Dagestani Rebels Show Their Faces

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 41

Sharia Jamaat, the Dagestani rebel group, has shown the faces of its leaders by posting a video appeal on the Kavkaz-Center rebel website. This appeal, posted on the website two weeks ago, is in fact the first video made by the Dagestani rebels. Previously, all statements and appeals in the name of the Sharia Jamaat appeared on the Internet only in written form, so that nobody was able to see who was really behind these documents and whom the authors were. The faces of the Dagestani insurgency leaders could be seen only when they were killed in special operations conducted by the republican police and FSB troops.

This 20 minute-long video appeal is interesting because it features the current Dagestani rebel leaders speaking live and gives an idea of their motivations and the propaganda methods that they use in Dagestan.

The video shows a group of eight Dagestani rebels, only four of them unmasked. All the fighters look very young, 20 to 25 years old. The appeal is made in Russian, which is natural for multiethnic Dagestan, so we cannot say exactly which ethnic group each of the rebels belongs to. The leader of the group sits in front and presents himself as Shamil. He is most likely Shamil Gasanov, whom the Dagestani Interior Minister this past August called the only rebel commander still alive among those who operated in Makhachkala, the republican capital. According to the Utro.ru website, Gasanov became famous last February after he shot dead two policemen in a Makhachkala café when they tried to check his ID (Utro.ru, July 18).

The appeal can be divided into several parts. The Sharia Jamaat appeals to Dagestani policemen and personally to republican Interior Minister Adilgerei Magomedtagirov. The militants also appeal to ordinary local Muslims who do not support them or who sympathize with their cause but would not dare join the rebels. The rebels also describe their motives for fighting against the regional and Russian authorities and provide some details about their possible war tactics in future.

Addressing Adilgerei Magomedtagirov, Gasanov tries to humiliate and frighten him as much as possible. Instead of Adilgerei, Gasanov calls him Khamilgerei (“khamil” means donkey in the language of the Avars, the regional ethnic group that the minister belongs to). “If you, a boor and a reprobate, hear me, I tell you, you have managed to pass by our mine once, but next time you will be ours”, Gasanov says, demonstrating with these words that the Sharia Jamaat was behind the assassination attempt on the republican interior minister near Makhachkala this August (Chechnya Weekly, August 10).

Then Gasanov appeals to Dagestani policemen in general: “You know that we are in the cities and we are in the woods, but what is the use of it, you cannot catch us.” Addressing Dagestani Muslims, Gasanov shames those who do not want to recognize that jihad (holy war) is going on in Dagestan or who recognize this but are not willing to join the rebels. Gasanov uses both religious and social arguments to persuade ordinary Dagestanis to join the insurgency. He says that jihad is the duty of all Muslims and “to become a shahid (martyr) is the highest mercy of Allah.” The rebel commander then cites numerous human rights violations in Dagestan as proof that there are good grounds for jihad in the region, given that local Muslims are oppressed by infidels (Russian authorities). “All Dagestani authorities, policemen and officials are our enemies, they are enemies of Allah, and the Russian constitution, Putin and [Dagestani President Mukhu] Aliev mean nothing to us.”

Another rebel leader who makes a speech on the video uses more flexible arguments. He not only threatens Dagestani policemen with murder if they do not give up their jobs, but also tries to persuade them to switch to the rebels’ camp. “If you are Muslims you must be on our side, we fight for Allah and you fight for money,” he says. “If we die, we go to heaven, and if your die, you go to hell.” Then, the commander starts to speak about Imam Shamil, the Dagestani leader of the 19th century who fought against Russia under the Tsars. There is no doubt that Imam Shamil is the strongest argument in the rebels’ propaganda since he is highly respected by all Dagestanis. Appealing to Dagestan’s policemen, the rebels said, “If your respect Imam Shamil and if you have his picture on the walls of your houses, how can you confront those of us who want to establish Sharia law here, [who want] to fulfill the aim of Shamil’s struggle against Russia?”

Explaining the fact that they have been very quiet this year, the rebels say that this is their tactical choice, and that preparations for future attacks are under way. They promise to continue to use bombs and ambushes, but at the same time, they point to their grenade launchers and say that “one day we will attack policemen in their departments.” They also promise to use grenade launchers to attack Magomedtagirov.

This video by the Dagestani rebels could be explained by their need to remind the Dagestanis that they still exist. But the Sharia Jamaat’s long silence in recent months does not mean that they are weak. Moreover, such a long period of silence could mean that they preparing for a war on a much larger scale than in previous years. There have been several clashes in Dagestan recently, but all of them were initiated by local policemen and not insurgents. Four policemen were killed in the clashes; all of them died because they tried to check cars or IDs of rebels. This means that the Dagestani insurgents are continuing to follow a strategy of avoiding confrontation with police, while preparing operations on a scale that one can only guess.