Chechen rebel sources confirmed last week that Khattab, the Saudi-born Chechen rebel field commander, died in March after being poisoned by a letter brought to him by a messenger. The admission came after Russian state television played what was purportedly a clip from a captured videotape showing the Arab warlord’s body lying in a freshly dug grave. The grave’s location was unspecified, but apparently in Chechnya. An anonymous Federal Security Service (FSB) official had reported Khattab’s death earlier in April. That claim had him killed in a special operation conducted by Russia’s security services using “an agent from among the Arabs fighting in Chechnya, who had earlier been recruited by the special services of one of the CIS states.” But, while confirming Khattab’s death, the Chechen rebels denied that the Russians had taken him out.
The rebels, however, were less than forthcoming about who might have sent the poisoned letter. The reason for their vagueness may be that Khattab was turned into a shaheed, or martyr, by some of his fellow holy warriors. Indeed, the FSB had reported earlier that Khattab came into conflict with his Number Two, fellow Arab fighter Abu Walid, last August after deciding to pocket $170,000 from a donation the Muslim Brotherhood had sent to help finance the Chechens’ anti-Russian jihad. While this may or may not have been Russian disinformation, Khalid Yamadaev, a former rebel commander who is now deputy military commandant in Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration, speculated that Khattab may have been killed on the orders of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, who had come into armed conflict with the “Wahhabi” fighters in the past and was tired of seeing the Chechen rebel movement’s reputation sullied by Khattab and other foreign terrorists.
Indeed, whether Khattab was, as the Russian government claimed, a member of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida who masterminded various terrorist bombings–including the September 1999 blasts in various Russian cities that killed hundreds of innocent civilians–remains in question. But he was clearly a radical Islamist–after the September 11 terrorist attacks in America, he described bin Laden as “a good mujahid and scholar” and a “very decent” person–with plenty of blood on his hands. At the same time, it is worth noting that Khattab and the other radical Islamic fighters who made their way to Chechnya were able to find a niche in that once largely secular society only after the Russian army bombed its villages, towns and cities into oblivion.