Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin did not get his last wish – that he would die a world changer with all the prodigal sons, the breakaway republics, back in the fold and the Russian Empire at the head of half the civilized world, if not the whole. The end, when it came, was sudden and spectacular.
The Russian President had spent the night at Novo-Ogaryovo, his official dacha west of Moscow, on the Rublyovo-Uspenskoye Highway. Now the sun was barely peeking out over the furs in the distance and he was already at his desk in the den, leafing through the press briefing that he was scheduled to deliver that afternoon about what had been achieved at the recent BRICS summit in Sao Paolo. The briefing was, as the title suggested, brief. The President hated flowery prose.
There was a discrete knock and his major-domo, Volodya, a Spetsnaz veteran and also his judo partner, entered quietly, closing the tall oak doors behind him, as he balanced a tray in his right hand. Volodya was a lefty, a fact that the President sometimes forgot on the mat. Volodya had broken his ribs twice while practicing the ‘harai goshi’, a judo sweep throw, with Putin but he would follow his master blindly and unquestioningly. Likewise, Vladimir Vladimirovich trusted Volodya with his life and made sure that he and his family wanted for nothing.
Little was known about Volodya outside of the President’s closest circle of aides, but of one single thing there was no doubt in anybody’s mind – that Volodya was to Putin what Martin Bormann had been, to Hitler or R.K.Dhawan to Indira Gandhi. Only, in his case he had the same name as his boss – Volodya is short for Volodymyr which is the Ukrainian way of saying Vladimir.
Even less known, at least to Putin or anyone in Russia’s FSB, was the fact that Volodya was not the St.Petersburg born white Russian orthodox Christian son of an ex-GRU officer who had served with Putin in East Berlin. Volodya had actually been born Magomet Khuchbarov, the only son of ultra-conservative Salafist Sunni Muslim peasants, in the Ingush village of Khutor Tarski.
Magomet’s father, Ruslan Khuchbarov, had drilled into him as a toddler that they were direct descendants of the Turko-Mongol conqueror, Tamerlane, though that would seem doubtful to anybody who saw him, as he did not have the slanted Mongol eyes or any other Mongol trait. With his close-cropped blonde hair and stark blue eyes, Volodya appeared more Russian than most other Russians.
Ruslan Khuchbarov had taught his son one other thing, though ‘taught’ would be too mild a word. He had beaten one thing into young Magomet – to hate, to treat all non-Muslims as apostates and infidels, who were fit only to die and never to shed any tears over them. Magomet had learnt quickly, the persecution by the Russian military in the Republics of Chechnya and his own homeland, Ingushetia, through the 1990s acting as a catalyst.
Somewhere between the start of the First and the Second Chechen Wars where Ingush units fought alongside Chechen insurgents, Magomet Khuchbarov suddenly ceased to exist. Militants were disappearing all the time, tortured and burnt to cinder. Besides, the young Magomet was at the time, still an unknown among the FSB’s files and therefore his sudden disappearance went unnoticed.
The Caliphate had chosen him well. He had no friends or close relatives and no one seemed to care if he existed or not. By the time he vanished into thin air, both his parents had been killed by Russian mortar fire and his village had been completely destroyed, razed to the ground.
How Magomet Khuchbarov managed to come to life as Volodymyr Antonenko and through the 1990s, inveigle himself into the very heart of the Russian high command, ultimately stationing himself as his namesake boss, Vladimir Putin’s butler-cum-bodyguard-cum judo partner, is a complete mystery.
Magomet was something unheard of in a terror group – a trained sleeper. In espionage terms, a sleeper is a very highly disciplined covert operative who becomes a part of the society he has been sent to subvert. Armed with a false identity and background, he settles down and blends in, even getting married to a local and raising a family if he can. Once he is in, he waits for the order to go active.
The sleeper’s cover is so deep that he makes no contact with anyone who is even remotely connected to his employers. He is essentially on his own with no diplomatic protection. Only his control knows who and where he is. If his control defects or otherwise gives him away, tough shit. In Magomet Khuchbarov’s case, given that he betrayed Russians or worse, the chances that he would survive the interrogations were next to nil.
Oh yeah, the Russians have redefined the term ‘retribution’ long back, ever since the Bolsheviks came to power. The Beirut apartment block bombing comes readily to mind. In the late 1970s, a Hezbollah team killed a Soviet diplomat in Beirut, mistaking him for a Mossad agent. The Soviets were friends and sponsors of the Syrian army and through them, the Shiite Hezbollah. Both Syria and the Hezbollah apologized profusely but it did not help.
One October night in 1979, a Spetsnaz team entered the apartment building where the Hezbollah assassination team leader lived. They did not just put a bullet in his head and be done with it. They chained him, his wife and his brother who was visiting them and had nothing to do with Hezbollah, to the iron grill on his bedroom window, rigged the building with explosives and took it down in a controlled demolition. A day later, the Soviet ambassador to Damascus told a puzzled Hafez Assad,’ We punish accidents just as severely’.
A sleeper is a single-shot weapon. The moment he emerges from deep cover, he completes his mission swiftly and gets extracted, never to return to the country where he operated. If he has nurtured a family by then, he just leaves them behind. He is programmed to show affection but at the same time, to steel himself to remain aloof. Volodya’s wife, Tania and son Yuri, had no idea they were not going to see him again after today.
The deep penetration of Volodymyr Antonenko had been a spectacular coup and it’s fruits, incalculable. The Caliphate now knew in real time, every move that the Russian military made, even before it’s own brigade commanders did. The Emir decreed that henceforth, Magomet Khuchbarov, alias Volodymyr Antonenko, be addressed only by the code-name ‘Luchnik’. In Russian, it meant – the archer.
The Emir would have let Luchnik remain in place had the July attempt on Putin not been botched. The Malaysian MH-17 jet and Vladimir Putin’s presidential plane had the same red, blue and white color spreads. Plain luck and a delayed take-off from Sao Paolo where he had gone to attend a summit with India’s Narendra Modi and other BRICS leaders, saved the Russian President’s life. Putin’s plane was 45 minutes behind the Malaysian 777.
Around the MH-17 crash, there have been many theories. The Russian media have suggested that Ukrainian authorities orchestrated the downing of the airliner to make it appear like a rebel attack, in the hope that it would lure NATO into intervening militarily. On the other side, the Ukrainians held that it was a rebel group that had commandeered one of those sophisticated BUK launchers and let loose, mistaking the plane for a Ukranian military jet.
While chaos reigned there was not even a whiff of the Caliphate’s involvement. In a tearing hurry, the world absolved Muslim fanatics of any role in it. As to the Caliphate, quite unlike any other terror group, it remained silent. Having an archer at the very heart of Kremlin, it decided to save him for more spectacular later use.
History has repeatedly shown us that, given the will, anything is possible. And will is something that Ingushetia-born Ali Abu Mukhammad, Emir of the Caucasus Caliphate and Magomet Khuchbarov’s leader, has in plenty. Will, that brought all the various insurgent movements of the Caucasus under one umbrella – The Yarmuk Jamaat of Kabardino-Balkaria, the Dagestani Shari’ah Jamaat, the Riyad us-SaliheynMartyrs’ Brigade of Chechnya and his own Ingush Jama’at Shariat.
Mukhammad’s Iraqi counterpart, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the Emir of the Levant and head of the dreaded ISIS, has not been able to gather all the insurgent movements in Syria and Iraq together. True, he has come close to giving the ISIS a status equivalent to statehood, with a functioning bureaucracy and public services, but it still remains to be seen if his fledgling caliphate shall be able to hold on to its territory.
In Africa, three others have been trying to create Islamic caliphates – Mohammed Yusuf of the Boko Haram, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud of Al Qaida’s North African arm, the AQIM and Ahmed Godane of the Al Shabaab. And lost deep inside the mountains of Waziristan, Al Qaida’s capo-de-tutti-capi, Ayman Al-Zawahari, is a haunted animal, a desperate fugitive who sleeps in a different bed every night and clutches at straws to remain relevant.
None of the above have succeeded in gaining the total subservience among all the Muslim insurgencies in their regions. Al Shabaab’s Godane died trying just last week, while he was driving in a convoy of SUVs to chair a Shura council meeting at the Somali town of Barawe, vaporized by a Hellfire missile fired from an MQ9 Reaper drone that had been launched from a CIA airfield at Djibouti, 450 miles to the north.
There was another distinction between Emir Ali Abu Mukhammad and the rest of them. Unlike most of the others, the Arabs, the Africans and the Pakistanis, who had fallen into terrorism by choice, instead of taking the harder path of honest labor to achieve prosperity and security, the Caucasian Caliphate had a solid reason to be pissed off with the Russian government.
First came the discriminations on race and ethnicity from the Tsarists in the 18th century, for their ‘Asian looks’ and the pillages and rapes that the Tsar’s armies perpetrated. Then came the anti-Muslim purge and the mass deportations to Siberia and Kazakhstan by Stalin in the 1930s (so that he would not have to contend with a Muslim flank bordering Muslim Turkey) and now finally, the refusal by the Russian government to let the Caucasian republics form their own independent states, just as Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia and Belarus had done. In this, the Caliphate has more in common with the Uighurs to the east, who will certainly rise and destabilize China sometime in the not too distant future, just as the Naxals will one day, in India.
The Archer softly shut the door to Putin’s den and padded across the thickly carpeted hardwood floor, balancing the tray of milk and roast beef sandwich on his right hand while he eased the Chinese-made M77 from its holster with his left. The President looked up and smiled. Catching up on his paperwork had made him ravenously hungry. He pushed his papers back, making room for the tray that was about to be set down.
The smile quickly turned into horror when M77 came up, looking ugly with the silencer screwed on. Putin’s lips tried to form the words ‘Why?’ but didn’t finish as the parabellum round tore into his skull just above his forehead. Its barrel still smoking, the Archer put two bullets into himself, one in his left thigh and the other on the right side of his chest, taking care to aim well clear of anything important.
For the deception to succeed, the Caliphate had found a patsy, the assassin – 32-year old Khamzat Aldiyev, an electrician from Grozny, newly married and bereaved, who had been made to watch as burly members of the Russian Morskaya Pekhota had gang-raped his young wife on their kitchen floor.
As the Archer hobbled toward the large balcony, Aldiyev rose from behind the bushes, a 9mm Makarov in his right hand. The Archer whispered ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ and shot him between the eyes. He switched guns, after wiping them clean and then hobbled back into the study and raised the alarm. Of course, the Archer knew all these side shows may not stop his summary execution, if not for treason then at least for incompetence. As Lebanon had shown, the FSB didn’t take kindly to honest mistakes.
From where he lay bleeding on the floor, the Archer looked out the kevlar windows. Outside, the traffic on the Rublyovo-Uspenskoye Highway had picked up as another savage winter’s day dawned. Soon he heard what sounded like a stampede of approaching footsteps on the thickly carpeted corridor outside. The Archer closed his eyes and let himself pass out.
Two things happened in quick succession, as Putin’s assassination was being announced to the international media…..
The first was the mild-mannered moderate Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s ascendancy to President of Russia, a job that he had held till 2008. The second – the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from the border with Ukraine and the capitulation of the ethnic Russian rebels and the almost simultaneous announcement by the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, to hold immediate talks in advance of according full autonomy to Crimea.
But there was another event that remains unknown, except to a handful of men sitting nine time zones to the west, inside a building that has five equal sides, the air space over which is restricted over an area of a thousand acres all around. The FAPSI, Russia’s counterpart of the NSA, would have logged the event, had the technician at the Swetskaya node not been goofing off on his shift.
It was a single ten second cell phone call that had not originated near Moscow but from Komgaron in the Ingush Caucasus, from a man who was fluent in English and spoke it with an accent typical of the American Mid-West, where he was in fact born, thirty eight years ago.
The man was fluent in one other language – Ingush, his parents having taken the care to teach him their native tongue. It was also the language he had gotten used to, ever since the insurgency began. He had to. His followers, who would give up their lives unflinchingly for him, knew only Ingush.
The words which bounced off the Globalstar stationed 36000 miles up and came through the headphones in the hushed room, were loud and clear – ‘glaz byka’. In Ingush that meant – bull’s eye.
The Emir is a man of few words.