Russia's Osama bin Laden: How the Most-Wanted Terrorists Escape Capture for So Long

06/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How is it that with all of our spy planes, satellites, precision bombs and special forces, we still cannot capture or kill one Muslim fundamentalist hiding out in a single stretch of mountains? It is a question that has troubled Americans for almost a decade since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and this week, after the suicide bombings in Moscow, the Russians are struggling with it, too. Do we simply lack the resources to find this guy? The political will? Or is he really more clever, or more lucky, than our entire general staff?

On Thursday, I managed to speak with a Chechen military commander who has fought on both sides of Russia's failing war on terror. Although he now lives in Moscow, Isa Yamadayev has been shy about meeting with infidels in public (his first question to me: "What is your ethnicity?"). But I guess it's hard to blame him after the assassination of two of his brothers in the past 18 months (Ruslan in Moscow in Sept. 2008 and Sulim in Dubai in March 2009), and especially after the attempt on his own life here in Moscow last July. (I told him I am Russian-American, but left out my being a Jew.)

He agreed to help me answer some of these questions. Hailing from the dirt-poor Chechen village of Benoy (where the infant mortality rate is around 50 percent), Isa is one of the six brothers of the notorious Yamadayev clan which helped lead Chechnya's uprising against Kremlin rule in the mid-1990s. The fighters in that war for independence used guerrilla tactics: ambushes in the forests, improvised explosive devices on the roads, and worse. More than ten thousand people were killed in that struggle, mainly Chechens. But about five years later, at the urging of President Vladimir Putin, who had just started Russia's second invasion of Chechnya in 1999, the Yamadayev clan switched sides to help defeat their former comrades in the mountains. The Kremlin had considered these men terrorists for years, and now it gave the Yamadayevs battalions to command, military decorations (of which Isa has five), and seats in the local and federal parliaments. Yet even their help, which was substantial, hasn't allowed the Russians to win their war in the mountains.

The suicide blasts that ripped through Moscow's subway system Monday morning, killing at least 39 commuters, have proven that fact. As most people expected, responsibility for the attacks has led back to Islamist rebels operating in those same mountains of the North Caucasus on Russia's southern flank. Their leader since 2006 has been the Chechen warlord Doku Umarov, who claimed on Wednesday night to have ordered the Moscow bombings personally. In a video posted on the separatist website kavkazcenter.com, he promised the Russian public that his jihad would continue "coming to your streets" in retaliation for Russian atrocities. It looked a lot like bin Laden's grimy home videos. And Umarov, also a bearded jihadi with an eerily calm voice, has managed to dodge special forces for years in the Caucasus mountains, just like bin Laden has done in the jagged cliffs of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It's hard to imagine how. When one of the world's most powerful and ruthless armies is hunting you, how do you evade capture inside a wooded patch of mountains about the size of Yosemite national park? For the Russians it is an even nastier question than for the Americans, because Umarov's patch of mountain is part of Russian territory. (Imagine the outrage if bin Laden had avoided the Marines in the forests of, say, Colorado.)

According to Yamadayev, who starts to sound a bit like the excuse-men at U.S. Central Command when pressed on this point, the main problem comes down to the nature of the terrain. "In those mountains it is very difficult to get around. Even to avoid getting lost is extremely difficult, let alone to navigate an entire strike team. So what that means is the special forces are simply afraid to go there. They are afraid to simply go sweep the forests more or less at random and look for them. If they get tipped off to his coordinates, they carry out a special operation. Otherwise they stay back and wait."

But that's not very convincing. Isa and his brothers are no strangers to those mountains. They all have years of experience in hiding out there, setting up camps, training recruits, securing supplies. That's why the Kremlin worked so hard to make them defect. The same is true of the Kremlin-appointed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was also a rebel fighter before switching sides to help the Russians in 1999. Since then, hundreds of experienced insurgents have defected in the same way, getting comfortable jobs and salaries in exchange for obedience to Moscow. If that isn't enough, human rights groups constantly accuse Kadyrov and the Russian security forces of torturing rebels and their sympathizers for information. (Kadyrov and the government deny this.) Starting in the 1990s, the infamous "mopping up" operations have been known to involve arresting most of the men and boys in a village and getting them to cooperate by any means necessary. The Americans can't allow themselves such tactics, at least not on the same scale, but the Russians still aren't able to find their man?

Yamadayev counters with this. "Umarov does not sleep twice in the same encampment. He is constantly on the move," he says. "When the special forces enter deep enough into the mountains, they can bet on the fact that they are being watched all the time by the insurgents, who simply lie back and observe their movements. They try not to get into a conflict when they can avoid it, and instead come out for attacks on the roads, on police caravans for example. Then they melt back into the forests."

In the North Caucasus, these attacks have recently included the killing of Dagestan's top police official by an expert sniper in June of last year, as well as a suicide bomber who rammed his car into the convoy of Ingushetia's president, nearly killing him that same month. But how do the insurgents get supplies, ammunitions for all this? On that separatist website, analogous to several sites used by al-Qaeda to disseminate propaganda, I've seen videos showing rebels sitting at a long picnic table and feasting on ample meat, cheese, vegetables and fruit juice somewhere in the forest. They also appear to have no shortage of explosives. (Their favorite is a substance called RDX, which was used in this week's subway bombings.) In August of last year, a van rammed through the metal gates of a police station during the morning line-up and detonated its payload, killing at least 25 people, mostly cops, and injuring more than 150 others. The blast had the force of 400 kilograms of TNT. Umarov took responsibility.

Yet Yamadayev says getting supplies is often very difficult in the mountains, and the rebels sometimes go hungry for days. "They have people in the mountains who support them, usually regular citizens, who provide them with what they can. But it's a myth that they have some kind of al-Qaeda supply lines dropping them food and whatnot. That doesn't happen. These are grassroots methods," he says. "As for the explosives they use in their attacks, those are also quite hard to come by. Most often they find an old mine or piece of ordnance from the (Chechen) wars left over in the forest, dismantle it, and use that to make an explosive device. That is the most common method, and it's not especially sophisticated. In other cases, one of their sympathizers in the area acquires some ordinance in the markets and leaves it in a pre-arranged place for them to find. But that is of course more risky and difficult to arrange."

Chances are it will become even more difficult in the aftermath of Monday's attacks. The people here are outraged at the government for failing to provide security. In the bombed subway stations, Russians overwhelmed by the closeness, the reality of the attacks have been wandering across platforms since they re-opened Monday night. They stop to touch the gashes left by shrapnel in the stone walls, many weeping or bending down to look for traces of blood beside the tracks. "No one is protecting us," a tearful woman named Lyudmila told me Monday night on Lyubanka Square, the home of the FSB secret police and the site of one of the bombings.

The government is now preparing to prove her wrong, partly with the help of military raids in the Caucasus mountains. But without capturing Umarov those efforts may ring somewhat hollow. They certainly have in the United States with bin Laden still running free. And for his part, Yamadayev thinks they'll never manage it. "At least they'll never capture him alive. They will probably eliminate him sooner or later, but under him there is a clear hierarchy of people who will be ready to take his place and regroup."

And what then? "Then the same story will continue."