Ibn al-Khattab: the bin Laden of ChechnyaApril 21, 2013
Well-to-do Saudi served as Chechen commander and jihadist financier
In Money Jihad’s earlier post on the history of terror finance in Chechnya, one name came up again and again: Ibn al-Khattab. The terrorist leader was an early disciple of Osama bin Laden, and would benefit from bin Laden’s encouragement and financial support for years until al-Khattab’s death in 2002.
But al-Khattab was also a force unto himself, managing the flow of jihadist recruits and financing their operations in the Chechen guerrilla war against Russia. One of the better descriptions of al-Khattab’s activities comes from the book Chechen Jihad by Yossef Bodansky. Here’s an excerpt:
The Chechen jihadists received another injection of strength at this time with the arrival of an organized group of hardened Arab mujahedin from the Gulf states, including Saudis and Kuwaities, and the Maghreb region of north Africa, including Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian, and other troops. These fighters were commanded by one Ibn al-Khattab, often referred to as Emir Khattab or simply Khattab. Khattab, whose real name was Samir bin Salakh al-Suwailim, was a Bedouin from the Suwailim tribe of northwest Saudi Arabia and southern Jordan; over the years he has identified himself with both nations, depending on the circumstances. Born in 1970 to a fairly wealthy and well-educated family, Khattab received both Western and Muslim education, including learning English. In 1987 he was accepted to a college in the United States, but before continuing with his education, he decided to visit Afghanistan and briefly participate in the jihad.
Arriving in Pakistan in the fall of 1987, Khattab met some of the key leaders of the Arab “Afghans,” including Sheikh Abdallah Azzam, Sheikh Tamim Adnani, and Osama bin Laden. Captivated by their call for jihad, he committed his life to the jihad. Khattab ccompleted his training in the international camp in Jalalabad, under Hassan al-Sarehi, the commander of the 1987 Lion’s Den operation in Jaji. Impressed with the zeal and skills of his young trainee, Sarehi invited Khattab to join his forces in Jaji. Between 1988 and 1993, Khattab participated in all the major operations in the Afghan jihad, including the capture of Jalalabad, Khowst, and Kabul. He also spent time expanding his knowledge of Islam and his military skills, while becoming conversant in both Pashto and Russian.
Khattab would later claim that he decided to join the Chechen jihad after seeing televised footage of Islamist mujahedin reciting takbirs (Koranic verses) before going into battle. But his status as a commander also played a role. By the early 1990s, Khattab had emerged as one of the most fierce and competent commanders, popular with both the Afghan and the Arab “Afghan” mujahedin. He also became one of bin Laden’s key protégés. Khattab spent the years between early 1993 and early 1995 commanding a small Arab elite force in support of the Tajik Islamist mujahedin, particularly in the Fergana Valley. He returned to Afghanistan to train and lead one of the first elite forces to go to Chechnya.
When bin Laden and the Islamist-Jihadist leadership decided to escalate the jihad in the Caucasus, they summoned Khattab back from Tajikistan and dispatched him to Chechnya. Ali Hammad, a senior al Qaeda commander in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the mid-1990s, knew Khattab as a senior commander under bin Laden and considered him “one of the more important personalities in Al Qaeda.” Ali Hammad confirmed that Khattab went to Chechnya on bin Laden’s orders, and that he and bin Laden personally managed the subsequent flow of jihadist volunteers into the area.
Khattab arrived in Chechnya in the spring of 1995 with eight veteran Arab “Afghan” commanders, followed by a few dozen combat veterans. He soon became one of the most important commanders in Chechnya, quickly forming a close relationship with Shamil Basayev. One of Basayev’s closest personal friends, Chechnya’s onetime foreign minister Shamil Beno, reported that Basayev underwent a profound change in 1995 under Khattab’s influence. Basayev “started moving from freedom for Chechnya to freedom for the whole Arab world,” Beno said. “He changed from a Chechen patriot into an Islamic globalist.”
But al-Khattab didn’t only receive funds from the Middle East and Al Qaeda. He was the recipient of zakat donations from U.S. Muslims. Benevolence International Foundation, a Saudi-created Islamic charity which relocated to Chicago in 1993, was shut down by the Bush administration after 9/11 for its role in financing jihad in Bosnia and Chechnya. The racketeering trial against BIF’s leader revealed that “[Al-Khattab] did have ties to Saudi Arabia: a fund-raising website listed the Benevolence International Foundation—originally a Saudi-based charity—as a vehicle for contributions.”
The Obama administration and its allies would later criticize George W. Bush for creating a “chilling effect” on Muslim charitable giving by closing down organizations such as BIF, and Pres. Obama personally promised to make it easier for American Muslims to donate zakat.
In addition to receiving money from BIF, al-Khattab secured funding from Osama bin Laden in 1999 to fund Chechen operations. The website History Commons has noted that Osama bin Laden and Ibn al-Khattab also shared the same wealthy Arab donor network. By October 2001, Khattab had an enough of a financial war chest to offer to pay salaries and death benefits to jihadists who went to fight in Afghanistan against the impending American and coalition invasion.
It’s a mistake to think that any single terrorist operation only cost the price of materials used to carry out the operation. It takes a lot of money to create a culture of indoctrination, training, and media messaging. A single attack is the result of sizable investments over a long period of time by men such as Ibn al-Khattab.