Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 230

Russian officials have not confirmed reports yesterday that the Chechen rebel field commander Khattab has been wounded. The state news agency Itar-Tass reported yesterday that Khattab had been wounded in the leg and shoulder during a battle in the settlement of Nikatakhoi in Chechnya’s Vedeno district a week ago, and was recovering in a mountain village in southeast Chechnya, still unable to walk by himself (see the Monitor, December 13). Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the armed forces general staff, said the report was only a rumor, while General Sergei Babkin, chief of the Federal Security Service’s branch refused to either confirm or deny it (Interfax, Gazeta.ru, December 13). It is easy to understand the general’s caution, given that Russian officials have on a number of occasions reported that Chechen rebel leaders were either seriously wounded or killed and most of these reports have turned out to be wrong (Interfax, December 13).

Khattab, whose full name is Habib Abd al-Rakhman Ibn al-Khattab, is a legendary figure in Chechnya. Born in 1963 to a prominent Circassian family in Jordan (the name “Circassian” is used in the Middle East when referring to people of North Caucasus origins), Khattab graduated from the military academy in Amman and served for several years in King Hussein’s “Circassian Guard.” He has spent most of his life in “hot spots”–that is, where Muslims were fighting “the infidels.” During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he fought on the side of the mujahideen and became acquainted with the now infamous Osama bin Laden (see the Monitor, October 11). During the war in Bosnia, Khattab created military training camps there for local Muslims, and “graduates” of these camps became a real threat to the Bosnian Serbs. In 1994, he went to Chechnya, and soon afterward married a young woman from the Dagestani village of Karmakhi, one of the centers of Islamic fundamentalism in Dagestan. After the Russian invasion of Chechnya in December 1994, Khattab became one of the Chechen rebels’ most influential field commanders. In March 1996 one of his units attacked a Russian troop column near the village of Yarysh-Mardy, killing more than seventy Russian servicemen, in one of the biggest rebel operations during the conflict of 1994-1996 in Chechnya. After Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya in 1996, Khattab set up a network of military camps in the republic that trained not only Islamic fundamentalists from the North Caucasian republics, but Georgian supporters of Zviad Gamsakhurdia and even, according to some reports, Muslims from Central Asia.

It should be recalled that in January of this year Khattab’s fellow field commander, Shamil Basaev, reportedly lost a leg when he and other rebels crossed a minefield while fleeing the Chechen capital of Djohar (Grozny), which had been blockaded by Russian forces. Were Khattab’s leg wound to be serious, it would mean that the two best known Chechen rebel field commanders were similarly disabled.