One of the story's main sources was Sergei N. Ignatchenko, 43, a second-generation intelligence officer, an Arabist by training and the FSB's chief spokesman. Such proximity to the infamous Lubyanka must have kept the journalists from providing more background on the 1999 apartment building explosions; it must have also prompted them to turn Mr. Ignatchenko's mention of Ayman al-Zawahiri, a man on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list, into a modest historical aside:
Among those drawn to Chechnya was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who would later become Mr. bin Laden's top deputy. At the time Dr. Zawahiri led the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Late in 1996, Russian authorities detained him. He was held for six months.
"He had four passports, in four different names and nationalities," Mr. Ignatchenko said. "We checked him out in every country, but they could not confirm him. We could not keep him forever, so we took him to the Azerbaijani border and let him go."
Nothing special - just another confirmation of the official claim that "international terrorism" is to blame for the situation in and around Chechnya, and of the story's main point that "Al Qaeda was much more interested in Chechnya than Chechen separatists were interested in a global religious war." Also, an elegant attempt to show the world that all those reports of extrajudicial executions are simply not true.
Yet, there's more to al-Zawahiri's Russian misadventure than the New York Times and Mr. Ignatchenko chose to share, and here's some additional reading:
- Saga of Dr. Zawahri Sheds Light On the Roots of al Qaeda Terror: How a Secret, Failed Trip to Chechnya Turned Key Plotter's Focus to America and bin Laden - by Andrew Higgins and Alan Cullison, The Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2002 (text via Johnson's Russia List # 6336, the last item on the page)
A relatively detailed story of al-Zawahiri's detention and trial in Russia (actually, the most detailed I've been able to find); the focus is primarily on al-Zawahiri's persona and his comrades-in-arms. No explanation is offered as to how and when the FSB realized it was the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad that they had mistaken for a merchant and let go so easily. Al-Zawahiri ascribed the miracle of his liberation to God:
"God blinded them to our identities," Dr. Zawahri wrote later, in his account of his trip. "God's mercy accompanied us during these months."
- The Man Behind bin Laden: How an Egyptian Doctor Became a Master of Terror - by Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, Sept. 16, 2002
A substantial profile of al-Zawahiri, with a brief mention of the Russian episode. The author, Lawrence Wright, received the 2002 Ed Cunningham Memorial award from the Overseas Press Club of America for this text, for "best magazine reporting from abroad": "A superb, fluidily detailed portrait of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's strategic mastermind. The piece showed remarkable breadth of reporting and context, and was filled with hard-to-get interviews and rich contextual detail." It is also part of a not-yet-completed book about the events that led to 9/11. Wright also wrote the screenplay for The Siege (1998), and is the author of "God's Favorite," a political novel about General Manuel Antonio Noriega.
- A Russian Agent at the Right Hand of bin Laden? - by Evgenii Novikov, the Jamestown Foundation, Terrorism Monitor, January 15, 2004 (Volume 2 Issue 1)
A rendition of the Wall Street Journal piece, spiced up with allegations "that Russian intelligence knows exactly where [al-Zawahiri] is and may even have regular contact with the elusive Egyptian." Formerly "an elite Soviet expert on Islamic affairs," Evgenii Novikov defected to the United States in 1988 and is now a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. This is an interesting read, though the plausibility of Novikov's assertions falters significantly once you're reminded of the dubious yet popular claims that the U.S. government was actually behind 9/11. (Also, since Osama bin Laden is a lefty, a better title for this piece would have been "A Russian Agent at the Left Hand of bin Laden?"...)