On May 13, Russian special forces launched a search operation across the Assa River, in Ingushetia’s Sunzhensky district, which borders Chechnya. The authorities warned local villagers not to visit the area. The security forces were combing the forest for a group of militants led by Aslan Byutukayev (Amir Khamzat), sources said. Byutukayev (45) is the commander of the “Riyad-us Saliheen” (“Gardens of the Righteous”) Brigade of Martyrs and was a close associate of the deceased Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov. According to Russian investigators, Byutukaev was one of the organizers of the January 2011 suicide bomb attack at Domodedovo airport, in Moscow, which killed 37 people (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 16). Later the same year, Russian officials claimed that both Umarov and Byutukaev were killed in a special operation near the Ingushetian village of Upper Alkun. Rebels at that time confirmed that Umarov’s aide and designated successor, Supyan Abdullaev, was indeed killed in the airstrike. But apparently, neither Umarov nor Byutukaev were affected by the attack (see EDM, May 20, 2011). In June 2015, after the Russian security forces killed the Caucasus Emirate’s then-leader Aliaskhab Kebekov, Byutukayev pledged allegiance to the Middle Eastern Islamic State on behalf of all Chechen insurgents (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 13, 2015).
Today, the North Caucasus insurgency is almost nonexistent. However, according to some experts, positive sentiment toward the militants continues to linger among locals. A veteran of the Russian special forces, Sergei Goncharov, has claimed that the present situation in Ingushetia allows rebels to find support among the locals in the republic, unlike in Dagestan or Chechnya. Goncharov was apparently referring to political protests in Ingushetia in 2019 and subsequent imprisonment of the movement’s leaders. Repressions against activists have angered many Ingush and alienated them from the authorities (Fortanga, May 13).
Ingush civil rights activist Magomed Mutsolgov argues that the Caucasus Emirate has long-since ceased to exist, and its members cannot be in Ingushetia. All news about militant activity and counter-terrorist special operations in Ingushetia causes reputational and investment losses to the region, the rights activist warns. Mutsolgov also asserted that there is no conflict between different Islamic teachings in Ingushetia unless the authorities start fueling tensions and pitting them against one another. Another Ingushetian expert, Timur Akiev, does not believe that Byutukaev could have slipped into Ingushetia from Chechnya through the cordons set up by the security services (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 16).
The Caucasus Emirate practically ceased to exist in the North Caucasus after being supplanted by the local branch of Islamic State by the end of 2015. The change from a homegrown separatist-turned-Islamist movement to the international jihadi organization was not always smooth or peaceful. And in fact, the latest reporting on the subject suggests that the fight between adherents to the Caucasus Emirate versus the Islamic State may have relocated outside the region, to the Middle East. Recently, Caucasus Emirate leader Abdulla Tsumada was killed in the Syrian province of Idlib. His death was blamed on members of the Islamic State. Presumably, Tsumada knew his attackers, a Russian news website reported, with reference to Vera Mironova, a research fellow at Harvard University who specializes in the study of nonstate armed groups (Lenta, May 16).
Interestingly, a commander of the Russian forces in Syria requested help from Turkey to bring the body of the assassinated militant to Russia. The request is quite unusual: many Russian citizens have died in the Syrian civil war, but Moscow usually does not bother collecting the bodies of killed militants. According to a friend of the slain Caucasus Emirate leader, the assailants called Abdulla Tsumada to come out of the house he lived in. They shot him seven times in the street. Tsumada was reportedly killed by foreigners whom he knew personally. Days later, it emerged that the attackers were members of Islamic State; though, notably, their leader allegedly has ties to the Russian security services (Twitter.com/vera_mironov, May 16–18).
Despite the obvious demise of the North Caucasus insurgency at home, the Russian authorities are still apparently paying close attention to the remaining handful of rebel leaders, even outside the region. In 2019, the overall number of individuals killed in insurgency-related violence in the North Caucasus comprised about three dozen (see EDM, January 29). Toward the end of the last year and the first months of 2020, violence levels dramatically dropped—for several months in a row, no insurgency-related incidents were registered at all. However, Moscow’s calculus evidently includes the possibility of a resurgence of rebel forces under unfavorable circumstances. One such scenario could be the explosion of social unrest in the North Caucasus in the absence of legal avenues for civil political opposition activity, followed by state repressions against the protesters. To avoid a rebirth of the insurgency, Russian security forces appear to be trying to kill even inactive rebel leaders or those residing far beyond Russian frontiers who might potentially serve as rallying figures in the future.