Dagestan’s Sharia Jamaat Expands and Reorganizes

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 45

It is possible even with a cursory glance at militant activities in the North Caucasus to see clearly that their main zones of action remain—for the second year in a row— Dagestan and Ingushetia. While Ingushetia’s Sharia Jamaat (led by Emir Magas) is well ahead in terms of its level of activities, Dagestan’s Sharia Jamaat (led by Emir Rasul) is in first place in terms of geographical expansion and its number of members.

The Dagestani Jamaat was established as a combat unit of the North Caucasian resistance movement by Emir Rabbani (aka Rappani Khalilov, an ethnic Lak, who was killed on September 17, 2007; see https://kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1197346.html). Emir Rabbani was a close confidant of both Shamil Basaev and Emir Khattab, and he was able to create a ramified jamaat structure across the entire republic.

Under the leadership of Emir Abdul-Mejid (aka Ilgar [Eldar] Malachiev, an ethnic Lezgin who was killed on September 7, 2008, during a joint operation by the Russian Federal Security Service and Azerbaijani special service; see https://www.gazeta.ru/news/lastnews/2008/09/08/n_1267571.shtml) the actions of the jamaat did not decrease and, on the contrary, expanded into the territory of Azerbaijan. It is even possible to conjecture about the emergence of an Azerbaijani Jamaat that is independent from the Dagestani Jamaat Shariat, even though it was created under the influence of Emir Abdul-Mejid. Thus, Emir Abdul-Mejid should be credited for drawing Azeris into the North Caucasian resistance movement. This is a particularly interesting development considering that the Azeris are mainly Shiite and their involvement under the banner of Salafi ideology will have a definite impact by stirring opposition not only to the authorities but also to the Shiite religious movement in general.

The authorities in Dagestan have reasons to be upset with militant activities in the republic, because even the official figures they cite are sometimes rather puzzling. For instance, Dagestani Interior Minister Adilgirei Magomedtagirov said on November 20 that his ministry has “registered 1,370 Wahhabis” (www.riadagestan.ru/news/2008/11/20/74046). It is not clear whether the figure refers only to exposed adherents of the Salafi movement, or accounts for the number of secret sympathizers that support those engaged in armed struggle against the authorities on the basis of common extremist ideology. At the same time, the total number of militants has been estimated as ranging between 49 and 95 members that belong to seven “criminal groups”—an apparent reference to regional jamaats (based in Makhachkala, Buinaksk, Khasavyurt and other parts of Dagestan).

At a plenary session of the conference “Problems of Counteracting National and Political Extremism of Current Importance” on November 20, Magomedtagirov suggested two methods for stopping the spread of Salafist ideology—capital punishment or life imprisonment (https://www.rg.ru/2008/11/21/reg-jugrossii/rasstrel-anons.html). At the same time, the president of the Republic of Dagestan, as always, is trying to attribute everything to the pernicious influence of foreign countries that are acting with the purpose of “weakening positions of Russia on the world arena and cardinally changing its political course” (https://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=225245&cid=17).

All of this should be understood in the context of an increasing number in Dagestan’s intelligentsia who are beginning to orient themselves toward radical Islam. In their understanding, traditional Sufism has been discredited because it has become the main support base for the authorities. All high-ranking officials of the Republic of Dagestan have long become murids (disciples) of the Sufi Sheikh Said-Efendi Chirkeisky (of the Shazili Tariqat, or Sufi order), who has become, in essence, the cult Sheikh for the entire former party elite of Dagestan.

While the government is unable to deal with the magnitude of militant activity, the authorities are trying to resolve the problems through prohibitions. Stores selling Islamic religious items are closed, the use of Arabic language is severely limited and the practice of Wahhabism is prohibited by law. Such measures as nine-month-long anti-terrorist operations in the Gunib District only swell the ranks of people dissatisfied with the authorities. Sufism is increasingly becoming a policy instrument of the authorities—a fact successfully exploited by Salafi adherents in their criticism of Sufism.  

While the republican Interior Minister was advocating executing Salafi sympathizers, the militants were striking blows against the republican siloviki. This was the case despite the fact that during an operation aimed at disarming militants in Makhachkala, four jamaat members were killed, including Magomed Salikhov, who was previously twice acquitted by a jury for his alleged participation in blowing up a residential building in Buinaksk in 1999. According to the official version offered by the authorities, the other slain jamaat members included Vadim Butdaev, who was described as “the head of the Makhachkala-based sabotage-terrorist group” Sharia Jamaat (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1233447.html).

These insurgent losses, however, did not decrease the intensity of hatred towards the representatives of law enforcement. For instance, on November 18, an employee of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan, Sultan Sultanmagomedov was wounded as a result of a car bomb (www.lenta.ru/news/2008/11/18/blast). On November 19, Major Shamkhal Abdulmutalibov, an officer with the police department of the settlement of Shamkhal, was killed while on duty near the capital of republic, Makhachkala (www.gazeta.ru/news/lenta/2008/11/19/n_1297859.shtml). The following day, a police checkpoint set up in the Buinaksk District came under fire. A company commander with the Patrol-Sentry Police Service for the city of Buinaksk was killed in the attack (www.gazeta.ru/news/lenta/2008/11/20/n_1298292.shtml). On November 21, another assault took place in the heart of the city of Khasavyurt when a Russian military official from Omsk Oblast came under attack.

On November 22, militants attacked a group of foresters near the village of Verkhnee Kazanishche in the Buinaksk District, killing two and wounding three. This is not the first attack on foresters, who often become victims of militants because they find ammunition caches or accidentally stumble into resistance fighters, who fear they may reveal their location to the authorities (https://gzt.ru/incident/2008/11/23/223015.html). Otherwise it is difficult to explain why two out of the six foresters were shot dead (www.kavkazweb.net/news/news.cgi?action=view&nid=01&yy=2008&mm=11&dd=23&message_id=12273984952316GkrmNY8RITVAyVrKbi). Also on November 22, Interfax reported that another assassination attempt took place when an employee of the Izberbash city police department’s criminal investigation unit came under attack.

Against this backdrop of actions by militants, a news report relayed by the Turkish website Alkavkaz.com on November 22 went unnoticed. The report contained a statement by Emir Muhannad (aka Abu Anas, who is top aide to the military emir of the Caucasus mujahideen) about the appointment of a new Emir of Dagestan. According to the statement, Emir Rasul has been appointed to replace the slain Emir Abdul-Mejid in a vote taken during a special meeting.

Thus far little is known about the new Emir. What is strange is that this news was first reported by a Turkish news agency that is close to the military leadership of the Caucasian Emirate, while the main website of the Dagestani Jamaat (www.jamaatshariat.com) and the chief mouthpiece of the radicals, Kavkaz Center (https://kavkaz.tv/russ), have posted no comments about this announcement. The only Chechen publication that issued this piece of news was the little known Chechen Times (https://www.chechentimes.net/content/view/2559/68) and it mainly provided a translation of the original news report from the Turkish news agency.

The new Emir of the Dagestani Sharia Jamaat (Emir Rasul) will first have to resolve the task of preserving everything that was achieved by his predecessors because it is unlikely there will be any new strategic objectives for the jamaat leadership. The expansion of jamaat membership is well underway and there is little to worry about. It is another matter that, unlike the Chechen Jamaat, which functions in the forested and mountainous parts of Chechnya, the Dagestani Jamaat is concentrated mainly in the metropolitan areas. This is the chief difference between the two jamaats, which coordinate their actions under the unified command of Dokku Umarov.