Chechnya’s Abu Walid And The Saudi Dilemma

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 1

By M.B. Nokhcho and Glen E. Howard

Russia’s brutal five year war in Chechnya has largely been examined in the West as an effort by Russian President Vladimir Putin to become an ally of the United States in the war on terrorism. However, the repercussions of this terrible conflict have serious regional implications not only for the North Caucasus but for the Middle East as well, affecting the very stability of the Saudi regime.

Abu Al-Walid Al-Ghamdi, one of the most prominent Arabs fighting in Chechnya, creates a major dilemma for the Saudi regime, which has so far escaped the attention of the western press, despite Russian media attention to Arab/al-Qaeda links. Recently, the Arabic press has provided greater insight into the motivations and background of Abu Al-Walid, revealing much about his aims and the tribal composition of Al-Qaeda. Such reports have posed still larger strategic questions about Saudi Arabia’s internal stability – particularly in regard to the House of Saud’s reluctance to revoke the citizenship of the numerous numbers of Saudis fighting overseas.

To date, the only known case of the Saudi government’s revoking the citizenship of a Jihadi fighter is that of Osama Bin Laden in 1994. Coming to grips with this reality is something that goes to the very heart of the Saudi regime. Nothing illustrates this internal contradiction within the regime more clearly than the response given by Saudi Prince Sultan Bin Abd al-Aziz, Minister of Defense and the Second Deputy Prime Minister, when questioned by a journalist from the Al-Watan newspaper on the citizenship of Abu Al-Walid. In his response, Prince Sultan observed: “Any Saudi living abroad who is involved in terrorism destroys the Saudi reputation” and “is not a Saudi.”[1] Why, then, is Saudi Arabia so reluctant to reject the citizenship of Abu Al-Walid, one of the most notorious Saudi fighters living abroad [2] and a man who is known to have been fighting in Chechnya since the late 1990s? The answer to this question requires an in-depth analysis of the larger question over who is Abu Al-Walid.

Who is Abu Al-Walid?

Abd Al-Aziz Bin Ali Bin Said Al Said Al-Ghamdi, known as Abu Al-Walid, took over leadership of Arab fighters in Chechnya after the death of Khattab (Samer Bin Saleh Bin Abdullah Al-Swelim) in 2002. Accused by the Russian government of being the mastermind of numerous terrorist attacks in Chechnya and Moscow, Al-Walid is the poster child for Russian allegations that legions of al-Qaeda are fighting in Chechnya. His significance is underscored by the fact that Russian officials have announced Al-Walid’s death on no less than seven occasions since the start of the second Russo-Chechen war in September 1999.

In a full expose on Al-Walid’s life, the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan interviewed members of the Al-Walid family (23 June 2002) describing his upbringings and how he went to Afghanistan in 1986 at age sixteen, but only after first receiving “the permission of his parents”, which is important because parental consent is essential in some parts of the Muslim world in determining whether a person can wage jihad. [3] Al-Walid comes from the town of Al-Hall, located in the southern province of Baljarshi province, near Jeddah. According to al-Watan, Al-Walid grew up in a pious family, the son of a well known Imam. His brothers told Al-Watan that Al-Walid enjoyed spending his time reading religious books and was conscientious about his lessons studying the Qur’an. [4]

While in Afghanistan, Al-Walid spent two years training in the Maktb Al Khadamat (Office of Services)[5], a center created by Abdullah Azzam for organizing the inflow of Arab volunteers to Afghanistan by registering and distributing them to training camps. Abdullah Azzam, the Jordanian-Palestinian leader of Arab fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s was also the ideological mentor of Osama Bin Laden. This link between Azzam and Al-Walid appears to have played an important role in the development of Al-Walid’s Jihadist views. Al-Walid took leave from the fighting to return to Saudi Arabia for three months between 1987 and 1988. He fought for another two more years in Afghanistan before finally coming back to Saudi Arabia for treatment to an injured left hand at King Fahd hospital in the Saudi city of Khobar. After spending three months recovering from his surgery, Al-Walid left once more for Afghanistan. [6]

In the early 1990s Al-Walid traveled to Afghanistan, Bosnia and Tajikistan, fighting in the Balkans and Central Asia. His jihadi career led him to Tajikistan, where he participated in the Tajik civil war (1994-1995). He later traveled to Bosnia to fight against the Bosnian Serbs. [7] Al-Walid left the Balkans in 1995, taking up the cause of the Chechens by joining the group of Arab fighters serving under the Saudi fighter Khattab. He adapted to Chechen society by marrying a Chechen woman, and now has two children through this marriage.

Little written material is available to evaluate Al-Walid’s political and religious views. However, in April 2003 Al-Walid published an article on Qoqaz.net (www.qoqaz.net), a web site representing the voice of Salafi jihadists, in which he described his career and vision of the Salafi struggle. Entitled “Qosat Maqtal Estshhad Al Qaed Khattab” [The Story of Leader Khattab’s Murder], the article discusses Khattab’s assassination, confirming western suspicions that the Russian intelligence services poisoned him through a letter sent by their agents. [8] Though his stated purpose in writing the article was to tell Muslim people the true story of Khattab’s death, the piece also served as an important announcement to other Jihadis around the world, asserting his new role as the leader of Arab fighters in Chechnya.

On June 11, 2003, the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awasat published a report that Al-Walid had sent a message through the Qoqaz website encouraging the Iraqi people to participate in suicide operations. “According to [his] experiences in Caucasus,” he wrote, “such operations will have an effect on American and British troops.”[9] At the beginning of Ramadan on October 27, 2003, Al-Walid sent another message through Qoqaz.net congratulating Muslims on the beginning of the holy month and reminded them of the weakness of the Muslim Ummah (nation). In the message he outlined some ideas on how to rectify the perceived weakness of the Ummah, including the unification of the Muslim world. Al-Walid called for the Muslim Ulama (religious scholars) to support Jihad, and for all Muslims to support and fund Jihadi campaigns around the world.[10]

Al-Walid made yet another public appearance in the Arab media in late 2003. On November 19, the Arabic satellite television channel Al-Jazeera broadcast a videotape showing Al-Walid announcing that the mujahedeen would take the battle to Russia’s inner territories, adding that the fear of rape and brutality by Russian troops motivated the attacks of Chechen female suicide bombers.[11] Based upon this limited material, it appears that Al-Walid’s thinking is inclined towards Salafi Jihadist, a combination of Jihadi ideas (fighting the Kafir, or infidels) and the puritanical beliefs of Salafi thought or Wahabism.

The Saudi Dilemma

As mentioned above, the continued presence of Islamist Saudi fighters such as Al-Walid in regional conflicts like Chechnya creates a major dilemma for the Saudi government. Increasingly, these fighters pose a major threat to Saudi stability as their links and fighting expertise translate into a highly trained movement that has become a serious danger to the Saudi regime. Despite recent bombing attacks by Al-Qaeda and US accusations of financial support for extremist groups around the world, Saudi Arabia remains reluctant to tackle the problems posed by these Jihadis – as the presence of Al-Walid in Chechnya strongly underscores.

Two suicide bombings in Riyadh in the past six months – the first in May and the other in November 2003 – reflect the Saudi regime’s urgent need to come to grips with internal opposition. The horror of these bombings jolted Saudi officials into action, forcing the regime to downscale its historical alliance with the religious institution represented by the Wahabi movement. However, these attacks have not led the House of Saud to terminate its long-standing relationship with the religious establishment, which is not surprising since ending this alliance would strike the very legitimacy of the Saudi regime.

In an effort to distance themselves from Wahabism, Saudi authorities have taken steps towards greater reform. The scheduling of municipal elections for next year and the establishment of a ‘National Dialogue Center,’ were preceded by a new Middle East peace initiative offered by Crown Prince Abdullah. While this shift in Saudi politics has led Riyadh to modify its attitude toward the Jihadis, it still has not resolved the question over whether the Saudi government should revoke the citizenship of Al-Walid and the other Saudi fighters living abroad. The question becomes particularly important in light of the precedent established in 1994 when Saudi Arabia revoked the citizenship of Osama Bin Laden. As the Saudi government’s attitude toward ardent Islamists changes, it is unclear whether it will take the necessary steps to revoke the citizenships of Saudi fighters or whether Riyadh will develop a different strategy in dealing with its Islamists.

Increasingly, it appears that Saudi Arabia has begun developing a new approach toward dealing with the issue, making Bin Laden the exception rather than the rule. In September 2003 Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah visited Moscow, becoming the highest Saudi official to visit Russia since 1934. His trip had an important impact on Saudi-Russian security cooperation. Although few details have been discussed in the press, it is likely that the subject of ‘counter terrorism’ was a key topic of discussion during Prince Abdullah’s meetings with President Putin. However, Abdullah has failed to take any steps in revoking Al-Walid’s citizenship, and is unlikely to do so for three very important reasons.

First, Abu Al-Walid remains significantly different from Osama Bin Laden from the Saudi perspective. Though the two share the same ideology, Bin Laden is a transnational leader of radical Islam, who threatens the international legitimacy of Saudi rulers. Also, Saudi links with Bin Laden jeopardize the historical relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, which Riyadh depends on for its own national security.

Second, revoking Al-Walid’s citizenship would destroy the Saudi state’s self-created role as the defender of Muslim peoples around the world. Equally important, it would be used by radical Islamists inside Saudi Arabia to mobilize the masses against the incumbent regime, depriving the Saudi government of a major trump card in its domestic political scheme.

Third, perhaps the greatest danger posed by revoking Al-Walid’s citizenship is the possibility of tribal conflict. Many of the Saudis who participated in the 9/11 attacks were members of the Al-Ghamdi tribe, four of which are being held in Guantanamo Bay. Moreover, the terrorists involved in the May and June attacks in Saudi Arabia were also from the Al-Ghamdi tribe, which with its 600,000 members is one of the largest tribes in Saudi Arabia. Thus, it is perhaps no coincidence that this is the same tribe to which Abu Al-Walid belongs and also poses questions about the tribal make up of Al-Qaeda. [12]

Indeed, the tribal dimension is perhaps the least discussed and most important of the issues that arise from the Saudi government’s reluctance to revoke the citizenship of Abu Al-Walid Al-Ghamdi. There are many Islamists from Saudi Arabia’s major tribes scattered around the globe who are involved in activities similar to that of Al-Walid. By revoking the citizenship of Saudi Jihadists such as Al-Walid, the Saudi government risks causing internal instability by creating a sharp division between the House of Saud and the country’s other major tribal families. Increasingly, Saudi Arabia is at a crossroads in how to deal with these fighters because it creates a major strategic dilemma for the Saudi regime, particularly given the delicacy with which it must be dealt for fear of upsetting the other powerful tribes. If left unchecked, these fighters could become – and perhaps already have become – a key threat to the regime’s stability.

So while external pressure mounts to have Saudi Arabia take a hard stance against Saudi fighters throughout the globe, internal politics make such a move extremely risky. This may be one reason why security cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia has become such a priority for Riyadh. The assassination in Chechnya of Khattab in 2002 likely relieved Riyadh of the pressure of dealing with this high-profile Saudi fighter. Moreover, such arrangements will likely continue to serve as a driving force for Saudi-Russian cooperation in the war on terrorism.

M. B. Nokhcho is a Chechen writer living in the Middle East and Mr. Glen E. Howard is the President of the Jamestown Foundation.

Notes:

1 Al-Watan, (daily Saudi newspaper), November 21, 2003, as cited on www.alwatan.com.sa.

2 Ibid.

3 Interview with Abu Al-Walid’s family in the Al-Watan newspaper, 23 June 2002, electronic version. It is important to note that there is a large debate in the Muslim world about the “permission of parents” and whether it is essential or not for a person to wage Jihad.

4 Ibid.

5 Andrew McGregor, “Amir Abu Al-Walid and The Islamic Component of The Chechen War,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, February 26, 2003, http://www.cacianalyst.org/view.

6 Ibid

7 Ibid

8 Qosat Estshhad Al Qaed Khattab, [ The Story of Leader Khattab’s Murder], October 27, 2003, www.qoqaz.com.

9 This article available on line at: http://www.asharqalawsat.com

10 Ibid

11 This tape available online, www.aljazeera.net.

12 There is an interview with one of the leaders of Al-Ghamdi tribe in Saudi in the Arabic newspaper,Al-Hayat on November 13, 2003, p.19.