Operations by Russian security forces against militants of the armed Islamist underground movement in Dagestan are less frequent now than in previous years, yet they are still a part of life for local residents. Following a special operation near the village of Avadan, in southern Dagestan, at the beginning of March, the authorities unsuccessfully tried to find the members of the jamaat of southern Dagestan (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 2). On March 11, the government introduced a counterterrorist operation regime in Dagestan’s Khunzakh and Botlikh districts, which are in the vicinity of Chechnya’s mountains of Chechnya (Gazeta.ru, March 11).
Normally, the government introduces such a regime in an area when the police have information about the presence of militants. This time, the authorities identified a small armed group near the village of Orota in Khunzakh district. The militants fought with government forces and retreated, leaving two militants behind to protect their retreat. The two militants were killed a day later, on March 12 (Kavtoday.ru, March 12). The security forces failed to locate the rest of the group, and the authorities lifted the counterterrorist operation regime on the evening of March 12. An insurgent website quickly confirmed that the two men killed were insurgents (Vd.ag, March 12). They were identified as Hajimurat Gajiev (Abubakr), a 31-year-old resident of Akhvakh district, and Magomed Gajimagomedov, a 32-year-old resident of the Khunzakh district village of Gotsatl. According to the police, Gajiev was the head of the terrorist group in the mountainous sector of the republic (Rosbalt.ru, March 12).
Investigators said that both rebels joined the underground movement in 2014 and were involved in killing two police officers and the imam of the mosque in Gotsatl (RIA Novosti, March 12). The imam in Gotsatl, Magomed Zakaryaev, was killed on April 10, 2014, apparently because he had called for a fight against Salafism and rejected neutrality in regard to Muslims who adopted radical jihadist views (Kavkazsky Uzel, April 11, 2014). Murdering the village imam probably reduced the support the rebels had in the village, since imams are normally among the most respected individuals in a community and are involved in various daily activities of the villagers. When such a murder is committed by a resident of another village, it is perceived as a personal insult to the targeted village, which turns the perpetrators of the crime into outcasts. According to rights activists, one of the slain militants, Magomed Gajimagomedov, was suspected of murdering another Gotsatl resident, Omar Anasov, who was killed near the village mosque’s entrance on July 17, 2014 (Kavkazsky Uzel, July 17, 2014). The authorities charged Gajiev and Gajimagomedov with murder, illegal arms possession by groups, and participation in an illegal armed group.
Yet, Orota residents did not seem to have issues with the rebels, who camped out on the outskirts of the village. Photographs of their camp outside the village show components of an improvised explosive device (IED).
The unusual feature of the slain rebels was their association with government agencies. Magomed Gajimagomedov had once been a police captain, while Hajimurat Gajiev was the son of the republic’s prosecutor general, had a law degree and was employed in the prosecutor general’s office. Gajimagomedov managed to commit the murders in his own village and escape prosecution, using his inside knowledge of the police. It is probably not a coincidence that many insurgents who are killed or arrested were either former police officers (Izvestiaur.ru, August 18, 2010) or officials with other government agencies (Utro.ru, August 8, 2012).
Some people in Dagestan claim the police support the militants: otherwise, they say, it is hard to explain how the insurgents move around and manage to escape areas surrounded by government forces. These rumors reflect the tacit confrontation between Russian police officials who are dispatched to Dagestan from other regions of the country and the local police, who often serve as auxiliary forces to seal off certain areas. The police from other Russian regions distrust their Dagestani colleagues and consider them unreliable allies in fighting the rebels.
It is hard to tell whether Hajimurat Gajiev and Magomed Gajimagomedov were members of the Caucasus Emirate or of the so-called Islamic State, since the boundaries between the two organizations are blurred.
In any case, the rebels appear to be recruiting young people, including intellectuals. The fact that there are now fewer rebel attacks does not necessarily mean that the situation in Dagestan is improving. The underground movement is in the process of becoming a branch of the terrorist organization Islamic State and gaining strength by spreading radical ideas and undermining Sufism in the republic. When the Salafis think that they are strong enough to challenge the status quo—as happened in 1999, when they attempted to proclaim the Islamic Republic of Dagestan—they will launch another offensive, which will be far stronger than the current one.