In an interview with the newspaper Dagestanskaya pravda published last November 24, the Prosecutor of Dagestan, Imam Yaraliev, acknowledged that the major destabilizing factor in the republic remained the ongoing war in Chechnya. Dagestan managed to maintain a level of relative stability throughout the 1990s due to its constitutional power sharing system among the republic’s multiple ethnic groups. But the security situation has worsened since the end of the first Chechen war in 1996, and particularly in recent years, as the systematic use of violence by Dagestani extremists occurs with increasing frequency.
The Dagestani insurgency manifests itself on two fronts, with subunits operating under a Dagestani command structure in Chechnya, along with a lower tier command within the republic proper. The first detailed call to jihad following the August 1999 invasion of the Botlikh region by fighters under Shamil Basaev and Emir Khattab came in a statement by the “Joint Command of the Mujahideen in Dagestan” posted to the Kavkazcenter website on January 19, 2002. Lamenting the “anti-Islamic and anti-Caucasian” role now played by Dagestan, the statement said: “the people are led by a Moscow henchman and his family clan, who are characterized by greed and moral corruption and who forget the glory of their ancestors…Nevertheless, year by year there are more and more people who have only one constitution – the Koran…A Muslim’s help is needed most of all in the Caucasus in Chechnya, where the extermination of Muslims is going on.” The Dagestani community is actively fighting at the fronts of the war, the statement said, providing many martyrs and undertaking frequent acts of retribution on Dagestani territory. “This will continue until the laws of God reign in this land and there should be no Tsarist borders between Muslims, especially Chechnya and Dagestan.
In overall command of Dagestani insurgent activities is the Emir of the Dagestani mujahideen, Rabbani Khalilov, an ethnic Lak born in 1968. In 1944 his ancestors were forcibly resettled from the mountains to the territory of a gorge in Aukhovsky (Novalaksky) District in the then Checheno-Ingush ASSR, which was vacated following the deportation of the Chechens to Kazakhstan and subsequently became part of the Dagestan ASSR. Khalilov himself, however, was born and grew up in the city of Buinaksk. Khalilov, whose first name means “pertaining to God” in Arabic and is rendered Rappani in local dialect, was unknown to Dagestani security forces prior to 1998.
Formerly part owner of a family bakery, Khalilov came to the attention of the authorities in 1998 when he married the sister of the Saudi Commander Khattab’s ethnic Dargin wife Patimat. Thereafter he moved to her home village of Karamakhi, which acquired notoriety in the summer of 1998, when its residents introduced Shariah law and declared an Islamic state. He appears to have grown close to local Islamist ideologists, relocated to a Khattab training camp in Chechnya and then participated in the invasion of Dagestan in August 1999. Following the failure of the invasion, the death of Dagestani commander Shamil Omarov (Shamil Gergebelsky) and the flight abroad of the leading Dagestani Islamist leaders, including the military Emir of the Islamic Jamaat detachment, Bagautdin Magomedov, Khalilov, then a low level fighter, was elevated to Emir of the Dagestani mujahideen, an appointment likely facilitated by his marital connection to Khattab, who increasingly came to rely on Dagestanis for his continued role within rebel structures. Those Dagestani village and district commanders who were subordinate to Khattab’s Islamic Peacekeeping Army and Bagautdin Magomedov’s units were then subsumed under Khalilov’s overall command.
Khalilov is now a key figure in the Chechen resistance, essentially controlling the Dagestani front, as well as acting as a field commander in Chechnya proper, where his units are active in the republic’s eastern districts of Kurchaloi, Nozhai-Yurt, and Vedeno, as well as inside Dagestan’s long border with Chechnya. One of his key deputies is 35-year-old Suleyman Ilmurzaev, also known as Emir Khayrulla, a native of Dagestan’s Novolaksky District and a veteran commander of the events of 1999. He and Khalilov left Dagestan for Chechnya, where they cooperated closely with Shamil Basaev’s formations, and he eventually rose through the ranks to be appointed Emir of Vedeno region. He was allegedly responsible for the assassination of pro-Moscow Chechen President Akhmad Kaydrov in May 2004 and was reported by pro-Moscow Chechen forces to have been killed in November 2004. However, it was subsequently acknowledged that he had escaped, re-emerging in Dyshne Vedeno in December. Ilmurzaev represents an acute example of the potentially destabilizing nature of the Dagestani component of the rebel forces, as pro-Moscow Chechen forces widen their area of operations into Dagestan in their attempt to quell resistance and kill him.
Khalilov acquired notoriety when he was blamed for the bombing in the town of Kaspiisk on May 9, 2002, which killed over 40 people, a charge he has repeatedly denied. Following the bombing, Khalilov’s father Abdullah denounced him in public, stating: “I cannot call you my son…My clan is against you.” According to Abdullah Khalilov, his son left home three years ago and he has not seen him since. His father does not believe his son could be responsible for such an act because he was “a normal man.”
In a statement posted by Kavkazcenter on May 20 2004, Khalilov announced that his followers are not Wahhabi terrorists but simply “wish to raise the word of God on the earth, uniting all our Muslim brothers on the basis of Shariah. We regarded it as our duty to leave our homes and families and join our brothers, the Chechen mujahideen, who are defending their land and religion from the empire of infidels as happened in our history under the imams. We also state once again that we deny all accusations of being involved in acts of terror against civilians in Dagestan and warn the law enforcement agencies and the Spiritual Board of Muslims against collaborating in the fight against Muslims.” A further statement in August urged unity and warned that Dagestani nationalist groups and clans should stop kindling ethnic hatred by setting one group against another.
Within Dagestan itself, preparations for internal actions began following instructions from the Congress of the People’s of Chechnya and Dagestan under Shamil Basaev. In the year 2000, Khalilov appointed Shamil Abidov as chief of operations in the republic. Supplementing the hundreds of Dagestanis trained in Khattab’s camps following the end of the first Chechen war, he established a training center in a madrassah in the mountain settlement of Gubden in the Karabudakhkentskiy district, south of Makhachkala. Security sources believe he processed up to three groups of thirty individuals before the center was closed down. Abidov himself subsequently disappeared and is now believed to be in the Middle East. Dagestan’s law-enforcement agencies referred to these groups as “numbers one, two and three” and they have been responsible for much of the violence in the republic since then. The variety of communiqués to Kavkazcenter between 2000 and 2004 indicate that the groups remained semi-autonomous.
The key figure to emerge in these internal Dagestani operations was Rasul Makasharipov, also known as Muslim, a 33-year-old ethnic Avar born in Sasitli village in the Tsumadinsky District of Dagestan. Having worked as Shamil Basaev’s Avar language interpreter during the invasion of the Botlikh district of Dagestan in August 1999, Makasharipov surrendered to Dagestan’s security forces in May 2000, stating that he was sick of fighting. At a press conference following his arrest he said he became involved with the rebels “by accident” due to “confusion in his life, lack of a job and a quarrel with his parents.” Makasharipov was freed under an amnesty linked to Victory Day celebrations on the basis that he had allegedly not participated in actual combat. However, almost immediately he was placed back on the wanted list and was officially disowned by his relatives.
Reportedly polite, intelligent, ruthless and with an intimate knowledge of the Koran, Makasharipov’s initial group was formed in mid-2002 from individuals from his local area who had fought in Chechnya. His group’s first major crime was the killing of a police colonel in September 2002. It merged with another group in June 2003 and Makasharipov assumed command responsibility alongside Idris Bakkunov, an ethnic Lak also known as Islam. By this time known as the Emir of Makhachkala, Makasharipov recruited via connections in a local mosque, encouraging potential recruits to the righteous path of jihad by highlighting the repression of Muslims in Dagestan.
By the end of 2004, Makasharipov’s group, which was known as Dzhennet (Paradise), had, along with others who had been sent to Dagestan by Khalilov, killed dozens of members of the security forces but had suffered an equally high proportion of members killed or captured. (see Dagestanskaya pravda, January 8, 2005)
In a reorganization of insurgent activities following security forces’ successes, a statement signed by Makasharipov claiming responsibility for a number of attacks in December 2004 was released under the name Shariah Jamaat in early 2005. It urged Dagestani Muslims not to remain idle and urged them to face the “death squads” with weapons in their hands. Shariah stated that it was waging a just, holy war and those people who become accidental victims were not their direct enemies. It said that it aimed to free Dagestan from occupation and injustice and to establish Shariah law. (see Kavkazcenter, January 2, 21; April 10, 2005).
While largely confined to the capital under the loose structure of Dzhennet, the Shariah Jamaat appears to have mushroomed into a larger, more organized entity, unifying the multiple insurgent cells throughout Dagestan in a transfer of direct command responsibility from Khalilov to Makasharipov. The Shariah Jamaat remains subordinate to Khalilov, as evidenced by a statement signed by Makasharipov and published by Kavkazcenter on Mary 12 of this year. Moreover, both men appear to coordinate closely and appeared together in a propaganda video disseminated throughout the republic in March 2005 (see Kavkazcenter, March 18, 2005). But the Shariah Jamaat now consists of subunits named Dzhundullah (Soldiers of God) in Khasavyurt and Seyfullah (Sword of God) in Buinaksk, areas formerly under Khalilov’s direct control. In the capital, the group now operates a number of cells, including in the city’s southern section, where the Emir Rustam Kyakhulayskiy (Abdullaev) was captured in March 2005, to be replaced by Yusuf Kulinsky (see Kavkazcenter, March 8 2005, and Kommersant, March 9 2005). There they hire apartments on the outskirts of the city and have established bases in the nearby forest at the foot of the Tarki-Tau mountain where its members retreat following attacks.
The Dagestani front is now an inseparable part of the conflict in Chechnya and security in the North Caucasus generally. Although both of its major commanders have been closely allied with the extremist elements within rebel structures, Makasharipov was quick to respond to the accusation they operated outside the command of Aslan Maskhadov, following an alleged violation of his February 2005 ceasefire. Moreover, Makasharipov issued a statement following Maskhadov’s death on behalf of all Khalilov’s units, pledging allegiance to Maskhadov’s successor, Sheikh Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev (see Kavkazcenter, March 12 2005). The group’s recent regrouping and alleged possession of a list of the details of over 100 security officials suggest the security situation in the republic will deteriorate further in the coming months.