The Arab guerrilla Khattab, one of Chechnya's most powerful rebel commanders and an alleged international terrorist with ties to Osama bin Laden, reportedly died in Chechnya in April. Several days later, Russian officials reported that Khattab's confederate, Shamil Basayev, had also died. The Jordanian commander's legacy remains as unclear as the outcome of Russia's war with Chechnya. And in Azerbaijan, where residents formulate deeply held opinions about terrorism and justice, news of Khattab's death arouses mixed emotions for some people.
Azerbaijanis' reaction to Khattab's death on or around April 19 evokes local mistrust of Russia and of mythmaking. "I think Khattab was a hero of the Chechen war. I don't think that he was a terrorist," said Isakhan Ashurov, a former police chief. "If we consider him to be a terrorist, then we should also consider the 366th division of the Russian army that was fighting against the Azerbaijanis during the Karabakh war as terrorists as well."
Khattab was born in 1969 into a well-off Chechen family in Saudi Arabia, where he became an ardent supporter of the strict Islamic sect of Wahhabism. Some say he joined the Chechen guerrillas fighting on Azerbaijan's side during the 1992-93 Nagorno-Karabakh war, though Ashurov and the Ministry of Defense's spokesman dismiss this idea. (Basayev did fight with the Azerbaijanis, according to Tass.) Whatever his past, Khattab was one of a handful of top rebel commanders who has fought Russian forces since Chechnya first sought independence in 1991. Russian officials blame him for some of the most deadly attacks against their army, including an April 1996 ambush that killed 53 servicemen and wounded 52. A video of the aftermath of the ambush showed Khattab walking triumphantly down a line of blackened Russian corpses.
Yet despite the misery that the Chechen war has bled into Azerbaijan the country's roughly 4,000 Chechens include many refugees Khattab has not become simply a demon to Baku citizens. He has become, for at least some people, a symbol of the world's failure to resolve the South Caucasus' complex causes, loyalties and messages.
Part of this failure emerges in the persistent confusion over whether or not Khattab fought in Karabakh. Khattab fought the Soviet Union's army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Later, after fighting in Tajikistan, he set up a training camp for Chechen rebels outside Urus-Martan, Chechnya's third-largest city. According to some accounts, he led as many as 1,500 rebels and mercenaries known for their discipline and explosives expertise. Nonetheless, Ali Asayev, who represents the unrecognized Chechen president Aslan Machadov in Azerbaijan, told EurasiaNet that Khattab did not fight in Karabakh. "We have information that he was prepared by the Americans to fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and he was doing the same in Chechnya, where he was fighting against Russia." Yet here, the lines between defense and offense fall away. Khattab and Basayev's joint invasion of Dagestan in the summer of 1999 gave Russia the excuse to invade Chechnya for the second time. Nonetheless, Asayev concluded that Khattab was not a terrorist.
Since the September 11 attacks on the United States, Khattab's story intertwined with the international campaign against al Qaeda and its allies. Both US and Russian officials have said that Khattab was linked to bin Laden. Khattab said in November 2001 that he and Afghanistan's Taliban militia in Afghanistan were united in fighting infidels on Muslim territory. Khattab, in any case, shared his Wahhabism with bin Laden. This belief had already made him unpopular in Chechnya, where Sufism traditionally has influenced Islam to a large extent.
Some seem to regret either Khattab's extremism or the West's sloppy interpretation of what that extremism reflects. For Mubariz Ahmadoghlu, Chairman of the Political Innovations and Technologies Center, there are double standards in the fight against international terrorists. Ahmadoghlu says that the Muslim world has often announced that Islam is a peaceful religion, "but the West ignored this." Ahmadoghlu calls Khattab's legacy a "result" of Western unwillingness to understand Islam's nuances. "Some people appeared in the Muslim world who radically challenged the West's double standards. Among the people who wanted to solve the problem by means of arms were also terrorists. Khattab was a result of that era," Ahmadoghlu said.
These are more than academic considerations for Azerbaijanis, whose relations with Armenia and with Iran remain tense. Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia signed a pact on April 30 to reinforce regional defenses against terrorism.
Yet Azerbaijanis often sympathize with yearnings for freedom. For ordinary Bakuvians, then, feelings about Khattab can be mixed too and it seems hard to find someone who will call him a terrorist, despite his record of insurrections and attacks. One city resident, 27-year-old Tarana, says that Khattab surprised her. "Khattab was a fanatic, who was fighting for his ideas," she says. For Tarana it's difficult to decide if he was bad or good. "As for whether Khattab was a terrorist or not, there were numerous terrorist groups in Europe that killed innocent people. But Khattab was fighting against armed people. So, I don't think that he was a terrorist." Another Baku resident, Farhad, 24, disagrees: "He has only one name a terrorist," says Farhad. "I condemn terrorists who kill innocent people."
Konul Khalilova is a freelance journalist based in Baku.