Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 82

Not surprisingly, Chechen rebel sources yesterday (April 25) cast doubt on the claim by the Federal Security Service (FSB) that rebel field commander Khattab had been killed. Kavkaz.org, the website representing the views of the radical Islamist wing of the Chechen rebels, yesterday reported that an unnamed source who claimed to be with Khattab telephoned the website’s offices to deny the FSB claim. Khattab refused to give a “detailed commentary” on the claim, he said. Such claims, the source is said to have pointed out, had been made more than once before and that the Russian authorities had simply lost Khattab’s “trail.” The source said that while Khattab had not been heard from in two months, he had not made radio communications in more than six months. “We have another system of communications, which the Russians are unable to intercept,” the source claimed. He also dismissed the FSB claim that Khattab had been killed by an Arab fighter, saying the Chechen “mujeheddin” knew all of the Arabs fighting against the Russians in Chechnya because they had never numbered more than twenty or so. The FSB had made up the story of an Arab killing Khattab, the source alleged, in an attempt to sow dissension among the rebel ranks (Kavkaz.org, April 25).

Last October, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on issues related to Chechnya, claimed that some 800 fighters from the Middle East and Far East were in Chechnya fighting with the rebels at the start of the current Russian military campaign in the breakaway republic, which began in September 1999. Yastrzhembsky then claimed that after the rebels suffered losses, Khattab had appealed for aid to various Islamic extremist organizations based in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front for Holy War Against Jews and Crusaders, and that fighters of various nationalities were sent to Chechnya from Afghanistan via Azerbaijan and Georgia. In his comments last October, however, Yastrzhembsky said that at the time no more than 200 foreigners were fighting alongside the Chechen rebels (see the Monitor, October 11, 2001).

Yesterday, Akhmed Zakaev, representative of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, dismissed the claim that Khattab had been killed as another instance of FSB disinformation, adding that it was not the first time the FSB had used this “provocative method” to try and determine Khattab’s location. The FSB’s attempt to track down Khattab and other rebel field commanders, Zakaev said, would fail. He said that in fulfilling the orders of Maskhadov, the “commander in chief of the armed forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria”–as the separatists call Chechnya–the rebel field commanders are using neither radio or telephone communications (Chechenpress.com, April 25). It should be noted that Maskhadov himself, for security reasons, has not used telephone communications for some time.

Another Maskhadov representative also cast doubt on the reports of Khattab’s death. “In my view, the Federal Security Service is totally unable to figure out his location and is trying to make him go on the air,” said Mairbek Vachagaev in a radio interview yesterday. “Only this would explain the zeal with which the FSB is trying to prove his supposed death.” The only real proof of Khattab’s death, Vachagaev said, would be if Khattab’s body were shown to the world: “As soon as they show it, all the rumors will be dissipated” (Radio Ekho Moskvy, April 25).

It was not only the rebels who expressed skepticism over the FSB’s claim. Indeed, Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the pro-Moscow administration in Chechnya, said he would believe Khattab was dead only when he saw his body. Kadyrov noted that a number of well-known rebel field commanders, including Khattab, had previously been reported killed, only to “rise to the surface where they were least expected.” By way of example, Kadyrov noted that one rebel commander, Turpal Atgeriev, was reportedly killed but subsequently captured and put on trial together with Salman Raduev. Shamil Basaev and his brother Shirvani have also “repeatedly died” but no one, Kadyrov noted, has ever seen their corpses (Interfax, April 25).

Today, a source in the operational headquarters of the Russian Interior Ministry’s branch in Chechnya said that the republic’s law enforcement organs did not have “reliable evidence” that Khattab was dead. The source said that Interior Ministry personnel, including inspectors for Interior Ministry units based in the town of Vedeno and the Nozhai-Yurt and Kurchaloi districts, were in the process of trying to confirm the FSB’s claim. The source said that many of Chechnya’s inhabitants had greeted reports of Khattab’s death with “relief,” hoping that with his death the flow of financing to the rebels would dry up and that foreign mercenaries fighting with the rebels would leave Chechnya.