Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 9

…It was a pretty good fortnight in domestic politics for President Vladimir Putin’s administration, at least compared to the previous one. Indeed, the Russian leader had capped the first part of April with a gloomy annual State-of-the-Nation address, only to see one of the speech’s few bragging points–his claim that the military phase of the Chechen campaign had been completed–made ridiculous by the killing of twenty-one pro-Moscow Chechen policemen in a terrorist attack.

The Kremlin more than made up for that humiliation on April 25, when the Federal Security Service (FSB) officially announced that Khattab, the Saudi-born field commander of Chechen rebel forces, had been killed as a result of a special operation carried out the previous month. Claims that Khattab had been assassinated first surfaced earlier in April, when an anonymous FSB official told Russian media that the guerrilla leader might have been eliminated in a plot carried out by one of the Arab “volunteers” fighting in Chechnya who had been recruited by the special services of an unidentified CIS country. The FSB claim was validated on April 27, when Russian state television showed video footage of the longhaired Arab warlord lying in a grave in an undisclosed location, presumably in Chechnya. The film was apparently taken by a member of Khattab’s entourage who was subsequently killed in battle.

Whatever the video’s antecedents, it was enough to convince the Chechen rebel leadership, which had been denying the reports of Khattab’s death, to admit that they were true., the voice of the Chechen rebels’ radical wing, reported that Khattab had been poisoned by a letter delivered to him by someone he knew who may indeed have been working for the Russians. Other rebel officials, like Akhmed Zakaev, a representative of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, refused to concede that the FSB could have bagged the 32-year-old Islamist guerrilla, who spent several years fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan (where, he claimed last year, he met Osama bin Laden) and then moved on to Tajikistan’s civil war before arriving in Chechnya in March 1995. Like Zakaev, various observers in both Moscow and Chechnya were inclined to believe either that Khattab had been killed as the result of a fight with other Arab “mujeheddin” for control over Middle Eastern money contributed to the Chechen “jihad,” or on the orders of Maskhadov, who had long been at odds with the Islamists in the Chechen rebel movement. Their support of terrorism, he believed, had compromised the Chechen cause.

Regardless of who really killed Khattab, the Russian authorities were more than happy to take the credit. General Staff Chief General Anatoly Kvashnin apparently felt his side was on such a roll that he decided to go public with the claim that Khattab’s closest Chechen ally, Shamil Basaev, had also been killed, presenting as evidence the fact that Basaev had not been heard on the radio for six months. Various of Kvashnin’s colleagues, including General Vladimir Moltenskoi, commander of the federal forces in Chechnya, quickly poured cold water over his claim. Moltenskoi said that Basaev, who lost a foot in early 2000 while crossing a minefield to escape Russian troops, was probably alive and well in southern Chechnya’s Vedeno Gorge, and that his position may even have been strengthened by Khattab’s demise.

Whatever the case, few observers believed it would be possible to “decapitate” the Chechen resistance, which was already a highly decentralized movement made up mostly of people seeking revenge for relatives killed by Russian forces. While there are no definitive statistics, the tally of those killed in the current military campaign certainly numbers in the thousands. Memorial, the Russian human rights group, estimates that 1,200-2,000 people have disappeared in Russian security sweeps.