Russian Wetwork in Istanbul?

Three Chechens were gunned down in central Istanbul on 16 September. The general assumption, which has surfaced in Izvestiya, in pro-rebel websites and in the Turkish press, is that this was a Russian intelligence hit.

The three Chechens – Rustam Altemirov, Zaurbek Amriev and Berg-Haj Musaev – were just leaving Friday prayers in the Zeytinburnu district when a man in a waiting car opened fire on them with a silenced pistol, killing all three.

  • Musaev, also known by the nom de guerre Amir Khamzat, has been acknowledged by the Chechen rebel website as a close associate of insurgent leader Doku Umarov.
  • Altemirov was accused in absentia in June this year of involvement in the Domodedovo bombing and was wanted by the Russian authorities. He was an Ingushetian Chechen.
  • Amriev does not appear to have had any particular connection with the rebels, and may simply have been in the wrong company at the wrong time.

The Turkish police believe the assassin was a 55-year-old Russian, Alexander Zharkov (originally reported as Zhirkov, and still referred to as Garkov in the Turkish press), who entered the country on 2 September with two associates. When Zharkov’s hotel room was searched, the silenced pistol and night-vision gear was found.

Interestingly, Zharkov was apparently also in Istanbul in 2009, when Chechen community leader (and rebel ally and fund-raiser) Musa Ataev (also known as Ali Osaev) was murdered in the same part of Istanbul. Musaev had succeeded Ataev in that role, but I wonder if there will be many eager takers for this position now…

One alternative line of speculation is that this is crime-related, as there is the suggestion that Musaev was involved in racketeering and drug-trafficking. Alternatively, Izvestiya referred to a shadowy ‘Berlin Group’ of “killers allegedly sponsored by a wealthy Russian oligarch and supervised by the security forces.” In practice, though, my personal hunch is that this was wetwork, a state-sanctioned hit by the Russian intelligence services (either the SVR’s or GRU). After all, it would not be the first. In 2004, for example, GRU officers killed Chechen rebel ‘president’ Zelimkhan Yandarbiev in Qatar, and there have been persistent although unproved allegations about other murders such as that of Kadyrov’s former bodyguard Umar Israilov in Vienna in 2009. Nonetheless, with Umarov looking to raise the tempo of terrorist attacks, it may have seemed to Moscow that it was time to push back.

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