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The Mind Of A Fundamentalist
Paul Klebnikov, 09.21.01, 6:42 PM ET

NEW YORK - In the years when Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev ruled in the gangster underworld of Moscow, he was reputed to have killed several people with his bare hands, while his associates killed dozens, perhaps hundreds more. Nukhaev, now a devout Muslim, has no problem with that.

"It is all written in the Quran," he says. "In which cases you have no right to kill, in which cases you are obligated to kill. If you are faced with an enemy who does not want to live cleanly, he will come to kill you anyway. So why wait? You would just be presenting your back to his dagger."

Forbes first sought out Nukhaev nine months ago when we became intrigued by his career path. In the early 1990s he became one of the leaders of the notorious Chechen organized crime group in Moscow and is today a leading Islamic fundamentalist politician. Last month we caught up with him again, and what he had to say offers lessons as we try to understand the mentality of the terrorists who attacked America on Sept. 11.

Nukhaev is currently holed up in the oil town of Baku, Azerbaijan, on the shores of the Caspian Sea. A slender man of 46, leaning on a cane (an old bullet wound), he says that his gangster days are long behind him. He spends his time praying, writing geopolitical treatises and organizing his political movement, "Chechen Land of Islam."

Three hundred miles to the north, deep in the Caucasus Mountains, Nukhaev's tiny homeland Chechnya is at war, as bands of Islamic fighters continue their struggle for independence from Russia. Many of those fighters received training in one of Osama bin Laden's camps. Nukhaev, who was briefly first deputy prime minister in the rebel government, is now living in exile, reputedly coordinating the finances of the rebel movement. Like bin Laden, who cut his teeth fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, Nukhaev simply regards Russia as the weakest link in the chain.

"For us, Russia is an enemy, but an even bigger enemy is the West," Nukhaev declares. "America has no need to wage war. It has another weapon: a virus called civilization."

What's so bad about civilization? Modern government, for one thing, according to Nukhaev, not to mention urbanization, pollution, secular education, scientific progress, economic growth, globalism and multi-racialism. In other words, it is not U.S. foreign policy or even the existence of the State of Israel that irks Islamic fanatics like Nukhaev or Osama bin Laden. They hate the whole modern world.

Although Nukhaev condemns terrorism and opposes bin Laden for theological reasons, he does advocate a state of barbarism as a virtuous alternative to modern civilization. "Barbarism means tribal loyalties, respect for one's elders and the principle of blood ties, it means living according to the law of God," he says.

Since the crackpots among the Islamic fundamentalist movement object to all forms of modern civilization, it follows that we are facing a foe that will never be placated and that the struggle will be a long one.

Nukhaev's prediction on what is to follow: "At first, the forces of globalization [the American alliance] will achieve a major victory. Many Islamic states will submit to America's will and condemn terrorism. But then there will be an insurrection of all Muslims from below, and the people of the street will turn against their own governments. So, while the globalists will win in the first round, they will lose in the second round, just like the Crusaders who perished in the desert many centuries ago."

The prediction is grim but not surprising in light of Nukhaev's analysis of current events. "Through its actions, America is steadily uniting all the Islamic peoples into one," he says. "Though we cannot see it yet, this unification has already taken place at the lowest levels of society."

That would explain why Osama bin Laden finds it so easy to recruit operatives around the world.

Nukhaev champions the traditional values that he claims are fundamental to Islamic societies the world over: clan loyalty and blood vengeance. Clan loyalty means that if you antagonize one member of the clan, you antagonize the whole lot. And blood vengeance is based on a simple concept: you kill a member of my clan, I'll kill a member of yours (and it doesn't matter which one); an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. A corollary of that is that everyone bears collective responsibility for the action of a single member of their clan.

If someone kills or even insults a member of your clan, says Nukhaev, he is likely to find the whole clan arrayed against him. "He may escape from the fight alive, but he will be hunted for the rest of his life," he explains. "Even if this generation doesn't get him, the next generation will. He will not be able to escape punishment."

In the distance the muezzin begins the call to prayer, signaling the end of our interview. Nukhaev gets up, makes the ritual gestures of self-purification and limps off to join his associates in prayer.


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