ABU HAFS AND THE FUTURE OF ARAB FIGHTERS IN CHECHNYA

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 7

The specter of the “Arab fighter” in Chechnya has increasingly become an inseparable part of the Russian-Chechen conflict, particularly since 9/11, as Kremlin propagandists used the presence of a few notable Arab mercenaries in the breakaway republic to brand the entire Chechen independence movement as “terrorism”.

The few Arab fighters in Chechnya are mostly followers of the salafi-jihadist tendency best exemplified by al-Qaeda. However this does not necessarily point toward any organizational connections between the two parties; it is simply an expression of the same ideology that espouses violence as a means to achieve political gains. Since 9/11 and the start of the war on terrorism, the salafi-jihadist movement in the Caucasus has been wracked by an internal crisis triggered by the assassination of its leaders and the loss of external funding due to the imposition of tighter controls over money transactions by many countries.

The imposition of stringent controls on money transfers dealt a hard blow to these Arab fighters, whose financial power was an essential factor in recruitment and politics in Chechnya, especially after the first war of 1997-1999. The vulnerability resulting from these shortages was highlighted in numerous letters posted on Islamic websites in which salafist leaders called for funds. Simultaneously, there was a wave of assassinations of salafi-jihadist leaders, such as Khattab and his successor Abu al-Walid Al-Ghamidi, both of whom were Saudi nationals. These assassinations led directly to the rise of the Jordanian, Abu Hafs – dubbed by many in the Russian media “Osama Bin Laden’s representative in Chechnya”.

A number of foundational questions revolve around Abu Hafs; namely who is he? Is he really connected to al-Qaeda? And what is the future role of the salafi-jihadist trend and Arab fighters in the Russian-Chechen conflict?

Who is Abu Hafs?

There is no accurate information on Abu Hafs. The sole source of information is the material published by Russian newspapers, which mostly originates from the Russian Security Service (FSB). According to Russian sources, Abu Hafs was born in Jordan, is 40 years old and holds Saudi nationality. The same sources claim that he participated in the fighting in Tajikistan alongside Khattab and Abu al-Walid in the early 1990s, and accompanied them to Chechnya between 1995-1996, where he served as military trainer in Khattab’s camp near Sergen-Urt and married a Chechen woman. These reports claim that Abu Hafs is Osama Bin Laden’s official envoy to Chechnya and was appointed Abu al-Walid’s successor. Moreover they allege that aside from controlling external funds, Abu Hafs assumed the role of al-Qaeda’s representative in Georgia in 2002, where he went by the name “Amjad.” Russian sources also maintain that, under Bin Laden’s orders, Abu Hafs had moved to Georgia as early as 1996 to become al-Qaeda’s representative there. He allegedly lived in the Pankisi Valley on the Chechen side of the border.

Following Khattab’s assassination in 2002, Abu al-Walid took on the reins and ordered Abu Hafs to return to Chechnya. Back in Chechnya, Abu Hafs took a second Chechen wife, the widow of the Arab fighter Abu Jaffar, who was killed in 2001. Russian intelligence claims that while there, Abu Hafs surrounded himself with guards from Arab origin headed by a man called “Jaber”. [1]

Russian information may appear plausible to researchers, but the verification of this information remains a major concern, not least because the Russians have an obvious interest in inflating and distorting the role of Arab fighters in the Chechen conflict. It is also worth noting that the Russians can get important factual information wrong. For instance from 1998 onwards, Russian sources were claiming that Khattab’s real name was Habib Abdul-Rahman and that he was a Jordanian. However, it was later proven that his name was Samer Swailem, and that he was a Saudi national. Furthermore, the story of Abu Hafs moving to Georgia in 1996 remains doubtful. A certain writer mentions Abu Hafs’s name during his documentation of “Arab Martyrs'” biographies in conflict zones, such as Bosnia- Herzegovina and Chechnya. The writer talks of a Jordanian fighter named Abu Usayd AL-Shammari and that “Abu Hafs accompanied him” on the day he died in 1996. [2] Indeed it is not logical that Abu Hafs would move to Georgia during the war and then assume command after a six-year absence from the front.

After he assumed command, some Islamic websites published photos of Abu Hafs that matched the ones displayed by Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in the Security Council in February 2003, when he described an international network headed by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, represented in Russia by Abu Hafs. Despite the mystery behind Abu Hafs, it is clear from the material written and published on the internet that the pattern of his life and struggle closely mirrors that of his predecessors, namely Khattab and Abu al-Walid.

Declaration of Command

The first material published under the signature of the “Jordanian Abu Hafs – Commander of Arab Ansar in Chechnya” was a letter in which he explained the circumstances surrounding Abu Al-Walid Al-Ghamidi’s death, just as the latter had done when Khattab was assassinated.

Abu Hafs relayed the circumstances surrounding Abu al-Walid’s death in an extensive open letter which began by explaining the reasons behind the letter. He said it came out of “concern for spreading facts and documenting the history of our Islamic Nation’s heroes and martyrs.” He also claimed that the Military Shoura Council of Chechnya authorized the publication of the letter. Abu Hafs noted that, “Commander Abu al-Walid was responsible for the Eastern Front, regiments on the Western Front, in the South and mobile regiments in the capital and surrounding cities and villages. Commander Abu Al-Walid was on tour to all regiments to task them with operations and logistical plans for winter. Having visited most regiments, he decided to spend the last ten days of Ramadan 1424 Hegra in ‘Elistangi’…to be able along with his private group…to benefit from those blessed days and the Al-Kadr night. He and his companions spent these days fasting by day and reading from the Holy Koran by night.”

Abu Hafs then claims that Abu al-Walid “made in those days a set of video recordings on the conditions of Muslims in Chechnya, the injustices they suffer at the hands of the Russian army, and the latter’s infractions on the rights of Chechen civilians. He sent those recordings to the Muslim public in general and the Muslim clergy in particular.” According to Abu Hafs, on the first day of the Al-Fitr Holiday, Abu al-Walid “made a video recording to his mother, brothers, sisters and relatives, in which he showed the mujahideens’ high morale and pride in performing this great act of worship, Jihad in Allah’s name; made his testament; and said that he may not be able to contact them again, and that he felt that his martyrdom was near.”

Abu al-Walid pressed on with his companions and reached Tsa Vidno on their way to the Eastern front. His companions fell into captivity, and the Russian army was able to determine his position in a nearby forest. They “besieged the area from a distance, stationed snipers and lay in waiting for Abu al-Walid.” When Abu al-Walid appeared, he was fired at “until that hero was slain as a martyr in the name of Allah…” Following Abu al-Walid’s martyrdom, his surviving companions retreated to the Eastern front, where they reported to Commander Abu Hafs that they were unable to bury Abu al-Walid due to heavy bombardment. But Commander Abu Hafs insisted they go back. He sent two of his Ansar with them to help move the martyr and bury him in a safe place. The group arrived at the place where they had left the martyr…and moved him to a safe place, and buried him, and all the while he was bleeding. [3]

While there are no articles or writings on Abu Hafs’s ideology, he clearly belongs to the salafi-jihadist trend, especially in light of the nature and connections of the group he leads in Chechnya. In this regard, Abu Hafs wrote an epitaph marking the death of the emir of the salafi movement for Dawa and Jihad in Algeria, Abu Ibrahim Mustafa. In his letter, Abu Hafs said that Abu Ibrahim Mustafa left “great marks in the work of Dawa and Jihad. Muslims have lost a beacon of jihad in an age where mujahideen are but a few and hypocrites are many.” [4]

Dilemma of Salafi-Jihadist Way in Chechnya and Courses of Conflict

As mentioned earlier, the salafi-jihadist trend in Chechnya is facing a real crisis. The legitimacy of their continuing presence in Chechnya has been fatally undermined. This legitimacy was facilitated by external funding that in turn helped attract young people frustrated with brutal Russian tactics and the isolation of the moderate Chechen national movement, represented by the slain Aslan Maskhadov.

Notwithstanding this major crisis, Abu Hafs is anxious to show that the salafi-jihadist movement is as strong as it was at the beginnings of the Chechen conflict. At the same time, he posted a letter on the internet in which he condemned the Beslan incident and denied any connection between “the Ansar [Arabs] in Chechnya…with the killing of children, women and unarmed people in the Beslan school in North Osetia…All allegations of a role for President Maskhadov, Commander Shamil Basayev, of the Ansar in this operation are lies and fabrications of the Russian government.” In this respect, Abu Hafs is trying to appear as a decision maker in the Chechen independence movement.

During attempted negotiations between the Russian Soldiers’ Mothers Committee and Chechen forces, Abu Hafs issued a statement in the name of the Military Council Command and Shura Command of Arab Mujahideen in Chechnya, declaring that he would negotiate neither with non-governmental Russian organizations nor the government itself. He justified this decision on the basis that, “…our determination, the manner in which Khattab, Abu al-Walid and other martyrs of Islam gave their lives does not tolerate weakness or humiliation in the face of Russians or others. We made a vow, with Allah as witness, that we will go on fighting, that we will not be defeated, that we will not negotiate, and that Russians and collaborators will be chased out of Chechnya so that Muslims can gain their freedom. Otherwise we will turn Moscow into a hell that burns all cowards and infidels.” [5]

In the final analysis, the most important factor in creating extremist trends are brutal Russian tactics, violations of human rights, and the refusal to hold any negotiations with the moderate Chechen independence movement. Therefore, the cycle of violence may well escalate, irrespective of the decline of the salafi-jihadist movement in Chechnya. This state of affairs has put a burden on the national Chechen movement since its formation in the mid 1990s. The “Chechen problem” will never be resolved until Moscow holds negotiations with the legitimate Chechen opposition.

Notes:

1. Elaph Website, taken from Vremya Novosti and Nezavisimaya Gazetta, which in turn reported the information from Russian Intelligence sources. http://www.elaph.com/elaphweb/Politics/2004/10/14529.htm.

2. http://saaid.net/Doat/hamad/38.htm.

3. The letter was published in many Islamist websites; the author downloaded from: http://www.abu-qatada.com/r?i=2757&PHPSESSID=02cf9debdceac6f69a5f1435ddbb16e6.

4. This announcement was published in many Arabic websites and forums, including: http://www.alquma.net/vb/showthread.php?t=92274 . http://mahjoob.com/en/forums/showthread.php?p=1155001, and all website downloaded from http://www.chechan.org.

5. http://www.qoqaznews.com accessed on October 22.