When heavily-armed Islamic militants killed hundreds of children and parents at a Russian school in early September 2004, there was universal shock and outrage. But NBC News has learned that al-Qaida not only lauded the mass killings of children, but now they are using the attack as a recruiting tool.
In a chilling posting on the Internet, al-Qaida celebrates the attack on the Beslan school, which killed 338 people, half of them children.
Al-Qaida's latest military journal, obtained by NBC News, claims the attack changed the course of the war between Chechen terrorists and Russia, saying "the 'Reds' are humiliated. Victory is coming in an hour."
"What we're seeing here is the total ruthlessness of al-Qaida," says M.J. Gohel, a London-based terrorism expert at the Asia-Pacific Foundation. "Al-Qaida, by endorsing what happened in Beslan, is undoubtedly encouraging and sending out a message to terrorist groups everywhere."
Al-Qaida also urges Muslims to send money and fighters to Chechnya. In the military journal, one terrorist writes, "I call on my Muslim brothers worldwide to remember their duties toward their Muslim brothers in Chechnya. What will you say to God if you do not help?"
Yet, al-Qaida denies Russian claims it is helping the Chechens.
U.S. intelligence says the current relationship between al-Qaida and Chechen terrorists is murky, though historically al-Qaida's network has helped with money, training and fighters.
Terrorist leader Shamil Basayev allegedly trained in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan. Recent video shows Arab faces among Basayev's troops congregating in a forest. Another video obtained by NBC News, believed shot within the last year, shows Basayev meeting with his most senior commanders, including three Arabs who are tied to al-Qaida.
"We're talking about some very important folks that had fought right alongside Osama bin Laden — back-to-back, almost — during Afghanistan," says NBC terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian military analyst, says the connection should not be overstated.
"This is more of an alliance than the Chechens being subsidiaries under the command of bin laden," says Felgenhauer.
Intelligence officials say there is increasing concern that Chechen militants will team up with al-Qaida to launch attacks in Europe, most likely targeting Russian interests.