Before you listen…
Guerrilla wars are hard to fight under any circumstances—as a guerrilla, you are typically outgunned and outnumbered in any one battlefield, and must deal with constant shortages in supply, medical equipment, and ammunition. Some of the few advantages to being a guerrilla are that at least you can blend in with the local population to hide when you are not fighting, and usually that population and its culture far outnumber your enemy’s army. How do you manage, then, when you have no ethnic and little cultural relation to that population, and the enemy’s armed forces are such that they outnumber the entire mass of the people for whom you are fighting—when the sheer weight of your religious faith has brought you to fight on behalf of an oppressed people, despite all of the obvious obstacles? Such was the mission of the greatest guerrilla commander of our generation, known as Ibn-al-Khattab, and his incredible successes against the full might of the Russian Army in the tiny republic of Chechnya are worth recounting.
For Further Awesome Reading…
A proper history of Khattab’s life has yet to be written, and may never be. The notable events of his life are too intertwined with wars, conflicts, and tragedies that remain fresh or are even ongoing. Many of the villains and heroes that were his friends and enemies remain alive, still actively coloring the way he is perceived with the agendas they have, from the jihadists who want to claim him as their own to the secular powers (and scholars) who want to group him in with the Bin Ladens of the world. The Russian government and its vast font of information: misinformation, disinformation, and everything in between, counts him as a primary figure in extreme Islamic “Wahabism.” Even Shamil Basayev, super-villain, nationalist hero, appropriator of extremist Muslim ideology and erstwhile ally of Khattab, knew better: “He is not a Wahabist; he is a Khattabist.” So much for a clear picture and a balanced biography.
He can partially be understood through the context of the Chechen Wars that came to define his career as a guerrilla. These too are difficult to research without running into plenty of bad or heavily biased scholarship (Mark Galeotti is a great example of this—I’m hardly a global security expert and I’ve found several egregious errors in his work, yet he’s a frequently consulted analyst, author of a prominent blog, and arrogant blowhard), or scholarship that dates itself by trying hard to be relevant to current events. Much of what makes for compelling reading can be found in investigative journalism and eyewitness accounts, in which you must beware and act as your own filter.
Yes, this book is crazy expensive. It’s also the only legitimate history that lays out the foundations of Khattab’s war in detailed and balanced way while also showing its relevance to today’s world. Many people might think “What’s the Chechen War got to do with me? Or with anything?” Written by a Green Beret Colonel for a “lessons learned” approach to important international problems, this book has everything you need to know, although it doesn’t make for a “thriller” for the average reader.
This is a ‘current’ popular history—one meant to try and grasp the people shocked by the Boston Marathon bombings into considering their greater context. This muddies it somewhat, as it’s written for the average American, but this also makes it more accessible, which is important in our times.
For investigative journalism:
This book was riveting! You’ll read some criticism in Amazon reviews that it’s a biased account. This criticism actually kept me from reading the book for a number of years, until a friend of mine more or less insisted I read it. Ignore the Amazon criticism. Smith was embedded with Chechen fighters for some time during the war and that necessarily informs his view of events, but we get an excellent tradeoff in the quality and vividness of his firsthand accounts, often at the risk of his own life. He also does an excellent job providing historical context that’s easy to understand and does his best to provide balanced coverage from many sources. This book is a must read even without Khattab’s direct appearance and truly one of my favorites in war journalism of any kind.
I admire Anne Nivat. While reporting for a French newspaper, she embedded herself with Chechen civilians, using her ability to speak Russian to blend in with the population while it was under attack from the Russian Army. She provided a unique and extremely important perspective on the Russian “re-invasion” in 1999, at a crazy risk to her own life. Women have always been particularly vulnerable in Chechnya’s rugged mountain culture (where “bride-snatching” is still not entirely a custom of the past), and this was especially so during the Russian reconquest, in which packs of soldiers known for rape and murder roamed the streets of Chechen towns. Khattab himself appears only briefly in her book and her depiction of him is not flattering, but the greater picture of who and what he fought for is rendered in stark and beautifully human detail.
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