Some time ago, I discussed an article Philip Smucker wrote about the presence of Al Qaeda along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. I was mostly skeptical of this section in particular:
Interviews with US military commanders and American radio intercepts of Arab and Chechen fighters as well as confirmed captures or kills of foreign fighters inside Afghanistan bolster the findings…
An Afghan, working with Western forces in Afghanistan and who asked to remain anonymous, said he had monitored al-Qaeda radio traffic in a Paktika province district that is a stronghold of the Haqqani network, run by Sirajuddin Haqqani. “I set up a radio scanner two months ago and I picked up Chechens and Arabs talking regularly,” he said. “At one point, we heard an Arab talking to a Chechen say, ‘Hey, the money has come in, you can attack soon’.” The Afghan said that an Afghan al-Qaeda figure, Maulvi Twaha, who he said he had personally seen shoot dead five Afghan students in 2001, was operating openly in the province, assisting foreign agents and fighters to enter and leave the region.
An American, embedded as a trainer with the Afghan National Army, confirmed similar radio traffic. “It sounds from radio chatter like they have more recruits coming in, including Arabs, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Chechen fighters,” said US Army Major Cory Schultz, 37, from the San Francisco Bay Area.
At the time, I raised some doubts:
For years, since the start of the war, the existence of Chechens inside Afghanistan has been repeatedly asserted in the press but no one has ever presented proof of their existence. Indeed,that Smucker relies on an anonymous Afghan monitoring radio broadcasts to claim the presence of Chechens is telling: does that magical Afghan speak Chechen? Can he tell the difference between that and other Caucasian, slavic, or Central Asian languages?
I know and like Major Schultz, but again: how does he know? Does FOB Bermel just happen to have Turkic linguists and Chechen-fluent analysts to tell them what they’re listening to? For example, nearby Zabul province has a noticeable population of Uzbeks living near Qalat, the provincial capital: can their linguists tell the difference between Turkmen and Uzbek? I’ve never heard of Turkmen being in the southeast like that. That doesn’t mean it’s untrue—and I don’t think anyone is lying, let me emphasize that—but this kind of assertion is completely at odds with what we otherwise know of the area.
I was able to get in touch with Major Schulz (Smucker misspelled his name), and he had something startling to say. “I never said the quote that he used,” he told me via email. Major Schulz continued, “I stated that there have been reports that Chechens have been in the area but we have no way of verifying this information.”
That’s quite a different story than the one Smucker told, and Major Schulz offered several additional complaints about Smucker’s conduct and questioning while he was there. Major Schulz argues that Smucker, “chose to print contrary statements even though we told him the information he was getting was wrong.” Among the assertions Smucker made was that most of the violence in the area was driven by Al Qaeda; Major Schulz claims he and his team told Smucker they were actually tribal and local, not Al Qaeda.
“Multiple times,” Major Schulz said, he and his captain, “told him that his information was totally off and he chose to run with it anyway.” He attributes the slant of the reporting to a dispute Smucker had with the local PAO.
If the allegations are true, then they are serious, as they would imply that Philip Smucker knowingly printed false or misleading statements attributed to individuals who dispute them. That is a serious ethical violation. I have been unable to resolve how much the Asia Times fact-checked Smucker’s article—they have been caught out on this front before.
For Smucker himself, this is also a potentially damaging charge. While he garnered a lot of praise for his reporting from Tora Bora in 2001, in 2003 he was implicated when the Christian Science Monitor had to apologize and withdraw Smucker’s reporting regarding Saddam Hussein’s alleged payments to British Member of Parliament George Galloway.
When contacted for this post, Smucker insisted his version of the story was drawn directly from his notes, and that he presented an accurate account of the conversation. I lack the ability to mediate between the two—unless there is a recording somewhere, it’s kind of a he-said/she-said thing.
The Chechen thing worries me, though. From my conversations with Smucker, there seems to be an overriding sense in several U.S. and NATO units that there is a massive Chechen presence both within al Qaeda and in particular as a significant presence among the foreign fighters in Afghanistan. The evidence for this is… someone saying they heard it on a radio intercept and anonymous officials saying they exist. I’m afraid that’s not sufficient to overcome my original skepticism—when I was at FOB Salerno, a cultural adviser who grew up in the U.S. told me that many Afghans call fair-skinned foreign fighters “Chechen” in part because that’s what they think the Americans want to hear (which is a larger problem with interpreters not being fully qualified—a topic well beyond our scope here).
Then there’s the language issue. I’d be doubtful if even a fluent Russian-speaker could tell the difference between Chechen, Ingush, Agul, Avar, Azeri, or Nogai. Being able to recognize a Turkic language like Uzbek probably won’t help much, either. Given the other cases I know of where someone is identified as Chechen then found out to be of another Russian ethnicity, I find it difficult to just sort of accept that based on SIGINT in a language I know no one in the Yukon AO speaks, they know there are Chechens nearby.
It’s also important to note that Al Qaeda itself has a compelling interest in selling the presence of Chechens amongst its ranks in South Asia. It makes the jihad look more international (and thus, in theory, more attractive to new recruits), and it presents a pleasing boogeyman to distract attention from the Punjabs and Arabs in the group. Just as how petty criminals in Kapisa claim to be HiG because it makes them sound scary, so too is it entirely possible Al Qaeda claims Chechens to make itself seem something it is not.
None of this is to dismiss Chechnya or Chechen radicals as an issue. They are. There just isn’t much evidence beyond hearsay that there are many, if any, Chechens fighting the jihad outside of Chechnya. And it still doesn’t mean they don’t exist, merely that I don’t find Smucker’s published evidence convincing of much, and one of his interview subjects vigorously disputes what he wrote.
As I said above, Smucker says his quote came directly from his notebook. Major Schulz claims the quote comes from disassociated snippets of the discussion, and is not representative of their conversation or his intent in speaking. Major Schulz aso adds, “if [Smucker's] notes are that accurate then why is my name misspelled, my age incorrect and where I’m from wrong?” He adds he has seen “zero proof” beyond scattered rumors that there any Chechens anywhere in Afghanistan. I’m investigating further, and will post more when I can find out anything more.
Update: Smucker has contacted me, to say he feels I am treating his own reporting unfairly. Since everything is linked, I’ll allow readers to choose for themselves, but Smucker vigorously disputes how I’m framing things here—specifically that he never says al Qaeda drives most of the violence along the border, nor was he writing about Bermel. Again: choose for yourself whom to believe.