A Saudi-born warrior so zealously Muslim that he is traumatized by even touching nonbelievers has risen to the top echelon of rebels in Chechnya, Russian officials and rebel sources say, a symbol of how a once-secular fight has come under the influence of radical Islam.
To the Russian security services, the rebel commander known as Abu Walid embodies Chechnya’s place in the chain of international terrorism — a connection they stress to win Western support for their military campaign in the southern Russian region.
He has surfaced as a suspect in myriad terrorist attacks in Russia, from the 1999 apartment house bombings that catapulted Russian forces back into Chechnya after they lost the 1994-1996 war to last week’s explosion on the Moscow subway.
To the rebels, Abu Walid represents a growing trend toward strict Islamic practices, a tendency reflected in the appointment of a spiritual counselor as co-leader of even the smallest rebel unit.
Abu Walid, who is believed to be about 30 years old, has donned the mantle of Omar Ibn al Khattab, the flamboyant, Saudi-born rebel leader who died in 2002, apparently after being poisoned. Like Khattab, he is said to be second in authority only to Shamil Basayev, a Chechen known for a series of raids and brutal attacks.
An expert in explosives, Abu Walid trained in camps in Afghanistan and fought alongside Muslims in Bosnia before arriving in Chechnya in 1995, according to Russia’s Federal Security Service.
Like Khattab, he is a money man for the rebels — receiving and distributing funds smuggled in from abroad to support the Chechens’ fight.
“It’s understood that he has money. Since he took over from Khattab, lots of units answer only to him and no one else,” said the liaison.
“The [Chechen] military leadership has recognized him,” echoed Sergei Ignatchenko, the spokesman for the Federal Security Service, adding that Abu Walid had taken over Khattab’s post of military emir.
In November, Al-Jazeera television broadcast fragments of a videotaped statement in which Abu Walid threatened to carry Chechnya’s war outside the republic and target military facilities in Russian territories with large Muslim populations. He also defended the use of female suicide bombers, saying the women were seeking revenge for the alleged killing of their husbands and children by Russian forces in Chechnya.
It’s one of the few public appearances by the reclusive fighter. Russian security officials and Chechens alike say Abu Walid is far less of a showman than Khattab, who maintained a high profile in part to attract funding from abroad.
But Abu Walid has inspired fear among the Russian military and won the trust of rebel leaders.
The rebels’ liaison in southern Russia recalled a telling encounter at one meeting of rebel commanders when Abu Walid — who adheres to the conservative [that is, radical] Wahhabi strain of Islam — embraced a journalist, convinced by his beard that he was a good Muslim.
When he learned otherwise, he retreated from the world for two days, praying night and day to cleanse himself after touching an infidel.
But did other Muslims rebuke him for his fanaticism and lack of tolerance? Nope:
That extreme piety, the liaison said, has won supporters.
“Lots of young people (in Chechnya) are turning to the Wahhabis. There are lots of battalions under the banner of radical Islam,” he said.
Ironically, Abu Walid’s star has risen as the role of Arab fighters in Chechnya has decreased. Heightened pressure on international terrorists since Sept. 11, 2001, has severely reduced the flow of foreign funds and mercenaries into Chechnya, and the number of foreign fighters could be anywhere from a couple hundred to just a few dozen, analysts say.
At the same time, there’s widespread agreement that Islam is increasingly a motivating factor in what used to be a secular struggle for independence.
“Chechnya used to be on the periphery of the Islamic world. That’s no longer true,” said Alexei Malashenko, a specialist on Islam at Moscow’s Carnegie Center.
“Here’s the paradox: They receive less money, they get less help, there are fewer Arabs, but the feeling that they’re Muslims … is stronger.”
That sense of Islamic solidarity has filled the ranks of fighters with men from other southern Russian republics. Of the estimated 1,500-2,000 die-hard rebels in the mountains of southern Chechnya, more than half are from neighboring Dagestan, and there are fighters from the Russian republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessiya, as well as from the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan, said Shamil Beno, a former Chechen foreign minister who heads a foundation in Moscow.
He said the role of Abu Walid and other Arabs in Chechnya today was actually minimal.
“What’s more important is that the Arabs’ mental view of resistance or struggle has begun to predominate,” Beno said. “They’ve naturally played a role in the slipping of the Chechen resistance into terror, which is damaging the resistance.”