UNRAVELLING THE LINKS BETWEEN THE MIDDLE EAST AND ISLAMIC MILITANTS IN CHECHNYA

By Brian Williams (02/12/2003 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: In 1999, the democratically elected head of the de facto independent republic of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, asked the Kremlin for assistance in suppressing several Wahhabi militant formations based in Urus-Martan and the mountains of southeastern Chechnya. Far from assisting the beleaguered moderate president of Chechnya in expelling such radical Muslim field commanders as the Arab jihadi leader Amir Khattab, the Russians worked to undermine Maskhadov\'s secularist-national government vis-à-vis the Islamic militants. Ironically, when Amir Khattab\'s Islamic Battalion soon thereafter acted against Maskhadov\'s wishes in August and September of 1999 and invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, the Kremlin cynically accused Maskhadov of being behind the invasion.
Regardless of the facts, and having been provided with a pretext for invading Chechnya, Vladimir Putin subsequently launched a full-scale invasion of the \'terrorist state\' and unleashed the second Russo-Chechen War. In the process of \'suppressing international terrorism\' in Chechnya, Russia\'s ham-fisted policies of launching zachistkas (brutal search-and-destroy sweeps of Chechen villages that often lead to extrajudicial executions) have, however, driven many embittered Chechens into the arms of the very extremist Wahhabi militant extremists that Russia claims to be eradicating in the region.
While the Kremlin\'s axiomatic statements that it is fighting \'global terrorism\' in Chechnya are clearly refuted by the fact that the majority of the Chechen fighters are nationalists fighting for self-determination, there certainly are irrefutable links between transnational Jihadis and Wahhabi charities in the Middle East on the one hand and extremist units among the secessionist Chechen fighters on the other hand. These roots go back to first Russo-Chechen War of 1994-96 which began as a secular nationalist struggle.
During the first Russo-Chechen War of 1994-1996, a Saudi Arabian mujahideen veteran of the American-sponsored jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, who went by the nom de guerre of Amir Khattab (his real name was Samer ben Saleh ben Abdallah al-Sweleim) led a group of Arab fighters to assist the Chechens in their uneven struggle against the Russian Federation. These mujahideen volunteers saw themselves as heroes coming to defend the outgunned Muslim Chechens from the Russian kafirs (infidels). Khattab\'s fighters had some success in grafting their notions of total jihad to the national liberation struggle of the Chechens.

IMPLICATIONS: With the outbreak of the second Russo-Chechen War in October 1999, the Wahhabi militants formed several jamaats (Arabic \'communities\', but in this context the term actually means \'platoons\') which operated under the auspices of Amir Khattab\'s Islamic Battalion. These groups were tasked with some of the most difficult (almost suicidal) military assignments in the defense of Grozny and many of the Wahhabis had \'funerals\' before going into combat as they considered themselves already to be shaheeds (martyrs) for Allah.
Military analysts put the total number of Arab mujahideen fighting in Chechnya at no more than 200-300, but they are well armed and financed by Wahhabi charities in the Gulf, such as Al Haramein. The U.S. State Department claims that as much as 100 million dollars have been channeled to the Chechen resistance fighters from the Middle East. The international Arab fighters bribe their way into Chechnya at great risk. They often combine the romantic notions of defending an oppressed people of the sort espoused by American idealists (such as Ernest Hemmingway) who went to fight against Franco\'s fascists in Spain, with notions of perpetual jihad of the strain espoused by Arab fighters in Al-Qaeda\'s 055 International Brigade in northern Afghanistan.
In an interview with this author, Abu Hamza al-Misri, the extremist Imam of the notorious Finnsbury Park Mosque in London claimed to have directed several devout Muslims from his mosque to defend the Chechen Dar al-Islam (Realm of Islam) from the Russian infidels. Graphic videos sent back to London by these fighters have been distributed throughout the Middle East where they serve as recruiting promotionals for jihad against the Russians. I have also witnessed Muslim congregations in the Middle East collecting money to be sent to Chechnya for humanitarian purposes, some of which certainly falls into the hands of the militants who control the cash flow into the region.

CONCLUSIONS: With the mysterious poisoning death of Emir Khattab in the Spring of 2002, whose exploits were romanticized by Arab supporters throughout the Middle East, analysts nevertheless speculate that the flow of money to the Wahhabi jamaats operating in the mountains of Chechnya may have been temporarily disrupted. That was until Khattab\'s right hand man, Abu al-Walid, rose to be Emir (Commander) of the Wahhabi fighters in Chechnya.
According to the London-based Islamic Observation Center, \'Abu al-Walid\' is in fact a 34 year old Saudi citizen named Abd al-Aziz al-Ghaamidi who originates from the town of Al Hal in the province of Baljrasi in southern Saudi Arabia. Like Khattab, Abu al-Walid received his \'education\' on the battle fields of Afghanistan. Abu al-Walid next appeared in Chechnya via the jihad in Zenica, Bosnia, and then partook in Khattab\'s videotaped ambush and slaughter of a Russian column of the 245th motorized rifle regiment in April 1996.
In the current war, Walid was named commander of the eastern front by Maskhadov in a summer 2001 war council, and his forces made headlines when they shot down and captured the crew of a Russian Mi 24 Hind gunship. Following the December 27, 2002 bombing in Grozny, the Russian government has accused Walid of the crime and of being supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. This accusation may be nothing more than \'agitprop\' blustering on the part of the Kremlin, and it should be noted that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a militant jihadi organization of the variety of Ayman al-Zawahiri\'s Islamic Jihad or Al-Qaeda, rather it is recognized as a legitimate opposition group made up of doctors, lawyers, professors, etc. in Egypt and Jordan. Regardless of the source of his funding, Abu al-Walid demonstrates the fact that Russia\'s continued brutality in the region will continue to make Chechnya a magnet for Wahhabi financial sponsors and devout Muslims throughout the world who see Russia\'s crimes against humanity in Chechnya as crimes against the Muslim umma.

AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Brian Glyn Williams, formerly lecturer at the University of London SOAS, is currently assistant professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and author of The Crimean Tatars. The Diaspora Experience and the Forging of a Nation. Brill 2001. He summarizes the current Russo-Chechen war in Middle East Policy. vol. 8. no. 1.