Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 18

The U.S. newspaper Newsday reported this week that it had come into possession of a videocassette showing the links between the Arab/Chechen rebel leader Khattab and Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network. The videocassette–which came from a former al-Qaida residence in Kabul, Afghanistan, and was purchased by Newsday for US$500–“prominently features” Khattab, the newspaper reported. It claims that “the tape appears to have been produced in 2000 either for propaganda or to show potential donors how al-Qaida helps the Chechens in what bin Laden considers part of his holy war against Christian forces.” The paper reported that in the video, “Khattab is shown at a meeting of Chechen rebel fighters, introducing two Arab men in combat fatigues,” who, Khattab says in the video, “‘are here to help us and they want to teach us.'” Newsday noted that Russian officials have claimed that Khattab “has commanded hundreds or thousands of Arab and other Islamic militant fighters” and that these fighters, according to some of those officials, “even form the bulk of Chechen forces.” Although outside observers have accused Moscow of exaggeration, Russian officials have used such claims “to help justify Moscow’s heavy use of force in Chechnya, which Western governments and human rights groups have often criticized,” the paper noted (Newsday, January 21; NTV, January 22).

Khattab, short for Habib Abd al-Rakhman Ibn al-Khattab, was born in 1963 to a prominent Circassian family in Jordan (in the Middle East, the term Circassian is used for all people with roots in the North Caucasus). He graduated from the military academy in Amman, served for several years in King Hussein’s Circassian Guard and has spent most of his life in hot spots where Muslims are fighting non-Muslims. He fought on the side of the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and it was during this period that he met the Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden. In an interview with the Kavkaz.org website posted last autumn, Khattab said that, yes, he knew bin Laden from Afghanistan but that he had not seen or spoken with him for eight years. He called the Saudi-born terrorist “a good mujahid and scholar” and a “very decent” person (see the Monitor, October 11, 2001).

It is worth noting that the Chechen rebels have long maintained ties with the Afghan mujahideen. In 1995, Chechen rebel field commander Shamil Basaev told the Monitor’s correspondent that even before the start of the first Chechen war in December 1994 he and his fighters had traveled to military training camps in Afghanistan three times. It should also be noted that in Afghanistan the Chechen rebel leaders’ closest contacts were with the Taliban, who, after coming to power, recognized Chechnya as an independent state. After the start of the U.S-led antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan last autumn, Basaev said that the Chechen rebel formation would give military assistance to the Taliban. Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov was more cautious, though media connected to him condemned the coalition’s military operation against the Taliban.

However, while some Chechen separatist leaders may have relations with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, that does not constitute grounds for branding the entire Chechen resistance movement as terrorist. The Kremlin, of course, is carrying out an ongoing propaganda campaign to do just that. This week, for example, the Kremlin, which has been stressing the alleged ties between Khattab and Basaev and al-Qaida, claimed that Maskhadov also had such ties. Kavkaz.strana.ru, the Kremlin-connected website, reported that an Afghan national working on behalf of al-Qaida had been detained in the Russian republic of Kalmykia. The website alleged the captured Afghan was on a mission to deliver Islamic extremist propaganda–including, among other things, leaflets urging an anti-Russian jihad–to Maskhadov representatives (Kavkaz.strana.ru, January 22; see also Russia’s Week, January 23).

For his part, Ahmed Zakaev–Maskhadov’s representative and a vice premier in the separatists’ Chechen Republic of Ichkeria–categorically denied that there were any links between the Chechen rebel leadership and al-Qaida. “The Chechen side believes the Kremlin must give its assessment of what is going on in Chechnya–a war against international terrorism or a colonial war aimed at the destruction of a people,” Zakaev told a London press conference. “After the tragedy of September 11 and the ensuing events in Afghanistan, the world saw that the anti-people’s war in Chechnya is not connected to the international anti-terrorism operation. The Chechen people have a connection with terrorism only in the sense that they are victims of state terror.” Meanwhile Russia’s Foreign Ministry lodged a complaint with the British Foreign Office after officials of the latter met with Zakaev. According to the ministry, the meeting contradicted the “cooperation” and “partnership” between London and Moscow, including in the fight against international terrorism (Radio Liberty, RIA Novosti, Kavkaz.org, January 22; see also Russia’s Week, January 23).