Dagestan’s Hidden Insurgency

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 42

“Four bandit groups continue to operate in Dagestan,” Major-General Sergei Solodovnikov, deputy head of the Russian Interior Ministry’s Main Directorate for the Southern Federal District, said at a press conference in Rostov-on-Don, the capital of the Russian South, on October 25. According to Solodovnikov, the rebels in the North Caucasian region of Dagestan are operating in the mountainous areas of the republic near the border with Azerbaijan and in the districts of Buinaksk, Makhachkala, and Khasavuyrt. Solodovnikov added that Rappani Khalilov, who was born in the town of Buinaksk, was the leader of the Dagestani rebel network and that his mobile headquarters frequently move around the mountains along the Dagestani and Chechen border. The Russian police general appeared to be quite pessimistic about the possibility of suppressing the insurgency in Dagestan in the near future. Solodovnikov stressed that the social and economic situation in the republic precluded a full victory over the militancy. “The security agencies will continue to combat the bandit underground, but we cannot say that it will be totally destroyed,” he said.

Solodovnikov’s pessimism is understandable, given that even though more than a dozen Dagestani rebel leaders were killed this year, it has had little effect on the overall strength of the insurgents. According to the press service of the Dagestani Interior Ministry, 27 local policemen have been killed and 44 injured this year (Kavkazky Uzel, October 27). It should be noted that this figure does not include the Russian military losses in clashes with the rebels in Dagestan’s mountains. Moreover, the causalities clearly could have been much higher if the Dagestani insurgents had been more active this year. Russian security officials understand that the regional insurgency is concealing its real strength, and this makes them even more nervous than if the militants had been bombing police patrols in Dagestan every night, like they did last year. “The terrorist act on the Makhachkala-Buinaksk highway [a well-organized assassination attempt on the Dagestani Interior Minister last August] demonstrates that we are confronted with a very strong and extremely dangerous enemy,” said then-Russian Justice Minister Yuri Chaika (Vesti, August 28).

In analyzing the rebels’ tactics, the siloviki cannot help but notice that the Dagestani insurgents have avoided direct clashes with them and have only shot back when policemen try to check their cars or IDs. On October 18, a night police patrol in Makhachkala, the republican capital, stopped a car to check the license of the driver. Suddenly a policeman recognized a passenger in the car: it was Omar Sheikhulaev, a rebel field commander. Sheikhulaev immediately shot the policeman and the rebels drove away. On October 22, a police patrol in the city of Khasavuyrt tried to check the IDs of two suspicious passersby, but instead of passports, the men took out their pistols and killed one policeman. A total of six policemen were killed in Dagestan in October, and all of these incidents occurred when the police officers attempted to check IDs.

In the latest video appeal posted on Kavkaz-Center website, the Dagestani insurgents said that their passive tactics were deliberate, hinting that preparations for large-scale operations were underway (Chechnya Weekly, October 26).

The main goal of Dagestan’s law-enforcement agencies now is to learn the rebels’ plans. Lacking agents inside the rebel underground, the security bodies are employing tactics commonly used in other regions of the North Caucasus, especially Chechnya. These tactics consist of local policemen providing information about suspicious persons or rebel sympathizers in Dagestan’s cities and villages to special bodies within the Federal Security Service (FSB) branches in the North Caucasus, which report directly to Moscow. Special units then carry out night raids and detain suspected militants. The special troops who conduct these raids wear masks and never identify themselves, pretending to be kidnappers. Following such operations, relatives of those who have been detained appeal to local police departments, which pretend to know nothing. In fact, most of the detained persons are brought to Khankala, which is the main Russian military base in Chechnya. Officers of the FSB or military intelligence interrogate them, attempting by all possible means to extract from the detainees everything they know about the insurgency.

Since the Khasavuyrt district, which is adjacent to Chechnya, has become a main insurgency stronghold in Dagestan, most of the people detained in such operations come from this area of the republic. As a result, Khasavyurt district residents held several mass protests earlier this month against ongoing kidnappings of young men from the area. On October 9, 500 men blocked the Khasavuyrt–Makhachkala highway to demand that local authorities explain the disappearances. The Dagestani authorities were forced to react. On October 18, Dagestani President Mukhu Aliev held a special meeting in the capital to discuss the problem. He said that 47 men had been kidnapped in Dagestan since 2003 and that their fate was still unknown (Kavkazky Uzel, October 19).

The security officials, who in fact know quite well that they themselves or their colleagues from other security bodies were involved in these kidnappings, pointed the finger at pro-Russian forces in Chechnya – the so-called kadyrovtsy. On October 20, Dagestani Interior Minister Adalgirei Magomedtagirov referred to a “third force” from Chechnya which, he said, is not interested in peace in Dagestan. The minister added that he had ordered special forces from Chechnya to be denied entrance into Dagestan unless this was sanctioned by the Dagestani Interior Ministry (Kavkazky Uzel, October 20). On October 28, an official protest rally, authorized by Mukhu Aliev himself, was held in Khasavuyrt. “Seventy people have been kidnapped in Khasavuyrt for the last two years,” the city’s mayor, Sagidpasha Umakhanov, told the rally. “We have only one demand: we do not want the Chechen special services to conduct special operations here” (Gazeta, October 29). Following Umakhanov’s speech, local officials at the rally spoke about “dark forces” in Chechnya, exhorted the audience to rally around Mukhu Aliev and accused the United States of attempting to shatter Russia and to ruin good relations between the Dagestani and Chechen people.

But while Dagestani officials pointed accusingly at the kadyrovtsy and the United States, the locals blame the Dagestani authorities and Russian security officials. At the same rally, Albina Magomadova, a relative of a kidnapped man, read an appeal by Khasavyurt residents addressed to President Vladimir Putin, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, and human rights organizations such as the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee (Gazeta, October 29).

In light of these developments, it would be naive to imagine that such protests and appeals could significantly change the situation in Dagestan. Since these kidnappings are part of the war, they will likely continue along with the rebel attacks as the Chechenization of Dagestan appears to be in full swing.