The recent killing of Saudi Sheikh Abu Omar Muhammad al-Sayf, a religious adviser to the Chechen resistance since 1995, heralded the demise of the first generation of Arab mujahideen in Chechnya. Their presence has had a profound effect upon the ongoing war in the Russian North Caucasus, with Chechnya widely viewed as another jihadi front controlled by al-Qaeda. The following aims to contextualize Chechnya’s “Arab” fighters.
Chechen and North Caucasian links with the Middle East stretch back to Russian imperial history when these peoples migrated in the thousands to modern day Jordan, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. While in the latter three countries the Chechens were assimilated over time, in Jordan today there still exists a unique community of around 8,000 Chechens who have preserved their language and cultural traditions.
After 1990, dozens of Jordanian-Chechens traveled to see their newly independent homeland. Among them was Sheikh Ali Fathi al-Shishani, an elderly veteran of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and an ethnic Jordanian-Chechen. In 1993, Fathi formed a Salafi Islamic Jamaat consisting of scores of young indigenous Chechens and some Jordanian-Chechens. Following the onset of the Russo-Chechen war in December 1994, he was instrumental in facilitating the recruitment of Arab fighters from Afghanistan. Among those he personally invited was Samir Salih Abdallah al-Suwaylim, better known as “Khattab.”
Emir Khattab was a young, but experienced Saudi Arab-Afghan mujahid, who commanded one of the three Arab units that fought in the Tajik civil war from 1992. Apparently, he made his decision to fight alongside the Chechens after seeing television images of the latter wearing Islamic headbands. From Afghanistan, he traveled to Baku airport and met with a fellow mujahid. While investigating travel routes to Chechnya, he received a letter from Sheikh Fathi via the already extant network of Arab financiers and facilitators in Baku, inviting him to join the jihad.
Khattab formed a unit of eight experienced Afghan-Arabs who together traveled to Chechnya in February 1995. Once there, he met Fathi and arranged the transfer of two-thirds of Fathi’s approximately 90 followers into his personal military command, thus furnishing himself with immediate military clout. This company-sized unit was then subdivided into sections headed by his deputies (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, May 2, 2002).
Khattab was also able to enhance his status by befriending the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who later declared him his brother. This symbolic gesture was important given that the fiercely independent Chechens are wary of outside influence in their internal affairs. Khattab fully cooperated and coordinated with the Chechen rebel command, and he and his commanders—including his first deputy Abu Bakr Aqeedah, Aqeedah’s successor Hakim al-Medani, Abu Jafar al-Yemeni, Yaqub al-Ghamidi and his then deputy and the future emir of the foreign fighters, Abu Walid al-Ghamidi—were able to impart some of their tactical experience from the anti-Soviet jihad.
Over time, the logistical networks from the Middle East and Afghanistan via Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey solidified, with Fathi continuing to play a role in recruitment, largely through the dissemination of rebel videos and CDs, at that time a novel tool that was conceived of by Khattab.
In total, approximately 80 Middle Eastern Arabs fought against the Russians during the 1994-96 war . Alongside them were some North Africans and Turks, the three main constituent groups of the foreign contingent that continue to fight today. They were regarded by the rebel leadership as an anomaly, although useful nonetheless and welcomed as a result, particularly for their ability to attract finances. While their military influence was negligible within the larger war effort, their militant ideas and religious influence began to percolate through war-torn Chechen society after August 1996.
An Islamic State
Khattab’s vision for an Islamic State in the North Caucasus was only partially complete with the Chechens’ 1996 victory. He believed that jihad must establish God’s law in one country, which can then be used as a base for expanding the Islamic state. To that end, he established a number of training camps after 1996, paying young North Caucasians to attend two week courses in which they acquired religious training and weapons instruction. A trickle of Arabs continued to arrive in the region via established networks, adding to his original core grouping that survived the war almost intact.
President Aslan Maskhadov’s secular rule after 1996 was opposed by an array of Islamists who formed a pseudo-military-religious alliance that eventually forced him to implement Shariah law. Around 30 “courts” were established throughout the republic, with religious guidance from Sheikh Abu Omar al-Sayf, operating from the template of the Sudanese model. It received additional religious sanction by Abdurakhman, a young Jordanian-Chechen who succeeded Sheikh Fathi as head of the Islamic Jamaat following the latter’s death in 1997.
This botched attempt to impose alien concepts on this devastated and highly Sovietized society failed, at the very least, to restore order. Maskhadov soon decreed that Abdurakhman, two of his Arab deputies and the Dagestani Islamist Bagautdin Magomedov leave the republic. Yet, he did not single out Khattab, who by then had acquired too much power to warrant public denunciation.
Khattab has often been described as an associate of Osama bin Laden, given that the two Saudis both fought in the anti-Soviet jihad. Yet although they were in Afghanistan at the same time, Khattab was only a 17-year-old mujahid when he arrived in 1987 and he persistently refuted any connection with bin Laden, stating that there is “no relationship because of the long distance and difficult communications” (Al-Jazeera, January 21, 2000). He constantly reiterated this sentiment in interviews, simply referring to bin Laden as a “good Muslim.”
There is now evidence, however, that both sides were in contact via representatives during the 1990s and early 2000s. That correspondence amounted to a rigorous debate over strategy, as both men had an entirely different worldview and each attempted to convince the other of the superiority of their respective approaches to jihad. This was also characterized by a personal rivalry between them, particularly as Khattab’s stature grew within the Islamist community (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 9, 2004).
Although he occasionally highlighted the oppression of Chechnya’s Muslims, bin Laden was obsessed by the Judeo-Christian alliance and focused his strategy upon attacking the “far enemy.” Khattab on the other hand sought to establish an Islamic system in Chechnya and then use it as a base from which to forcefully expand into neighboring territories. In August 1999, he and Shamil Basayev led hundreds of fighters in an invasion of Dagestan to implement this vision, which ultimately failed. Right up until his death in 2002, Khattab never threatened to attack the United States.
Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had a deeper interest in events in the North Caucasus: “if the Chechens and other Caucasus mujahideen reach the shores of the oil-rich Caspian, the only thing that will separate them from Afghanistan will be the neutral state of Turkmenistan. This will form a mujahid Islamic belt to the south of Russia…” . Before al-Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad merged into bin Laden’s umbrella group in 1998, he embarked upon a fact-finding mission to Chechnya to investigate the establishment of a camp for his followers.
In January 2000, links with Afghanistan deepened when a delegation led by Chechen ideologue Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev traveled to Kandahar and the Taliban formally recognized Chechnya as an independent state (Kavkaz Center, January 19, 2000). At the time, Yandarbiyev, who by this stage had moved to the Middle East together with other Dagestani ideologues, denied that Chechens were being trained in Afghanistan, although a training facility was established in Kandahar (The News, Pakistan, February 22, 2000).
Chechnya is well-known as one of the more difficult jihadi fronts, where the climate is extremely harsh and, due to linguistic and physical differences and their dearth of local knowledge, the Arab fighters have been prone to death or capture. For these reasons, the Chechen rebels sought to regulate the number of foreign fighters, and where possible only accept those with adequate military experience. Khattab employed a representative in Kandahar, known as Dahak, a Morrocan, who vetted recruits for their suitability. By default, the number of foreign fighters was also regulated by logistics and the difficulties of traversing the terrain. Indeed, the biographies of dozens of jihadis reveal their desire to fight in Chechnya, but show their failure to do so. Moreover, the post-9/11 American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq diverted would-be recruits to these fronts, external events that caused a significant change in the approach of the Arab leadership in Chechnya.
The strictly controlled method of operating within the Arab leadership in Chechnya allows only the emir to air his views; the sole exception was Abu Omar al-Sayf. After Khattab’s death in June 2002 and the smooth ascension of Abu Walid, he began to alter the tone of his interviews, strongly contrasting with those of his predecessor. Both Abu Walid and his successor, Abu Hafs al-Urdani, began to advocate attacks against the U.S. Despite the Arab presence being partially influential in Chechnya on religious terms, for example when Abu Omar al-Sayf issued a fatwa to justify the first Chechen suicide bombing, the rationale for the change in emphasis was driven by the necessity for the Arab fighters to continue their primary role as fundraisers. Their utility otherwise, in the eyes of the rebels, is defunct.
After 9/11, U.S. pressure on Persian Gulf-based organizations suspected of terrorist financing drastically slowed funding to the Chechens, as openly confirmed by both Abu Walid and Abu Hafs (Al-Watan, December 12, 2003). In an attempt to attract new potential contributors amid the diversification of funds to clearer cut causes, both leaders broadened their rhetoric, aligning it roughly with the aims of al-Qaeda.
Abu Hafs has been thrust into an information campaign by the post-Maskhadov leadership under Sheikh Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev. Both men appear to have a close relationship, assisted by Sadulayev’s ability to speak Arabic. A new video shows Abu Hafs, whose real name was recently revealed as Yusuf Amerat, sitting to the left of Sadulayev, together with his Sudanese deputy, giving the impression of real Arab influence in decision making .
Amerat has also exploited the links the U.S. claims he has with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who strongly supports the Chechen cause. Both men have sent one another moral support via jihadist websites. Al-Zarqawi’s home city of Zarqa hosts some of the Jordanian-Chechen/Circassian population and he previously expressed a desire to fight in Chechnya. Interestingly, a source has claimed that at one stage Khattab lived in Zarqa (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, October 13, 2005).
While Arab military influence was negligible during the 1994 to 1996 war, Khattab was instrumental in organizing the invasion of Dagestan in 1999, which led to the resurgence of the ongoing war. The Arab financial and religious input has sustained and changed the dynamic of the Russo-Chechen wars, as well as allowed the Putin administration to paint the Chechen resistance as al-Qaeda. Since 1994, the number of foreign fighters has rarely, if at all, risen above 50 at any one time and is not likely to have exceeded 500 combatants.
1. Aslan Maskhadov’s and his deputy’s estimate, RFE/RL Russian Service.
2. Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, A. Zawahiri.
3. See Kavkaz Center, video section (Russian version).