Death of a Jordanian Mujahid: Abu Hafs al-Urdani

Andrew McGregor

December 31, 2006

Shortly after the Jordanian Arab Abu Hafs al-Urdani succeeded the late Abu Walid as the commander of the foreign mujahideen in Chechnya, his death or detention was declared a priority for all of Russia’s secret services. (RIA Novosti, December 15, 2004) After a decade in Chechnya and two years of nearly constant combat operations as the leader of a mixed force of Turks, Arabs and diasporic Chechens, the Jordanian mujahid was finally killed on November 26 by Russian security forces. False reports of his death have circulated in the past, but this time a report from the Chechen Eastern Front headquarters confirmed the Jordanian’s death several days later (Kavkaz Center, November 29).

Abu HafsAbu Hafs al-Urdani

Abu Hafs (real name Farid Yusuf Amirat) was described by Russia as the financier of the Beslan attack and a personal acquaintance of Osama Bin Laden. What is certain is that the Jordanian was involved in fundraising for the Chechen movement while playing an important role in organizing and leading military operations. With years of combat experience in Chechnya behind him, the 33-year old Abu Hafs was heavily involved in training new mujahideen as well as commanding the Eastern Front of resistance operations. His al-Qaeda connections have never been verified; while not as dismissive of the terrorist group as other Chechen leaders, such as Aslan Maskhadov, Abu Hafs made no public claim of affiliation to Osama Bin Laden. This did not prevent Abu Hafs from being cited by then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell as a leading member of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s “terrorist network” in February 2003. The allegation, made during a presentation before the UN Security Council, was part of an unlikely description of Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge as a major centre of al-Qaeda chemical warfare activities.

At times, Abu Hafs expressed hostility to the United States, though this does not appear to have been encouraged by the Chechen leadership. In an interview earlier this month, Abu Hafs addressed the poisonous legacy of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal: “The Abu Ghraib prison serves as the greatest proof of the fallacy of the American agenda. How shall we trust America after all this?” (Vakit [Istanbul], November 12) Since the current war began in 1999, the Chechen view has been to avoid unnecessary antagonization of the United States. If the United States would not support the Chechen struggle, goes the thinking, then it would be better that it remains uninvolved, rather than provide military support to Russia.

Assault in Khasavyurt

Following a tip, Russian security forces surrounded a house in Khasavyurt. By 6:15 AM, a mixed force of Dagestani police and Alfa (Special Forces) units of the FSB were prepared for the assault on the suspects’ house. Without warning, two militants were shot by snipers through the windows, while the other three being offered a chance to surrender, according to the FSB (Kommersant, November 27). The FSB report states the operation lasted four hours, though the actual fighting lasted only 30 minutes. A later media report claimed that three women and five children ran out the back door when sharpshooters opened up on the house. In this version, security forces continually fired on the house for 2.5 hours (NTV Mir, November 26). The Chechen Eastern Front HQ report described a daylong battle with only three mujahideen killed (Kavkaz Center, November 29). When the house was searched, the body of Abu Hafs was discovered together with one Chechen and two Dagestani militants, all dead. Security forces also reported that they found an assassination list containing targets from within the local police, as well as assault rifles, machineguns, grenades, explosives and ammunition.

The FSB report claimed that Abu Hafs was in Dagestan to “engineer and commit large-scale terror acts” (ITAR-TASS, November 26), but an FSB spokesman added that Abu Hafs may have been in Dagestan attempting to flee the region, “given the lack of prospects for jihad in the North Caucasus” (Interfax, November 26,). As winter approaches, the Chechen resistance typically reduces its forces in the field, sending many to winter quarters in other parts of the Caucasus. Abu Hafs may have been in Dagestan to organize rebel operations, though travel outside of the resistance lines would have been very dangerous for the commander, who was quite obviously Arab in appearance. The killings in Khasavyurt came only days after reports had emerged that Sadval (a militant separatist group based in the Lezgin ethnic group that straddles Dagestan and northern Azerbaijan) was planning to cooperate with existing Dagestani insurgent formations to break up Dagestan in preparation for the establishment of a North Caucasus caliphate (APA [Baku], November 22).

The premier of Chechnya’s pro-Russian government, Ramzan Kadyrov, alleged that Abu Hafs was the conduit for funding headed to Wahhabist groups in the North Caucasus, but also mistakenly called him a Saudi Arabian. Ramzan was perhaps referring to an old FSB allegation that Abu Hafs also possessed Saudi citizenship. The discrepancy may be part of Ramzan’s continued posturing as a champion of native Sufi Islam over Saudi-inspired “Wahhabism.”

Implications for the Foreign Mujahideen

There seems to be no obvious successor to Abu Hafs as the leader of the foreign mujahideen. Chechnya has declined as a destination for Arab jihadis since Coalition operations began in Iraq in 2003. It may be time for a Turk to take command, reflecting the changing composition of the foreign mujahideen in Chechnya as well as the growing reliance on donations from supporters in Turkey. Abu Hafs was deeply involved in nurturing the Turkish connection, training Turkish volunteers for jihad and appearing in fundraising videos distributed in Turkey.

The FSB described Abu Hafs as “the actual head and financier of bandit formations in Chechnya,” implying that Chechen resistance to Russian rule is managed by foreign terrorists like Bin Laden (RIA Novosti, November 26). These claims seem improbable; the Chechen insurgency remains ethnic-nationalist at its core and could never be led by a foreign militant. Refuting Russian claims, Abu Hafs declared, “All commanders are in obedience to [Chechen President] Dokku Umarov.” At the moment, there is no evidence that Umarov’s command is disputed; on the contrary, he is a veteran fighter who is well respected within the ranks of the mujahideen.

While Abu Hafs may have handled some foreign donations, the Chechen resistance is unlikely to have placed all of its finances in the hands of a single person, as suggested by the FSB. The Chechen nationalist movement has been very successful in establishing systems that can withstand the death of an individual, as seen in the orderly transition of power each time a Chechen leader or foreign mujahideen commander has been killed.


It appears that Russian security forces nearly pulled off a dual decapitation of the Chechen resistance last week, with Russian reports claiming that Chechen President Dokku Umarov was wounded and nearly captured during a three-day operation in the region of Achkhoi-Martan (Kommersant, November 24). The attack was allegedly based on information regarding Umarov’s whereabouts supplied by the 35 militants who had surrendered at Gudermes. These supposedly included members of Umarov’s inner circle, though such mass surrenders in the past have included many ex-fighters who have been inactive for years.

Ironically, Russia’s success in eliminating Arab mujahideen leaders makes it increasingly difficult to maintain their depiction of the Chechen resistance as a movement led and controlled by al-Qaeda. Logic would suggest that the Chechen nation is not large enough or unified enough to be able to replace the many resistance leaders who have fallen in combat over the past few years. It has also become difficult to attract capable foreign militants in sufficient numbers and to keep the Chechen struggle in the public consciousness of the Islamic world. An important function of the foreign mujahideen and its commander is to keep foreign interest alive in order to raise much-needed funds from Muslim communities. Operational leadership is becoming a problem for the Chechens as commanders become ever younger and more inexperienced. The loss of veteran warriors like Abu Hafs is a major blow to the resistance, but before his death, the Jordanian remained optimistic about Chechnya’s ability to renew its leadership: “These young commanders are full of advantages and honor; jihad in the way of Allah has raised Chechnya. We should not forget that a lion cub is also a lion” (Vakit [Istanbul], November 12).

This article first appeared in North Caucasus Analysis, November 30, 2006

The Tunisian Army in the Crimean War: A Military Mystery

Dr. Andrew McGregor

Military History Online, December 22, 2006


Though it solved little at a great expense in human life, the Crimean War of 1853-55 remains a much-studied turning point in military history. Despite its name soldiers and sailors from a variety of nations and empires fought the war on seven fronts; the Danube region, the Crimea, the Caucasus, Eastern Anatolia, the Baltic Sea, the White Sea, and the Kamchatka Peninsula on Russia’s Pacific Coast. With several other nations on the brink of joining in (including Spain, Austria-Hungary, Prussia, Sweden and the United States), the Crimean War very nearly became the first world war. For the combatants its often-disastrous conduct exposed the need for revisions in military tactics, improved medical services and the creation of efficient logistical systems. The Muslim Ottoman Empire entered into an alliance with the Christian nations of Western Europe against Russia, laying the historical groundwork for the eventual presence of modern Turkey as the second-largest military force in NATO. Britain and France’s union against Imperial Russia marked the beginning of an important but occasionally testy military alliance between ancient rivals. Less well known are the roles played by the armies of Egypt and Sardinia on the allied side, but least understood of all is the role of the Tunisian armed forces. Though Tunisia’s contribution of nearly 10,000 troops to two separate fronts is well established, it remains hard to say with any certainty just what the Tunisian expedition actually did there. It is surprisingly difficult to answer even the most basic question; did they fight or not?

Tunisia Crimea 1Ahmad Bey, Ruler of Tunisia

Though the Ottomans could be meticulous in other areas, Ottoman military affairs in the 19th century are often so poorly recorded as to astonish Western historians, used to a rich literature of official accounts, archival records, personal memoirs, diaries, correspondence and press accounts surrounding nearly every campaign undertaken by Western armies. Many Ottoman officers were in fact illiterate, while many of those who could record their thoughts might have thought twice about detailing the corruption and intense personal rivalry that plagued the 19th century officer corps. The opinion or memories of the common foot soldier were unsought and in any case considered irrelevant at the time. These problems in historical documentation are typically multiplied in researching the role of Ottoman vassals like Egypt and Tunisia during the Ottoman Empire’s long death struggle.

The Tunisian Army

From the time of the Ottoman conquest of Tunisia in 1574 the Tunisian army consisted mainly of elite formations of Turkish volunteers recruited in Istanbul and a small number of Mamluks. This army was augmented by native auxiliaries and the Zouaves, professional Berber soldiers from Algeria’s Kabylia Mountains. Unlike the large Mamluk establishment in Egypt, there were probably no more than several score Mamluks of any age in Tunisia at the time, and these were often engaged in destabilizing ethnic and political rivalries. Egypt’s own Mamluk establishment was strictly unofficial, Muhammad ‘Ali having destroyed their power in the massacres of 1811. Slaves continued to be imported quietly into Egypt and Tunisia from the north Caucasus until the 1850s, when the Russian conquest of the region eliminated this source of supply.

Typically purchased from the slave markets, young Greek, Circassian or Georgian boys were brought to Tunis where they would be attached to the ruling family or the family of an existing Mamluk, converted to Islam and given a Koranic education and training in the traditional military arts, often leading to manumission (liberation from slavery) and a senior position in the Beylicate’s administration.

The military modernization along European lines achieved by the Ottoman Sultan and the Viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad ‘Ali, did not escape the attention of Tunisia’s ruler, Husayn Bey. The old style Turkish army with its emphasis on flamboyant cavalry and the use of swords, spears and other ‘white arms’ was already severely outdated. The future belonged to the infantryman, drably and cheaply uniformed, and expert only in his drill and the operation of his musket. In January 1831 Husayn Bey established the Nizami (New) army. The drill and uniforms of the new army were European, with training provided by a French military mission. With rare exceptions, only Turks and Mamluks served as infantry officers. The Cavalry (Spahis) were Tunisian with Tunisian officers, acting as a counterforce to the Turkish element in the army. During the 1840s Ahmad Bey (1837-55), expanded the European style army founded by his predecessor. It was to reach peak strength of about 16,000 men before the financial strain of such a large establishment began to overburden the Tunisian treasury. At this time the Nizami army consisted of seven infantry regiments, two artillery regiments, and a small regiment of light cavalry.

The Nizami army suffered from several problems. The infantry was equipped with a variety of outdated muzzle-loading European muskets. There were far too many officers, most of whom knew nothing of military science, while others could not even read or write. Logistics and supplies were carried out by private contractors, an arrangement that was not always satisfactory, as will be seen. Conscription gave the army the numbers it required, but little differentiation was made between the firm and the infirm during recruitment. As in Egypt, the term of enlistment was life, making the visits of conscription details greatly feared by the native Tunisians. Wealthy conscripts could purchase substitutes or short-term enlistments while the urban population of Tunis was made immune from conscription after a public demonstration. At one point an entire regiment was composed of men on 6-month short-term enlistments. In a military sense it was useless, but may have served as a means of subsidizing the other regiments.

Tunisia Crimea 2Tunisian Troops, Crimean War Period

Among Ahmad Bey’s social reforms were the abolition of the slave trade in 1841 and the emancipation of all Tunisia’s slaves in 1846. Many of these new freedmen may have sought employment in the Bey’s army. In 1837 an attempt was made to recruit an army entirely from black freedmen. The project soon fell apart when a Tunisian general decided ‘recruitment’ meant seizing every black man in Tunis, slave or free, and herding them into a barracks like cattle. The project was soon abandoned after the scandal. During Ahmad Bey’s reign conscription was applied for the first time to the native Tunisians, who at first greatly resented this violation of the social structure of Tunisian society, in which the ‘Turks’ were entirely responsible for military affairs.

Ahmad Bey was in a precarious position, with the expanding French empire to his west in Algeria, and an Ottoman army to the east in Tripoli. Like his more powerful counterpart in Egypt, Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha, Ahmad Bey began to play Britain and France off each other while increasing his symbolic and practical independence of Istanbul without going so far as to renounce allegiance to the Sultan. France encouraged Ahmad Bey’s independent streak, knowing that an independent Tunisia might eventually be more easily severed from the Ottoman Empire and added to French North Africa when the time came. A French military mission was sent to aid Ahmad Bey’s formation of a modern army, and the Bey was even received as a head-of-state on a visit to France in 1846.

Raising the Expeditionary Force

The finances of the beylicate suffered a severe blow in 1852 when one of Ahmad Bey’s ministers secretly obtained French citizenship and then fled to Paris with most of the treasury. The timing couldn’t have been worse as the whole country was suffering from the economic impact of several years of failed crops. Ahmad Bey suffered a stroke in 1852 and by January 1853 was forced to disband most of an army he could no longer afford. Only the Mamluks and a small bodyguard of mostly Turkish professional soldiers remained.

The ‘Crimean’ War actually began with the May 1853 Russian invasion of the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, under Ottoman suzerainty. The Sultan and his council did not declare war until October 1853. When the Ottoman Empire found itself at war it traditionally called on its vassals for military contributions. To everyone’s surprise, Ahmad Bey responded positively to the Sultan’s call despite having no army to send. The Bey sold his personal jewelry and arranged for European loans to finance the raising of new regiments of infantry, cavalry and artillery for the Crimean campaign. Training of the new recruits appears to have been perfunctory, though many of the first draft of soldiers were likely rehired veterans of the units disbanded in 1853. France initially opposed Tunisian participation in the war, fearing that such a gesture might be the first step to closer ties to the Istanbul government, thus undoing all France’s efforts to promote a schism between the two.

The rapid mobilization of the Tunisian army remains a puzzle. Starting virtually from scratch, the first part of the expeditionary force sailed from Tunis only two months after the Bey made the official announcement of Tunisia’s intentions on May 10, 1854. Even more surprising is the fact that the French military mission was not asked for its assistance in mounting this enormous effort, which, moreover, was opposed by many of the Bey’s ministers. One might suppose that the Bey devoted his full energies to the project, but in fact Ahmad Bey was suffering from partial paralysis as a result of his stroke and could not even address the troops. Yet despite all odds the army sailed in good order in record time. Most likely it was an enormous effort by the Bey’s devoted Mamluks that was responsible for the rapid mobilization. Chief among these would have been Mustafa Khaznadar (a Greek Chiote brought as a slave to Tunisia in 1821while still a boy) and a Georgian Mamluk named Rashid, who took command of the expedition. Devoting himself to the study of military science, Rashid was a chief military commander and advisor under Ahmad Bey.

We can assume with such a short preparation time the organizers would have fallen back on what they already knew, organizing the expeditionary force along the same lines as the old army, i.e., regiments of Arab Nizami and Berber Zouaves led by Mamluks and professional Turkish soldiers. Haste and enthusiasm are poor substitutes for proper training, and even though most of the recruits were probably veterans of the disbanded elements of the Nizami, it is impossible to believe that the Tunisian force was in any way combat ready. This does not preclude their being thrown into the cauldron of battle soon after their arrival; they would not be the first or the last untrained unit to be thrown into the frontlines.

The independent kingdom of Sardinia was another small state eager to play an international role, contributing troops to the anti-Russian alliance. Sardinia was a strange partner to Tunisia, the two having nearly come to war in 1833 and again in 1844. Sardinia had once been prey to the powerful corsairs of Tunis, and at times seemed keen to provoke a conflict with now much-weakened Tunisian Beys. Sardinia joined the war in January 1855.

Tunisians at Balaklava?

As Balaklava’s first line of defence, a series of timber-reinforced earthworks known as redoubts was built by Ottoman troops, each armed with several guns. The work was done under the supervision of Major Charles Nasmyth, a British officer of the Royal Engineers who had led the successful defence of the Ottoman forts at Silistria on the Danube front earlier in the year. Evidently the Allied command was intent on a repeat performance. The redoubts were built overlooking the valley about two miles from the town of Balkalava. They were thus the first to detect a large movement of Russian troops under General Pavel Liprandi (a veteran of the 1812 campaign against Napoleon) towards the town on the morning of October 25. The most important redoubt, No. 1, with 600 men and three guns, was placed on a point known as Canrobert’s Hill, named for the French commander. Spaced about 500 yards apart, Redoubts 2, 3 and 4 had 300 men and 2 guns each. Two additional redoubts remained unfinished at the time and played no part in the battle. One source suggests that Liprandi learned in advance that the redoubts were occupied by second-line troops, drawn from Turkish militias, the Tunisians and various untrained recruits.

There are varying accounts as to how stiffly Redoubt No. 1 was defended. Some maintain that the Ottoman troops fired only a few rounds before abandoning the redoubt and their guns to the advancing Russians. Others suggest a one to two hour-long battle that began with a barrage by thirty Russian guns, followed by a massive infantry assault by the Azov and Dneiper Regiments. The latter version seems to have been confirmed by General Liprandi’s claim that 170 men of the redoubt’s garrison of 600 were found dead when the Russians entered, and Russian eye-witness account that describe a shower of bullets and shells that inflicted heavy losses on the Azov Regiment. (By comparison, 134 men were killed of the 658 that rode in the charge of the Light Brigade later that day). Ottoman losses suggest nothing less than a determined defence of the position before it was abandoned.

In each Ottoman redoubt was a British NCO of the Royal Artillery to supervise the operation of the guns. When the outnumbered troops of Redoubt 1 broke the NCO had the presence of mind to spike the guns before leaving. The Russians ran a battery of four guns up into the redoubt and began to fire on Redoubt No. 2. The sight of their comrades streaming out of Redoubt 1 was enough to convince the men of Redoubt 2 to do likewise as the Ukraine Regiment advanced on their position. Their retreat was a strange spectacle as the men left at a leisurely pace, encumbered by their belongings and various items of equipment like pots and pans. Again it was up to the British artillerymen to spike the guns. The redoubts now began to collapse like a house of cards as the Russians kept moving their artillery into each captured earthworks to fire on the next. As the Odessa Regiment moved up in columns Redoubt 3 was abandoned, and then Redoubt 4. It was not long before the Ottoman soldiers dropped their arms and possessions in favour of full flight as they found themselves raked by Russian artillery fire or run down by the merciless pikes of the Don Cossacks. At a time when the loss of artillery was considered shameful, the Ottomans had abandoned a great deal of ordnance after barely using it (one source claims that many of the shells sent to the redoubts were the wrong caliber). That the nine lost 12-pounder guns had all been on loan from the British compounded the problem.

The evacuation of Redoubts 2, 3 and 4 in front of the French and British armies destroyed the reputation of the Ottoman army in only a few minutes. This was probably unfair. Once Redoubt 1 (the right anchor of the defensive line) fell, there was no chance of holding Redoubts 2 to 4. These hastily built fortifications held only a combined total of 900 men with six guns. The Russian force heading for the redoubts consisted of 15,000 men, 4,000 cavalry and nearly 80 guns, many of a higher caliber than the Ottoman twelve-pounders. Apart from a battery of British artillery that was run up and quickly destroyed during the Russian barrage, no help was forthcoming from the British army. Despite intelligence warnings of an attack, the allies had been caught off guard, with many senior officers (including the allied commander Lord Raglan) arriving hours late to the battlefield. It was only the concerted defence of Redoubt 1 that bought the allied armies enough time to deploy, but this did not prevent Lord Raglan from suggesting in his official report of the battle that the men of Redoubt 1 had fled without a fight. Raglan, like Times correspondent Peter Russell, arrived only in time to see the Ottomans fleeing Redoubt 2, both assuming in their dispatches that Redoubt 1 had been abandoned the same way. Lord Lucan (the British cavalry commander) witnessed the assault and is reported to have praised the defence of Redoubt 1 to his Turkish interpreter.

In the second line of defence Scottish General Sir Colin Campbell lined up his 93rd Highlanders and a company of about 100 men from the Invalid Battalion midway between the town and the redoubts. Sir Colin managed to stop some of the soldiers fleeing from the redoubts and formed them up on his flanks. When the Russian cavalry reached a point 600 yards from their line (well out of range) the Ottoman troops fired a useless volley and turned to their heels, heading for the ships in the harbour.

Following Sir Colin’s orders, the Highlanders laid concealed in the high grass of the ridge before they shocked the fast-moving Russian cavalry by rising and firing their first volley with the Russians barely in range. With little time to reload and no other defence than their bayonets against this raging mass of hooves and steel many units would have broken at this point. The Highlanders allowed their discipline and training to take over, reloading their rifles even as the Russian horsemen bore down on their ranks. A second volley was delivered with devastating effect at 150 yards, forcing the cavalry to turn back. The performance of the ‘Thin Red Line’ of the Highlanders (as it became popularly known) provided an unfortunate comparison to the flight of the Turkish troops, who (as far as many in the allied armies were concerned) abandoned well defended positions against the same cavalry the 93rd repelled in the open field.

Now the subject of near universal scorn and abuse from the allied forces, a breakdown in Ottoman morale was quickly followed by a breakdown in the soldiers’ health. In the filth and mud of their positions near Balaklava typhoid began to run through an army already decimated by cholera on the Danube Front. The un-afflicted were often reduced to begging or pilfering from Allied supplies. The inefficiency of the Allied supply system meant that British and French soldiers also suffered (indeed, the British army was in rags and often shoeless by December), but there was almost unanimous consensus that no one’s plight was worse than the Ottoman foot soldier. With their pay in arrears and the allied commissariat unwilling to extend credit to ‘Turks’, the soldiers were unable even to buy tobacco, their lone consolation. The pork and rum that were a normal part of Allied issue were declined on religious grounds, but only a small increase in biscuit was given as compensation. Still, there was little sympathy from the British and French ranks, most of whom were engaged in their own desperate struggle to survive the winter. By this time they had come to regard the Ottoman soldiers as useless non-combatants and a drain on supplies during that terrible winter. In his diary British officer Henry Clifford (V.C.) recorded the plight of Ottoman troops in January 1855, when allied sentries were routinely found frozen to death in the morning:

The poor Turks, though I believe I am the only one in the Army, who has any pity for them, are fast disappearing. The paths leading to water are no longer dotted with them. Everyone has a blow or a kick for the poor fellows, and nothing but brutal hard language. They are broken hearted, despised, neglected, ill-treated, miserable men.

So who were the men in the Balaklava redoubts? Ottoman records do not seem to exist and British accounts rarely distinguish between Ottoman Anatolian, Egyptian or Tunisian, all simply being ‘Turks’. One possibility is that Turkish regulars occupied Redoubt 1, while second-line troops (including the Tunisians) held the other earthworks. Very plainly the men of redoubts 2, 3 and 4 were not the Turks and Egyptians of the Ottoman Army of the Danube who had repulsed attack after attack on the Silistrian forts. Redoubt 1 was furthest from the allied armies and the struggle for this position may have been difficult to see from the allied lines. Because of the nature of the terrain different parts of the Allied army could at any one time see parts of the battlefield but not others, depending where they were positioned. This was an important contributing factor to the confusion behind the charge of the Light Brigade a few hours after the battle for the redoubts.

It is not unlikely that Tunisians were present in the redoubts. The expeditionary force, after all, had been sent to fight, not to watch battles. The political element of the expedition was to demonstrate Tunisia’s interest in joining the world of modern nations by making an appreciable contribution to an important international effort. Did the Tunisian commander Rashid persuade the Ottoman command to place his freshly arrived troops in the redoubts at Balaklava? He may not have needed to argue too hard; Ottoman practice was to keep experienced troops in reserve. Politically motivated deployments of this type did not take into account the actual capabilities of the soldiers. Many of the Tunisians would have had some experience in raids and desert skirmishes while others would have had little experience of any kind of fighting. The hasty training the expeditionary force received before departing for Crimea would have been inadequate preparation for standing fast before disciplined columns of Russian infantry supported by a large number of guns.

The Last Campaign

The fall of the Russian fortress at Sevastopol in the summer of 1855 is often regarded as the final act of the Crimean War, but for the Ottoman forces the war with Russia went on. Russian troops had descended from the Caucasus to enter the Anatolian heartland of the Ottoman Empire, capturing a number of cities and besieging an Ottoman army at the fortress of Kars. To relieve pressure on the Anatolian front the Allied command decided to allow the Ottoman Army in the Crimea to cross east across the Black Sea to the Caucasus, where Circassian Muslims were fighting a losing battle to repulse invading Russian armies. As British, French and Sardinian troops were loaded on transports for the return to Europe, British steamers began shipping the Ottoman forces to a new front. With Omar Pasha at their head, a 45,000 strong army of Turks, Egyptians and Tunisians disembarked at the Black Sea ports of Sukhum-Qal’a and Batoum through September and October of 1855. If the expedition was to have any success it had to come before the arrival of the autumn rainy season, but the march into the interior was slowed by mud and the difficulty of passing through thick forests.

Correspondent Laurence Oliphant encountered a group of Tunisians at Zikinzir, close to the main Ottoman camp at Batoum: “We found ourselves surrounded by swarthy Arabs, who, peering out of their huts, looked like the slaves of some tale in the Arabian Nights. The officers were as black as the men; and a Negro colonel told us that these were Tunisian troops waiting for the arrival of Omer Pasha.” Oliphant’s description suggests that at least part of the Tunisian expeditionary force consisted of Black African troops. None of these men appear to have been involved in the Balaklava fiasco; given the racial attitudes of the time it seems impossible that some of the more vitriolic European accounts of the ‘Turks’ abandoning the Balaklava redoubts would not have mentioned the sight of ‘negro troops’ fleeing their posts.

Omar Pasha led an Ottoman column into the heavily wooded interior. The Ottomans finally encountered the Russian army at the Ingur River, where the campaign’s only battle of note was fought. The confused battle in the forest was a small triumph for the Ottomans, but ultimately spelled the doom of the expeditionary force as it only encouraged Omar Pasha to continue into Georgia. Kars fell to the Russians at the end of November, but the news was slow to reach the Ottoman commander. Ironically it was news of Omar’s arrival on the Black Sea coast that led the Russians to intensify their attacks on the fortress. It was late in the season, already inefficient supply-lines were overstretched, and now the rains came, turning the landscape into a sea of thick mud. The army turned back for the coast, struggling through the quagmire with little food or leadership, the officers having followed Omar Pasha’s example by heading for Sukhum-Qal’a well in advance of the rest of the army. Those soldiers not felled by disease, exposure, starvation or the constant attacks by Georgian partisans were shipped home after they straggled in to the coast. The last campaign of the Crimean War was at last over.


When the much smaller expeditionary force returned in 1856 its members were awarded a silver campaign medal. At this point the force was dissolved, with nobody apparently interested in recording their contribution to the war. The last contingent of troops sent after Ahmad’s death by his successor Muhammad Bey was probably viewed as part of the traditional presentation of gifts to the Ottoman Sultan before the official investiture of the Tunisian Bey.

Though Ahmad Bey made unusual efforts to ensure the well-being of the expeditionary force in the field, it seems that the sums he provided for this purpose never made it through the Ottoman chain-of-command. There is no indication that the Tunisians suffered any less than the Turks and Egyptians in the Crimea. The usual arrangement for vassal expeditionary forces in Ottoman campaigns was for Istanbul to take care of all the troops’ needs on campaign, including pay, uniforms, arms, ammunition, food, etc. In practice a remarkable inefficiency and widespread corruption in the Ottoman officer corps meant that little reached the soldier in the field. Perhaps aware of these deficiencies, Ahmad Bey made private arrangements with Tunisian merchants in Istanbul to supply the expeditionary force with whatever supplies they needed. Judging from the 40% of the force who died from disease or exposure in Batoum it seems safe to say that, for whatever reason, few if any of these supplies reached the army.

If the Tunisians did not fight beside the Turks and Egyptians at the Ingur River either (and there is no evidence they did), then where were they? Had they been left behind at Batoum because of their poor performance at Balaklava? If there was no intention to use them on the campaign then it would seem rather pointless to ship them on to the Caucasus from the Crimea rather than returning them home, though trying to apply logic to the deployments of the 19th century Ottoman Army can be a fruitless exercise. In defence of the Tunisians there is no mention in any official dispatches from the front regarding poor behaviour on the part of the Tunisians. There are French accounts claiming (without documented evidence), that the Tunisians mutinied in Batoum when they realized they had been left to die of disease and exposure without any opportunity to fight. Other French accounts, including official reports, state that the Tunisians performed well, though what they were doing well is not stated.

If, as so often reported, the Tunisian expeditionary force was left to die of disease in their camps without ever fighting, it must have been a fatal blow to Ahmad Bey, who had invested his wealth and reputation in fielding the expedition. The Tunisian role at Balaklava cannot be confirmed, and if the troops fought elsewhere they apparently did little one way or the other to merit mention by observers. Ahmad Bey’s successors allowed the military to decline into a disgraceful state and in 1881 Tunisia fell to the French without a fight.


[1]. Ian Fletcher and Natalia Ishchenko, The Crimean War: A Clash of Empires, Staplehurst Kent, 2004, p.159)

[2]. NF Dubrovin, Istoriya Krymskoy Voiny Oborony Sevastopolya II, St. Petersburg, 1871-74, pp.129-30)

[3]. Henry Clifford, His Letters and Sketches from the Crimea, London, 1956

[4]. Parts of this article rely upon L. Carl Brown’s important history of 19th century Tunisia; The Tunisia of Ahmad Bey: 1837-1855 (Princeton, 1974). Brown refutes the possibility of a Tunisian presence in the redoubts of Balaklava as a rumour, but does not seem to be aware of contemporary British accounts of Tunisians in the battle (such as George Dodd: Pictorial History of the Russian War, 1854-56, Edinburgh, 1856). Indeed, Brown may have contributed to the evidence for Tunisian participation by citing the November 27, 1854 report of the American Consul in Tunis, which describes Tunisian troops fleeing the Balaklava redoubts without firing a shot. Brown refers to the report as “a myth.”

[5]. Laurence Oliphant: The Trans-Caucasian Campaign of the Turkish Army Under Omer Pasha, London, 1856

Accusations Fly after the Pierre Gemayel Assassination

Andrew McGregor

December 8, 2006

In the aftermath of the war with Israel, Hezbollah and its allies (the Shiite Amal Party and Christian leader General Michel Aoun) are struggling to depose the Lebanese government of Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his March 14 coalition of anti-Syrian Sunni, Druze and Maronite politicians. On November 21, a team of assassins murdered Lebanese Minister of Industry Pierre Amine Gemayel in the streets of a northern Beirut suburb. The latest in a series of assassinations in Lebanon, the murder of the Maronite Christian leader seemed designed to inflame tensions as Lebanon’s political crisis threatens to plunge the country into civil war. It was the attempted assassination of Gemayel’s grandfather and namesake, Sheikh Pierre Gemayel, which sparked Lebanon’s long civil war in 1975.

Gemayal 1Pierre Amine Gemayel

Gemayel’s death by gunfire was highly unusual in Lebanon, where the preferred method of assassination is the car bomb. A Range Rover or similar vehicle rammed the car Gemayel was driving before a number of gunmen jumped out and began firing handguns equipped with silencers through the driver’s side window, killing Gemayel and a bodyguard. A second bodyguard was seriously wounded. Suspicion for the attack fell on Syria, whose alleged intention was to disrupt the Lebanese government to prevent an investigation by a UN international tribunal into the assassination of Lebanese politician Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. Rafiq’s son, Sa’ad al-Hariri (leader of the al-Mustaqbal Party), quickly identified Syria as the culprit in the Gemayel killing (al-Mustaqbal, November 22). Later al-Hariri denounced Syria and Israel for wanting civil war in Lebanon and predicted that he and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt were the next targets for assassination (al-Ahram, November 28). Hezbollah’s military wing also claimed the killing was designed to instigate civil war in Lebanon (, November 19).

Radical factions in Lebanon’s minority Sunni population saw the murder as part of an attempt by the Shiite Hezbollah organization to destroy Sunni political influence in Lebanon. A Sunni group known as the “Mujahideen in Lebanon” claimed that the murder was the work of five Hezbollah members. In a novel view of Lebanon’s political situation, the group accused the Shiites of engineering the insertion of UNIFIL to act as “a buffer” between Lebanese Sunnis and their Palestinian brethren, as well as acting in alliance with “the Crusaders” and Iranian-organized death squads to eliminate the Sunnis in Lebanon (al-Muhajirun, November 16). The group also threatened attacks on the predominantly Shiite southern suburb of Beirut, which it describes as a “pit of unbelief.” A leading Sunni sheikh, Sa’id Harmush, accused Hezbollah of abusing the Sunnis with “acts of robbery, slaughter, humiliation, and expulsion, much more than the Jews have done anywhere” (al-Mustaqbal, November 20). Other radical Sunni websites have urged the “liquidation” of Shiite leaders.

Hezbollah refutes claims that their opposition to the government is religiously inspired. According to Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General Na’im Qasim, “we do not demand the prime minister to resign because he is Sunni, but because he represents a political line which we believe makes the country adopt the U.S. position, something which the Sunnis themselves reject” (Asharq al-Awsat, November 22). Amal’s representative in Tehran also asserts that the dispute with the Sunnis over the government is “political and not religious” (Fars News Agency, November 22).

There are signs that al-Qaeda may attempt to exploit the political turmoil to create a violent rift between Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite populations. A statement originating in the Nahr al-Barid Palestinian refugee camp declared that a group calling itself “Al-Qaeda in Lebanon” was prepared to “destroy this corrupt [Lebanese] government that takes its orders from the U.S. administration” (al-Nahar, November 13). The Mujahideen in Lebanon later claimed that the “al-Qaeda” statement was a fake. The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, denounced Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah as a “charlatan agent of the anti-Christ” in a statement released by the Ministry of Information of the Islamic State of Iraq. Abu Hamza accuses Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of conspiring with Iran and Hezbollah to recreate “the old Persian Empire.”

Gemayal 2Walid Jumblatt

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt accuses Syria of sending hundreds of al-Qaeda members to Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, raising the possibility of Iraq-style sectarian violence and a continuing campaign of political assassinations (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, November 22). Reports from anti-Syrian factions claim that Syrian President al-Assad sent 200 terrorists to Lebanon from Fatah-Intifada, a Syrian-backed Palestinian group led by Abu Musa, a long-time dissident Palestinian leader. Working out of the camps, the Palestinians are alleged to be preparing the assassination of 36 Lebanese leaders (al-Mustaqbal, November 29; Naharnet/AFP, November 29).

The “Fighters for the Unity and Freedom of al-Sham” claimed responsibility for the assassination in a statement that described Gemayel as an agent working for foreign interests. The statement added that other “agents” would soon “be paid their due” (al-Nahar, November 22). The group (which many Lebanese see as a front for Syrian intelligence) claimed responsibility for the assassinations of anti-Syrian journalists Samir Kassir and Jibran al-Tueni in 2005 (al-Nahar, November 22). Both men were killed by car bombs rather than by gunmen.

Hezbollah and Amal leaders have hinted at a U.S. role in the Gemayel murder, making reference to a parcel addressed to the U.S. embassy in Lebanon that was intercepted by Lebanese Customs at Beirut Airport on February 3. The parcel contained silencers and other high-tech military equipment suitable for a sniper (al-Akhbar, February 3). Prior to Gemayel’s murder, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah asked in a Lebanese TV interview, “Why does the U.S. Embassy need silencers? Is this meant to protect the U.S. Embassy or the Americans who are traveling or residing in Lebanon? Or is this meant to carry out assassinations, which the Americans are speaking about and expecting and which the Israelis are speaking about and expecting?” (al-Manar TV, October 31). U.S. officials denied any knowledge of the shipment, which was sent through the normal post rather than sealed diplomatic bags. The incident suggests premeditation on the part of some group that desired to implicate the United States in coming assassinations.

Unfortunately, Lebanon has become a showcase for covert activities, false-flag operations, provocations and disinformation campaigns. Attempting to pin responsibility for a specific operation is to wade deeply into the dark waters of international intrigue and manipulation. It is perhaps instructive to note that both sides in the struggle for dominance in Lebanon claim that the assassination of Pierre Gemayel benefited the opposing party.

It is difficult to see the advantage for Syria of killing a Lebanese cabinet minister from a U.S.-friendly faction just as Washington and London are moving toward opening a dialogue with Syria over Iraq and other regional issues. At the moment, the U.S. State Department and Pentagon are engaged in an internal struggle over Middle East policy. Syria’s ambassador to the United States pointed to “enemies” of Syria as the responsible parties for the assassination, suggesting their intention was to derail the Syrian-American rapprochement (CNN, November 22). Killing Gemayel would be to risk an opportunity to sweep the al-Hariri tribunal under the carpet and leverage Syria’s support on Iraq into concessions from Israel in the Golan Heights. It is also hard to see how al-Qaeda can successfully insert itself into the complicated Lebanese political structure. The notion of creating an Islamic regime exclusively from Lebanon’s minority Sunni community would be immediately dismissed by most Lebanese Sunnis.

Despite incredible internal and external pressures, Lebanon has not yet burst into sectarian violence. This indicates a maturing of the political process in Lebanon and a general reluctance to rejoin the horrors of civil war, although the crisis could tip over into violence at any moment.


This article first appeared in the December 8, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

Aleksandr Litvinenko: An Islamist Threat?

Andrew McGregor

North Caucasus Analysis, December 7, 2006

One of the most surprising elements in the recent poisoning of the former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko is his apparent deathbed conversion to Islam. At first, there seemed little reason to believe this unlikely development, but the gradual confirmation of the story has raised a number of questions regarding Litvinenko’s cooperation with the Chechen resistance and, in a more sensational vein, with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist organization.

litvinenko 1Aleksandr Litvinenko

A Quiet Conversion

The first notice of Litvinenko’s conversion to Islam came in a press release from the Chechen Presidential Administration after the death of the former spy: “We have learnt that shortly before the attempt on his life, Aleksandr Litvinenko voluntarily and sincerely converted to Islam. Thus, he not only became our comrade-in-arms but also brother-in-faith” (Chechenpress, November 26). Though the source was not given for this unexpected development, it was eventually revealed that this news came from the Chechen representative in London, Akhmed Zakayev, a personal friend and neighbor of Litvinenko. News of the conversion apparently took several of Litvinenko’s friends by surprise.

There seemed little reason to believe this strange tale until it was confirmed by the spy’s father, Walter Litvinenko, who described his son’s growing estrangement from Russia’s Orthodox Church. Two days before his death, Litvinenko told his father that he had decided to convert to Islam and desired to be buried as a Muslim (Kommersant, December 4). Zakayev said that Litvinenko first broached the subject of conversion shortly after he became ill, returning to the topic repeatedly despite a lack of encouragement from Zakayev. Eventually, Litvinenko recited the shahadah, a formula whose recitation indicates the speaker’s willingness to convert to Islam. At Litvinenko’s urging, Zakayev arranged for an imam to recite the appropriate Koranic verses in the hospital room the day before the spy’s death (RFE/RL, December 5).

Experiments with Poison

There was initial confusion as to what constituted a lethal dose of polonium-210. If the Litvinenko poisoning was indeed the work of Russia’s secret services, it is unlikely that such an unusual method of assassination would have been employed without previous testing.

In a recent interview, Zakayev alleged that polonium poisoning had already been carried out on several high-profile Chechen prisoners, including Lecha Islamov (Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, December 3). The reference is undoubtedly to veteran field commander Lechi (‘The Beard’) Islamov, who had worked closely with the warlord Ruslan (Hamzat) Gelayev. Both hailed from the same town of Komsomolskoye in southwestern Chechnya. As the leader of the “Shaykh Mansur Special Task-Force Regiment,” Islamov was captured in 2000 following the siege of Grozny and was sentenced to nine years in prison for seizing hostages and “organizing an armed group.” The Russian Deputy Minister of Justice maintained that Islamov died in 2004 from heart and kidney diseases, as well as from the complications brought on by a “severe skin allergy” (, April 26, 2004). Islamov, however, was convinced that he had been poisoned, describing a meeting that he had attended in prison with several unknown men. The men seemed intent on discussing matters of “life and death” with Islamov while urging him to partake in tea and a pile of sandwiches. Within minutes after the meeting, Islamov became seriously ill, though he did not receive medical attention for days, and instead, was transferred to another prison.

Litvinenko 2Field Commander Lecha Islamov

According to Islamov’s attorney, the commander began to suffer from organ failure. Some of the symptoms of Islamov’s last days resemble those endured by Litvinenko. His attorney provided a description: “He cannot speak or move, has become absolutely bald, lost his hair, beard and eyebrow hairs, skin is peeling off in pieces from his head and hands” (Kommersant, April 4, 2004). Doctors were unable to diagnose the disease that was quickly killing Islamov or devise any treatment. Zakayev alleges that it was only because of Litvinenko’s extraordinary good health that allowed him to survive long enough for the radioactive poison to be discovered; the poor health of the past victims resulted in their death within ten days. Traces of polonium-210 have also been found in Zakayev’s car.

Zakayev, who serves as the representative of the Chechen republic in London, has been the subject of several extradition attempts by Moscow on charges of murder, abduction and torture. Russian allegations have tended to be so spurious that they have been tossed aside by British judges. For instance, an Orthodox priest that Zakayev is alleged to have killed actually turned up to challenge allegations of his own murder. There are reports that Russia will now require the extradition of Zakayev and exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky in return for Russian cooperation in the investigation of Litvinenko’s death (The Times, December 6).

Dirty Bombs and Suitcase Nukes

After the news of his conversion broke, a number of media sources retroactively elevated Litvinenko to the ranks of the “Islamist extremists” who threaten the West as well as Russia. Britain’s Sunday Express tabloid reported that Scotland Yard and counterterrorism experts feared that Litvinenko was assisting al-Qaeda in building a radioactive “dirty bomb” (Sunday Express, December 3). A televised panel of Russian “nuclear experts” claimed that Litvinenko worked in an underground laboratory in London where he was preparing a “dirty bomb” on behalf of the Chechen extremists (NTV, December 3). A news agency also suggested that Litvinenko actually poisoned himself by handling polonium-210, the last ingredient needed to detonate a “dirty nuclear bomb” (RIA Novosti, December 5). Another Russian agency repeated the “dirty bomb” allegations while adding the accusation that “Anglo-American” security forces were planting traces of polonium around London to implicate Russia in Litvinenko’s death (Isvestiya, December 5). The Washington Times asked whether Litvinenko’s assassination might have been “just another revenge killing in the name of Allah?” (Washington Times, December 5). Less credible internet sources have even revived the long discredited allegations that Osama bin Laden had purchased a number of “suitcase nukes” from Chechen militants for use against the United States. These stories speculate that Litvinenko was working on polonium-based triggering devices for these weapons and had failed to clean traces of polonium from his fingers before going out for a sushi lunch.

As usual, many media sources seem unable to differentiate between nuclear bombs and “dirty bombs.” The latter is a primitive weapon involving no nuclear reaction, just the dispersal of radioactive debris. Polonium-210 was used as part of the triggering devices on early nuclear weapons, but is no longer used for this purpose. A “dirty bomb” does not require a sophisticated trigger as it is simply radioactive waste wrapped around a conventional explosive; polonium-210 is not a very useful material for constructing “dirty bombs.” A 1957 fire at a Cumbrian nuclear facility in England released enough polonium-210 to kill thousands of people if ingested, but the isotopes dispersed quickly and harmlessly in the air. The point of a “dirty bomb” is not so much to kill individuals (conventional explosives are much better for this purpose) but to create lasting contamination, public panic and economic damage. Polonium is not regarded as particularly dangerous unless inhaled or ingested in a significant quantity. A sheet of paper is enough to block the radioactive alpha rays and even human skin can be enough to prevent penetration into the body.


Despite Litvinenko’s talents in the world of espionage, it is highly unlikely that he would have been capable of maintaining and repairing complicated nuclear weapons, such as portable “suitcase bombs” in a basement laboratory in London. Assumptions of this sort belong to the world of paperback thrillers. Many of the imaginative stories regarding the “Islamist threat’ posed by Litvinenko are designed to sell newspapers, but other accounts seem designed to discredit the former KGB member and divert attention away from his assassins or even to justify their deed as being in the interest of public security.