Instability in Southern Dagestan widens despite deaths of militant leaders

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 10

The Republic of Dagestan has become the principal scene of all the North Caucasian resistance movement in the past two years. Not only does the republic have the largest number of jamaats operating on its territory in the North Caucasus, but it also boasts of having the largest group of people there who are literate in Islamic theology and adhere to the ideas of an all-out jihadism in the region. It is not surprising therefore that the websites of Dagestan’s rebels are full of lectures, such as the teachings of the qadis. For the sake of clarification the term “qadi” in the North Caucasus is considered to be on a higher level than a mullah, and is usually a person elected by the inhabitants of a village or a region where the religious official hails from giving him a higher religious status.

The qadi of Kizlyar district Sheikh Muhammad Didoiski was one of these respected Islamic teachers.  Didoiski was recently killed near Tsvetkovo village in Kizlyar district or as the Caucasus Emirate calls it – the Kizlyar sector of the Valayat of Dagestan. Kizlyar district is situated in the north of Dagestan and borders Chechnya.  Recently in the vicinity of the city of Kizlyar a group of about 10 insurgents was spotted near one of the major forests. Two days of clashes ensued from May 11 to 12, as the insurgents suffered 5 casualties and the Russian forces had 3 police officers and 4 military servicemen wounded (, May 11). Aside from the death of the qadi, officials also reported that a former police officer was found among the dead insurgents. The average age of the killed rebels was estimated to be approximately 30 years old. The example of the qadi and the former police officer-turned-insurgent indicates that fairly mature people with an established worldview are joining the jamaats, not just young unemployed youth. This contradicts Russian authorities’ portrayal of the insurgents as simply young people who were “deluded by propaganda.”  

Another interesting aspect about the death of Didoiski is that the qadi comes from one of the smaller Dagestani peoples, the Tsez (aka Didoi), who number only about 16,000 in Russia and Georgia. It should be mentioned that literally one day before his death, Muhamad Didoiski’s lecture on jihad was published on the website of one of the Dagestani insurgent groups.  Didoiski taught about the importance of jihad and how indispensable it was for Muslim men and women. In his lecture, he said that waging jihad was the second most important obligation in Islam, and that it is second only after the admission of Islam as the only true religion (, May 17). In his lecture, Muhammad Didoiski made numerous references to historic figures who fought the Russians in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Imam Gazi-mulla, Gamzat Bek, the Imam Shamyl, Sheikh Mansur, Uzun-Haji, Imam Gotsinski, and so on and then called upon his listeners to join the insurgency.

At the same time that clashes occurred near the city of Kizlyar, skirmishes also took place in the southern part of Dagestan in the border area between Sergokala and Kayakent districts.  A special operation that was designed to detect the rebel leaders was under way in this part of Dagestan and likely meant that an informant had alerted the authorities about the possibility of the rebels’ hiding in the area between villages of Kichi-Gamri and Uttash. On May 12, an insurgent, a Turkish citizen better known among the rebels as Emir Abdusalam was killed in the special operation (Kavkaz, May 13).  Government forces also suffered losses, as one of the servicemen was killed in the incident, according to the official information about the operation. This operation was carried out by the FSB with support from the military. The latter normally seal off the area where insurgents are deemed to hide and provide fire support from air and land. According to the officials, the killed rebel had been sought for several crimes, such as an attempt on the life of the law enforcement officer and illegal arms’ possession. The killed person had been on the federal search list and his name was Muhammad, officials reported. Strangely, having enlisted him in the federal search list, the security services did not bother themselves to provide the real name of the dead rebel.

Although Emir Abdusalam was in fact a Turkish citizen, what is interesting about his background is his Dagestani origins. Abdusalam was an ethnic Avar which is one of the largest ethnic groups in Dagestan. His ancestors came from the village of Inkho that is in Gumbet district of Dagestan, which is situated in the mountainous area, bordering Chechnya and Georgia. After the Caucasian War of the 19th century part of this village moved to the Ottoman Empire.  Abdusalam’s return to his historical homeland was received well among the rebels. Moreover, after Salih (a.k.a, Ibragimkhalil Daudov) died on February 14, 2012, Emir Abdusalam was considered to be a leading candidate for the position of Emir for all of Dagestan. It is not known whether he actually was emir of the whole Sergokala district that is strategically important to the rebels. Abdusalam was best known as the emir of the Shuaib jamaat of Sergokala district in Dagestan that was of local importance.

Dagestani rebels’ websites tend to supply the same positions and ranks of the killed insurgents that the FSB and the Interior Ministry of Dagestan provide in their press releases. This may mean that the links between the foreign based rebels’ media and the rebel commanders are unstable as they resort to relying on Russian government announcements about insurgent operations. While the information punch of the local authorities is understandable, as they try to cast every killed rebel as another “Shamyl Basaev,” the rebels’ websites pathetic retelling of the official information is bewildering. The rebel websites simply substitute Russian terminology with their own custom terms, such as militant in the official language being turned into mujahedin on the rebels’ websites, and ringleaders into emirs, police officers into Murtads (a term used in the North Caucasus for those who cooperate with local authorities), and so on.

Thus, two fairly well-known figures among the Dagestani insurgents have been killed simultaneously. Both leaders had clear potential for further growth in the insurgency hierarchy. Yet, these losses can hardly be considered as having a decisive impact on the militant movement in Dagestan, nor affect the power balance in the insurgency. As it happens usually, the new names of rebel leaders will quickly pop up, making it harder for the Russian security services to track the changes inside the jamaats in Dagestan. New qadis and emirs will appear to lead those dissenters who disagree with Moscow’s policies in the region. It appears the figures for such dissenters grow as the time progresses. Not all of them take up arms, but they still provide the support base for the widening insurgency in Dagestan, particularly among those who subscribe to Salafist teachings.