Chechen Rebels’ Split has not Hampered their Activities

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 14

Last October, the Chechen/Caucasian rebel leader Dokka Umarov declared the Caucasian Emirate, an Islamic state uniting all peoples of the North Caucasus. In his statement, which was posted on rebel websites, Umarov said that all governing structures of the independent Chechen state should be disbanded and replaced by new bodies of the Emirate, which is, the rebel leader believes, a state not only for Chechens, but for all Caucasian Muslims.

The declaration of the Emirate was condemned by some Chechen separatist leaders, including Akhmed Zakaev and others. Those separatists who now live abroad and protested against Umarov’s declaration established a new government of Ichkeria (the name of independent Chechnya), headed by Zakaev.

Zakaev reportedly organized a meeting in Turkey last fall of separatists and field commanders opposed to the idea of the Emirate. Among the rebels who reportedly attended the meeting, the most famous and influential figure was Uvaise Akhmadov, a Chechen field commander who now lives in Turkey. Dokka Umarov could not simply ignore the meeting at which the establishment of the Emirate was condemned. It was attended not only by pro-Western separatist-democrats like Zakaev, but also by Islamic fundamentalists, including religious scholars, field commanders and other active supporters of the idea of having a Sharia state in Chechnya.

Umarov posted a video statement on the Kavkaz-Center website in which he repeated his arguments as to why the Emirate had been declared and warned that if anybody tried to organize any rebel structures in the Caucasus independent of his command, they would be beheaded as traitors according to Sharia law.

Such threats did not stop Akhmed Zakaev and his followers. Supported by such field commanders like Uvaise Akhmadov, Isa Munaev and Said Askhabov, Zakaev said his aim was to set up an armed resistance in Chechnya fighting under the flag of Ichkeria that would not be subordinate to Dokka Umarov’s commanders. On March 3, Zakaev told the Chechen-Online website that “the parliament of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and the new government will do everything necessary to continue organized armed resistance against the occupiers. The ministers of the security bloc of the government are in Chechnya now and they are establishing coordination and links between fighters of different fronts. Coordination has been ruined as a result of the declaration of the Caucasian Emirate by Dokka Umarov. We believe a further split of the Chechen resistance is intolerable. Afghanistan can serve as an example: after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from the country, the enemies of Afghanistan easily managed to separate and set against each other such famous commanders as Ahmed Shah Massoud, [Burhanuddin] Rabbani, [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar and others.”

Zakaev’s stand was supported by some rebel commanders in Chechnya, including Abubakar Yelmuradov, the leader of a Chechen rebel group called “the Islamic Jamaat of Chechnya,” Amir Khamza, the head of the so-called “Islamic Brigade of Chechnya,” and Amir Surkho, the commander of Staraya Sunzha Sabotage Group. These commanders started to send reports to the Chechenpress agency, a rebel website controlled by Zakaev, about their successful military operations against Russian troops and pro-Russian local police in the region.

Moreover, Zakaev appointed new rebel envoys to different Muslim states and said that all rebel squads in Chechnya should be subordinate to the rebel Chief of Staff appointed by him.

These moves by Zakaev enraged Dokka Umarov. On March 8, Umarov issued a decree that listed the names of the envoys of the Caucasian Emirate to various countries and stressed that “those who are not mentioned in the list have no authority to represent the Caucasian mujahideen and the leadership of the Caucasian Emirate is not responsible for their activity.” Umarov also prohibited any rebel envoys abroad from providing any information from Chechnya to Chechenpress or any other websites controlled by Zakaev (Kavkaz-Center, March 8). Moreover, the leader of the Caucasian Emirate fired the head of the Chechen-Online website for publishing an interview with Zakaev.

The most important question is how this standoff between the various factions of the Chechen insurgency could affect the strength of the insurgency in the North Caucasus. As for the rebel groups in such Caucasian regions like Kabardino-Balkaria, Dagestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia, all of them have already declared their loyalty to Dokka Umarov as the new leader of the Caucasian Emirate. In the case of Chechnya, Zakaev may indeed be supported by some groups and commanders who are not happy with the idea of the Emirate and would like to establish a separate armed resistance. It should be noted that the Council of Chechen Ulema (Islamic scholars) headed by Mansur Yelmurzaev did not support the establishment of the Emirate and Umarov had to disband the Council. Instead of Yelmurzaev, Umarov appointed the leader of the rebels in Kabardino-Balkaria, Anzor Astemirov, to head the Sharia Court of the Caucasian insurgency.

However, it is unlikely that Zakaev has sufficient capabilities and financial resources to unite all those in the rebel camp unhappy about the Emirate around his government. Those commanders and leaders in Chechnya who support Zakaev are too weak to confront Umarov and at the same time conduct a guerrilla war against the numerous Russian troops and forces of Ramzan Kadyrov. The recent increase in the number of rebel attacks in Chechnya demonstrates that the split has not significantly affected the rebel command’s military plans.

There are no signs that any senior Chechen rebel commanders in the republic intend to break with Dokka Umarov. Given the current situation in Chechnya, that would be tantamount to suicide. There is only one option for those who are not satisfied with Umarov’s policy – to wait for the day that Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya, when Chechens are able to choose their own future.