Following the death of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, a statement was posted on the rebel website Kavkazcenter on March 9 by Shamil Basayev announcing the appointment of his successor. The statement named him as “Abdul Khalim” and his identity as the new rebel president was confirmed by Maskhadov’s envoy Akhmed Zakaev and his son, Anzor Maskhadov, in interviews with Ekho Moskvy the following day.
Confusion initially surrounded the identity of Abdul-Khalim, with some claiming he was a Saudi citizen. However, in the March 10 interview, Zakaev informed Ekho Moskvy: “I know this man. He was the chairman of the Supreme Sharia Court. He is quite young, 35-36, (and has) great composure. He was one of those who were trusted by, and close to, Aslan Maskhadov.”
According to a March 9 posting on Kavkazcenter, Abdul-Khalim was appointed as Maskhadov’s successor in accordance with a resolution of the meeting of the State Defense Committee – Majlis ul-Shura (July-August 2002) – which stated that, in the event of the president’s death or capture, all his responsibilities “[S]hall be vested in the chairman of the Supreme Sharia Court of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria until the next free election is held.”
No further insight into his background was forthcoming until a source within the pro-Moscow Office of the Mufti of Chechnya reported to Interfax on March 10, on condition of anonymity, that Abdul-Khalim was born in the Chechen town of Argun and received his religious training at home. The source stated that he has a command of Arabic and was chief ideologue to Shamil Basaev and Movladi Udugov, as well as being close to the former head of the Chechen Supreme Sharia Court Shamsudin Batukaev before the Second Chechen War began in September 1999. According to the same source, during the inter-war period he worked as an anchorman on the Kavkaz channel where he conducted regular sermons. This information was confirmed in a biography of Sadulaev posted to the Kavkazcenter website on March 12. When the then Mufti of Chechnya Akhmad Kadyrov denounced Aslan Maskhadov, a number of field commanders proclaimed him their Mufti and formed their own Sharia court, appointing him its head, the source said.
The new rebel leader’s full name is Abdul-Khalim Abu Salamovich Sadulaev and he hails from the Ustradoi clan. Entitled “Sheikh,” he was born in 1967 and raised in the city of Argun where he received his religious training from Chechen theologians. He studied in the Department of Philology of the Chechen State University and headed the Islamic Jamaat (society or group) in Argun, as well as at one stage holding the position of imam of the city’s mosque. He has apparently remained in Chechnya since birth, though has made one visit to Mecca on the Hajj. According to the March 12 Kavkazcenter posting, his wife was killed in 2003 by Russian forces.
The Kavkazcenter biography also stated that in 1999, when Maskhadov faced severe pressure from opposition forces within Chechnya, he appointed Abdul Khalim as a member of the State Commission on Constitutional Sharia Reform. However, the first public demonstration of the nature of his relationship with Maskhadov did not come until a meeting of field commanders in March 2002, where, described as a “leading Islamic scholar” of the rebel forces, Sadulaev affirmed that Maskhadov was “in full control of Islamic military detachments.” The Chechenpress news agency reported on April 1, 2002 that the statement was made in response to accusations about a split among rebel fighters. Later that year, on August 27, Kavkazcenter announced Sadulaev’s appointment as chairman of the Sharia Committee of the State Defense Committee.
In March 2003, Maskhadov and Sadulaev issued a joint statement denouncing as illegal the Kremlin-inspired referendum on a new constitution for Chechnya. Similarly, on August 1, 2004, Kavkazcenter published an undated and extensive interview with both men, explaining a shift in rebel strategy following the large-scale operation into Ingushetia a month earlier. Invoking Qur’anic verse, Sadulaev again underlined Maskhadov’s authority as instigator of all rebel actions. The men stated they had not wished to carry out the operation in Ingushetia, but were forced to do so following the appointment of former Federal Security Service Colonel Murat Zyazikov as president of Ingushetia.
As Maskhadov’s son Anzor implied in the Ekho Moskvy interview on March 10, Sadulaev was clearly a valued ally of his father and his presence appears to have provided Maskhadov with a tool to assuage the more religiously extreme commanders, as well as buttress his own status as supreme commander of all rebel forces.
Sadulaev also provided theological justification for the targeting of pro-Moscow Chechen forces (who are fellow Muslims). During the August 1 interview cited above, Maskhadov stated that all rebel attacks were prosecuted in accordance with Sharia law under the guidance and assurance of Sadulaev. Sadulaev himself stipulated that it was legitimate to target pro-Moscow Chechens, or “hypocrites,” but stated that “we will not kill and torture their women and children as they torture our women and children, because we, the Chechens, are a Muslim nation: the wives, children, brothers and sisters of the children can be believers.”
Thus, his position appears to have been as a “spiritual assistant” to Maskhadov. In an indication that Sadulaev’s views reflect the moderation of the late rebel leader’s, Anzor Maskhadov stated in the March 10 Ekho Moskvy interview that the last time he spoke to his father, Maskhadov had said: “[E]ven if I am killed, I will leave in my place a man like me, who will be able to carry on with our ideas, follow our path to the end.”
Despite this, Sadulaev’s presence did not sit easily with Maskhadov’s former Defense Minister Magomed Khambiev, who aired his distaste for the extremist, foreign element within the rebel forces in a March 16 2004 interview with utro.ru. Khambiev clearly equated Sadulayev with their outlook, branding him a “Wahhabi Emir” whom they wished to appoint president. However, in a personal interview with the author, this label was disputed by Maskhadov’s former [civilian] chief of staff Mayrbek Vachirgaev, who does not believe Sadulaev to be a Wahhabi.
Moreover, some debate has occurred as to whether Sadulaev has combat experience within the rebel forces. According to Vachirgaev, he was not a field commander; however, his biography on Kavkazcenter states that he is a veteran of the first Russo-Chechen war and headed units of the Argun People’s Militia from September 1999 (which subsequently joined the Ichkerian armed forces). Moreover, military reports on the activities of an “Emir Abdul Khalim” have been filed with the rebel website since at least the first half of 2001, relating to actions in Starye Atagi, Argun and Kurchaloi.
Still, it was his religious, rather than military, credentials which defined his relationship with Maskhadov. While his relative obscurity and sudden appointment as president surprised some analysts, according to Vachirgaev, his elevation to the role of interim head of the rebel structures mirrors the appointment of Zelimkhan Yandarbiev following the death of Chechen President Djokhar Dudaev in 1995. Both he and Sadulaev are regarded as spiritual, rather than military leaders, and his appointment is intended to unify during a time of crisis.
In his first public statement printed by the Chechenpress on March 14, Sadulaev stated that rebel policy will “remain as bequeathed by our brother (Maskhadov)….The Kremlin has made it clear that it still does not want peace on Chechen soil, that it will continue to completely exterminate our people.” He ended his statement by expressing that “we have the right to use against our enemy any methods acceptable to God in order to protect the right of the Chechen people to independence and sovereignty…”