Dagestan’s Sharia Jamaat Gets a New Leader

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 10 Issue: 17

For nearly two months after the death of the last leader of Dagestan’s Sharia Jamaat, Emir Muaz (Umar Sheikhullaev), who was killed in Leninkent, a suburb of the Dagestani capital Makhachkala, during a special operation on February 5 (https://www.kavkaz.tv/russ/content/2009/02/16/64019.shtml), the Sharia Jamaat operated without a leader. One can only guess why it took 60 days to appoint a new emir since the armed underground issued no comments or clarifications regarding this appointment.

According to Muhanned, the naib (deputy) of the military emir of the Armed Forces of the Caucasus Emirate, the emir of Caucasus Emirate, Dokka Umarov, announced, in a videotape issued on April 6, his decision to appoint Al Bar, who commands the militant front in Dagestan, as the new emir (https://www.jamaatshariat.com/content/view/1047/41/). At the same time the statement included an interesting caveat: “perhaps there are those among you, who do not agree with this decision, but we urge you to accept this candidacy,” it stated. The appointment of the new emir is complete with three naibs and the corresponding proposal to divide Dagestan into three parts (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcqazG-8lfA). That is to say, an administrative reform is proposed in a given part of the virtual Caucasus Emirate.

The recently appointed emir is from among those who have been active on the territory adjacent to Chechnya—the Khasavyurt district of Dagestan. Perhaps that is why those militants who are carrying out sabotage activities in the vicinity of Makhachkala and Buinaksk are unhappy with this appointment. The very name of “Al Bar,” translated from the Arabic, means “detachment.” It is derived from the name of one of the famous followers of Prophet Muhammad—Al Bar ibn Malik al-Ansari. Moreover, even a certain hadith is associated with his name, in which there is a reference to his unruly character. The second Caliph Umar allegedly warned against his appointment in the following statement: “Do not appoint Al Bar the commander of any of the Muslim armies because there is fear that he will lose troops with his recklessness” (https://caucase.wordpress.com/2009/03/25/). Time will tell how much the new leader will associate himself with the historical figure through his actions. The truth is that militant leaders often pick nom de guerres both for conspiratorial purposes and out of affinity with this or that historical figure.  

Muhanned’s three-minute video address contains several passages requiring a more detailed examination. For instance, as an aide to the military emir, Muhanned mentioned his immediate commander Emir Magas, who has been signing documents simply as the leader of Ingushetia’s Sharia Jamaat for the past two years. Furthermore, it is unclear why Muhanned announced the appointment of the new emir of Dagestan twice, and yet neither the military Emir Magas nor Caucasus Emirate leader Dokka Umarov has made any mention of it. Although this is not that important—and perhaps it is not worth drawing far-reaching conclusions—the very fact that the Emirate’s mouthpiece is a foreign representative amply demonstrates the role and place of those who arrived from the Middle Eastern countries. It is a common fallacy, given that a foreigner is instantly seen as an expert in Islamic theology, even though more often than not these people are far removed from any theological knowledge.

Exactly ten days after the announcement of the new emir, another public statement was released on behalf of the members of Dagestan’s Sharia Jamaat, in which a pledge of loyalty is sworn to the new Emir Al Bara (https://www.jamaatshariat.com/content/view/1053/34/). It specifies that jamaat members will fight to the death under his leadership.

Apparently Muhanned’s caveat regarding some militants who may disagree with the appointment should not be dismissed lightly. It is possible that after the death of Emir Muaz, the jamaats (the Sharia Jamaat incorporates many locally based jamaats in districts and large cities of Dagestan) proposed their candidates to fill the Emir’s position, as it had been done before. The selection of Al Bara may be attributed to the fact that the old emirs, who were “raised” under the unified leadership of Shamil Basaev, are gradually exiting the scene, while the new names mean little to the Chechen leadership. On the contrary, Emir Al Bara, as a commander of the detachment deployed in the region adjacent to Chechnya, probably maintains constant contacts with the leadership of the Caucasus Emirate—which is to say with the people of Dokka Umarov—and this, in turn, simplifies the coordination of joint actions. Thus, a strategic choice is made—although probably not in the best interests of unity in the Dagestani Jamaat. In essence, the entire territory of Dagestan is engulfed in militant operations carried out by the armed underground, but for the guerrillas in Makhachkala, Buinaksk and the south of the republic, the new emir may not be as authoritative as were his predecessors at the helm of the Sharia Jamaat in Dagestan.  

Meanwhile the Russian special services and the Dagestani police continue to report to the public about their successes on the frontlines of the battle with the armed opposition. Thus, on April 14, the law enforcement authorities for the umpteenth time trumpeted the liquidation of yet another al-Qaeda “emissary” in the North Caucasus—the Turkish citizen Ziya Peche. He has already been “killed” twice in Chechnya, judging by the information provided by the Federal Security Service (FSB) (https://www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1156125&ThemesID=418). This time the FSB is certain that its operatives eliminated him in Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district. Following its old habits, the FSB views all foreign citizens in the ranks of the armed underground exclusively as al-Qaeda emissaries. At the same time, it is not quite clear why al-Qaeda would dispatch so many emissaries to a small territory in the North Caucasus region, one which is never mentioned in any of the public statements made by al-Qaeda leaders.

Against this backdrop, a news report about the liquidation of another figure from the Sharia Jamaat leadership, Zakir Navruzov, came from the southern part of Dagestan. This is also not the first news report about his elimination. For instance, he was already declared to have been killed back in September 2008 (https://www.grani.ru/War/m.150378.html). This time, however, the Russian special services say they managed to track him down while he was having a rendezvous with his wife and child. The police surrounded the house and offered Zakir the chance to surrender, while his wife and little girl were safely escorted out of the house. After a brief gunfight the special services reported that they killed him. Zakir Navruzov was famous as a close supporter of Emir Abdul Mejid (Ilgar Mollachiev), who was killed in September 2008. As his successor in this southern region, Navruzov was responsible for leading the jamaat of Lezgins and for supporting the jamaat created by Emir Abdul Mejid (Ilgar Mollachiev) between July-August 2008 in Azerbaijan (https://www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1161695).

The losses suffered by the Dagestani jamaat, especially among its leadership, have been plaguing the militants since the late summer of 2008. However, this has had no impact on the quality of the operations carried out by the armed underground. The lethality of the militant assaults on both law enforcement authorities and civilians in Dagestan in 2008 increased by 40 percent, according to former Russian Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, who is now chairman of the Directorate of Global Anti-Criminal and Anti-Terrorist Forum (www.yuga.ru/news/152124). If these estimates even remotely correspond with the reality, they clearly demonstrate that Dagestan’s Sharia Jamaat not only has not been crippled by the loss of leadership but, on the contrary, continues to conduct multiple strikes.

Since early April, there have been several militant actions in Dagestan. A police officer and two of his brothers were killed in the wooded area in Khasavyurt district (kavkaz.tv/russ/content/2009/04/06/64923.shtml). On April 10, landmines were laid next to a gas pipeline, and a police officer was killed while attempting to defuse the mines.  Due to the reactivation of the armed underground, additional military detachments were deployed to the Khasavyurt district on April 21 (kavkaz.tv/russ/content/2009/04/21/65193.shtml).

Thus, it is possible to conjecture that lately the center of gravity of the armed underground on the territory of Dagestan has been gradually shifting to Khasavyurt district, which borders Chechnya. Whether this is a sustained trend and whether there is a redistribution of forces for the spring-summer offensive, which the authorities always interpret as the period of the fiercest resistance by the militants against the state bodies in the region, will become clear in the near future.