Russian authorities are denying press reports that Chechen rebel field commander Khattab was in command of the foreign pro-Taliban fighters, including those belonging to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network, who were holed up in the northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz, which fell yesterday to forces of the Northern Alliance. On Saturday (November 24), the Interfax news agency quoted an anonymous Russian special services official as saying that the Russian intelligence had no information that Khattab, an Arab of Chechen origin who is thought to hail from either Jordan or Saudi Arabia, was currently in Afghanistan (NTV.ru, November 24). Yesterday, General Gennady Troshev, commander of the North Caucasus military district, said that the major Chechen rebel commanders–including Khattab, Shamil Basaev and Aslan Maskhadov–remained in Chechnya (NTV.ru, November 25).
Last week, Britain’s The Independent quoted a top commander of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, General Mohammed Daud, as saying that Khattab–or, as the paper identified him, “Omar al-Khatab”–was leading a force of 1,000 foreign fighters belonging to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network in Kunduz, which was the last remaining stronghold of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan before falling yesterday to the Northern Alliance. The paper quoted Daud as saying that the al-Qaida force led by Khattab was part of a force of foreign pro-Taliban fighters in Kunduz numbering more than 10,000 (The Independent, November 21-22, 26). Last Friday (November 23), Russia’s state television channel RTR quoted “unofficial sources” as saying that Khattab had arrived in Kunduz that morning after leaving Chechnya three days earlier for Afghanistan via Azerbaijan and Pakistan (RIA Novosti, November 23). The Strana.ru website quoted the state news agency Itar-Tass as saying that bin Laden had asked Khattab to take charge of the defense of Kunduz (Strana.ru, November 23). The same day, however, an unidentified official from Russia’s special services was quoted as saying that there was no information to suggest that Khattab had left Chechnya (Interfax, November 23).
The issue of Khattab’s presence in or absence from Afghanistan aside, the state news agency Itar-Tass on Friday quoted an unnamed source in Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration as saying that some 100 Chechens fighting on the side of the Taliban in Afghanistan had been killed and another 100 taken prisoner over November 10-20. The source, which also claimed that more than 300 Chechen fighters were currently “blockaded” in the southern Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, said that the Chechens fighting in Afghanistan had “once again wound up as toys in the hands of Arab extremists.” The source claimed that over the period of 1995 to 1999 a “significant number” of Chechens and their families were sent to Afghanistan on the orders of Khattab, his deputy Abu al-Valid “and other functionaries of the Muslim Brotherhood organization” (NTV.ru, November 23; see also the Monitor, November 12, 16). Western media have likewise been reporting that Chechens were among other foreign Islamic militants, including Pakistanis and Arabs, fighting on the side of the Taliban in Kunduz and elsewhere in Afghanistan. Today, for example, a spokesman for Northern Alliance defense minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim was quoted as saying that yesterday’s uprising by foreign pro-Taliban prisoners in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif was sparked when two Chechen prisoners launched a suicide attack using a grenade they seized from one of their guards. The uprising was quelled after U.S. forces mounted air strikes on the fortress in which the foreign fighters were being interned (AFP, November 26).
For their part, the Chechen rebels have denounced reports of Chechens fighting in Afghanistan as disinformation put out by the Russian special services. Late last week, for example, Chechenpress, a pro-Maskhadov news agency, criticized CNN for airing claims that Chechens were fighting in Afghanistan and, in particular, for reporting that a group of sixty Chechen fighters had committed mass suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Northern Alliance. The agency claimed that not one Chechen had yet been produced, dead or alive, to back up such claims (Chechenpress, November 23). Kavkaz.org, the Qatar-based website sympathetic to more radical Chechen field commanders like Khattab and Basaev, ran a similar commentary. It claimed that “neither the Americans nor the opposition [Northern Alliance] will be able to put forward even one Chechen as proof of the participation of ‘hundreds and thousands of Chechen fighters’ in the war in Afghanistan” (Kavkaz.org, November 23).
Earlier this month, Russian military sources were quoted as saying that they had intercepted Chechen rebel communications indicating that “mercenaries” fighting in Chechnya were heading to Afghanistan to fight on behalf of the Taliban and that “several hundred” Chechens were already fighting there alongside 3,000-4,000 Arabs and 5,000-7,000 Pakistanis. Chechenpress denounced reports of Chechens fighting on the side of the Taliban as “systematic disinformation” by the Russian authorities. Meanwhile, Maskhadov’s special representative, Mairbek Vachagaev, categorically denied allegations made by the Russian authorities that any Chechen fighters were connected to al-Qaida (see the Monitor, November 9). For his part, Khattab, in an interview with Kavkaz.org last month, said that bin Laden was “a good mujahid and scholar” and a “very decent” person whom he had had known while fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, but that he had not seen or spoken with the Saudi-born terrorist for eight years (see the Monitor, October 11).
PUTIN SIGNALS STAFFING CHANGE IN RUSSIAN MILITARY.