From Saudi Arabia with Terror: Controversy Highlights Saudi Ties to Chechen Jihad

Jan 10th, 2014 | By | Category: Featured
Exclusive to the Religious Freedom Coalition
Andrew E. Harrod, PHD explores the feud between Vladimir Putin and Prince Bandar bin Sultan

Given that the “Chechen groups that threaten…the games are controlled by us,” Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan allegedly promised to “guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics” to Russian President Vladimir Putin during an August 2013 Moscow visit.  Even if untrue, this story surrounding Bandar’s visit raises disturbing questions about ongoing Saudi ties to Chechen jihadists.

Prince of terror?

Prince of terror?

According to reported leaks, Bandar’s comments came in the context of various offers designed to induce Russian abandonment of its Syrian client Bashar al-Assad, currently embattled by Saudi-supported rebels.  The Bandar controversy from August remains ominous given ongoing attacks by Chechen jihadists across Russia.  A December 29, 2013, Volgograd train station suicide bombing, for example, killed 18, only to be followed the next day in the city by a trolleybus suicide bombing claiming an additional 16 lives.

Volgograd is a key transportation hub on the way to Russia’s volatile Caucasus region including Chechnya and the Black Sea city of Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics will open on February 7.   Doku Umarov, Chechen “emir” of the terrorist Imarat Kavkaz (IK or Caucasus Emirate), called in a July 3, 2013, online video for the games’ disruption.  Umarov condemned the Olympics as “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.”

Past evidence suggests that Bandar could have made a veiled threat concerning Chechen jihadists to Putin.  Chechens seeking independence from Russia following the Soviet Union’s 1991 dissolution were initially largely secular.  Yet jihadist groups through the years such as those from Al Qaeda “have increasingly sought to co-opt the Chechen movement as their own,” Islamism scholar Lorenzo Vidino has noted.  As a result, the Russian military estimated in 2003 that Arabs were about one-fifth of Chechnya’s some 1,000 active fighters, providing the Chechens with most of their expertise in communications in mine laying.

Saudi native Umar Ibn al-Khattab, for example, joined the Chechen insurgency as a jihadi cause in 1995.  Khattab made a “qualitative contribution to the fight against the Russians,” according to Vidino, with his combat experience fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (where he reportedly met Osama bin Laden) and in Tajikistan in the 1990s.  That same year a Washington, DC, native and father of four, Mohammad Zaki, died in Chechnya as a jihadist.  Upon Khattab’s own 2002 jihad death, another Saudi, Abdul Aziz al-Ghamdi, succeeded Khattab as a rebel commander, before falling to the Russians in 2004.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s Egyptian Al Qaeda deputy, meanwhile, tried to enter Chechnya in 1997, but Russian police arrested him in neighboring Dagestan with false documents.  Unrecognized by the Russians, Zawahiri served a six-month prison term in Dagestan.  Zawahiri later fantasized about a Caucasian “hotbed of jihad” free of Russians in his 2001 book Fursan taht Rayat ar-Rasul (Knights under the Prophet’s Banner).

The Pakistani Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Al Qaeda’s “mastermind” for its September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, DC, also failed in his attempt to join Khattab while traversing Azerbaijan, the 9/11 Commission Report noted (page 149).  Merely a “chance meeting” with an Al Qaeda operative on a German train diverted 9/11 hijackers Muhammad Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah from fighting in Chechnya to Afghanistan (165), the 9/11 Commission Report additionally recounts.  Foiled 9/11 hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui, meanwhile, worked as a recruiter for the Chechen rebels.

Along with fighters, the Chechen jihad has received foreign funds, often from the same sources supporting Al Qaeda.  The Saudi-based Al-Haramain, a charity whose American assets have been frozen since 2004, sent for years $50 million to Caucasian mujahedeen.  The Chicago-based Benevolence International Foundation similarly financed Chechen jihadists before American authorities closed it in December 2001.  In a 2002 estimate, Russian security forces calculated that £1.3 to £2.5 million came from the Gulf States including Saudi Arabia each month to finance terrorist activities in Russia.  As further evidence of this relationship, Russian security services claim to have intercepted phone calls to various Gulf States from Chechen jihadists involved in a deadly Moscow theater attack on October 23, 2002.

Reciprocating received assistance, Chechen jihadists in the past have aided their fellow believers in places like Afghanistan.  Chechens are also now fighting alongside other mujahedeen against the Assad regime in Syria.  Caucasian locales such as the Pankisi Gorge have also served as training areas for jihadists from abroad.

Chechnya’s connections to a global jihadist movement are thus well-established and not merely the invention of Russian efforts to garner world support for repressing Chechnya.  In this context it is not impossible for Bandar to have indicated to Putin a possible Saudi influence over Chechen jihadists endangering Russia and the Winter Olympics.  Such a thinly cloaked dagger would have been merely one more bargaining chip between two countries, both of significant concern to the United States, increasingly at odds in the Middle East.  At any rate, the Chechen jihad with foreign support will continue.

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2 Comments to “From Saudi Arabia with Terror: Controversy Highlights Saudi Ties to Chechen Jihad”

  1. […] Exclusive to the Religious Freedom Coalition Andrew E. Harrod, PHD explores the feud between Vladimir Putin and Prince Bandar bin Sultan […]

  2. […] J. Murray, chairman of The Religious Freedom Coalition, explains in a blog post why Bandar’s confession is so significant, particularly to events happening right […]