Dokku Umarov: Between Jihad and the Struggle for Freedom

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 38

Last summer, following the death of Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev in Chechnya, the successor to Aslan Maskhadov as the Chechen rebel leader, senior field commander Dokku Umarov, became the top leader of the Chechen and the North Caucasian insurgency. When Shamil Basaev died in Ingushetia last July, Dokku Umarov became the only remaining commander from the separatists’ old guard.

Under Sadulaev’s short-lived leadership, the Chechen insurgency made some significant steps towards turning itself into a movement encompassing the entire North Caucasus. Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev positioned himself not only as the Chechen president but also as the political leader of the entire North Caucasian insurgency. Sadulaev focused more on Islamic issues, with him and his brothers-in-arms, like Shamil Basaev, declaring on many occasions that their final goal was an independent Islamic state in the North Caucasus, based on Sharia law and an equal partnership of all Caucasian nations as well as an independent Chechnya. Some radicals within the Chechen separatist leadership, like Movladi Udugov, even called for the proclamation of Sadulaev as Sheikh of all the Caucasian Muslims and for the abolishment of his position as the Chechen president (see Chechnya Weekly, November 17, 2005). Steps were taken to establish a unified organizational structure for all Caucasian rebels. All Caucasian rebel groups took an oath of loyalty to Sadulaev as their supreme Amir (leader); leaders of rebel groups operating out of Chechnya were incorporated into the Majlis-ul-Shura, the Supreme Council of the Chechen field commanders; and the Council of the Caucasian Ulema (Islamic scholars) was set up to monitor whether the actions of mujahideen contradicted Sharia law.

All of these steps were widely advertised through rebel websites and underground newspapers, and the establishment of all the aforementioned structures was approved by Sadulaev in special decrees.

It was very important for the rebels to maintain this course after Sadulaev died and to demonstrate to the whole world that their policy was consistent even after the death of their top leader. Several days after Sadulaev’s death, Shamil Basaev posted a statement on Kavkaz-Center website in which he called on all of Russia’s Muslims to take an oath of loyalty to their new Amir, Dokku Umarov.

Dokku Umarov’s first statement as the new separatist president, however, indicated some changes in the rebels’ rhetoric. In his interviews, statements and appeals, Adbul-Khalim Sadulaev had talked about both freedom and Islam as the resistance’s two main goals, but gave priority to Islam. Sadulaev constantly stressed that the conditions for a possible future peace with Russia would be much harder for Russia than they were at the end of the first Chechen war, and that the rebels would force the Russians to leave the North Caucasus.

Umarov’s first statement as the new top rebel leader demonstrated significant changes in this stance. Umarov said in his statement, posted on the rebel websites last July 23, that “the Chechen people have only one goal—to be free and equal among other nations of the world. The legal basis to establish peace in Russia should be the Agreement on Peace and Principles of Relations signed by two presidents of the two countries, Russia and Chechnya, on May 12, 1997. As Aslan Maskhadov and Boris Yeltsin had agreed, Russia and the Chechen republic should base their relationships on generally recognized principles and standards of international law.” It should be also noted that Dokku Umarov did not call non-Chechen fighters “mujahideen,” as Sadulaev had done in the past, but “North Caucasus patriots” whose “brotherhood becomes stronger and stronger.” Umarov added that “we cannot help recognizing the right of our Caucasian brothers to freedom.”

As one can see in this statement, as well as in other statements that followed, Umarov avoids the terms that were frequently used by Basaev and Sadulaev, such as “mujahideen”, “kafirs” (Arabic for “infidels”) and “munafiqs” (Arabic for “hypocrites”). Umarov talks instead about “patriots” and “freedom fighters,” “occupiers” and “national traitors.” It is also interesting that, unlike Sadulaev, Umarov very rarely quotes the Koran and refers to Islam, and the topic of jihad is always secondary to his national liberation rhetoric. Umarov always links Allah with fighting for freedom or international law. For example, Dokku Umarov described Sadulaev’s death as “an example how one should live and die on the direct path of Allah the most high, defending his land, freedom and dignity of his people.” Umarov then added that “Allah the most high created nations as well as individuals to be equal and this equality is recognized by international law.”

In one of his recent video statements recorded in the Chechen language, which is circulating around Chechnya, Umarov acknowledges that he is not as knowledgeable about Islam as Sadulaev was, but says, “There is a Council of Ulema that will correct me if I am wrong.” Despite his rhetoric, Umarov is not going to forget about Jihad, and this is proven by the fact that an Arab, Seif Islam, became his senior adviser. Nevertheless, it is quite evident that Dokku Umarov feels much more comfortable talking about the struggle for freedom rather than about holy war. It is also interesting that Umarov constantly describes the current Russian authorities as a Chekist (FSB) mafia, but not as the government of infidels. In his statements, Umarov sharply criticizes the West whom, as the rebel leader believes, “has sold out Chechnya for Russian oil and natural gas.” At the same time, however, he notes that Western countries still do not believe the Kremlin’s propaganda that Russia is dealing with international terrorism in the North Caucasus. It is also significant that Dokku Umarov points to the importance of human rights all the time—a topic that other Chechen separatists, including Aslan Maskhadov, always tried to avoid. They preferred to focus on Islam, the rights of nations and freedom in general.

This rhetoric of Dokku Umarov could not be ignored by the Islamic radical wing of the insurgency. The Kavkaz-Center website, which is controlled by Movladi Udugov, started to censor Umarov’s statements. The section of Umarov’s first statement, in which he mentioned the agreement signed by Yeltsin and Maskhadov in 1997, was removed from the text posted on Udugov’s site. Umarov ignored this, but in September, Kavkaz-Center again censored his text. In a statement published on September 12, Umarov said that “all international laws that exist give us the right to defend the security of our people. This is what we are fighting for.” This was removed by Kavkaz-Center, and the next day the Umarov’s press service issued a statement demanding that all websites publish full texts of his statements or not publish them at all (Daymokh, September 13).

It is a well-known fact that radicals such as Movladi Udugov reject international law, democracy and human rights as goals of the Chechen resistance, insisting that the only goal should be a Taliban-style Sharia state. By censoring Umarov, Udugov tried to influence him and correct the ideology of the Chechen separatists to make it more pro-Islamic, as it was during Sadulaev’s leadership.

Nevertheless, it looks as if Umarov is ready for serious changes in the ideology of the resistance, and the reason for this is not only his personal views, but also a new tendency in the Caucasian insurgency. There is some evidence that the rebels in the North Caucasus have started switching slowly from Jihad slogans back to the old national liberation language that was so fashionable in the region in the 1990s. The reason must be the insurgency’s need to widen its support among the population, which is impossible if it operates only with Islamic slogans. Last August, Kavkaz-Center reported that Dokku Umarov had had several meeting with the Caucasian rebel commanders in Chechnya where “not only military but ideological issues were discussed.”

We cannot say exactly what Umarov told the commanders, but looking at his statements, one can guess that he called upon them to be more flexible in their agitation and propaganda in the Caucasus regions.