Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 30

In March 2005 the Chechen rebel independence movement suffered both the loss of its leader and one of its primary military strategists. Aslan Maskhadov’s successor was promptly named as Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, a 38-year old Shaykh from the city of Argun. Sadulaev, who has limited operational command experience, acted as a spiritual adviser to Maskhadov throughout the Second Chechen War. He was designated his preferred successor during a session of the State Defense Committee – Majlis ul-Shura in mid-2002. In the period since Maskhadov’s death, Sadulaev has gradually asserted his authority within the Chechen resistance, visiting fronts and sectors and leading fighters in prayer. He is regarded by the rebels as a youthful and worthy successor to the late president. However, the loss of such a central and long-standing figure as Maskhadov naturally gives rise to questions related to the future of the Chechen rebel movement: its form, its goals, its strategy and its tactics.

In his first address as commander-in-chief, Sadulaev stipulated that he would continue Maskhadov’s course. He stated that “the policy of the Chechen state will not undergo any radical changes” and that this continuity would “guarantee…the future successes of the Chechen people in the cause of the complete restoration of the country’s independence from Russia.” [1] However, in mid-May he announced a historic shift in Chechen rebel strategy away from Maskhadov’s line when he permanently ruled out any further peace initiatives from the Chechen side and formally legitimized the targeting of Russian territory. [2]

Reflecting upon Maskhadov’s unilateral ceasefire in February 2005 and his subsequent death one-month later, Sadulaev stated that the Chechens do not see the world community helping them to end the conflict in any way. Thus, “our strategic mission will be to force peace on the Kremlin (and) our next objective is the ‘Achilles heel’ of the Kremlin’s inhabitants and their henchmen. The leadership of the Chechen resistance is always open to a real political dialogue with Russia on the basis of the principles put forward by Maskhadov. However, we will never ask the Kremlin for peace again.” [3]

He then issued a series of decrees creating a “Caucasus Front” comprising Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Stavropol, Adygea and Krasnodar. He appointed a field commander to the front and sector commanders in Ingushetia, Karbardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia. [4]

These landmark developments effectively removed two of the three fundamental principles that guided and dictated rebel strategy under Maskhadov: the confinement of the war to Chechen territory and the search for peace. The third – non-combatant immunity – remains in place and Sadulaev has repeatedly echoed the sentiment expressed in his statement that “our blows to Russia will by no means target civilians.” [5] To rebel commanders, the killing of Maskhadov during his apparent attempts to capitalize on the February 2005 ceasefire, represented the final act of treachery in his play for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. With the Kremlin continuing to implement its “Chechenization” policy, the resistance has demanded change.

Same Goals, New Methods

The eventual goal of Chechen independence remains the grand strategic end driving these post-Maskhadov changes. The two new operational theaters under Sadulaev’s command will be the wider North Caucasus and Russia as a whole. In the former, the aim is to exploit the fragile internal political and security situations in republics across the North Caucasus – of which Sadulaev demonstrates an intricate understanding – with the political end of discrediting Putin’s North Caucasus strategy. Militarily, its longer-term goal is to improve the balance of forces within Chechnya in the rebel’s favor by diverting military resources to other republics. This will improve the conditions for coordinated and larger-scale operations within Chechnya itself which could reintroduce the very real prospect of a popular uprising, as occurred during the first war of 1994-96 and to a more limited extent at the beginning of the second war in 1999.

Since the onset of the Chechen revolution in 1990 and the independence struggle that followed, there have been calls for a united front among the North Caucasus peoples in a confederation arraigned against Russia. Despite early hopes, inspired by Chechen support of Abkhaz fighters in their independence struggle with Georgia, fraternal sentiment did not unify the small nations and the Chechens fought the Russians largely on their own. However, in the aftermath of the 1994-96 war many North Caucasians attended the military training camps on Chechen territory and either returned to their home republics or remained and fought in the second war.

From 2002, insurgent groups emerged in each of the republics, including as far north as Stavropol, with its “Nogay battalion.” [6] All of them have pledged their allegiance to the Chechen cause and many have fought there. Motivated by a combination of the politicization of Islam, and the reduced freedoms, poverty and corruption in their own republics, these groups present significant security challenges that the new Chechen leadership hopes to exploit. [7] Perhaps more importantly, there exists a raft of potentially explosive disputes across the region, fuelled both by inter-ethnic rivalries and Kremlin-inspired “initiatives” to redraw boundaries and appoint their favored leaders, with the most dangerous situation escalating in Dagestan.

In the second new operational theater, Russia as a whole, the primary target of Chechen strategy will be Russian public opinion. By taking the war to Russia in a sustained campaign of attacks against government, military and economic installations, the Chechens aim to impose upon the security situation in towns across Russia and undermine the still high levels of support for the war. Ruling out the targeting of non-combatants makes this a more realizable prospect, as does the abandonment of peace initiatives from the Chechen side, which is designed to encumber an embattled Kremlin.

A recent documentary broadcast on British television provided crucial insights as to how this may manifest itself. In an interview with field commander and newly appointed vice-president Doku Umarov, he confirmed that the rebels would focus their efforts upon extending the war into Russian territory. They would, he said, divide Russia up into three zones, and appoint commanders to the Western, Siberian and the Far Eastern regions in order to take the conflict into Russia’s “economic heart.” The documentary also interviewed a Chechen rebel commander currently fund raising in the Middle East, who indicated that the order had now filtered through to attack Russia. “This change should have taken place a long time ago,” he said. “If you are being beaten you have to come out and beat them too…Now the order has come down, and, God willing, it will come to pass.” [8]

The latest issue of Krasnaya zvezda also considered the growing threat from Chechen rebels throughout Russia in light of the onset of what appears to be a large-scale summer offensive. It highlighted the case of Rizvan Aziev, an alleged former Chechen Emir who was apprehended in Irkustk, Siberia on July 21. He arrived in the city 18 months ago with false documentation and continued his militant activities among the young Muslim population in his area. A similar case was described in Kemerovo Oblast when two former subordinates of field commander Isa Munaev were arrested. [9] While these cases may be unconnected with the recent strategy shift, they underline the ease with which it could be implemented among the large Chechen diaspora in Russia’s population centers, particularly the capital.

Maskhadov’s death focuses strategy

Sadulaev’s new strategy of taking the war to Russia formally lifts what was a longstanding tension within rebel structures. This issue constantly tugged at Maskhadov’s command authority during the Second Chechen War and it had been “repeatedly” discussed by the State Defense Committee. [10] Yet, as Doku Umarov recently confirmed, Maskhadov refused to sanction the widening of the war as he viewed the continued stability of the North Caucasus region through the prism of security for the Chechen people. [11] Moreover, to attack Russia proper would prolong or possibly even end the prospect of a peaceful resolution to the war.

However, his moderation in the face of Russian “cleansing” operations and abductions by the pro-Moscow Chechen militias strained his ability to control autonomous field commanders – most famously Shamil Basaev – and his position was repeatedly undermined. The actions of the latter violated the tenets of Maskhadov’s supreme command in terms of both their extraterritorial nature and their targeting of civilians. The clear divisions within the rebel command, personified by both these men, and crudely framed as the nationalist-separatists versus the Islamists, stymied the formulation and implementation of a coherent military strategy and undermined international support for the Chechen cause.

Since 1999, rebel strategy has passed through a number of phases. Following heavy fighting in the opening six months the rebels reverted to guerrilla warfare in the face of overwhelming Russian military force and their heavy reliance on air power. In mid-2002, a State Defense Committee – Majlis ul-Shura – was formed and Shamil Basaev was appointed Emir of the Military Committee during its session between June 27 and July 3, 2002. The Military Committee was set up with the aim of conferring operational command over all units of the CRI armed forces to Basaev and shifting from guerrilla warfare back to the centralized command structure evident in the early part of the war. New Northern, Western and Southern fronts were created with the purpose of uniting the disparate rebel groups and improving co-ordination for launching larger scale operations. [12]

To buttress his authority, Basaev was also appointed deputy commander-in-chief of CRI armed forces. The State Defense Committee was additionally tasked with ensuring that the units were organized in accordance with Sharia law. [13] These events were viewed as the death knell of Maskhadov’s military authority over rebel groups. However, this ignores the breadth of the rebel forces, and his status amongst the rebels as leader of the independence movement never wavered.

Still, his direct management of military operations slipped and Basaev’s increased authority manifested itself three months later when, on his orders, a group of fighters from the Baraev group, supported by female suicide bombers, took over the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow. Following its violent dénouement Basaev resigned from all of his posts, remaining only as Emir of the “Garden of the Righteous Reconnaissance Brigade of Chechen Martyrs”. Basaev thus undermined attempts to centralize command and control for a transfer back to large-scale operations, despite the fact that he subsequently encouraged all rebel groups to unite around Maskhadov. [14]

This unification around Maskhadov failed to materialize as suicide bombings increased and commanders such as Ruslan Gelaev launched unsanctioned operations into Ingushetia and Georgia, the latter case entirely unrelated to the Russo-Chechen war. During a meeting on the western front in 2003 an Ingush sector was created, [15] presaging the incursion into Ingushetia in June 2004 and the first large-scale rebel operation since the beginning of the war. Maskhadov stated that he issued orders on both accounts, but his specific control must be questioned, as he was not present at the meeting on the western front in 2003 when the commanders present sanctioned the continued use of suicide bombings. [16]

Strategy and the Basaev Factor

Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev has recognized the need to re-unify the Chechen command and to ensure that only the decisions made by the State Defense Committee – Majlis ul-Shura are implemented in the advancement of Chechen independence. In an interview with Radio Liberty on June 3 he stated that this was his primary aim and that he “will not push anyone away” at the present “if he or she wants to support our cause in any way. We need to channel our efforts in a single direction. The point here is not in my tolerance of people, but rather that we are a small nation and need solidarity and unity on its historic path.” [17]

These comments were clearly aimed at Basaev and his influence and methods, which have included extraterritorial mass hostage taking and the deployment of suicide bombers. While the move towards taking the war to Russia could provide the rebels with new impetus, one of the key elements to Sadulaev’s strategy is that the civilian population should not be targeted. This has clear implications for the methods hitherto employed by Basaev and raises the important question of whether the new leader will be able to control him. It has additional prescience given that during his meeting with Maskhadov in November 2004 Basaev was re-appointed Emir of the Military Committee of the State Defense Committee – Majlis ul-Shura, following his agreement to suspend military activities in February 2005. This position furnishes him with operational command over all rebel forces. [18]

In a question posed to Basaev on March 22, 2005 on whether his role in the rebel movement had changed since Maskhadov’s death, he replied that since then “responsibility has increased and I cannot allow myself to do many of the things I did before.” He stated that the principles by which Maskhadov operated weakened the resistance and he welcomed Sadulaev’s ruling out of peace talks. “He is a fair and most acceptable leader for all the members of the resistance forces, who has everyone’s trust and respect. He was a sincere assistant and adviser to Maskhadov and always supported him in all the good deeds he performed. In most cases he was a counterbalance in my opposition to Maskhadov, not allowing us to overstep the mark.” While this suggests that Sadulaev can restrain Basaev, the latter warned that “neither he nor anyone else can forbid me, while there is a war going on…from doing that which God permits me to do.” “Maskhadov is dead due to his excessive desire for peace, and now I am free of my commitments.” [19]

Setting aside Basaev’s contradictory messages in his statements since Maskhadov’s death, it is worth examining the specifics of his methods during the second war in order to understand how they relate to the new leadership’s strategy. In the first instance, Sadulaev’s targeting of Russia complements Basaev’s past record of attacking targets outside Chechnya. The fundamental difference between his methods and the intended strategy of the new leadership lies in the targeting of non-combatants. Basaev has previously stated that he and Maskhadov never disagreed on the end goals of the war, simply its methods. However, those methods detracted from that goal, and it will be the current rebel command’s responsibility to harness Basaev’s energies to those common ends.

The first type of operation Basaev has perpetrated against civilians is mass hostage taking – in Moscow in 2002 and Beslan in September 2004. Both of these attacks had distinct strategic ends: namely, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and the beginning of peace talks. Moreover, they must be factored into the context of his previous success in forcing a ceasefire and peace talks during the First Chechen War following a similar mass hostage taking in Budennovsk in 1995. Additionally, recent research among the Moscow theater hostages has revealed that although the group of female shakhids appeared ready to die during the siege, they did not detonate their devices once the Russia assault began and appeared to have been explicitly instructed not to do so. [20] The catastrophic end to the Beslan siege – an operation that immediately followed the election of Alu Alkhanov as pro-Moscow Chechen president – appears to have been triggered accidentally. Thus, in both cases, the aim was not to kill indiscriminately, but to expedite negotiations aimed at ending the conflict. Given that Sadulaev has abandoned the quest for peace and transferred the initiative onto the Russian side, such attacks are unlikely to recur.

The second category of operations controlled by Basaev that defied Maskhadov’s command was suicide bombings. Firstly, there are important distinctions to be made, as a close examination of Chechen suicide attacks reveals important patterning and variety of purpose. Crucially, not all suicide attacks have been directed against civilians, raising important ethical questions for the new leadership. From the first attack in June 2000 up until mid-2003, all suicide bombers were deployed tactically against military and government targets concentrated in the general conflict zone, with the sole exception of their strategic and political use against civilians in the Moscow theater siege.

During a high-level rebel strategy meeting on the western front in May 2003, at which Doku Umarov was present and Maskhadov was not, the employment of suicide bombings as part of rebel resistance efforts was discussed. A number of unspecified commanders motioned that they disagreed with their continued use; Basaev, however, stated that since he and other Chechen commanders did not have appropriate heavy arms and he had to use available means to engage with the enemy. On that basis, he signaled his intention to use truck bombings and suicide bombers to attack military and other facilities and there soon followed a number of attacks in the North Caucasus. [21] This practical use of suicide bombings in the conflict will make it difficult for Sadulaev to halt such operations in the future, and he has yet to voice his opinion on this type of attack.

However, he will seek to prevent the indiscriminate suicide bombings against civilians evident since Basaev announced Operation Boomerang in 2003, in which he justified their use in Russian cities, in retaliation for the kidnapping of Chechen girls. [22] Attacking Russian civilians directly had always been a consideration for Basaev from the early stages of the war but an option that he eschewed. In July 2000, for example, he denied being responsible for two explosions in Rostov and Vladikavkaz and stressed that “the mujahideen had never used their great possibilities to strike at civilian facilities on Russian territory, even though the Russians are deliberately killing tens of thousands of Chechen civilians…We intend to carry out precision strikes against the places of concentration and deployment of criminal bands…” [23]

Sadulaev can extract some encouragement from the fact that while suicide attacks since mid-2003 have generally targeted civilians away from the conflict zone, they are in the minority. One can also discount the August 2004 attacks on the Moscow metro and the double plane bombings, which were demonstrative in lieu of the political demands of the Beslan hostage takers. Similarly, the December 2003 attacks near the Kremlin had the intended target of the State Duma. This leaves a small number of attacks in Moscow and the North Caucasus that had no specific end, other than to terrorize and kill. And it cannot be discounted that independent actions are possible, a view supported by a number of female journalists who have met potential martyrs during their trips to Chechnya.

However, processing such volunteers would, at one of the four stages in the preparation of Chechen suicide bombings, put them into contact with Basaev’s infrastructure. In late 2003, in the only known instance of a Chechen suicide bomber in-training, a journalist met a 15-year-old girl being indoctrinated in late night conversions with a “nephew” – a man in his late 20s operating in a district considered loyal to Moscow. He stated that once they have been identified and then “prepared,” shakhids are dispatched to a training camp in the Vedeno mountains where they read the Koran and receive tactical training before deployment. [24]

Although Sadulaev faces significant challenges in steering Basaev’s methods and efforts towards his own criteria in pursuit of the new strategy for independence, so far he appears to have been successful. Indeed, Basaev claimed responsibility for the blackout in Moscow in May, suggesting at the very least, that he is aware of the character of future targeting policy. More importantly, he has influence in other republics in the North Caucasus, notably in Kabardino-Balkaria and among the leaders of the Dagestani insurgency – a crucial asset for the future co-ordination of pan-Caucasus rebel strategy.

Rebel Strengths

The war is now into its sixth year and despite the difficulties that have beset the Chechen resistance, in terms of losing a high percentage of top-level commanders and suffering from destructive divisions over strategy, it remains remarkably resilient. The key to this lies in its organic structure at the middle to lower levels. The author has closely monitored rebel command structures at these levels for 12 months and they exhibit a coherent and stable configuration throughout Chechnya’s fronts, sectors and areas. While this enduring structure does not necessarily translate into an active and coordinated insurgency in all areas, it demonstrates the long-term potential of the ability to resist.

Essentially this means that during the stage of guerrilla warfare, the rebels maintain a permanent and relatively stable number of active fighters in each sector and area. According to one Chechen source, admittedly only able to give a geographically limited snapshot, in 2005 many young men and boys remain highly motivated to fight the Russians. However, they are often turned away by their local emir who requests that they bide their time in the reserve. To illustrate the point, the source cited one specific Chechen settlement where there is an active guerrilla unit of six who are engaged in mine-warfare and attacking checkpoints. When one of them is killed or arrested the unit is immediately replenished, thus maintaining a core level of fighters engaged in resistance. Throughout Chechnya these static units and their mobile counterparts amount to a permanent pool of approximately 2000 fighters.

First hand observers point to a deepening religiosity among this second generation of Chechen rebel commanders and their fighters, many of whom have known little but war since their adolescent years. [25] However, sources indicate that one of the reasons Sadulaev was trusted by Maskhadov was due to his ability to prevent young men joining “Wahhabi” gangs. [26] Moreover, many of the more extremist commanders, such as Emir Khattab, Arbi Baraev, the Akhmadov brothers and Salman Raduev are now dead and aspirations for an Islamic state are less prominent. Chechen independence remains the overriding concern among a majority of fighters, and this was illustrated during recent rare interviews with a group of mid-level commanders in the aforementioned documentary. Among them, a number who had never intended to fight joined the rebels to avenge the deaths of their relatives, a common motive cited. [27]

Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev and field commander Doku Umarov have both recently indicated that command, control and cohesion have improved and it does appear that the Chechen rebels have been galvanized into action by Maskhadov’s death with a large-scale offensive reportedly underway. In his final communiqué before his death Maskhadov solemnly predicted that “the flames of this war will embrace the whole of the North Caucasus.” [28] With growing militancy and mounting political unrest across the region, it is that very factor which the new Chechen leadership seeks to exploit in its continuation of Maskhadov’s quest for an independent Chechen state.

Paul Tumelty is a researcher specializing in the Russian North Caucasus, the Caucasus and Central Asia. He holds an MPhil in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA War Studies, King’s College, London.


1. Chechenpress, 15 March 2005

2., 15 May 20053.

3. Ibid.

4. Kavkaz Center, 16 May 2005

5., 15 May 2005

6. See Nezavisimaya gazeta, 4 February 2005 for profiles of the various groups

7. Their statements have been posted on Kavkaz Center. A new Karachay website was launched recently

8. Dispatches, “A Dirty War,” Channel 4 Television, UK, 25 July 2005

9. Krasnaya zvezda, 27 July 2005; Nezavisimaya gazeta,21 July 2005

10. Chechenpress, 18 September 2003

11. Chechenpress, 9 June 2005

12. Chechenpress, 22 July 2005; Kavkaz Center, 24 July 2004

13. Ibid.

14. Kavkaz Center, 1 November 2002

15. Kavkaz Center, 9 June 2003

16. Kavkaz Center, 2 August 2004

17. RFE/RL, 3 June 2005

18. Kavkaz Center, 21 March 2005

19. Kavkaz Center, 21 March 2005

20. Anne Speckhard in Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 16. No2/Summer 2004

21. Kavkaz Center, 8 August 2003

22. Chechen Republic of Ichkeria website, 3 June 2003; Kavkaz Center, 23 May 2003

23. Kavkaz Center, 11 July 2000

24. Novaya gazeta, 15 September 2003

25. See the work of Andrei Babitsky, RFE/RL

26. Akhmed Zakaev, Conference, Oxford University, May 2005

27. Dispatches, “A Dirty War,” Channel 4 television, UK, 25 July 2005

28. Chechenpress, 5 March 2004