In November 2003, the FBI announced that it was launching an investigation into reputed links between the anti-Russian Chechen resistance and Al Qaeda as a result of the death of a US citizen who was killed in October 2002 during the storming of the Nord Ost theater production in Moscow. The following article is meant to assist the FBI – and others — by presenting an introduction to a thorny issue that has all too often been dangerously misrepresented.
A Misunderstood Link
In subjecting the anti-Russian Chechen insurgents, the Arab-dominated Al Qaeda organization, and the gray world where they overlap to careful systematic scrutiny, it is feared that the existence of a distinct group that has yet to be analyzed in its own right, namely the ‘Chechen-Arabs’, might be missed.
To fully comprehend the Chechens and their purported links to Al Qaeda transnational terrorism, one must understand an ingredient that is absent in the war of Al Qaeda terrorism experts — the Chechens themselves — and read such basic introductions to the Chechens as Khassan Baiev’s seminal work, The Oath. A point that will become glaringly obvious from the works dealing with the Chechens is that their real enemy is Russia. Like the localized separatist movements of the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army ) or the Kurdish PKK, the Chechen resistance is not in and of itself a threat to the West. All Chechen resistance elements, including fringe groups such as that element lead by Shamil Basayev, have their hands full with the enemy at hand, the Russian Federation.
This clear absence of any Chechen propensity to attack US or other Western targets is in marked contrast to the modus operandi of bona fide Al Qaeda terrorism. The latter, as demonstrated by the recent bombings of double Jewish and British targets in Istanbul, dual Australian-Western targets in Bali, twin US targets in Washington and New York, and the two embassies in Kenya and Tanzania indicate, is to engage in simultaneous mega-attacks designed to inflict maximum Western casualties. The purpose of Al Qaeda attacks is not to make specific demands, as was the case with the Nord Ost theater hostage takers, who demanded a Russian withdrawal from their homeland.
Jihadis’ Chechnya Move
To understand the ‘Chechen-Arabs’ one most go back to the year 1995 when an exploratory group of first-generation ‘Afghan-Arabs’ led by one Amir (Commander) Khattab arrived in Chechnya to assist the out-gunned Chechens in their struggle against Russian Federal Forces. Amir Khattab (the nom de guerre of Saudi citizen Samer ben Saleh ben Abdallah al Sweleim) was a member of the roaming brotherhood of jihadi paladins that continued to wage holy war on behalf of front line Muslim groups long after the ‘divine’ victory over the Soviets in the Afghan jihad of 1979-1988. In the aftermath of the Soviet defeat, Khattab and other members of the Afghan alumni swore an oath to the patron saint of the international jihad movement, Abduallah Azzam, to continue the defense of other threatened Muslim groups across the globe.
By 1995, a major component of this movement, which included such fighters as Abu Walid, began to trickle to Chechnya as the jihad in Bosnia came to an unexpected halt following the Dayton Peace Accords. Unlike the Bosnians or Kosovo Albanians after them, however, the diplomatically-isolated Chechen insurgents received no support from the West. In 1995, the Chechen nationalist rebels finally received help from an unexpected source when Khattab and his group of fighters arrived to wage a holy war against their old enemies from the Afghan jihad, the Urus Kafirs
While Khattab’s fighters were few, they brought the outgunned Chechen resistance access to the immense financial resources of his powerful supporters, the quasi-official charities of| Saudi Arabia, such as the wealthy Al Haramein foundation. While the hard-drinking Sovietized Chechen sufis initially found Khattab’s bearded jihadi-puritan Wahhabis to be something of an oddity, the scrappy Chechens soon came to appreciate the contribution these professional infidel-killers could make to their cause.
A Fateful Alliance
The influence of Khattab’s International Islamic Battalion (IIB) in Chechnya began to grow after the Chechens’ most prominent field commander, Shamil Basayev, declared Khattab his ‘brother’ and began to coordinate activities with the jihadis. It was this alliance between the ‘Second Shamil’ (the first being the 19th century guerilla commander Imam Shamil) and a Saudi holy warrior who saw himself as something of an Islamic ‘Che Guevera’ that was to have such negative consequences for hundreds of thousands of innocent Chechens who simply dreamed of rebuilding their lives following Russia’s defeat in the 1994-96 Russo-Chechen War. One cannot underestimate the importance of this alliance between Basayev and Khattab for it gave the Kremlin a pretext for later reinvading the Chechen statelet and painting the Chechen secessionist leadership as ‘Al Qaeda.’
In the aftermath of the Russian withdrawal from Chechnya in 1996, Khattab and many of his rootless Arab jihadis stayed on in Chechnya and continued to coordinate activities with Shamil Basayev. It was at this time that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and his moderate supporters (including foreign minister Ilyas Akhmadov) began to call on Khattab and his IIB jihadis to decamp from Chechnya and proceed to some other zone of jihad. But far from leaving Chechnya, Khattab signaled his intention to stay on in the war torn Chechen republic by marrying a Muslim woman from the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan and gradually joining the anti-Maskhadov resistance in Chechnya.
Most ominously, Khattab further signaled his real intentions by opening a series of training camps in southeastern Chechnya which trained unemployed young Chechen men and Muslims from throughout the CIS for a never-ending jihad that was far greater in scope than the micro-republic envisioned by Chechnya’s nationalist leadership.
Ample proof of the danger these camps posed to Chechnya and the neighboring Russian Federation came in August and September of 1999 when Dagestani, Chechen, and Arab militants poured over the border from these camps and raided the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan. As a horrified Chechen populace led by President Maskhadov and his secularist aids, such as Ilyas Akhmadov, disclaimed Khattab and Basayev’s jihadi attack, Russia used these incursions as a causus belli to reinvade Chechnya. It was during these jihadi invasions into Dagestan that the name of Khattab’s Naib Amir (Deputy Commander), Abu Walid, first began to be disseminated in Islamist circles abroad.
While Khattab and Walid may have become heroes to Islamists across the globe who followed their jihad exploits on-line at azzam.com and kavkaz.org (jihadi websites glorifying the Chechens’ desperate struggle to repel the Russians as a ‘holy war’), they were hated by many average Chechens who saw them as foreign trouble-makers who gave Russia a pretext to reinvade their lands. This division between the foreign jihadis and indigenous Chechens was, to a degree, healed by the Kremlin’s subsequent response to the invasion of Dagestan. Although the Russian Federation had initially limited its retaliatory bombing strikes to Khattab’s camps in southeastern Chechnya, the Kremlin launched a total invasion of Chechnya in October 1999. This indiscriminate invasion drove Chechnya’s moderate leadership (the only force in Chechnya that might have assisted in expelling the foreign jihadis) into a strategic alliance with Khattab and his IIB.
Most imporantly, as Russia’s bloody war in Chechnya continues to fester, it increasingly attracts attention in Islamist circles around the globe where the Chechens’ historic struggle is defined as jihad. Young Egyptians, Yemenis, Saudis, Pakistanis, Turks, etc. continue to make their way at great risk to Chechnya to assist the Chechens in their uneven struggle. Many of those who have fought in Chechnya have been radicalized by their experience as front line jihadis. While there are no statistics on their numbers, it cannot be doubted that some of these Chechen-Arab jihadis have subsequently drifted into Al Qaeda terrorist circles in much the same way that Afghan-Arabs from the anti-Soviet jihad were drawn to bin Laden’s terrorist struggle against the other Great Satan, America.
Thus far no systematic attempt has been made to coalate the activities of Al Qaeda terrorists who have had previous experience in the Chechen ‘jihad’. Below are just some of the overlaps between Chechen-Arabs who fought (or sought to fight) in Chechnya and Al Qaeda which are credible. In none of the cases below, however, is there any question of Chechen involvement in Al Qaeda terrorist activities, even though in most of them the Chechen Arabs’ Al Qaeda terrorism was reported in the Western press as ‘Chechen’ Al Qaeda terrorism:
–1995. Sudanese Al Qaeda defector Jamal al Fadl testifies that Osam bin Laden offered $1,500 per person (to be used for the purchase of Kalishnikov rifle and travel expenses) for jihad volunteers willing to travel to Chechnya to assist the Chechens in their struggle against the Russian ‘infidels.’ 1
–December 1996. Ayman al Zawaheri, leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and member of Al Qaeda’s ruling troika, travels to Dagestan in search of a new base of operations for his organization in response to its expulsion from Sudan. Zawaheri’s plans are foiled by Russian security services which arrest him and hold him in jail for several months.2
—1999-2000. The US government claims that prior to 9/11, the Islamic Benevolence Foundation (a US-based charity that sent $700,000 to the Chechens) and Al Haramein (an international charity based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia which
channeled funds to Khattab’s aid, Abu Duba, via its offices in Baku, Azerbaijan) also siphoned money to Al Qaeda. Another charity known to have sponsored the Chechen resistance was the Kifah refugee center which had close links to the Al Qaeda bombers in the 1993 WTC attack.3
—September 2001. Ahmed al Ghamidi, a Saudi jihadi who fought in Chechnya after studying engineering in Mecca, is one of the hijackers of United Airlines flight 175 which hit the south WTC tower. Another 9/11 hijacker on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon (Nawaq al Hamzi) also fought in Chechnya. Ahmed al Haznawi, a hijacker on United Ailines flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11 is reported to have left his home in the al Baha region of Saudi Arabia in 2000 telling friends he was going to train in an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan for jihad in Chechnya.4
—September 2001. Several minutes after the September 11th attack on the USA, American intelligence registers a mobile phone call from Afghanistan to the Pankisi Gorge, an inaccessible valley in Georgia that was known as the home
base for ‘Chechen-Arabs’ who trained new recruits for jihad in neighboring Chechnya.5
–September 2001. Mounir El Motassadeq, a member of the 9/11 Al Qaeda support network arrested in Germany, claims that Mohammad Atta, the mission leader for the attack, “really wanted to got to Chechnya to fight because of the massacre the Russians were committing there.”6
—August 2002. Sweeps of the Chechen-inhabited Pankisi Gorge in Georgia by American-trained Georgian forces nab one Saif al Islam el Masry, a member of Al Qaeda’s shura (council) and disrupt a plot by Arab jihadis training there to bomb or use improvised chemical weapons against Western (not Russian) targets in Russia and Central Asia. Interpol and Western intelligence agencies also believe that Abu Khabab (Al Qaeda’s ‘mad scientist’ seen experimenting with poison gases in an Al Qaeda video seized by coalition forces in Afghanistan) transferred his operations to the Pankisi after the destruction of the Taliban.7
–January 2003. British authorities arrest six North African Arabs in London accusing them of attempting to produce ricin poison in their flat. Several of
those arrested are later found to have trained in the Pankisi Gorge camps with the aim of eventually fighting jihad with the Chechen-Arabs in Chechnya.8
—May 2003. The Saudi mastermind of the Al Qaeda bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (which galvanized the Saudis to move against domestic Al Qaeda
influence) is found to have fought in Chechnya before later traveling to Afghanistan to fight the USA and coalition forces at Tora Bora.9
—November 2003. Turkish authorities claim that a deadly wave of bombings in Istanbul of British and Jewish targets were carried out by domestic militants
belonging to the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders Front who were trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Several of this group’s members previously fought jihad
—November 2003. Yemeni authorities arrest Mohammed Hamdi al Ahdal, a 32-year old Saudi citizen responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen in 2000. Al Ahdal, one of the top 20 Al Qaeda leaders, previously fought in
Chechnya, where he lost a leg (currently he has a prosthetic leg).11
As this sampling of evidence of ‘Chechen-Arab’ involvement in Al Qaeda terrorism clearly indicates, the FBI and other Western intelligence agencies should focus their investigations on the ‘Chechen-Arab’ alumni of the ‘jihad’ in the Caucasus. The author has found many further such examples of Chechen-Arab involvement in Al Qaeda terrorism and this group of fighters, like the Afghan-Arabs before them, represent a clear and present danger to US and Western interests.
While Osama bin Laden and radical Islamic extremists from across the globe are prone to see the Chechens as victims of Russian infidel aggression and a people in need of assistance, (bin Laden broadcast a message on Al Jazeera following the Nord-Ost theater seizure by the Chechens which proclaimed “As you look at your dead in Moscow also recall ours in Chechnya”), this sort of effort to support for the Chechens’ struggle does not translate into Chechen support for Al Qaeda’s struggle against America or the West. As for the Chechens themselves, the world awaits the arrest of a single Chechen by coalition forces for involvement in Al Qaeda terrorism anywhere in the globe.
Dr. Brian Glyn Williams is assistant professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.
1. Jane Corbin. The Base. In Search of Al Qaeda. London; Simon and
Shuster. 2002. p. 55.
2. Dore Gold. Hatred’s Kingdom. Washington. Regnery Publishing 2003. p. 137.
Lawrence Wright. “The Man Behind Bin Laden.” The New Yorker. Sept. 9, 2002.
3. See the Benevolence International Foundation’s website for information on how to
donate zakat tithe money to Chechnya at: www.benevolence.org/OSP/chorphan.asp
See also “An Islamic Foundation in the USA Made ‘Benevolence’ to the
Militants in Chechnya.” Pravda. Nov. 2, 03. The US State Dept. declared Al
Haramein a charity that supports Al Qaeda, see
4. “The Men Who Brought the World to the Brink of War.” The Observer. (UK). Sept. 23, 2001.
5. “Georgian Security Minister Unveils Classified Details on Pankisi.”
Civil Georgia. http;//www.civil.gelcgi-bin/newsprof/fullnews.cgi. The
Pankisi Gorge in Georgia is home to the Kist Chechens and was the base of an
Arab unit of fighters who were tied to Ruslan Khamzat Gelayev’s Chechen
6. “Chechnya. The New Afghanistan?” American Future Foundation
Magazine. Jul. 1 2003.
7. Paul Quinn-Judge. “The Surprise in the Gorge. Al Qaeda
Flourishes in Far-Off Spots.” Time Magazine. Oct. 20, 2002.
8. Jeffrey M. Bale. “Ricin Found in London. An Al Qaeda Connection.”
CNS Reports (Center for Non Prolifieration Studies).
9. “Profile: Saudi’s Top Al Qaeda Leader.” BBC.co.uk
12. Ahmed al Haj. “Yemen Arrests Suspected Al Qaeda Leader.” Associated
Press. Nov. 26, 2003.