Finding al Qaeda in the Caucus Mountains

Peter Baker, Washington Post:

"They hunted Abu Ayat for more than a year, and while it might not seem that hard to catch up with a one-legged man, he eluded all pursuers.

"U.S. intelligence agencies and their allies in the Caucasus region tracked him from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, where he and other Arab militants had taken refuge alongside Chechen guerrillas for years, according to Georgian and U.S. officials. They followed the trail across the rugged Caucasus Mountains. Finally, in September 2003, they cornered him and two dozen guards in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

"The unheralded capture of Abu Ayat, who intelligence agencies say was an al Qaeda commander, was a small chapter in the United States' war against groups it designates as terrorist, a conflict played out not just in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia but, with little publicity, across the former Soviet Union.

"U.S. authorities have quietly teamed up with their counterparts in Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and elsewhere across Moscow's onetime empire to go after these groups and try to deny al Qaeda and its affiliates haven from the main battlefields. As a result, the United States has found itself increasingly entangled in the region's indigenous conflicts.


"Intelligence agencies considered Abu Ayat to be a skilled bomber and poison specialist for al Qaeda, known for designing explosive belts for suicide bombers. He had lost a leg fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

"In the field, he was particularly ruthless, once sending his guards into a trap so he could escape capture, according to Georgian officials. In Pankisi Gorge, Georgian officials said, he was the top operative at an al Qaeda training and communications center for as many as 100 Arab extremists.

"After missing him in Pankisi Gorge, the Georgians said they tracked his whereabouts and provided information to the Azerbaijanis, who captured him and handed him over to the Americans. According to the Georgians, the Americans said President Bush was grateful. 'That event made him happy, I learned,' Japaridze, the foreign minister, said."


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