The Islambouli Enigma

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 1 Issue: 3

On Tuesday August 24 two Russian passenger jets crashed within three minutes of one another, killing all 90 passengers and crew. They had taken off from the same Moscow airport, but had different destinations: Volgograd and Sochi. After early reticence, the Russian authorities accepted, from the presence of traces of explosive material in the wreckage, that the cause was a coordinated terrorist attack. The investigators’ interest focused on two bodies, one on each airliner, which remained unclaimed by relatives. Both were Chechen women who knew each other, sharing the same apartment in Grozny and the same work. They appear also to have purchased tickets at the last minute.

The gender of the bombers added weight to their speculations. Chechen women have been active in terrorist incidents, including the hostage crisis at the Moscow theatre, and have previously performed suicide operations, including last year’s double bombing in Moscow at an outdoor rock concert and another blast outside a hotel adjacent to Red Square. Two scenarios are considered possible from this: either the named Ms. Nagayeva and Ms. Dzhebirkhanova were the suicide bombers themselves, or their passports were used by other women. The bombing on August 31 at the Moscow metro station, which killed ten and injured 50, was also the work of a female suicide bomber. [1]

While thoughts immediately turned to the Chechen resistance groups, in a surprising development a hitherto unknown participant, calling itself ‘The al-Islambouli Brigades’, posted a communiqué on an Islamist website ( saying that it had placed five members aboard each of the aircraft and that they had been “crowned with success”. It then detailed how the Mujahideen —

“have succeeded in directing the first attack, which will be followed by a series of other operations in the hopes of providing a wave of support and aid to our Muslim brothers in Chechnya and other enslaved regions that suffer from Russian disbelief.”

To support their claims the group said that it would shortly release the ‘wills’ of the suicide bombers, by which is probably meant the distribution of videotaped confessions of faith. The al-Islambouli Brigades subsequently also claimed authorship of the Moscow metro suicide blast.

Despite these claims from the al-Islambouli Brigades, suspicion continues to focus on the Chechens. Firstly, because the Islambouli al-Qaeda Brigades have hitherto claimed their main target to be the United States and George W. Bush in particular. The August 24 airliner attacks were the first occasion when their organization issued anti-Russian statements. Secondly, and more cogently, the timing of the incident appears closely bound to Chechen politics. It comes in the week of the regional election to replace the pro-Moscow president Akhmad Kadyrov who was killed in a bombing last May. Chechen insurgent groups had long vowed to disrupt this election. While the rebel representative Akhmed Zakayev insisted that Chechen rebel forces and rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov were not connected to the bombings, the reality on the ground is that Maskhadov, who led Chechnya during its 1996-99 de-facto independence, is believed to control only a small portion of separatist fighters. The chaos in Chechnya is increasing by the month, under which conditions militant groups are multiplying without the restraining hand of a central control. Shared among all insurgent groups, however, is the conviction that by bringing the fight to the Russian heartland, the will of the Russians to continue in Chechnya will be weakened.

Nevertheless, there are also reasons enough to suspect other perpetrators, not least because of the denials from Chechen militant leaders, who are usually more than willing to take credit for actions against the Russians. The problem is that there is little hard information about the group that claimed the bombing. The name ‘Khalid al-Islambouli Brigades’ is a recent appearance. Although it was purported to have been involved in an attack on the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad in 1996, the group first hit the headlines on July 31 this year when an attempt was made in Pakistan on the life of Shaukat Aziz, a candidate for the post of Prime Minister. The perpetrators identified themselves as “The al-Islambouli Brigades of al-Qaeda” [2] and threatened further “painful strikes” if Pakistan’s leaders did not change their cooperation with Washington.

Beyond these bare facts, not much is known. The name itself refers to the Egyptian lieutenant Khalid al-Islambouli, who masterminded the assassination of President Anwar Sadat on October 6 1981. The Brigades are thought to be headed by Muhammad Shawqi al-Islambouli, Khalid’s younger brother. As a young man Muhammad operated in Pakistan recruiting Egyptian fighters for the Afghan war, and headed a branch of Bin Laden’s Maktab al-Khidmat (‘Bureau of Services’) in Peshawar. He is also reported to have visited Chechnya in 2001 where he acted as a field commander, and to have acted as fund-raiser in Europe in return for sending Chechen militants to West Asia. [3]

The use of Khalid al-Islambouli, a name associated with the Middle East, does not in itself indicate links outside of Chechnya. Its symbolic resonance in this respect is strong. Due to Cairo’s recognition of the State of Israel in 1979 and Egypt’s decision to give asylum to the deposed Shah, Iran cut relations with Egypt and named one of Tehran’s streets after al-Islambouli, following Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981. Later a massive street mural carried the image of the imprisoned assassin waving a copy of the Qur’an behind his prison bars. In May 2001 the street name was changed, in an attempt to ease the path to the renewal of diplomatic relations.

In this respect, far from the regional manifestation of an international terrorism nexus, the Khalid al-Islambouli Brigades may simply be a local Chechen group that has appropriated the symbol. This is a not uncommon practice with minor Islamist insurgent organizations attempting to punch above their weight. By naming themselves after a famous shahid (martyr) they add luster to their cause, and Khalid al-Islambouli is of especial significance as the first celebrated shahid of the modern period.

As with all incidents of this nature, the target is exposure, and in this respect the Chechen group, or groups, have scored a signal success. Over the week of the incidents the militants succeeded in blowing up two aircraft, bombed one of Moscow’s busiest metro stations, and took hundreds hostage in a school in northern Ossetia. The combined death toll from the bombings, 100, is the second highest tally of fatalities since hostilities were renewed between Russia and Chechnya in 1999, and the figures for the school hostages are still rising. Significantly, on September 1, Moscow’s United Nations ambassador called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. All of which means that whatever the negative public reactions the incidents evoke, the long-term aims of the insurgents — to internationalize the crisis — has come a step closer. Moscow is bracing itself for more of the same.


1. The particular explosive material used, hexogen, was also the key ingredient in a series of devastating apartment complex bombings in September 1999 in the cities of Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk, during which more than 300 died. Practically speaking, hexogen constitutes the ‘signature explosive’ of the Chechens.

2. In the communiqué issued after the attacks on the Russian airliners, the ‘al-Qaeda’ tag was not used.

3. Muhammad al-Islambouli’s name was reportedly found on a list of members of a rebel group found on the field commander Oibek Rakhimov who was killed in Chechnya on January 16, 2002.