THE KILLING OF ABU AL-WALID AND THE RUSSIAN POLICY IN CHECHNYA

By Murad Batal Al-Shishani (05/05/2004 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Abd Al-Aziz Bin Ali Bin Said Al Said Al-Ghamdi, known as Abu Al-Walid, took over leadership of Arab fighters in Chechnya after the death of Amir Khattab (Samer Bin Saleh Bin Abdullah Al-Swelim) in 2002. Accused by the Russian government of being the mastermind of numerous terrorist attacks in Chechnya and Moscow, Al-Walid is the poster child for Russian allegations that legions of al-Qaeda are fighting in Chechnya.

In a full exposé on Al-Walid’s life, the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan interviewed members of the al-Walid family (23 June 2002) describing his upbringings and how he went to Afghanistan in 1986 at age sixteen, but only after first receiving “the permission of his parents”, which is important because parental consent is essential in some parts of the Muslim world in determining whether a person can wage jihad. Al-Walid comes from the town of al-Hall, located in the southern province of Baljarshi province, near Jeddah. According to al-Watan, Al-Walid grew up in a pious family and the son of a well known Imam. His brothers told al-Watan that Al-Walid enjoyed spending his time reading religious books and was conscientious about his lessons studying the Qur’an.

While in Afghanistan Al-Walid spent two years training in the Maktb Al Khadamat (Office of Services), a center created by the Jordanian-Palestinian leader of Arab fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s, organizing the inflow of Arab volunteers to Afghanistan by registering and distributing them to training camps. These two years appear to have played an important role in the development of Al-Walid’s Jihadist views. Al-Walid took leave from the fighting to return to Saudi Arabia for three months between 1987 and 1988. He fought for another two years in Afghanistan before finally coming back to Saudi Arabia for treatment of an injured left hand at King Fahd hospital in the Saudi city of Khobar. After spending three months recovering from his surgery, Al-Walid left once more for Afghanistan.

In the early 1990s Al-Walid traveled to Afghanistan, Bosnia and Tajikistan, fighting in the Balkans and Central Asia. His jihadi career led him to Tajikistan, where he participated in the Tajik civil war (1994-1995). He later traveled to Bosnia to fight against the Bosnian Serbs. Al-Walid left the Balkans in 1995, taking up the cause of the Chechens by joining the group of Arab fighters serving under the Saudi fighter Khattab. He adapted to Chechen society by marrying a Chechen woman, a marriage that produced two children.

IMPLICATIONS: The Russian policy of assassination began in 1996 when the President of the Chechen Republic and leader of the nationalist movement Jokhar Dudayev was killed. But the assassination backfired and instead of ending the Chechen resistance, as the Russians expected, it fueled an upsurge in the resistance, forcing the Russian Government to negotiations. The Chechens succeeded in achieving de facto independence and sign a Russian-Chechen treaty in 1997 between President Yeltsin and the Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov who came to power upon this de facto independence.

With second Chechen war in its second year, the assassination policy became official Russian policy, and was launched as a means to counter the leadership of the independence movement in Chechnya or those who came from Arab countries to support the movement bringing with them their religious ideologies. Upon assigning the operations in Chechnya to the Federal Security Service on behalf of the Russian Government in early 2001, then Kremlin spokesperson on Chechen affairs Sergei Yasterzhembsky declared that \"reestablishing security in the Caucasus Republic will only take place after eliminating the leaders of the Chechen fighters\", and that \"special security forces and the forces of the Ministry of Interior and the Russian Army must strive to eliminate the Chechen leaders\".

The elimination saga started with the killing of Arbi Barayev, Salman Raduyev (who died in captivity in mysterious circumstances, Khattab (with a poisoned letter), and more recently the assassination of former Chechen interim President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in the Qatari capital, Doha, and of guerrilla leader Ruslan Gelayev. The assassination of Yandarbiyev, for which Russian Intelligence agents were accused, was brought to Qatari courts. Still, these assassinations failed to end the resistance in Chechnya, which is continuing in different places and at different times.

In this context, the killing of Abu Al-Walid might be a blow to the Salafi-Jihadist way and the Arab fighters. Although it has been rumored that a known salafist fighter named Abu Hafss al-Ordni has taken over leadership after al-Walid, it is expected that Abu Omar Al-Saif, the ideologue of Arab fighters in Chechnya and the head of the Shari\'a courts established in Chechnya in 1997, will assume leadership. The problem is that Abu-Omar\'s role has always been ideological, and his expertise in the field is not as strong as that of Khattab or Abu Al-Walid. This dilemma will only add to the problems the Salafi-Jihadists are already facing in Chechnya, with funds to the group cut as part of the international campaign to block funds for \"terrorism\". External funding was one of the most important mainstays that the Salafi-Jihadists used to recruit fighters. Yet the killing of Abu Al-Walid and the policy of assassinations are not expected to have any great implications on the Chechen resistance as a whole, especially the nationalist movement fighting the Russian troops in separation from the Salafi-Jihadists.

CONCLUSIONS: Be it that the killing of the Arab leader Abu Al-Walid might affect the Salafi-Jihadist way in Chechnya, the Russian policy of assassinations will not make a difference on the fundamentalist movement in Chechnya because the latter is being fed by violence against civilians, the Zachistka (“mopping-up operations”), refusing to deal with the legal Chechen leadership and trying to strengthen the rule of the brutal Russian proxy Ahmad Kadyrov. This continues to make radicalism and resistance, in any form, the alternative for many young Chechens who have lived in war and destruction from 1994.

It is also noteworthy that the policy of assassinations has failed to put an end to the Chechen resistance in general, because even if the Salafi-Jihadist strain of resistance would be killed along with its leader, the Chechen resistance will persist since it is not part of the Salafi-Jihadist way. If anything, the resistance is likely to become more localized and uncontrollable following the assassination campaign of its leaders.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Murad Batal Al-Shishani is a Jordanian-Chechen writer who holds an M.A degree in Political Science, specializing in Islamic Movements in Chechnya. He is author of the book \"Islamic Movement in Chechnya and the Chechen-Russian Conflict 1990-2000, Amman 2001 (in Arabic).