Even his name was hard to pin down.
Faris Yusef Amirat aka Abu Hafs al-Urdani was one of al Qaeda’s most slippery terrorist chiefs until he was finally betrayed and killed by a special FSB special unit at his last stamping ground, Khasavyurt in central Dagestan, on Nov. 26, 2006.
His successor as leader of the foreign mujahedeen in the North Caucasus is another outsider Arab who calls himself “Yasser Arafat” in tribute to the dead Palestinian terrorist leader. Not much is known about him, even his real name, except that he arrived in Chechnya in May 2006 and was Abu Hafs’ deputy.
As one of the Islamist movement’s main agents in the Caucasus, he takes over a key section of al Qaeda’s underworld and its legions of terrorists toughened and trained in years of combat with Russian special forces in and around Chechnya.
His predecessor was described by Mikhail Merkulov, head of the Dagestani FSB as having a hand in planning and implementing every serious terrorist attack in Chechnya and participating personally in most Chechen armed operations.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report that this obscure section of al Qaeda’s realm is of great interest to intelligence and anti-terror agencies in the West because the hard men it harbors are scattered across the North Caucasian.
Although their numbers run to hundreds at most, they are planted in most places where Muslim communities predominate. Their havens in inaccessible and remote corners, such as Georgia’s notorious Pankisi Gorge, are useful springboards for attacks in Central Asia and Europe.
Before the Russian secret service caught up with him, the late Abu Hafs al Urduni led one security agency after another a merry dance, slipping on and off their screens for 18 years. Moving between the Middle East, Central Asia, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Chechnya and Georgia, he kept a step ahead of the many counter-terror agencies who sought him.
From safe base in Georgia to Chechnya
The only time he was captured was in 1991 – though not for long.
A group of Afghan war veterans, who set up a group called Jaish e-Mohammed to overthrow the Hashemite throne, launched a series of terrorist attacks against Western, Christian and government targets. They were rounded up by Jordan’s General Intelligence Service.
After his release, Abu Hafs spent 1993-94 in Northern Afghanistan aiding the Tajik opposition. After being linked to the August 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa, he was listed as one of America’s most wanted terrorists.
CIA data placed him in the Jordanian wing of the al Qaeda leadership under the command of fellow-Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom the Americans killed in Iraq earlier this year. His association with Zarqawi also caught the interest of Israeli intelligence.
But well before then he had moved to safety in Georgia, where he spent six years up to 2002, using the Pankisi Gorge as his base. By the time US intelligence caught up with him in Georgia he had moved to Chechnya.
Not much is known about Amirat’s activities between then and 2006.
He was described at the time variously as representative of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Russians and Israelis; in October 2002, the FSB decided he was a key al Qaeda representative in the Caucasus; two years later, he was called Osama in Laden’s confidant. The former US secretary of state Colin Powell made Abu Hafs internationally famous in Feb. 2003 when he tagged him as al Qaeda’s main representative in the Caucasus at the UN Security Council.
By 2004, he was badly wanted by a host of secret services – most of all by the Russians on suspicion of a role in organizing the June 2004 assault on Nazran, capital of Ingushetia, and the siege four months later of the school in Beslan.
The Jordanian terrorist was marked down after taking over from the Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev who was eliminated in July 2006.
Abu Hafs did not survive him by more than four months. At the age of 33, he was struck down by the Russians five months after his chief al-Zarqawi was killed by the Americans in Iraq. “Yasser Arafat” is now in the FBS’ crosshairs.