Astemirov Strikes Back: Background and Implications of the Kyarov Assassination in Kabardino-Balkaria

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 2

Before his assassination in Nalchik last Saturday (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, January 14), Colonel Anatoly Kyarov was in charge of a special unit that targeted the leader of the Kabardino-Balkarian section of the Caucasus front Anzor Astemirov (aka Seifullah). Kyarov’s unit was an independent operation, with its own designated budget and resources, and reported only to the head of the Kabardino-Balkarian Anti-Terrorism Commission. The unit’s plans for their target ranged from persuading Astemirov to surrender all the way up to killing him.

Kyarov’s personal preference was to pressure Astemirov into giving himself up: the consequences of such an action—a moral victory over one of the most charismatic leaders of the new generation of the Caucasus resistance—cannot be overestimated, either for the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) or the Caucasus as a whole. The colonel’s goal was to make direct contact, start negotiations and convince Seifullah to surrender.

Anatoly Kyarov had prior experience in persuading his targets to surrender. In 2004, the colonel arranged for four members of the destroyed Balkar Yarmuk Jamaat—Aslan Babayev, Khizir Bichekuyev, Takhir Osmanov and Akhmat Akhmatov—to surrender. All four were sentenced to terms of varying length in Russian prisons, and the court took the fact that they surrendered into account as an extenuating circumstance.

Starting in summer 2006, Kyarov’s unit embarked on a large-scale search operation in Kabardino-Balkaria and its neighboring regions. Reliable sources reported that Astemirov has been ambushed by Kyarov’s unit on at least three separate occasions, but every time miraculously managed to escape. For example, in late summer 2007, UBOP (Anti-Organized Crime Department) shooters in the Nalchik suburb of Khasanya destroyed with massive direct fire a vehicle that they had surrounded and from which Astemirov had fled minutes before the shooting began.

Just several days later, Kyarov’s unit planned an ambush near Shogentsukov Street in downtown Nalchik at the site of the rendezvous point between Astemirov and his friend Ruslan Odizhev, a field commander and former inmate of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Odizhev and his bodyguard were killed while Astemirov was late for the meeting.

A retaliatory ambush targeting Anatoly Kyarov actually took place at the same location on Shogentsukov Street, which was very near the site of Odizhev’s death. Obviously, revenge was the primary motive for the attempt to assassinate the colonel.

Anzor Astemirov, however, was not the only one with an axe to grind. Ever since Kyarov was appointed deputy head of UBOP, several government agencies as well as human rights organizations had received hundreds of complaints about torture practiced by his unit.

The most infamous cases included Rasul Tsakoyev who died after being interrogated by UBOP in 2004, and Boris Dzagalov who was arrested by UBOP at his home on October 14, 2005, and subsequently found dead and mutilated among those who had been killed during the large-scale armed rebel attack in Nalchik the previous day on October 13. Two more individuals arrested by Kyarov’s unit—Zaur Psanukov and Zeitun Gayev in 2005 and 2007, respectively—allegedly jumped out of the window while being interrogated and sustained lethal injuries.

Kyarov’s unit was highly successful against Kabardinian insurgents in no small part because of the extensive database of Muslim communities in KBRthat it had compiled over the past 10 years or so. Kyarov’s records reportedly included comprehensive information on the numbers, personalities, internal and external ties of the Kabardino-Balkarian Jamaat, their sympathizers within the government agencies and even children over seven years of age—potential future members of the resistance movement.

One of the greatest services the late Colonel Kyarov provided the Russian authorities is that, thanks to his agents who had infiltrated the jamaat, the large-scale rebel military operation on October 13, 2005, was disrupted. It is noteworthy that the Federal Security Bureau of Kabardino-Balkaria was essentially isolated from participating in developing tactics and strategies to deal with the October 13 rebel operation. Having been tipped off by Kyarov’s agent ahead of time, the Russian special services were able to use their knowledge of Astemirov’s secret signals system to their advantage. It is widely known that the network-based system employed by the jamaats not only has major advantages but also serious flaws. One such shortcoming is its notification system, which makes it possible to mobilize hundreds of people by using a pre-arranged signal.

Kyarov used his knowledge of the system ahead of time to thwart the brunt of the attack and this strategy was employed by the anti-terrorist headquarters in Nalchik. The result was that in addition to actual combat units, the city streets were filled by dozens of unsuspecting young revolutionaries who wore orange bands on their sleeves. These civlians did not receive even the most rudimentary training but suffered immensely as a result of Kyarov’s forewarning of their plans.

The only thing the special service forces had left to do was shoot at virtually defenseless men, many of whom did not even know how to detonate a grenade. The military action of the resistance fighters was thus used as an excuse to eradicate the most active members of the revolutionary youth and to step up repression directed against the rest of the populace.

During the operation, the UBOP led by Kyarov was the only Ministry of Interior unit that avoided being attacked by the fighters. One of the strongest fighting groups that planned to target UBOP (a second one attacked the FSB) was destroyed at the site of their temporary forest camp the night before the attack.

Colonel Anatoly Kyarov’s participation in the operation earned him an Order of Valor awarded to him personally by President Putin.

The 2005 attack on Nalchik was not the only Astemirov action that was derailed by Colonel Kyarov. In October 2006, Seifullah was preparing to liberate 59 arrested resistance fighters as they were being transferred from a temporary detention facility to the Nalchik Court building. Kyarov’s agents again rose to the challenge and the opening of the trial was deferred for over a year under a false pretext. During that time, the authorities built a special court building connected to the detention facility by a passageway. This tactic, unprecedented for Russia and North Caucasus, is clear evidence of how seriously the Russian government takes the threat posed by Anzor Astemirov.

Considering the presence of tens of thousands of troops in KBR, along with the special units of the FSB and the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate, the Russian military’s intelligence body), scores of local law enforcement personnel, and the all-Russia FSB anti-terrorism drills that were taking place in the republic at the time, Kyarov’s assassination cannot be considered a random piece of good luck. It reflected a lot of inside information, planning and access to people close to the intelligence sources who worked for Kyarov. A successfully planned action on that scale is an important moral victory for Astemirov and a serious humiliation of Russia’s anti-terrorism establishment. In many ways, the killing of Kyarov is the most successful assassination carried out by separatists in the North Caucasus since the killing of Akhmad Kadyrov in May 2004.

The next steps of KBR’s law enforcement authorities are quite predictable—there will be nothing new. Following the same old pattern, the investigation of Anatoly Kyarov’s murder will result in the mass repression of Kabardinian Muslims, while his “black list” database will continue to serve Russia and surely be replenished with a whole new set of names.

In the meantime, the jamaat, following the tactic it has already announced, will continue to develop black lists of its own, bask in the publicity created by the assassination and use its success to expand the resistance movement and recruit new members for the separatist cause.