Portrait of 2 Warlords
- By Thomas de Waal
- Sep. 18 1999 00:00
In retrospect, the moment that I ran into Khattab was a terribly revealing one about the fate of Chechnya. In June last year I made a brief and furtive visit to the Chechen capital Grozny. I went to the house of Shamil Basayev in the south of Grozny, looking for an interview with the man who was still the prime minister of Chechnya. He was loitering outside his gate with a group of men, wearing a turquoise T-shirt and a military-style khaki cap.
One of the crowd was someone I recognized from photographs, a man with a swarthy face, long black hair snaking Medusa-like to his shoulders. I went up to Khattab and asked him in English (somehow it felt more polite not to speak Russian to a man who had spent 10 years fighting the Russians) if he would give the BBC an interview. He said he'd give me a few words after I had talked to Basayev.
I talked to Basayev. He was provocative, evasive, jesting, far more a thirtysomething fighter than a prime minister. Among other things he said that he would not rest until all Russia's ethnic republics (I remember that for some reason he included Chuvashia high up the list) were freed from the Russian yoke. But when I turned to look for Khattab, his men told me that he had changed his mind and gone inside the house.
It was indeed disturbing that a man who was being sought by Interpol, a man whom President Maskhadov had frequently tried to deport from Chechnya, should be visiting the house of a man who was at the time still Chechen prime minister.
The man known by the single name "Khattab" was born Habib Abdel Rahman Khattab in 1965 in a wealthy Bedouin family in Arar in northern Saudi Arabia, near Jordan and Iraq. His family apparently sent him to a U.S. university, but in 1987 he dropped out and went to Pakistan, where he joined up with the mujahedin to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan.
While there he certainly met his fellow Saudi, the dissident and alleged terrorist Osama Bin Laden; whether the two actually worked together is unclear. In 1992 Khattab may have fought with the Islamist opposition in Tajikistan. In February 1995 he arrived in Chechnya with a group of Arab fighters and some money, possibly channeled through the militant Saudi-based Islamic Relief Organization. In April 1996 it was he who led the terrible attack on a Russian armored column in the mountains near the village of Yaryshmardy. Almost 100 soldiers, mainly conscripts, were killed when they were ambushed from all sides. A grisly video could be bought in Grozny market, shot by one of Khattab's comrades, showing him walking up a line of blackened Russian tanks and holding up the charred heads of dead Russian soldiers, shouting "Allah Akbar!"
Khattab comes from an Islamic fundamentalist background alien to the Sufi traditions of the Chechens. So it seemed strange that he should have joined forces with Basayev, who had always rejected militant Islam and refuses, for example, to make women wear veils. When I asked Basayev if Khattab was a "Wahhabi," he parried the question, replying that no, he was a "Khattabi." This I think is another indication that Islam is only the outward badge, not the underlying cause, of their incursions into Dagestan. Khattab and Basayev have different conceptions of Islam.
In the first place they are professional guerrillas who have fought in Afghanistan, Abkhazia, perhaps Tajikistan, Chechnya and are now exporting their permanent war to Dagestan. Basayev once said that he would take up bee-keeping once the Chechen conflict was over, but it turns out war is his only profession. He and Khattab will fight the Russians wherever and whenever they can. It is a pitiless and pointless campaign - although I think we should take them at face value when they say they have no interest in blowing up Russian civilians.
Yet almost everyone else of course is fed up with war - and especially ordinary Chechens who have seen enough of it for several lifetimes. That is why Basayev, who a few years ago had the status of a popular hero in Chechnya, has lost his popularity there. His promises to crack down on kidnapping were hollow, his taste for war in Dagestan has only led to new hostility toward Chechens throughout the North Caucasus.
The tragedy of post war Chechnya is that the aftermath of war has led to a kind of Afghanization. The popularly-elected president, Maskhadov, struggles for control with Basayev and Khattab, and little warlords grown rich on kidnap ransoms. These armed leaders have pushed aside the only two groups of people who stood any chance of rebuilding the place. The professionals of Grozny, the Soviet-educated doctors and engineers, have all either left the republic or work without pay. And the old men, whose codes of honor and respect used to moderate the strain of violence in Chechen culture, have ceded their authority to young men with guns.
Afghanistan is still in turmoil 10 years after the Soviet troops pulled out. In Chechnya the conflict did not last so long, but like that other Russian war, its blight will endure for many years.
Thomas de Waal, a former Moscow Times reporter, is co-author with Carlotta Gall of "Chechnya: A Small Victorious War." He currently works for the BBC World Service.