Death of a Warlord

A brief encounter with Khattab, an Islamist warlord, now reported dead in Chechnya

Death of a Warlord

A brief encounter with Khattab, an Islamist warlord, now reported dead in Chechnya

It was a hot day in Grozny in June 1998. I arrived at the house of Chechen commander Shamil Basayev in the south of the city, seeking an interview. Basayev himself, wearing a blue T-shirt and cap, informal and soft-spoken came out to talk.

But the other man standing in front of Basayev's gates was far more striking. He was well-built, swarthy and had large brown eyes. Thick black locks of hair snaked medusa-like to his shoulders. "Are you Khattab?" I asked in English. "Would you give me an interview?"

The man confirmed that he was indeed Khattab and said he was prepared to talk to me later. We exchanged a few more words in English - which he spoke well, but with a heavy accent - and then he slipped back into the house. I spoke to Basayev and then approached one of Khattab's Arab followers. He disappeared for a few minutes to talk to his master and then returned to say that Khattab had changed his mind: there would be no interview.

The fearsome look, the choice of a one-word nom de guerre, the disappearing habit: they all suggested that Khattab built his career as Islamist fighter and enemy of Russia as much on mystery and image, as his actual fighting exploits.

Born into a wealthy family in Saudi Arabia in 1970, Khattab's real name is disputed, although Jordanian sources have identified him as Habib Abdel Rahman Khatab and his family as Bedu. He threw up the opportunity to study in the West, choosing instead to go and fight the jihad in Afghanistan - where he probably met fellow Saudi, Osama Bin Laden. He moved on from that struggle to the civil war in Tajikistan and, in March 1995, to Chechnya.

In April 1996, Khattab led a devastating ambush against a Russian armoured column high in the mountains near the village of Yaryshmardy. The death of almost 100 soldiers practically forced the resignation of the then Russian defence minister Pavel Grachev. A grisly video of the aftermath of the ambush, with Khattab walking triumphantly down a line of blackened Russian corpses, was soon available for sale in Grozny market - but it was probably shot with the funds of a Saudi target audience in mind.

By 1999, when he and Basayev launched the raid into the mountains of Dagestan that helped trigger the start of the second Chechen war, Khattab was already deeply unpopular in Chechnya. He should have known that his fundamentalist brand of Saudi Islam was very unpopular in both Chechnya and Dagestan, where Sufism has been the central faith for two centuries. But the second war gave him a chance to take up the fight again.

Khattab's presence in Chechnya was useful both to the worldwide Islamist cause, for whom he was the principal fund-raiser - and for the Russian government, which seeks to portray the Chechen conflict as a fight against "international terrorism".

In fact, Khattab was the most prominent of a small band of foreign Islamist fighters in Chechnya. His death, now confirmed by the Chechen side, weakens the link between Chechnya and al-Qaeda. It could provide a new opportunity for political dialogue between Russians and Chechens on the serious issues that concern them.

Thomas de Waal is IWPR's Caucasus Editor.

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