The forces trying to prolong the life of the Caucasus Emirate (CE) have suffered a major setback. This third blow in nearly six months may put an end to this organization in the North Caucasus.
At the end of 2014, a wave of changes swept the militants of the North Caucasus, as the well-known commanders of the Caucasus Emirate left the organization and pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (IS) (Lezgi-yar.ru, January 1). Having recognized Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as their leader, the militants set up a branch of the IS in the North Caucasus (News.bigmir.net, June 25). The CE suffered further losses when its leader, Amir Abu Muhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov), was killed (Regnum, April 20). Despite these setbacks, the CE tried to survive and started to form new military structures in Dagestan (see EDM, August 6). An impression emerged that the two rebel organizations, the CE and the IS, would compete with each other for the right to represent the armed Islamic resistance movement in the region.
However, what happened in recent days may change everything: the CE did not simply suffer another round of losses, but lost three of its top commanders, including the leader of the organization. Police sources said that the government introduced a counterterrorist operation regime in the mountainous Dagestani district of Untsukul, early on August 10 (Kavkazsky Uzel, August 10), after the security services received information about the presence of rebels in this area. Government forces set up checkpoints to prevent the rebels from retreating, and strict control was imposed on the movements of residents in the area. The Gimry tunnel was closed, which allowed government forces to control the flow of people locally. Government forces used jets and artillery to strike at mountainous locations where the rebels were presumably hiding, indicating that the government knew where the rebels were located. The next day, August 11, the government announced its forces killed four rebels and were looking for another three (Riadagestan.ru, August 11). Apparently, some kind of shootout occurred, because one serviceman was reportedly wounded (Lifenews.ru, August 10).
Among the rebels killed was new CE leader Abu Usman Gimrinsky (Magomed Suleimanov), an Untsukul district native. Two other well-known commanders were reportedly also killed—Said Arakansky (Kamil Saidov), amir of the Dagestani Velayat, and Abu Dujan (Abdulla Abdullaev), amir of the Mountainous Sector of the Dagestani Velayat, (Kavpolit.com, August 11). Thus, practically all the top leaders of the Caucasus Emirate were wiped out. Within hours of the incident, the websites that represent the CE confirmed the death of the group’s leadership (Kavkazcenter.com, August 11).
The government accused Abu Usman of many crimes, including the murder of one of Dagestan’s best-known Sufi sheikhs, Said Chirkeisky. On August 28, 2012, there was an explosion at Chirkeisky’s home, which investigators said was caused by a female suicide bomber, Aminat Saprykina. Along with the religious figure and the suicide bomber, six civilians were killed in the attack (Kavkazsky Uzel, August 11).
Some media outlets have claimed that the number of successful special operations in Dagestan increased after a few local officials at various levels were detained (Postsovet.ru, August 11). In reality, the arrests of local officials and successful operations of the police are unrelated, and these claims are probably part of an attempt to hide the fact that the security services successfully planted a mole in the CE leader’s inner circle.
Meanwhile, Russian experts have started discussing who will become the next leader of the CE. According to Akhmet Yarlykapov, “there is an issue of electing the new leader of the Caucasus Emirate. The number of potential candidates is progressively diminishing.” Yarlykapov explained that he was not aware of any religious figure who could become the leader of the organization. The most likely scenario after the killing of Suleimanov, according to the expert, was that the remaining CE’s forces would join the Islamic State, which is also designated as a terrorist organization in Russia (Kavkazsky Uzel, August 12). Another Russian expert, Aleksei Malashenko, thinks it is too early to discount the CE. “They will reemerge sooner or later,” he said. “This is only a question of time. We should not think that everything will be fine after the liquidation of the leaders. There are ambitious understudies, there are many young people who study Arabic.”
Whether a Muslim cleric or a military man will become the next leader of the CE is not the most crucial issue now. The main issue is whether the CE will survive as part of the armed Islamic resistance at all. It may turn out that the CE, eight years after its emergence, may disappear altogether. With the death of Amir Abu Usman Gimrinsky, there is virtually no one left in the armed underground movement of the North Caucasus who could speak out against the Islamic State. The remaining members of the CE can now join the IS, taking an oath of allegiance to Amir Rustam Asilderov, who was appointed the representative of the Islamic State in the North Caucasus. This is unlikely to improve Russia’s position in the North Caucasus, because Moscow will still have to fight the insurgents who are now affiliated with the IS. At the same time, however, Russia will continue to stress the need to join forces with the Western coalition to fight IS. Russia and the West currently remain divided over their attitude toward Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad. Regardless, with the death of three top CE commanders, the underground militant organization may be facing extinction, leaving Islamic State with no challenger to its struggle for influence in the North Caucasus.