Fighting between insurgents and Russian special forces erupted on January 15 in Dagestan . Two battles broke out almost simultaneously in Makhachkala , the capital of the North Caucasus republic, and in the town of Kaspyisk . Federal troops stormed private houses believed to be harboring rebels. As the conflict unfolded, the Russian troops deployed grenade launchers, flamethrowers, heavy machine guns, and even tanks. According to official reports, six rebels and four servicemen were killed, including one member of Russia ‘s elite Alfa group.
Russian authorities justified the second Chechen military campaign by referencing August 1999, when militants from Chechnya raided the neighboring republic of Dagestan . That month, a group of Dagestani and Chechen fighters, led by warlord Shamil Basaev, occupied several mountain villages in two regions of Dagestan . They later withdrew after heavy fighting with Russian troops. In subsequent years, the Kremlin answered any initiative regarding possible talks between Moscow and the separatists by pointing to Basaev’s raid, saying that any compromise with the rebels could lead to Russia losing the entire North Caucasus . However, after five years of war in Chechnya , Dagestan is now nearer detonation than ever before.
During the 19th century Caucasus war, Dagestan and Chechnya formed an almost united front against the invading Russian army. The residents of the territory now encompassing the two republics formed an Islamic state called “Imamate,” which was able to confront Russia effectively for decades, until its leader, Imam Shamil, surrendered to Russian General Alexander Baryatinsky in 1859. Knowing this shared history quite well, the separatist leaders of Chechnya repeatedly tried to drag the people of Dagestan into their struggle for independence.
Despite the failure of his 1999 venture and the redeployment of Russian troops to Chechnya in 2000, Shamil Basaev did not stop his attempts to move the war eastward, beyond the Chechen borders. Specifically, he initiated a very careful, and very slow process of preparing Dagestan for guerilla warfare (grani.ru, July 23, 2004). The hundreds of militants from Dagestan who had joined Basaev’s group in the mid-1990s made this process much easier to organize. A Dagestan field commander, Rabbani Khalilov, became the leader of the Dagestani mujahideen.
Late in 2002, Khalilov set up a group called “Jennet,” which means “Heaven” in Arabic. The group was headed by Rasul Maksharipov, a Dagestani who had fought with Basaev in August 1999 (Kommersant, January 17). Jennet’s principal objective was to eliminate senior police and Federal Security Service (FSB) officers in Dagestan , thus weakening local authorities. The Jennet group became increasingly effective. More then 30 police and FSB officers were killed in Dagestan in 2004 (Kommersant, January 17). Dagestan ‘s Police Department for the Struggle against Extremism and Criminal Terrorism has lost 29 officers in recent years (Kommersant, January 17). The insurgents managed to assassinate important figures such as Colonel Khamil Etinbekov, who played a key role in FSB operations in Dagestan; Akhberdilav Akilov, who headed the Department for the Struggle against Extremism and Criminal Terrorism, and Magomed Gusaev, Minister of National Policy, Information, and External Relations (Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 24, 2004).
The rebels made Makhachkala , the republic’s capital, the center of their activities. Nearby Tarki-Tau Mountain , which is covered with thick forests, became an ideal hideout. After each operation in the capital, Jennet members fled to the mountains on the western outskirts of the city (gazeta.ru, January 15).
Late last year, Jennet was transformed into a much larger organization called “Sharia Jamaat,” using the Arabic word for community (Kavkazcenter.com, January 2; Kavkazky Uzel, January 14). On December 27 and 30, the rebels assassinated two police colonels in Makhachkala . One of them was the warden of the local prison camp and the other headed the Operations Department of Dagestan’s Ministry of Interior Affairs (yufo.ru). Sharia published a statement on the Kavkazcenter website on January 2 proclaiming that the organization had killed FSB and police officers for their “lawless actions against Muslims in Dagestan .” The statement blamed “Russian death squads” for the kidnapping and murder of civilians in the Republic” (Kavkazcenter, January 2).
The authorities in Dagestan started a counteroffensive by conducting massive mopping-up operations in the cities of Makhachkala and Khasavurt, where several policemen had also been killed in late December (Radio Liberty, January 1). Officials in the Ministry of Interior Affairs said that the sweep was needed because of the deteriorating situation in the region (grani.ru, January 8). On January 16, special forces started to comb parts of Makhachkala for Islamists. In the town of Kaspyisk , police encountered heavy resistance. Rebels killed special task force commander Arzulum Ilyasov and two officers. A rebel known as Magomed Akaev also died in the skirmish (RIA-Novosti, January 15).
In Makhachkala , the security forces encircled the Separatny district, which is considered a good hiding place for criminals and militants because it is en route to the mountains. According to different versions of events, the police either surrounded a house full of gunmen or confronted the group in the street. Official accounts counted five militants, but witnesses told a correspondent from Gazeta newspaper that they had seen only two of them who ran into a house. The police then immediately surrounded the house (Gazeta, January 16). The fighting lasted for 17 hours (5 am- 10 pm) and stopped only when a tank smashed the remains of the burned and gutted house. Despite the congratulatory statements by Dagestani security officials, middle-ranking officers called the operations in Makhachkala and Kaspyisk “absolute failure.” “We lost too many well-trained people,” one of the special unit officers told the Yufo agency (yufo.ru, January 17). It is also not quite clear whether Maksharipov was killed in the raid; gazeta.ru and Kavkazky Uzel sources reported that he was not among the fatalities (January 18).
However, even if security forces could manage to destroy the Jennet and Sharia Jamaat groups, they were not the only Islamic militants in Dagestan . The squads of Rabbani Khalilov, hiding in the mountains of Chechnya , are ready to move deep into Dagestan . They may be on the march already. Yesterday, on January 18, it was reported that two policemen had been killed overnight at the checkpoint on the Chechnya-Dagestan border.