Video footage showing the body of Khattab, the Chechen rebel field commander, was shown on Russian state television (RTR) on April 27, after which Chechen rebel media confirmed his death. The footage was apparently part of a video clip now posted on the Federal Security Service at www.fsb.ru (RTR, April 27).
The Chechen rebel leadership, which had earlier denied the reports of Khattab’s death, confirmed them over the weekend. Kavkaz-Center, which is connected to the more radical, Islamist wing of the Chechen resistance that Khattab belonged to, reported on its website, Kavkaz.org, that Khattab was poisoned March 19 by a letter brought to him by a messenger. The website, citing “the headquarters of the Chechen mujeheddin command,” said that the messenger was “known to Khattab” and may now be back in Russian hands. According to Kavkaz.org, Khattab was buried in Chechnya’s mountains at a site known to a few of his inner circle only. One of these is Emir Elsi, his bodyguard and aide known by the codename “Gardez,” who is apparently the other person featured on the video. Elsi, the website reported, was killed during a battle with Russian forces on April 23, after which his tape of Khattab’s burial fell into Russian hands. Khattab’s death was kept secret apparently in order to ensure his unimpeded and secret burial, Kavkaz.org claimed. The rebel units previously commanded by Khattab have been taken over by his deputy, Abu Walid. Like Khattab, Abu Walid is an Arab who fought with Islamist forces in Afghanistan and Tajikistan before going to Chechnya (Kavkaz.org, April 28; Kommersant, April 29).
Earlier this month, Russian media quoted an anonymous FSB source as saying that Khattab had been killed in a Russian special services’ operation 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” (see the Monitor, April 12, 26). Meanwhile, over the weekend, Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, former Chechen acting president, in an interview with Al Jazeera, the Qatari satellite television station, seconded the theory that Khattab was poisoned. Al Jazeera itself reported that Khattab was “poisoned by one of his own representatives” (Lenta.ru, April 28).
The question of who ultimately was behind Khattab’s death remains open. For his part, General-Colonel Gennady Troshev, commander of the North Caucasus Military District and former commander of the federal forces in Chechnya, had no doubts that the Russian side eliminated Khattab. Rebel field commander Shamil Basaev would be next, Troshev declared, followed by any remaining rebels who refuse to lay down their weapons. “[I]n two to three years order will be restored in Chechnya for good,” he predicted (Itar-Tass, April 28). Akhmed Zakaev, however, representative of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, said in a statement that “the Russian special services, engaged exclusively in terror against the civilian population, had nothing to do with Khattab’s death, and that can be figured out simply as a result of viewing the amateurish videotape.” Zakaev’s statement gave no indication of who might have killed Khattab (Chechenpress.com, April 27).
Khalid Yamadaev, a former rebel commander who is now deputy military commandant in Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration, told the newspaper Kommersant that it could not be ruled out that Khattab was killed on the orders of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. According to Yamadaev, Maskhadov, “who considers himself not a terrorist, but a fighter for independence,” was unhappy over the fact that Khattab’s name was widely associated with international terrorism. (The Russian authorities claim that Khattab was a member of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida. Khattab told Kavkaz.org last year that he knew bin Laden from the days of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, but that he had not been in contact with the Saudi-born terrorist for years.) Yamadaev said it was entirely possible that Maskhadov bought off one of Khattab’s “Wahhabis” to poison their boss. Kommersant, for its part, reported that Maskhadov did not approve of Khattab’s targeting of “apartment buildings and markets” for terrorist bombings. Kommersant pointed to others who might have wanted to kill Khattab, citing FSB claims that Abu Walid and Khattab came into conflict last August because the latter had kept $170,000 out of a US$250,000 contribution from the Muslim Brotherhood for himself, distributing the remainder among three units of rebel fighters (Kommersant, April 29).
Interestingly, Kavkaz.org published what it said was biographical information about Khattab that came directly from the slain rebel warlord himself. While there have been disputes in the media about whether he hailed from Jordan or Saudi Arabia–official Amman strongly denied that he was Jordanian–and some reports suggested he had roots in the Caucasus, the rebel website reported that he was born in Saudi Arabia to a father who was from “an ancient Arabian family” and a Turkish mother. The website also reported that at age 15 his parents wanted to send Khattab to study in the United States, but that he instead left home to fight with the mujeheddin fighting the Soviet forces in Afghanistan (Kavkaz.org, April 28).
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