Factional Divisions within the Chechen Separatist Movement

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 11 Issue: 8

The summer and fall of 2010 have not been pleasant for the leadership of the Chechen armed resistance movement. A split in the supreme leadership was for a period of time carefully hidden from the public eye by victorious communiqués voiced from other parts of the so-called Caucasus Emirate, but the truth ultimately came out and became known to the entire world (www.djamaattakbir.com/2010/07/blog-post_4210.html). The most prominent commanders of the Chechen resistance movement – such as Emirs Aslanbek, Hussein, Tarkhan, Mukhannad and others – who in fact represent almost the entire network of armed rebel units of the Chechen Jamaat (https://daymohk.org/cgi-bin/orsi3/index.cgi?id=39985;section=1#39985) announced the ouster of Doku Umarov, the head of the North Caucasus resistance movement. Contrary to the claims voiced by media representing the interests of the Caucasus Emirate and some independent observers, Umarov’s dismissal was not the consequence of statements in which he claimed responsibility for terrorist acts on Russian territory (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/172981/). Rather, the split was caused by the very idea of the Caucasus Emirate. This means that there is an ongoing struggle between the two major components of the North Caucasus movement: the nationalists and the supporters of the idea of creating an Islamic state from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.
This ideological confrontation dates back to the period well before the Chechnya wars in the 1990s. But it was during the first Chechnya war in 1994-1996 that the Islamist wing morphed into an autonomous military structure called a jamaat and put forward the goal of establishing an entity based on the Sharia law in place of the nationalists’ idea of building a nation-state.
From 1996 to 1999, in the aftermath of the first war in Chechnya, a number of developments clearly showed the local population that the supporters of the Islamization of the North Caucasus were becoming more and more popular, especially among the local youth. The first romanticists – such as Khalimov, Udugov, Umarov, Abdullaev, etc. – were followed by the more aggressive younger generation – such as the Akhmadov brothers, Baraev, Abdurakhman and others – that, in their vision of Chechen statehood, rejected even the theoretical coexistence of the ideas of nationalism and Islamism.
During the second Chechnya war, information and media sources representing the proponents of an Islamic state were quite successful in propagating the idea that only their supporters fought. In those years and especially after the death of the president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Aslan Maskhadov, in March 2005, that view dominated among analysts, experts and researchers of the North Caucasus, who first claimed that the nationalist movement had been already transformed into an Islamic one and then drew their analyses and conclusions based on that false assumption. The adoption by Chechens of the idea of the Caucasus Emirate looked like a concession that was made to the comrades-in-arms representing other brotherly peoples across the region. Meanwhile, Chechens remained — and still remain — the “locomotive” of the North Caucasus movement. Whatever happens in the Chechen armed resistance has repercussions throughout the region’s national jamaats. The latest change of rhetoric by the Ingush Jamaat, where nationalist sentiments are now more conspicuous, is identical to what has already happened in the Chechen Jamaat. And this has not started this year. The very idea of the Emirate emerged as a compromise, given the non-recognition of the Chechnya Jamaat’s leading role by individual leaders representing non-Chechen Jamaats – for instance, Emir Seifullah, aka Anzor Astemirov, the commander of the Yarmuk Jamaat. In fact, these leaders insisted that the Chechen jammats forego their demand for an independent Chechen state in exchange for their backing of the Emirate.
The Chechen commanders who are no longer subordinated to Doku Umarov – Emirs Aslanbek, Hussein, Tarkhan and others – represent the nationalist wing of the Chechen insurgency that has become disillusioned with the idea of the Caucasus Emirate and are now demanding that the entire architecture of the organization be thoroughly reformed. One of their first demands was to reorganize the Emirate into a confederation in which the emir would only have a nominal role to play. Pressured by the three commanders, Umarov had to resign in late July-early August 2010, which was nothing short of sensational. Oddly enough, Umarov reneged on his words shortly after the commanders departed for their bases, and declared that the Chechen commanders had orchestrated a putsch against him. The situation was comical, since Umarov looked like an incapacitated ruler without his leading commanders. That was why he tried for three months to persuade them to come back under his command and repent their disobedience.
Umarov has no means to threaten the three commanders, who keep almost all Chechen Jamaats under their effective control. His current rhetoric is far from being reminiscent of September 2007, when he solemnly proclaimed the creation of the Caucasus Emirate and threateningly vowed that anyone acting against him would be killed. The only option he has today is to persuade the disobedient commanders to return to him by arguing that this would be in compliance with the Sharia law and in the common interest of independence from Russia. Against this background, Umarov and his close associates have started a massive campaign involving statements and appeals from abroad by sheikhs unknown in the North Caucasus – one of those being at-Tartusi – in which they ask the schismatic commanders to return under the flag of Doku Umarov, since otherwise their behavior would contradict the Prophet’s deeds and the Islamic legacy. Meanwhile, the commanders who no longer recognize Umarov’s jurisdiction have elected the new leader of the Chechen Jamaat – Emir Khussein Gakaev. This is not the first instance of disobedience. Emir Mansur (aka Arbi Yevmirzaev), who was killed in February 2010, was a famous Chechen commander. He never embraced the idea of the Caucasus Emirate and fought separately from Umarov.
The important point is that jamaats like Dagestan’s Sharia and Kabardino-Balkaria’s Yarmuk support Doku Umarov. To them, he is the symbol of the united resistance movement in the North Caucasus (www.jamaatshariat.com/islam/28-islam/1128-2010-08-17-20-00-57.html). By appointing the incumbent qadi (Sharia judge) of the Dagestan Vilayat, Ali Abu Muhammad ad-Dagestani, as the supreme qadi of the Sharia Court of the Caucasus Emirate (https://kavkaz.tv/russ/content/2010/10/18/75903.shtml), Umarov looks to be in search of allies to counterbalance the breakaway Chechen commanders. In general, the split in the resistance movement has not had any impact on the situation in the region. Although Umarov’s leadership is nominal, there are mechanisms of unified command in place.
Could the split be viewed as irreversible and as the turning point toward the policy of Ichkeria, as it was construed by some Chechen politicians living in the West? It would be better not to jump to conclusions. Time will tell how far the dissident commanders are willing to go from the idea of the Caucasus Emirate, how much they cherish the idea of an independent Ichkeria and, last but not least, whether or not Sufism still has influence. Based on what we have today, it can be argued that there is an ongoing search within the movement and there seems to be a newly formed political force coming into existence as part of the North Caucasus resistance movement.