A wanted Egyptian al Qaeda operative who helped establish the terror group in the Caucasus has been killed by Russian security forces during a clash in Dagestan.
Russia’s Federal Security Service killed Mokhmad Mohamad Shabban, who is better known as Saif Islam or the Sword of Islam, and an associate during a raid yesterday in a mountainous region in the Republic of Dagestan.
“On February 2, the FSB [Federal Security Service] carried out a special operation in the district center of Botlikh, Dagestan. One of the founders of the Al Qaeda network in the North Caucasus Mokhmad Mohamad Shabban, 49, also known as “Saif Islam,” and a gunman accompanying him were neutralized as they offered armed resistance,” according to a statement published at Itar-Tass.
Shabban helped establish al Qaeda in the Caucasus, along with Ibn al Khattab. “In 1992, he [Shabban] arrived in Chechnya to take part in operations against federal forces,” a Federal Security Service spokesman told RIA Novosti .
Russian security forces killed Khattab in 2002. Khattab served as the commander of the International Islamic Battalion in Chechnya, al Qaeda’s combat unit in the Caucasus.
The Federal Security Service has accused Shabban of plotting attacks against government and security personnel, and infrastructure throughout the Caucasus, at the behest of Georgian intelligence.
“He masterminded acts of sabotage to blast railway tracks, transmission lines, and gas and oil pipelines at instructions by Georgian secret services” the FSB stated. The FSB also accused Shabban of masterminding the Jan. 6 suicide attack that killed seven policemen on the outskirts of Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan.
Background on Russia’s struggle against al Qaeda and allied groups in the Caucasus
Russia often accuses rival Georgia of backing al Qaeda and Chechen rebels. Russia and Georgia went to war in August of 2008 over the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The war ended after a week of fighting that led to the rout of Georgian forces.
Since the early 1990s, terror groups have operated from camps in Georgia’s Pansiki Gorge, and used the region as a safe haven to attack inside Chechnya and the greater Caucasus. In 2002, more than 200 US Special Forces troops deployed to Georgia to train four battalions of light infantry to operate in Pansiki. The Georgian battalions also were equipped with weapons, vehicles, and communications gear. The US mission ended in 2007.
Over the past two decades, al Qaeda has fought alongside Chechen rebels during two brutal wars against the Russians that are thought to have resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 civilians and thousands of Russian soldiers and Chechen fighters. The bulk of the Chechen resistance was smashed after the Second Chechen War, but al Qaeda continued to operate, and managed to radicalize many of the remaining nationalist rebels.
Russian security forces, backed by local forces in the Caucasus, have had success in decapitating the top leadership of al Qaeda and radical Chechen forces. After killing Khattab in 2002, security forces eliminated his successors; Abu Walid al Ghamdi was killed in 2004, and Abu Hafs al Urdani was killed in 2006.
Russian security forces also killed Saif al Islam al Masri, a member of al Qaeda’s shura and a chief financier, in 2002; and Muhammad bin Abdullah bin Saif al Tamimi (also known as Abu Omar Saif) in 2005. Tamimi served as second in command to Shamil Basayev, the military commander for the Islamic Army in the Caucasus. Basayev and much of his leadership cadre were killed by Russian security forces in 2006.
After Basayev’s death in 2006, the Chechen and Caucasus jihadists united under the command of Doku Umarov, one of the last remaining original leaders of the Chechen rebellion and a close associate of al Qaeda. In November 2007, Umarov declared an Islamic emirate in the greater Caucasus region and named himself the emir, or leader.
In the spring of 2009, Umarov reignited the insurgency by launching a wave of suicide attacks in the Caucasus. In April 2009, Umarov revived the Riyad-us-Saliheen martyr brigade, which has spearheaded the assault.
“Riyad [the Riyad-us-Saliheen martyr brigade] is believed to be descended from two other Chechen terrorist organizations led by Basayev, the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment (SPIR) and the International Islamic Brigade (IIB),” according to the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism datatbase. “It has even been suggested that Riyad is simply the result of the marriage of these two groups.”
The group’s most recent successful operation was the wounding of the president of the Republic of Ingushetia in June of 2009.
In the past, Umarov denied having connections with al Qaeda and rejected terrorist attacks against civilians. But in 2006, Abu Hafs al Urduni stated that the Chechen jihad was being reorganized under the command of Doku Umarov after the death Basayev.
Russian security forces thought Umarov was killed during a raid in November 2009 that killed several of his close aides, but Umarov has since resurfaced.