Earlier this week, unconfirmed reports surfaced claiming that Abu Walid al-Ghamdi, the leader of the International Islamic Peacekeeping Brigade, had been killed by Russian forces in Chechnya. Details of his demise are still sketchy, but according to this account by Kavkaz Center, the chief media outlet for the Chechen insurgents led by al-Qaeda leader Shamil Basayev, al-Ghamdi was shot in the back while preparing for prayer.
Who is this enigmatic Saudi commander? What is al-Qaeda's history in Chechnya, and what are their goals in the region? And how does al-Ghamdi's death affect the war on terrorism? This analysis will endeavor to answer these questions.
Brief background on al-Qaeda involvement in Chechnya
Al-Qaeda fighters first began arriving in Chechnya in 1991 when former Soviet Air Force General Jokar Dudayev declared independence from Russia. Many of the other Soviet republics had already broken free of Moscow's control by this point, and Dudayev likely figured that he had a good chance of duplicating their success, particularly in a region that has never had any love for Russian rule. It took the tsars decades to conquer Chechnya during the mid-1800s and during World War 2 Stalin deported the entire population to Siberia and Central Asia en masse over alleged collaboration with the Nazis, with the Chechens were not allowed to return home until 1957 when Khrushchev restored the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous SSR.
During the early part of the 1990s, al-Qaeda involvement of Chechnya was primarily limited to assisting their co-religionists in achieving independence from Russian rule and the organization does not appear to have held any direct influence or control over the upper echelons of the rebel hierarchy. That all changed, however, with the rise of Shamil Basayev to prominence within the rebel leadership.
As Sobaka notes (though I disagree with their unwillingness to admit Basayev's affiliation with the larger al-Qaeda network for reasons that will hopefully become clear from reading this analysis), Basayev was originally a commander in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia before going on to assist in the Azeri war against Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Al-Qaeda had a contingent of between 1,500-2,500 fighters assisting the Azeri military during the war it is quite probable that during this time Basayev first learned of al-Qaeda and became radicalized by the organization's ideology. Rohan Gunaratna's book Inside al-Qaeda (where much of this information comes from) states that Basayev was trained at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and my guess would be that it was during this time period that this took place. There also a number of reports stating that Basayev was trained at the Amir Muawia camp in Khost province of Afghanistan controlled by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and that upon graduation in July 1994 he met with senior members of the Pakistani military and the ISI.
At any rate, Basayev resurfaced again in 1995 as the leader of the al-Jihad Fisi Sabililah Special Islamic Regiment accompanied by a number of prominent Chechen radicals including crime boss Arbi Barayev and Amir ibn al-Khattab, a Saudi al-Qaeda leader who had previously fought in the Tajik Civil War. Thanks to Basayev's rise to prominence within Chechen circles as a result of his actions in Budennovsk, where his men held hundreds of civilians hostage at a hospital and thwarted a Russian commando raid to free them, al-Qaeda's involvement in Chechnya continued to grow and following the Dayton Peace Agreement many al-Qaeda fighters who had previously been killing Serbs in Bosnia traveled to Chechnya to assist their co-religionists in killing Russians.
Despite Basayev's rise to prominence in Chechen circles, he failed to win the newly de facto independent nation's presidency, instead accepting the post of prime minister. In the wake of the Russian withdrawl from Chechnya in November 1996, Basayev and al-Khattab established al-Qaeda training camps at Gudermes and Serzhen-Yurt as well as sending a steady flow of hundreds of Chechens to Afghanistan for further training, which is how so many of them ended up stationed at Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Actual figures as to the numbers of trainees vary, but by the summer of 1999 there were enough for Basayev and al-Khattab to mount an invasion of neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, leading to the beginning of the Second Chechen War.
Since al-Khattab's invasion of Dagestan and the subsequent Russian assault of Chechnya, the Chechen leadership has been increasingly dependent on foreign backing for assistance (Russia has at various times accused Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Lebanon of backing or financing the rebels) and hence became even more dependent on al-Qaeda for assistance. Predictably enough, all of the familiar al-Qaeda hallmarks appeared from suicide bombing to mass casualty attacks on civilian targets. For over two and a half years these connections were more or less ignored or pooh-poohed by Western policy-makers as the creation of Russian propagandists seeking to justify their nation's brutal conduct in Chechnya.
After the fall of the Taliban, however, dozens of al-Qaeda operatives fled to the Pankisi Gorge, a key stronghold for Basayev and al-Khattab's fighters, where they sought to establish an alternate base for the terrorist network with al-Khattab's assistance. Combined with the number of dead or captured Chechens in Afghanistan and the involvement of Chechen-trained al-Qaeda in terrorist plots in Europe, the connection could no longer be ignored.
In April 2002, al-Khattab, now the commander of the International Islamic Peacekeeping Brigade, was assassinated by the Russian FSB, the successor to the KGB, using a poisoned letter. In the interest of keeping the IIPB up and running as a viable force against the Russian military, another Saudi was appointed to lead the organization, one Abdul Aziz al-Ghamdi, better known as Abu Walid.
It is worth noting that Abu Walid's surname, al-Ghamdi, is shared by 3 of the 9/11 hijackers as well as the Saudi cleric who met with bin Laden while he gloating on videotape over the 9/11 attacks.
From Saudi Arabia to Chechnya
Being one of the most mysterious of the Chechen leaders, little information on Abu Walid's background was known prior to his death, leading to some speculation that he may not even exist or could even be many different men. According to this report (it's from Pravda, so it must be true), Abu Walid was originally from the Saudi city of Najran and served in the elite National Guard, which are responsible for the personal protection of members of the House of Saud. He is said to have met bin Laden during the late 1980s, which fits with reports of him being an Afghan Arab and possibly an early member of al-Qaeda as it grew out of the original Afghan Arab movement.
Fighting under al-Qaeda leader Abu Abd al-Aziz Barbaros's Kateebat al-Mujahideen Battalion of the Bosnian Third Army in the Balkans, Abu Walid distinguished himself to al-Qaeda's leadership and even sent a video to the organization's leaders in Afghanistan that depicted al-Qaeda fighters playing soccer with the severed heads of Serb soldiers.
In 1995, Abu Walid arrived in Chechnya as part of the al-Tanzim al-Haz association of the Muslim Brotherhood to spread Wahhabism in the Caucasus and according to a September 25, 2001 statement by the Russian foreign ministry, he was one of 5 senior Chechen commanders receiving direct financing from Osama bin Laden. Serving as al-Khattab's top lieutenant, Abu Walid was involved in much of the planning that led to the Chechen invasion of Dagestan and is accused by the Russian government of orchestrating the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow. Nor was his involvement with Khattab limited to merely Dagestan - during the First Chechen War, he had taken in part in one of the al-Khattab's more famous attacks in which Chechen insurgents successfully ambushed a column of the 245th Motorized Rifle Regiment in April 1996.
Unlike al-Khattab, who was quite familiar with the uses of video propaganda and frequently gave interviews to the jihadi and international media, Abu Walid was far more reclusive and less accessible to the media. What he lacked in terms of visibility, however, he more than made up for in body counts. As a result, after al-Khattab's death in the spring of 2002, he was the natural choice to succeed him as the leader of the IIPB.
The first major terrorist attack attributed to Abu Walid was the suicide bombing of the headquarters of the pro-Russian government in Grozny in December 2002, which was masterminded by one of Abu Walid's deputies, Abu Tariq (Abu Tarik). Evidence of Abu Walid's considerable financial connections can be seen in this raid in Ingushetia in which Russian troops seized upwards of $2,000,000 worth of weapons, explosives, and equipment. My suspicion is that it was this development that prompted Russia to up the bounty on Abu Walid's head to $100,000 (3,000,000 roubles). If the rising bounty on his head appears to have worried Abu Walid, there is no visible sign of it - he was on al-Jazeera just months later threatening attacks throughout Russia.
In December 2003, Abu Walid carried out his threat, bombing a hotel in Moscow. It is interesting to note that a spokesman for the Russian interior ministry identified Abu Walid's financier as Abu Omar As-Sayf, a member of al-Qaeda's ruling council whose name has shown up in the past calling for attacks on US forces in Iraq. One of As-Sayf's couriers, Madina Atabayeva, was captured with $180,000 in cash on him. RIA Novosti via Pravda is reporting that al-Qaeda has set aside as much as $10,000,000 for the Chechen insurgents this year, roughly 1/8 of what Iran has reportedly pumped into Sadr.
Finally, Abu Walid is believed to have masterminded the most recent attack on the Moscow metro prior to his death. It was this attack that truly put made him a renowned international terrorist and led the Christian Science Monitor to list him alongside Abu Musab Zarqawi and Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin as part of the next generation of al-Qaeda leaders. Shortly after the metro attack, Abu Walid again took to al-Jazeera, threatening further violence if Russia re-elected Vladimir Putin. While the outcome of Russian election was never in doubt, I suspect that Abu Walid was laying the justifications for future terrorist attacks against Russian targets.
Freedom Fighters? Think again.
One of the things that must be understood regarding the current mentality of the Chechen al-Qaeda affiliates that is frequently misunderstood by Western analysts is that they are not simply fighting for their independence against Russian occupation of their homeland - they plan on spreading Wahhabism throughout the Caucasus. Nowhere is this better highlighted than in a Kavkaz Interview with Amir Ramzan, the commander of one of Chechen jamaats (Chechen al-Qaeda contingents) fighting in the North Caucasus, makes this much quite clear:
From your words I can assume that you operate not only in Chechnya but all over the North Caucasus.
Yes, very much so. Not only we carry out raids to various areas in the Caucasus, but we also form local Jama’ats, militant sabotage groups locally. We are joined by a lot of Kabardinians, Dagestanis, Karachaevans, Ingushetians and even Ossetians (Muslims).
That means that those in Russia who say that you want to create a caliphate in the Caucasus from sea to sea, are right?
Yes, it is so. Since they are unwilling to negotiate with us, then we’ll be doing what we can. And there is a lot we can do. Next year the war will seize the entire Caucasus from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. Apart from Ossetia and Ingushetia, this year another guerrilla war has already started in two areas of Dagestan bordering Chechnya. I swear by Allah, this is only the beginning. Russian authorities are well aware of this and this is why they are trying to organize formations of the local residents in the area who could resist us effectively. Similar process is taking place in Chechnya. But it will come to absolutely nothing. Having reached a certain level of confrontation inside Chechnya, Russia will sooner or later have to withdraw its troops beyond the Terek River, for instance. In that case we will need no more than two weeks to destroy all the pro-Russian puppet formations.
One might well keep in mind that what holds true for the mentality of the Chechen al-Qaeda is likely to hold true of their comrades-in-arms in Iraq as well.
In conclusion ...
While Abu Walid was directly tied to any specific attacks on American targets, this was more a matter of geography than it was ideology or intent. As an Afghan-trained Saudi al-Qaeda leader, he personified al-Qaeda's influence within the Chechen hierarchy, an influence that has by and large succeeded in transforming the Chechen struggle for independence into a jihad dedicated to the establishment of a Wahhabi theocracy in the Caucasus. While there is a great deal of entirely legitimate and necessary if not obligatory criticism regarding what the Russians have done and continue to do in Chechnya, the death of Abu Walid has served to deliver justice to his hundreds of innocent victims - this man is responsible for more deaths in the last five years than Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was during his entire career. As such, one can only hope that his death brings a sense of justice to his many victims as well as hope that his removal from the gene pool will bring the Second Chechen War closer to an end.
A note on terminology: Some readers may object to my labeling Chechen leaders like Basayev, al-Khattab, or Abu Walid as "al-Qaeda leaders" - I certainly suspect that several of the sources used would. For me, this is a fairly straight-forward matter and is largely a question of semantics. All 3 men are Wahhabi extremists who see no qualms about the use of organized violence against civilians in order to achieve political results, that much is clear. That their key financier is also a member of al-Qaeda's ruling council and that the organization has also received substantial financial, ideological, and logistical assistance from bin Laden is likewise reasonably clear, as is the role of Chechen-trained al-Qaeda in terrorist activities in the Middle East and Western Europe. Given that who holds the purse strings is generally the ultimate means of determining who one is working for, I see nothing wrong with calling a spade a spade.