Caucasus Emirate: Virtual Myth or Reality?
Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 10 Issue: 10
The second Chechen war, which began in early October 1999, was from the outset colored in the green of Islam. It was immediately preceded by the jihad of radical Muslims in the Dagestani mountains in August-September of the same year. Although in the early years of the second Chechen war the secular leadership of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI) still continued to function, it quickly began to color its activities in Muslim tones. The meeting of the State Committee of Defense of the ChRI, which took place on July 22, 2002, only confirmed this transformation. At that meeting, Shamil Basaev was appointed the commander of military operations on three fronts—Eastern, Western and Northern—while Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, the head of the jamaat in the town of Argun and the advisor on religious affairs to the president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Aslan Maskhadov, was elected vice president of the ChRI (Laurent Vinatier. Guerre en Tchétchénie, exil et diaspora (thése de doctorat). Paris, 2008, p.51).
Shamil Basaev, who died on the night of July 9-10, 2006 under murky circumstances (either as a result of the operation carried out by the Russian special services or due to the accidental explosion) (https://www.polit.ru/news/2006/07/11/basaev.html), was the de facto head of all military activities carried out under the banner of the ChRI starting in the summer of 2002, which marks the point at which they acquired a distinctly terrorist character. Basaev’s name is also associated with the seizure of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in late October 2002 and the hostage taking at the school in Beslan in early September 2004, as well as less known but no less tragic explosions of passenger planes departing from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport on the night of August 24-25, 2004 (https://www.newsru.com/russia/30aug2004/nagaeva.html). It seems to me that Basaev was not a radical Muslim fanatic, but due to tactical considerations, he decided to join the international radical Muslim community that was being formed in the aftermath of 9-11 that by then had become the main funding source for his militant operations.
From 2002-2005, Maskhadov remained the last and partly illusory symbol of secular power of the ChRI. By then he no longer controlled the Chechen resistance movement, in which most influence had shifted to the Muslim radicals. His death on March 8, 2005, in Tolstoi-Yurt as a result of a special operation by the federal forces, led to an acceleration of the Islamization and radicalization of the Chechen resistance movement. Sadulaev was proclaimed the new president of the ChRI. During Sadulaev’s brief reign, he was mainly preoccupied with spiritual and educational work, and for the supporters of the resistance he was more of a moral authority than a politician. The Chechen resistance movement perceived him as a young sheikh and conversations about the Emirate and the proclamation of Sadulaev as Emir were popular in Chechnya at the time. However, we will never know whether or not Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev agreed to the official creation of the theocratic state, because on June 17, 2006, he was killed in the course of another special operation. Following Sadulaev’s death, Dokka Umarov became the new president of the ChRI. It should be noted that Umarov was close to Basaev, who, in turn, died less than a month after Sadulaev’s death.
By summer 2006 the resistance movement was significantly weakened and the majority of its field commanders were dead, and only a few had managed to flee abroad. As a result, the resistance movement underwent generational change. The inflow of youth gravitated toward radical Muslim fundamentalism, which became famous across the North Caucasus under the colloquial term “Wahhabism.” In Chechnya proper the ranks of the resistance fighters shrank noticeably because the population got tired of bloody and hopeless opposition to the federal forces. Moreover, many Chechens are followers of the Sufi traditions, which are deeply rooted in the local culture, and the North Caucasian “Wahhabis” are eager to eradicate Sufism because they perceive it as a deviation from the so-called pure Islam.
At the same time, the resistance movement received a substantial boost from the military jamaats comprised of the radical Muslims. These entities are few in number, but they are highly disciplined and well organized . These jamaats began to emerge in neighboring republics of the North Caucasus and to some degree this process strengthened the position of Chechnya as the center of the resistance movement. It is evident that the military jamaats represent an integral part of the phenomenon commonly identified as “political Islam.” The most noticeable and vivid ideologue of political Islam in the early 2000s was Yasin Rasulov, a graduate student at Dagestani State University. According to Rasulov, “the incursion onto the territory of Dagestan by the ‘Islamic Army of Caucasus’ (meaning the jihad of August-September 1999 – MR) with the purpose of establishing Sharia, the destruction of the Sharia enclave in the Kadar Zone (the “Wahhabi” communities in the villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi in Dagestan – MR) and the current punitive actions by the authorities against the adherents of ‘Wahhabism’—all of this is a continuation of historical tradition of resistance to the Russian authorities and opposition-militant Islam in the North Caucasus. The cooperation of the official-loyal clerical establishment with the authorities and forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs represents a logical and natural phenomenon within the framework of the same tradition, which is being continued by the new Russia” (Yasin Rasulov. Zerkalo kavkazskoy sudby [Mirror of a Caucasian fate] // Chernovik. https://www.chernovik.net/news/61/REPUBLIC/2005/01/06/3907).
Rasulov was killed on April 10, 2006, in Makhachkala during regular special operations that were being conducted by the local ministry of internal affairs, but his ideas were widely circulated across the North Caucasus. Umarov, who is primarily a field commander and definitely not an ideologue, understood that by exchanging the banners of the ChRI for the idea of the Caucasus Emirate may resuscitate and expand the ranks of the resistance movement. Furthermore, it allows the expansion of militant actions onto the territory of neighboring republics. This is why in October 2007, Umarov resigned as the head of the ChRI and declared himself “Emir (Commander-in-Chief) of militants of the Caucasus and the leader of Jihad” as well as “the only legitimate authority on all territories, where there are mujahideen” (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1200657.html).
The composition of the newly declared state consisted of a number of North Caucasian regions of Russia, including Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Stavropol and Krasnodar Territories, North Ossetia-Alania, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. All of these constituent parts were renamed vilayats (provinces)—Chechnya, for instance, became known as the vilayat Nokhchicho. According to one of the authors of the separatist website Chechenpress, “the only objective of the recent speeches by Abu-Usman (this is how supporters call Dokka Umarov – MR) is to develop slogans that will be general and equally comprehensible to all Caucasian partisans irrespective of their ethnic self-identification, and which will unite them and to build a jihadist movement in the North Caucasus in such a manner so that Umarov himself, and anyone who would come to replace him, is perceived as its only natural leader” (https://www.chechenpress.info/events/2008/01/14/02.shtml).
All of the above outlines the official history, but the real question is to what extent does the Emirate reflect the existing reality and not a virtual project that is being actively promoted by the radical Muslim websites such as the Kavkaz Center (https://www.kavkazcenter.com), for instance. It is apparent that the strongest base of the Emirate is in Chechnya despite certain successes scored by the pro-Russian regime of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in recent years. A number of villages in the mountainous regions of Chechnya are still under the control of the Chechen resistance, which has acquired a clearly identifiable “Wahhabi” character now. From time to time the mujahideen in these regions set up temporary checkpoints on the roads to catch the representatives of Kadyrov’s administration and his law enforcement structures, while the official heads of village administrations are forced to hide mostly in the capital of Chechnya, Grozny. The militant activities of the Emirate have become most visible in neighboring Ingushetia, where the well-paved roads, high population density and small territory allow the mujahideen to carry out sabotage operations and to disappear with ease afterwards among the local population. It should also be noted that at present the commander-in-chief of the Caucasian Front of the Emirate, or Umarov’s deputy, is an ethnic Ingush, Akhmed Yevloev, who is more known by his nom de guerre “Magas.” According to Magas, “today all Jamaats of Ingushetia, with the exception of a few small groups with whom we are conducting negotiations, have joined the structure of the Ingush Sector of the Caucasian Front” (https://www.chechentimes.net/content/view/1560/34/).
The situation in Dagestan is different, because there the activities of the Emirate are perhaps less noticeable in the military sense, but the “Wahhabi” ideas are spreading quickly among the population at large and youth in particular. Taking into account the high level of religiosity of the Dagestani population and the strength of Sufi traditions there, it is entirely plausible to talk of a smoldering religious war in that republic which in due time could turn into a civil conflict. In other republics of North Caucasus – Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and North Ossetia-Alania – the activities of the military jamaats of the Emirate are not as noticeable, but they do exist there nonetheless. The Emirate scored a certain success when, in June 2008, the prominent Salafi preacher and Muslim neophyte from Buryatia, Said Buryatsky, joined the resistance movement .
The movement of the military jamaats, which evolved into the unrecognized state of the Caucasus Emirate, is logically consistent with the overall structure of the international network-centric community of radical Muslims and represents a long-term destabilization factor in this part of Russia.
1. For instance, this is what the Analytical Digest of the Council of Federation of the Federal Assembly of Russia writes about the military or combat jamaats: “The slogan that they declare—the struggle against the corrupt authorities—is undoubtedly resonating among the population. The demographic composition of militant jamaats is predominantly youth born after 1980, who failed to find their niche in a region dominated by poverty and unemployment and where all profitable activities are, as a rule, in the possession of older people, who enjoy firm corrupt ties with the local administration” (https://www.budgetrf.ru/Publications/Magazines/VestnikSF/2005/vestniksf263-11/vestniksf263-11030.htm#p2).
2. Famous investigative journalist Yulia Latynina writes about this in the following manner: “In Chechnya, a new hero of the resistance appeared this summer. His name is Sheikh Said Buryatsky. He is a young Buryat, who converted to Islam and left for the Chechen mountains. He is sort of a Buryat Che Guevara, a mujahideen-internationalist” (https://www.ryzkov.ru/publications.php?id=7901).