Doku Umarov’s Attempts to Rebuild His Foundations

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 36

A noticeable rise in insurgent activity has been observed during the summer of 2007. A link may exist with the recent policies of the Chechen leader, Doku Umarov, who has made new leadership appointments within the resistance movement. These changes are aimed at allowing the individual guerrilla units to function more independently and rely less on a central leader.

It is well known that Shamil Basaev tried to concentrate all control over the ethnic-based insurgent groups of the North Caucasus into the hands of the Chechen commanders. This approach was not only militarily successful, but also politically beneficial for the Chechen leadership. The Chechen command was always extremely interested in widening the theater of operations to areas outside of Chechnya and worked hard to coordinate the actions of the various ethnic divisions that were included in the “Caucasus Front” by order of then-president Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev (, May 16, 2005).

The killings of Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev (June 17, 2006) and Shamil Basaev (July 10, 2006) made Doku Umarov’s ability to maintain the same level of control over all of the ethnic units of the resistance less than certain. Despite expectations to the contrary, however, all of the non-Chechen divisions, eventually took an oath of allegiance to the new leader, thus giving him a chance to finish that which was started by his predecessors. Subsequently Umarov traveled to Ingushetia, Kabarda, and Dagestan in order to emphasize his qualifications as the new leader.

By selecting emir Magas (Akhmed Yevloev) as the military commander of the entire Caucasus Front, Doku Umarov has made it easier to energize resistance forces in those regions near Ingushetia (Chechnya, Ossetia, Kabarda). This is important because the commander of the Southwestern Front is Tarkhan Gaziev, another member of the Ingush jamaat. Combined with the extensive control exercised in Dagestan by Rappani Khalilov, this means that Umarov can focus all of his energy on Chechnya proper [Khalilov was reportedly killed by Russian security forces on September 17]. Though there have been few noticeable results as of late, the current distribution of power within the resistance favors an active political stance.

The decrees issued by Doku Umarov over the course of the last two months make it possible to infer what is most important to the leader of the resistance movement at this time. The August decrees focus on foreign policy, with new representatives to Germany and the countries of Northern Europe being appointed (decrees #141-144, signed on August 17). Alla Dudaeva, the widow of Dzhokhar Dudaev, the first president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, has been appointed as the deputy minister of culture (decree #145, August 17), while Visit Ibragimov, once the deputy of Ichkeria’s vice-president Vakha Arsanov, has become the director of the department for the Vainakh diaspora (decree #146, August 23). It seems probable that these new appointees are intended to infuse some energy into the currently sluggish, almost nonexistent, foreign policy activity. At the moment, almost all international activity has shifted away from the resistance leadership and into the hands of various social and humanitarian organizations.

In September, a new set of decrees was issued (with decree #147 dating from September 4), a number of them surprising and difficult to explain. Exactly six months ago, the position of the Head of the Sharia Court went to Mansur Yevmirzaev (decree #134, March 7), a man well known as an alim, a person knowledgeable in theology and probably also Sharia law (, April 27). This man has now been suddenly replaced, the whole issue summed up with a cryptic “due to a transfer to a new position,” an explanation even more puzzling than the initial decree. It is entirely unclear as to what could have been offered to Yevmirzaev as a replacement for his respected and most fitting post. It is to be hoped that the future will provide some explanation of what actually occurred and what led Doku Umarov to replace the man he himself appointed only months earlier.

Yevmirzaev’s removal is nothing compared to the surprising new replacement named by Umarov – Anzor Astermirov (decree #147, September 4), a man that hardly fits the profile of an alim. The key seems to lie not in the qualifications of the leader of the Kabardino-Balkar jamaat for this position, but in the fact that the Head of the Sharia Court is the third-ranking official in the Chechen resistance. If the president and vice-president of the Chechen republic of Ichkeria should die simultaneously, the leadership post automatically passes to the Chief of the High Sharia Court. This appointment, then, makes Astermirov a figure of importance for the whole region.

Anzor Astemirov’s jamaat has been particularly active recently, with numerous attacks and bombings in Kabardino-Balkaria. The latest news from Nalchik suggests that the terrorist activity typical of Ingushetia has now moved to the western republics of the North Caucasus. During September 12-13, insurgents fired on a car belonging to the local FSB branch (causing casualties), exploded a bomb near the “Nalchik” hotel, attacked several policemen and instigated a firefight in Nalchik’s suburbs. Since the start of September, these types of events have become commonplace in Kabardino-Balkaria, with most bombings being directed at the police and the FSB (, September 14).

Another one of Umarov’s September decrees tries to reform one of the least used organs of the resistance movement, the consultative body called the “Shura of the alims of the peoples of the North Caucasus.” Originally intended to be the key ideological organ of the resistance, the Shura has never been an important organization, since few alims were willing to bear the burdens of going into permanent hiding by becoming full-fledged active members. Doku Umarov (decree #149, September 4) placed the Shura under the authority of the general foreign representative of the Chechen republic of Ichkeria and renamed it the “Sharia committee.” This is an attempt to breathe new life into the Shura by moving it overseas, though it is not entirely clear whether such an approach will prove successful. It is true that it would be possible to try to attract those spiritual leaders that now reside abroad, including Magomed Kebedov (the former Dagestani radical leader), Shamsudin Batukaev (the former head of the Sharia court), and others into the new Sharia committee. The decree, however, damages the position of the general foreign representative of Ichkeria, since the linkage between him and the Sharia committee will make many European and Turkish politicians wary of dealing with him.

All of these decrees are aimed at continuing the reorganization of the resistance movement, making it more maneuverable and allowing the leaders of the various ethnic units to move into leadership positions. This is intended to bring about an increase in activity across the whole of the North Caucasus. At the same time, steps are also being taken to mobilize a foreign policy offensive.