The Arab fighter known as Muhannad was one of two fighters killed on April 21 in an exchange of fire with security forces near the village of Serzhen-Yurt southeast of Grozny, according to Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov. Russia’s National Counterterrorism Committee (NAK) confirmed Mukhannad’s death later the same day, giving his full name as Khaled Yusuf Muhammad el-Emirat. He was identified variously as a Jordanian or Saudi citizen, born in 1969. Russian television today showed footage of his body.
According to the Caucasus Emirate website Kavkazcenter, Muhannad joined the Chechen resistance during the 1999-2000 war after acquiring battle experience in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. He fought as a member of the battalion headed by fellow Arab Khattab, and was unanimously elected its commander following the death in November 2006 of Khattab’s successor, Abu Hafs al-Urdani. In June 2007, he was named one of three deputies to Emir Magas (Ali Taziyev), then commander of the Chechen military forces, together with Tarkhan Gaziyev and Aslanbek Vadalov, commanders respectively of the southwestern and eastern fronts.
In August 2010, Muhannad, Gaziyev, and Vadalov, together with Vadalov’s then deputy, Khusayn Gakayev, now elected leader of the military forces and parliament of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI), revoked their “bayat” (oath of allegiance) to self-styled Caucaus Emirate head Doku Umarov. They subsequently explained that they did so because they disagreed with Umarov’s authoritarian leadership style and were convinced his proclamation in late 2007 of the Caucasus Emirate was wrong on both religious and geostrategic grounds.
Umarov publicly blamed the resulting split in the insurgency ranks squarely on Muhannad who, according to Umarov, set about suborning first Gaziyev, and then others. Muhannad had indeed opposed the emirate from day one, according to one informed insider. But Gaziyev had distanced himself almost immediately from Umarov and the emirate project by failing to carry out Umarov’s orders to assassinate respected commander and Islamic scholar Arbi Yovmirzayev (Emir Mansur), who had openly protested that Umarov’s proclamation of the Caucasus Emirate violated both Shari’a law and the ChRI constitution.
In the summer of 2008, Muhannad worked closely with Vadalov, who commanded a series of successful military operations in the southeast. The two men were apparently the co-architects of the August 2010 attack on Kadyrov’s home village of Tsentoroi; they are seen in video footage standing by a maquette of the village and indicating which fighters should attack which building.
Russian officials have consistently identified Muhannad as the contact man between Umarov and Al-Qaeda. But a study two years ago by “Jane’s Intelligence Weekly” made the point that there is precious little evidence to substantiate those allegations; that Al-Qaeda ideology of global jihad (to which Umarov admittedly pays lip service, most recently in his comments in recent developments in Tunisia and Egypt) has little appeal for Chechen insurgents; and finally, that “the days when Al-Qaeda could provide enough weapons, funds, and fighters to win over even skeptical allies, are long gone.”
By the same token, NAK spokesman Nikolai Sintsov’s statement today that the Federal Security Service (FSB) had information that Muhannad was planning to bring new militants from Georgia to Chechnya in the coming months is clearly part of the ongoing Russian propaganda campaign to portray Georgia as abetting the Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus.