya?
SHAMIL BASAYEV: First thing that comes to mind are the words "power to the
people." I have never sought power and I have never fought for power. I
have always fought for justice and justice has been my only goal. Honestly,
I'm telling you, not in the least do I feel there is a hunt for me. But I'm
a fighter. I'm at war. I can die anytime, even now.
ANDREI BABITSKY: What are you counting on? Do you really think that terror
can force this regime to concessions, to negotiations?
SHAMIL BASAYEV: I don't need their negotiations. I need a stop to the
genocide of the Chechen people. I need their occupying scum to leave our
TED KOPPEL: (Off Camera) The Russian government has issued a formal protest
to this broadcast. You will hear that at the end of the program. But next,
how does a terrorist justify killing children?
(Off Camera) The Chechen people do have legitimate grievances against
Moscow. In 1944, Stalin ordered the deportation of the entire Chechen
people from the Caucuses to Central Asia. Estimates vary widely but tens of
thousands of Chechens certainly died. Layer on top of that the brutality of
Russian troops in Chechnya over the past several years, and Shamil
Basayev's personal family losses, and you don't have to look far for what
motivates him or how Basayev justifies what he and his terrorists do.
SHAMIL BASAYEV: I need guarantees that tomorrow future Chechen generations
won't be deported to Siberia, like they were in 1944. That's why we need
independence. Practically the whole world recognized that that was a
genocide. It's the "Ruskies" who are the terrorists. There is a struggle
going on for our national independence.
TED KOPPEL: (Off Camera) But what about the theater-goers killed in Moscow
and the children in Beslan? Basayev is not only unrepentant, in each
instance, he finds a way of blaming Moscow.
ANDREI BABITSKY: Coming to Beslan, regardless of how you assess the
potential of that operation and Putin's reaction, do you think it was right
to risk the lives of children, to deprive them of water? Don't you have the
feeling that you are responsible for the lives of these children, perhaps
sharing this responsibility with Putin?
SHAMIL BASAYEV: Why should I share it with Putin? Officially, over 40,000
of our children have been killed and tens of thousands mutilated. Is anyone
saying anything about that?
ANDREI BABITSKY: And you mean to say that now their children are to be
SHAMIL BASAYEV: It's not the children who are responsible. Responsibility
is with the whole Russian nation, which with silent approval gives a yes. A
nation that feeds their grasses who ravaged Chechnya. They collect food,
things for them, they supply them. They pay taxes. They give approval in
word and in deed. They are all responsible. And in Beslan, to be honest, I
didn't expect this. But in Beslan, the issue was either stop the war in
Chechnya or have Putin resign. Just one of those two things. Carry out one,
and all people are released, no questions asked. Get it? There wasn't more
to it. Well, you can ask why I did it. To stop the killing of thousands and
thousands of Chechen children, Chechen women, and the elderly. Look at the
facts. They have been kidnapped, taken away, murdered.
ANDREI BABITSKY: So, you think all is fine, as long as you don't shoot
point-blank? You think putting children's lives at-risk is not the same as
taking part in their killing?
SHAMIL BASAYEV: I will pull no punches to stop this genocide. But within
the limits of my religion. And in my religion, Allah tells me in the Koran,
"fight against them how they fight against you, but do not cross the line."
And I try not to cross the line. And I haven't yet.
ANDREI BABITSKY: What kind of feelings did you experience after Beslan?
SHAMIL BASAYEV: To tell you honestly, I was shocked. I swear, I never
expected that. I never thought Putin was so blood-thirsty that he would
manifest his thirst for blood. I didn't think he would. When confronted
with a more serious situation, I thought they'd try to make some move like
gas or something. That at least they wouldn't do anything against children.
That was my thinking. I figured that the more brutal I could make it, the
quicker they'd get the message. I thought it would work. But it's not
sinking in yet.
ANDREI BABITSKY: I asked Basayev about the explosion inside the Beslan
school, which actually started the storming of the building. He told me
that according to his information, a sniper shot the Chechen, who in the
gym held his foot down on the detonator of an explosive device. He was
supposed to hold down the fuse all the time. But when the sniper shot him,
he fell, removed his foot from the fuse and the explosion happened.
SHAMIL BASAYEV: I never thought there would be small children in Beslan.
It's a school. Anyway, the youngest would be a 6-year-old. There is a
kindergarten across the road. I didn't see anyone. We studied maps, looked
at all. I made the plans. And I told the commander, I told him, when
Russian officials show up, hand them our demands officially and then
release all under 10 years old, no questions asked. That's what I told him.
These were my conditions.
TED KOPPEL: (Off Camera) Less than a year ago, two Russian planes were
hijacked and crashed almost simultaneously. Basayev's people seized the
planes but he contends they did not blow them up.
ANDREI BABITSKY: And what about the blown-up planes?
SHAMIL BASAYEV: Who said they'd been blown up? Where are the fact that
they'd been blown up? Why didn't they blow them up? Why doesn't it occur to
you that they shot them down? The demands were exactly the same, to stop
the war. Why blame us? Think for yourself.
ANDREI BABITSKY: Say a couple of words more. They were only to hijack the
SHAMIL BASAYEV: They were supposed to hijack the planes and demand an end
to the war. And they were not supposed to let them land until there was
some response. But they were immediately shot down. Whatever, our hijackers
weren't supposed to blow up the planes just like that. And I wonder why
both planes exploded at the same time.
TED KOPPEL: (Off Camera) October 2002, Basayev's armed guerrillas, more
than 40 of them, seize Moscow's theater center. He acknowledges the act.
But once again, he blames the Russians for the bloody consequences.
SHAMIL BASAYEV: Same thing at Odintsovo Theater. I told my men, all
foreigners, must be released unconditionally. That was an order. But - but
you can release them, but they may not make it to safety. And it would look
as if you killed them. Therefore, have everyone of them call the embassies,
have a car drive up to the door. Car drives up, you let them out. But many
weren't allowed to leave. And what do I have to do with it? I do what I
can, whatever I can control. In Chechnya and everywhere else, I use methods
that are reasonable and acceptable. Neither of my Mujahadeen have killed
children, not here, not there. Not killing, it's a fact. As early as
January 2004, I made an official statement. I said if Putin, as the leader
of the gang which does all this damage to Chechnya, officially announces
that he and his so-called army will start behaving in accordance with
international law, we will quit all attacks and bombings on the territory
of Russia. We will just fight these troops here in Chechnya. I made this
official statement. Get it? And what was the answer? More kidnappings. And
it all started more killings. It all went full-blast.
TED KOPPEL: (Off Camera) When we come back, Basayev acknowledges that his
days may be numbered. But he insists he's not done yet.
(Off Camera) Somewhere, down the road, Basayev acknowledges that he would
like to see Chechnya transformed into a Muslim state, governed by Muslim
law, Shari'a. But when reporter Babitsky tried to steer him in that
direction, Basayev insisted that he is motivated by an even higher goal.
ANDREI BABITSKY: You call this a struggle for independence?
SHAMIL BASAYEV: And what would you call it?
ANDREI BABITSKY: Well, I think there's a religious motivation, as well.
SHAMIL BASAYEV: No. For me, it's first and foremost a struggle for freedom.
If I'm not a free man, I can't live in my faith. I need to be a free man.
Freedom is primary. That's how I see. Shari'a comes second.
TED KOPPEL: (Voice Over) Next to Osama Bin Laden, Basayev is probably the
most-hunted man in the world.
ANDREI BABITSKY: He's being searched for. He spoke about it. This year,
they tried to poison him twice. From abroad, he gets shipments of some
necessary medical equipment, prosthetics. He covers the stump of his leg
with a special silicon sock. And one of the silicon socks that he got from
abroad was saturated with poison. They tested it by placing it in a chicken
coop. And a chicken died immediately.
TED KOPPEL: (Voice Over) Basayev himself is philosophical about what will
happen to him.
SHAMIL BASAYEV: They tried to poison me twice this year. There were many
skirmishes but my time is not up. My time will come and I won't need the
Russian army to die. I will just die anyway. Everyone's time will be up
sooner or later. It once again confirms the words of God, what Allah has in
store for us. When my time comes, I will die. And the whole, wide world can
do nothing to me, it can't hurt me. And if Allah has something good in
store for me, so it will be. And nothing on earth can get in the way.
TED KOPPEL: (Voice Over) In the meantime, Basayev shows no inclination to
change his terror tactics. Indeed, for the first time, he admitted to
reporter Babitsky that he accepts the label that Moscow and much of the
rest of the world pins on him.
ANDREI BABITSKY: Can acts such as Beslan and the theater be repeated?
SHAMIL BASAYEV: Of course, they can. As long as the genocide of the Chechen
nation continues, as long as this mess continues, anything can happen.
Okay, I admit, I'm a bad guy. A bandit, a terrorist. Okay. So, I'm a
terrorist. But what would you call them? If they are keepers of
constitutional order, if they are anti-terrorists, then I spit on all these
agreements and nice words. And I want to spit on the whole world if the
whole world spits on me.
ANDREI BABITSKY: There's a pause, now. Does this mean you're planning
something new? Or have you decided to take it easy for a while?
SHAMIL BASAYEV: I won't take it easy, even for a moment. The break we had
over winter is more than enough. Yeah, I'm making plans. We'll see. We're
always looking for new ways. If one thing fails, we'll look for something
new. But we'll get there.
TED KOPPEL: (Off Camera) When we come back, I'll have a very angry
statement from the Russian embassy and a Closing Thought, in a moment.
(Off Camera) I spoke briefly at the beginning of this program about the
Russian reaction to our broadcasting the interview with Basayev. This
evening, at our invitation, the Russian embassy here in Washington released
(Voice Over) "It is outrageous that ABC News has decided to ignore the
arguments presented by the Russian Embassy against airing an interview with
an internationally recognized terrorist Shamil Basayev. By doing so, ABC
News has displayed an outright defiance of every standard of responsible
journalism, as well as basic human values. At issue is providing forum to
one of Al-Qaeda's zealots responsible for slaughtering innocent victims
during many major terrorist attacks that he masterminded and personally
perpetrated. The most shocking and deadliest of them was the cold-blooded
killing of hundreds of children a year ago in the southern Russian City of
(Off Camera) The statement goes on to cite the commitment of the G-8
leaders, including the United States, to the complete rejection of
terrorism by the public at large. And the statement concludes ...
(Voice Over) "Providing a nationwide audience to a child murderer ... not
only stands in the way of fulfilling this objective but also raises serious
questions about the credibility and moral standing of this otherwise
respected TV channel. There is no doubt that broadcasting Shamil Basayev's
interview on ABC News runs counter to the spirit of Russian-American
partnership in our joint fight against the global threat of terrorism and
will thus create a wave of justifiable indignation among the Russian people."
(Off Camera) All of which may explain, in part, why Andrei Babitsky did not
voluntarily go to the Russian authorities with what he had.
ANDREI BABITSKY: Many of my fellow Russians will ask why I haven't informed
the Federal security service of this meeting, so then they could locate and
apprehend a terrorist and criminal. My answer to this is, I absolutely
distrust Russian power agencies. I'm convinced they wouldn't believe my
words that I didn't know anything. They would decide that I'm concealing
facts as to Basayev's whereabouts. I know how in Chechnya, and not only in
Chechnya, the special services and the functions of the interior ministry
work. How many people disappear without a trace. How many people undergo
horrendous, unbelievable, inhuman torture. I think I'd subject myself to
torture if I contacted the Federal security service. I think it's unwise
and illogical to voluntarily choose such a fate for yourself.
TED KOPPEL: (Off Camera) Freedom is speech is never an issue when a popular
person expresses an acceptable point of view. It is of real value only
because it guarantees us access to the unpopular, espousing the
unacceptable. Then, we can reject or accept it, condemn it or embrace it.
No one should have the authority to make that decision for us. Not our
government, and certainly not somebody else's.
(Off Camera) That's our report for tonight. I'm Ted Koppel in Washington.
For all of us here at ABC News, good night.