Dagestan Begins to Reverse Its Relatively Tolerant Policy Toward Salafism

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 16 Issue: 11

After Nadir Abu Khalid (a.k.a. Nadir Medetov), one of the best known radical Salafist preachers in Dagestan and one of the most popular among young people, fled to Syria, it appears that the Dagestani authorities have begun cracking down on Salafist imams. Khalid’s house arrest did not prevent him from escaping to Syria, where he remains (Islamnews.ru, May 25). Since the radical Dagestani preacher, who was under investigation, managed to run away while under house arrest, other suspects from now on will be detained until their case goes to court. On May 2, the deputy imam of the mosque on Kotrova Street in Makhachkala, Kurban Askandarov, was arrested. The mosque’s parishioners say they have received information that Askandarov is being held in the police headquarters of Makhachkala’s Sovetsky district police on charges of illegal arms possession (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 28).

The mother of the arrested deputy imam quoted his lawyer, Ruslan Chupanov, as saying he was arrested as he was withdrawing cash from an ATM. Askandarov’s mother alleged that the police planted a handgun in her son’s pocket and then forced him to take it out with his own hand (Tvrain.ru, May 28). The mosque on Kotrova Street is one of the most famous mosques in Dagestan. The fact that Boston marathon bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, visited this mosque added to its notoriety (Chernovik.net, April 23, 2013).The mosque on Kotrova Street has the specific reputation in the republic as a bastion of Dagestani Salafism. The arrest of the deputy mufti will alert its parishioners and they will demand that the authorities release their imam. Dagestan is the only republic in the North Caucasus where Salafism legally coexists with other brands of Islam in the form of an organization—the Association of Scholars Ahlu Sunna.

The government’s increasingly hard line toward Salafist imams and activists was displayed on May 23 with the arrest of another well-known Salafist activist in Dagestan, Muhammad Magomedov (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 23). He was snatched by masked individuals in downtown Makhachkala near the local university, where he was expected to deliver a lecture at a seminar. When onlookers and friends of Magomedov managed to bring police to the scene to prevent Magomedov’s abduction, it turned out that the masked individuals had official documents authorizing their actions. Muhammad Magomedov is not simply a lone civil activist: he is a leader of the Soyuz Spravedlivykh (the Union of the Just) civil organization who participated in various civil conferences, public discussions and public protests against corruption (Facebook.com, May 23).

The fact that the authorities failed to arrest Magomedov quietly and that the police became involved likely saved the activist’s life. Young men who are abducted by government forces in Dagestan are frequently found dead at the scene of a special operation (Chernovik.net, May 29). The government then declares them to have been rebels. In the case of Muhammad Magomedov, the authorities officially charged him nearly ten days after his arrest. The activist was kept in Dagestan’s Leninsky police station. Magomedov informed his supporters of the arrest by telephone, telling him that the police had planted weapons to frame him. Even the governor of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, was forced to react to the arrest, saying he would do everything in his power to clarify the situation (Moidagestan.ru, May 27).

On June 2, Leninsky police station investigator Artur Aliev officially charged Magomedov with the illegal possession of arms (Article 222 of the Russian Criminal Code), as well as the illegal manufacturing of arms (Article 223) (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 2). These are the classic charges brought against all suspects detained by the Russian security services. The large quantities of unregistered guns confiscated during special operations allow the police to use them to frame the suspects they choose. In any case Muhammad Magomedov is now facing the possibility of a prison term. Even if he is given a suspended sentence, the police and security services will be watching him closely from now on.

The Federal Security Service (FSB) and local special police units operate jointly when arresting a suspected militant or a supporter of the insurgency. The local police sometimes do not even know who they are arresting until the last minute. This shows the distrust that Russian federal government agencies have of the local government structures. The local police and anti-extremism units most often simply look on as people from outside Dagestan conduct the operations in the republic. It is worth noting that the Twitter account of the Dagestani police, which included an item about support for the Russian singer competing in the Eurovision song contest, did not mention either Khalid’s or Magomedov’s arrest (Twitter.com/mvd_rd_official, accessed June 5).

Such arrests are not unusual in Dagestan. Indeed, religious figures and young activists calling for the rights of individuals who disagree with Russian policies to be protected are frequently arrested in the republic. The only distinctive feature of the latest arrests is that they were made after Nadir Abu Khalid escaped to join the Islamists of the Islamic State in Syria. All Salafis will now be under close government surveillance as potential supporters of the Islamic State. Russian policies are pushing even moderate Salafists to embrace the Islamic State, making protracted instability in the North Caucasus inevitable for a long time to come.