President Obama decided to cancel a planned summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Obama was responding to Russia’s offer of asylum for one year to Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive intelligence contractor who allegedly stole and illegally disclosed sensitive national security information.
In an appearance on the Tonight Show on August 6th, Obama expressed disappointment with Russia’s decision and said, “There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality.”
Here is a better idea for Obama to consider rather than pout. Offer Putin a trade. If Russia extradites Snowden to the United States to face trial on espionage charges, we will in turn extradite Ilyas Akhmadov, a former deputy and associate of a vicious deceased Chechnyan terrorist, to face trial himself on terrorism charges. Akhmadov was given political asylum in the United States in August 2004.
Although denying any connection to the terrorist Islamic jihadist attacks that have plagued the Chechnya region, Akhmadov was at one time a friend and aide to Shamil Basayev, leader of Chechnya’s deadly terrorist movement.
Basayev asserted responsibility for killing more than 300 people, most of them schoolchildren, in Beslan North Ossetia (an autonomous republic in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation). Akhmadov was already in the United States in 2004 when this event occurred. However, Akhmadov was in Chechnya in 1995 when Basayev and a group of 150 heavily armed commandos took more than 1,000 hostages in a hospital and used them as human shields. At least 100 Russian hostages died in the crossfire. Basayev escaped. Although Akhmadov was reportedly not a participant in this operation and said that he later questioned Basayev about the details, Akhmadov remained a Basayev supporter and continued to work for Basayev when the latter became a deputy minister in Chechnya’s break-away government. Akhmadov even agreed to an arranged marriage with a relative of one of Basayev’s best fighters. Akhmadov subsequently became the foreign minister of the separatist government before going into hiding and leaving Chechnya for good.
Akhmadov claims that he disassociated himself from Basayev after the latter became a militant Islamic fundamentalist. Although Akhmadov’s initial bid for asylum in the United States in 2002 was turned down after opposition from the United States Department of Homeland Security, Akhmadov managed to cultivate friends with influence such as Senator John McCain, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski who spoke in his behalf. Finally, in April 2004 an immigration judge in Boston issued an order granting Akhmadov asylum in the United States, which became effective in August 2004 following the U.S. government’s decision not to appeal the immigration judge’s decision.
Needless to say, the Russians were furious. Akhmadov was one of Russia’s most wanted men, after his former friend and associate Basayev himself who was killed in 2006.
“Such acts do not correspond to the friendly spirit of Russian-American relations, and do not help the joint fight against international terrorism,” the Russian foreign ministry declared in objecting to the U.S.’s decision to grant Akhmadov asylum. “He’s a terrorist, there is no doubt about it,” Aleksander Lukashevich, a senior political counselor at the Russian Embassy in Washington, told the Washington Post in 2005. “We have proof. … Our foreign minister has made Russia’s position on extradition quite clear.”
“Harboring terrorists, their henchmen and sponsors undermines the unity and mutual trust of parties to the antiterrorist front,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared in a speech before the UN General Assembly in the fall of 2004.
Putin accused the United States of engaging in double standards in the fight against terrorism. “We cannot have double standards while fighting terrorism,” he said during a December 2004 visit to India, “and it cannot be used as a geopolitical game.”
Putin, his abysmal human rights record notwithstanding, has made a valid point regarding the handling of the war on terror. Successive U.S. administrations, including the Obama administration, give some jihadists a free pass if we think they serve some sort of broader geopolitical purpose, while going after others since 9/11 who are clearly affiliated with al Qaeda. The jihadists fighting the Syrian regime are not our friends just because of a shared interest in seeing Assad go. The same was true with respect to the jihadists fighting Qaddafi in Libya, who have now turned their weapons on us. Yet we make the same mistake over and over again.
Russia and the United States can find common ground in fighting the jihadist fighters wherever they lurk. U.S. officials have justified the extensive NSA electronic surveillance program as a necessary tool to fight terrorism and demand Snowden’s return to face justice for jeopardizing that tool. Russia has a hard time taking the U.S. seriously, however, when it pays little heed to Russian concerns about the brutal crimes against innocent civilians committed by terrorists in Chechnya.
We disregarded the Russians’ prescient warnings regarding the Boston Marathon bombers. It just so happens that Akhmadov lived in Boston for a time and could well have had contact with the Tsarnaev brothers or their families while there, although he recently claimed that he “had never heard about these people.” That’s hard to believe considering the relatively small, tight-knit Chechnyan community in Boston, but it is doubtful that anyone in the Obama administration cares enough to try and connect the dots.
Trading Akhmadov for Snowden would be reminiscent of the spy exchanges prevalent during the Cold War. It may be the only card to play if we are serious about getting Snowden back to the United States to face trial. And Akhmadov’s admitted past close association with the terrorist Basayev raises enough questions to justify Russia’s suspicions that Akhmadov does indeed have a terrorist past to account for.
However, the likelihood that President Obama would even consider the possibility of trading Akhmadov for Snowden is zero. Akhmadov has too many highly placed friends in the Washington political establishment who would oppose his extradition nearly ten years after he was granted asylum, and Akhmadov would vigorously challenge any attempt to revoke his asylum status. But that doesn’t mean we should give up looking for potential areas of cooperation and reciprocity with Russia in fighting the scourge of global terrorism where we can, which the Obama administration has failed to do.
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