Did the Federal Security Service (FSB) kill Khattab, the Jordanian- or Saudi-born field commander and leading figure in the Chechen rebel movement’s Islamist wing? An unnamed FSB official in Djohar (Grozny), the Chechen capital, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying it was likely that Khattab had been “liquidated” in an FSB special operation. The official claimed there had been no electronic communications from Khattab for the last two months and that his death had been confirmed by the agency’s own informants. While the source did not say when the special operation to kill Khattab putatively took place, he did say that it was carried out by “an agent from among the Arabs fighting in Chechnya, who had earlier been recruited by the special services of one of the CIS states.” He also said he was sure that the Russian military command in Chechnya would, in the near future, get “documentary proof” of Khattab’s death.
On the record, meanwhile, the FSB refused to confirm the Interfax report. The RIA Novosti state news agency quoted a spokesman in the FSB’s public affairs office as saying that the agency was not behind the report of Khattab’s death but was otherwise refusing to comment on it (NTVru.com, April 11). For its part, Kavkaz.org, the website allied with the Chechen rebels’ more radical and Islamist wing, today denied the Interfax report. Citing another pro-rebel media outlet, the Kavkaz radio station, it quoted the rebel “mujahideen” command as dismissing the report as disinformation put out by the Russian special services, aimed at testing the rebels’ reaction. However, Kavkaz.org, which has interviewed Khattab in the past, gave no indication of his current whereabouts (Kavkaz.org, April 12).
The killing of Khattab, of course, would be a major coup for Moscow. It managed to capture and put on trial the warlord Salman Raduev but has failed to get other major rebel leaders, including Shamil Basaev and Aslan Maskhadov. (The Russians killed Djohar Dudaev, Chechnya’s president and independence leader, in an April 1996 missile attack.) Last month, the North Caucasus department of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office filed criminal charges against Khattab, accusing him of hostage-taking, banditry and “infringing on the life of a law enforcement official.” The charges were based on videocassettes reportedly showing Chechen rebels shooting Russian servicemen. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, one such video shows Khattab personally killing a soldier (NTVru.com, March 4). There were reports over the last half year that Khattab had left Chechnya–destined, according to some reports, for Afghanistan. But this past February, Anatoly Kvashnin, head of the Russian armed forces general staff, said that the main Chechen rebel commanders, including Khattab, Basaev and Maskhadov, remained “deep underground” in Chechnya (NTVru.com, February 21; see the Monitor, November 26, 2001).
According to the scant biographical data available, Khattab hails from either Jordan or Saudi Arabia, but may have ethnic Chechen roots. (Jordan has a community of people with roots in the Caucasus). The Russian newspaper Trud reported several years ago that Khattab was from a wealthy family and had spent some time at an American university before dropping out and moving to Pakistan. He fought with mujahideen forces against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and reportedly arrived in Chechnya in February 1995 with a small group of Arab fighters. Khattab is said to have led an ambush on a Russian armored column near the Chechen mountain village of Yarysh-Mardy in April 1996, which killed almost 100 soldiers and provoked calls for the resignation of then Defense Minister Pavel Grachev. Khattab is reportedly married to a woman from the Dagestani village of Karmakhi, which is located on Dagestan’s border with Chechnya. The village was a center for fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam at least until August 1999, when forces reportedly led by Khattab and Basaev led an incursion into Dagestan from Chechnya (BBC, September 30, 1999). The invaders were beaten back by the Russian military, which subsequently invaded Chechnya.
Earlier this year, the U.S. newspaper Newsday reported it had come into possession of a videocassette taken from a former al-Qaida residence in Kabul, Afghanistan, showing links between Khattab and Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network (see the Monitor, January 25). Last year, Khattab told Kavkaz.org that he knew bin Laden from the conflict in Afghanistan but said he had not seen or spoken with the Saudi-born terrorist leader for eight years. He called bin Laden “a good mujahid and scholar” and a “very decent” person (see the Monitor, October 11, 2001).
CHECHEN OFFICIAL: MORE THAN NINETY CHECHEN CHILDREN HAVE DISAPPEARED.