MOSCOW - The Arab warlord Khattab sports a flowing black beard, long frizzy hair, a nasty scar on his left forearm - and a fast-growing reputation as the most dreaded man in Russia.
Khattab, who uses only one name, is a mysterious figure who leads Islamic militants battling Russian troops in the southern territory of Dagestan.
Some officials now believe he's the key to ending the string of explosions that has killed more than 250 people in Russia over the past two weeks.
"From now on, we will not only fight against Russian fighter jets (and) tanks," Khattab told The Associated Press in an interview in the breakaway territory of Chechnya, not far from the fighting in Dagestan.
"From now on, they will get our bombs everywhere. Let Russia await our explosions blasting through their cities. I swear we will do it," he said.
Yesterday, however, he struck a different tone, telling the Interfax news agency in the Chechen capital, Grozny, that he had nothing to do with the Moscow attacks.
"We would not like to be akin to those who kill sleeping civilians with bombs and shells," Khattab was quoted as saying.
Some Russian officials claim that Khattab, a native of either Saudi Arabia or Jordan, works with Osama bin Laden, the multimillionaire Saudi accused of waging a terror campaign against Western targets.
Both come from wealthy families, belong to the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect and see their actions as part of an international holy war. The campaign began in the 1980s when Khattab, bin Laden and other militants went to Afghanistan to fight Soviet forces, and has since moved on to wars in Algeria, Egypt, Bosnia, Chechnya and now Dagestan.
These Islamic militants have created a network that can supply fighters, money and weapons to causes they support.
This possible international dimension has prompted Russia to appeal to the United States and other Western countries for anti-terrorism expertise.
Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo has blamed Khattab for the bombings, although President Boris Yeltsin has refrained from naming suspects and the security services are still searching for evidence to link Khattab and the other militants to the blasts.
The three big blasts in Russia do bear some resemblance to attacks bin Laden has been accused of carrying out.
He is suspected in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 1995-96 bomb blasts against U.S. military targets in his native Saudi Arabia. Hundreds were killed in the attacks.
Those blasts appeared to be the work of Muslim extremists with a high degree of explosives expertise, access to large amounts of money and the mobility to strike at different locations.
The powerful explosions also demonstrated careful planning and were timed to go off when the targeted buildings were full, in order to maximize casualties. Afterward, no claims of responsibility were made.
Khattab, who looks to be in his 30s, first arrived in Chechnya to fight in the 1994-96 war against Russia.
After the war, he emerged as one of the powerful warlords who refuse to recognize the Chechen government, rendering the territory ungovernable. He set up a military training center, attracting fighters from a wide range of Muslim countries.
Khattab allied himself with Chechnya's most notorious local-born warlord, Shamil Basayev, and the pair led last month's invasion into Dagestan.
Basayev supplies many of the fighters and tactical expertise for battling the Russians in the mountainous terrain. Khattab appears to be the link for attracting militants, weapons and money from sympathizers abroad.
"Khattab and Basayev are partners," said Rushailo, the interior minister. "Their people are responsible for terrorist acts. Khattab and Basayev are behind the recent events in Moscow."
Basayev has denied any involvement, and the Chechen fighters have no history of major bomb attacks on civilian targets.
Since moving to Chechnya, Khattab has married two local women, and could not have been pleased when several in-laws were arrested in Dagestan in March. Five months later, Khattab and his men invaded the territory.
The first major terrorist attack this month took place in Dagestan on Sept. 4, when a car bomb destroyed a military apartment building, killing 64 people.
The militants want an Islamic state in southern Russia.
"All the world is witnessing genocide (against Muslims) in Dagestan," Khattab said. "There is no other choice than to fight."