The documents contain a handwritten statement by Zawahiri in which he signs himself Amin Abdulah Aman Mohammed, a businessman. “We entered Dagestan to study the local market and to build contacts for our business,” he wrote.
There is little doubt of the captive’s real identity, however — files stored on an Al-Qaeda laptop computer which later surfaced in Kabul contain extensive notes written by Zawahiri about his failed mission.
He came to the Caucasus in search of a new base: like Bin Laden he had found a safe haven in Sudan, but in 1996 both men were among militants who were expelled.
Chechnya seemed ideal — Muslim rebels had defeated the Russian army and gained de facto independence in their first war which had just ended in humiliating defeat for Moscow.
Zawahiri is not the only possible link between Chechnya and Al-Qaeda. A court in Hamburg heard last week that Mohammed Atta, the leader of the September 11 hijackers, planned to travel to Chechnya to fight there.
The Times story expects Putin to make much of this. Will he make enough of it to start supporting the United States in the Security Council?