Is Abu Al-Walid finally dead? Over the years the Russian media have repeatedly announced the destruction of this man, who is said by some to be one of the leading Arab adventurers fighting alongside separatist Chechen guerrillas. The announcements of Al-Walid’s death have repeatedly turned out to be false. This time the military authorities have been cautious about stating categorically that they really have succeeded in killing him. His body has yet to be found and positively identified, and no eyewitnesses of his death have come forward. According to Kommersant, Chechen police spent considerable time last week repeatedly examining the bodies of unidentified guerrillas whose features seemed similar to an Arab’s.
An April 21 article by Vladimir Barinov on the Gzt.ru website, citing unnamed sources in the FSB, called Al-Walid’s death the result of a “carefully planned operation by the Russian special services.” According to those sources, that operation began with a reconnaissance team pinpointing the Arab warrior’s base in the Vedeno district in Chechnya’s southern highlands. The “difficult conditions of this mountainous region made it impossible to carry out a [ground] military operation.” Instead a “powerful missile attack” was conducted on April 16.
This account by Barinov’s sources raises certain obvious questions, which his article unfortunately failed to discuss. The Russian air force has not distinguished itself for pinpoint precision during either of the two Chechen wars. On the contrary, its carpet bombing of Grozny and other targets has followed the appalling examples of the Soviet, German, British and American bombing raids of World War II. If Moscow’s air force has the capacity to conduct precision strikes against targets identified by special forces reconnaissance, why has it not used that capacity many times against other separatist warlords?
Until now, the one well-known case of a precision strike from the air during the post-Soviet Chechen wars has of course been the 1996 elimination of Chechnya’s first separatist president. Dzhokhar Dudaev was killed while speaking on a mobile telephone, thus inadvertently providing a homing signal for a Russian air-to-ground missile. If Al-Walid was similarly incautious, and if the special services used the same method to do away with him, this time they are keeping quiet about it.
On the other hand, why would Al-Walid’s own allies and relatives confirm that he had been killed if that were not in fact the case? Separatist websites have proclaimed the Arab warlord to be a “shakhid” martyr and have announced that another Arab, one Abu Khafs, has been designated as his successor. One of Al-Walid’s brothers told the Arab media that he was indeed killed in mid-April – though, confusingly, another said that his death took place not last week and not from an air raid but rather in a ground firefight last November.
However, Sergei Dyupin of Kommersant suggested that even these announcements might be untrue. The Arab warlord’s relatives admitted that they were out of touch with him, and dependent on separatist sources within Chechnya. Dyupin theorized that Maskhadov or Basaev might have launched disinformation about Al-Walid’s death, since “by his very presence he seriously compromised the local leaders of the resistance…in effect giving the ‘fighters for free Ichkeria’ the image of international terrorists.”
In any case, argued Dyupin, the death of al-Walid would not make a great difference to the balance of forces within Chechnya: “This Arab never had real power, authority, military or financial resources….From the military and political point of view, the presence or absence of the Arab is not so important. ‘The role of the Arabs in Chechen separatism is greatly exaggerated,’ explained one of the [Kadyrov administration’s] police officials. ‘The local guerrillas, of course, join with them into coalitions, but one should think of these as temporary, tactical alliances rather than as a united front. In fact the Arabs, like other foreign fighters, are not greatly loved….'”