Islamic State Has Done Little in North Caucasus Despite Winning Over Regional Militants

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 162

Umar Shahami, Chechen militant in Islamic State

August was a turbulent month for the armed Islamic resistance movement in the North Caucasus, with the Russian security services carrying out multiple successful operations. According to an independent news source, the Kavkazsky Uzel website, over three dozen people may have been killed or wounded across the region in August alone. Among the rebels killed were the leaders of Khasavyurt and Makhachkala jamaats—Islam Muradov and Abdul Kurbanov, respectively (Kavkazsky Uzel, August 31). The multiple counterterrorist operations conducted across Dagestan irritated locals: for example, an operation carried out in the Lenin district of Makhachkala lasted three days. Given the accompanying multiple restrictions and ID checks, the residents of Makhachkala must have been put through a challenging trial.

The wave of counterterrorist operations has contributed to spreading the rumors that have appeared every year around this time since September 1, 2004, when militants seized a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan in an attack that killed hundreds of children and dozens of adults. The “Beslan syndrome,” in which parents are scared to allow their children go to school, has reoccurred each of the last 11 years, which has led to heightened security measures in the republics of the North Caucasus at this time of the year and raised the level of alarm and concern. Prior to the start of this school year, all government forces in Chechnya were on high alert, with police patrolling schools and the areas around them (, August 31).

Military forces were deployed alongside police to ensure public safety, with military checkpoints set up on the streets of Grozny for the first time in years (, August 28). According to residents of Chechnya, the heightened security could not have been tied to the start of the school year alone. People in the republic are increasingly talking about a group of militants comprised of those who fought in Syria. Chechnya’s ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, denied that government forces were searching for militants connected to the Islamic State around the administrative border between Chechnya and Ingushetia (, August 21). However, rumors about attempts by militants to infiltrate Chechnya from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge have only intensified, with some people citing anonymous sources in Pankisi itself, which is currently populated only by ethnic Chechens (, August 15). However, several sources in Pankisi independently confirmed to the author of this article that no one had heard anything about the arrival of militants from Syria. According to the author’s sources, it would be strange if militants from Syria arrived in Pankisi Gorge, given that the Georgian authorities detain even those people who discuss the conflict in Syria in social media. Yet, the tensions in Chechnya have not subsided.

The subject of the Islamic State has, unexpectedly, also become popular in Dagestan. Information from sources outside Russia suggested that the Islamic State carried out a successful attack on Russian military barracks in southern Dagestan (, September 2). Unfortunately, those who spread reports about this supposed attack in Western media outlets (, September 2) failed to notice that in Dagestan’s Magaramkent district, where the attack purportedly took place, no military barracks exist apart from a border guards outpost (Kavkazsky Uzel, September 3). The Lezgin village of Magaramkent, with a population of 7,000, is located close to the border, and even a handgun shot aimed at the border guards could not have gone unnoticed. Also, there are no barracks in the village.

The reports about the attack in Dagestan were part of the Islamic State’s propaganda and aimed at demonstrating successes in the North Caucasus that have not occurred. The Islamic State apparently cannot grasp that over the past year, the militants of the former Caucasus Emirate have repeatedly asked to join Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s group, but have been unable to do anything other than hide from the Russian security services. The Islamic State’s label is not granted to anyone who wishes to have it. The presence of Chechens like Umar Shishani among the top leaders of the Islamic State must have helped the North Caucasian militants to secure Islamic State backing. The reports of the attack on the non-existent military barracks in the village of Magaramkent were meant to show the viability of the North Caucasian branch of the Islamic State. In reality, however, these reports betrayed the weakness of the Islamic State in this area. The made-up attack indicated that the militants in the North Caucasus who are affiliated with the Islamic State have nothing to brag about and are simply trying to fool their bosses in the Middle East.

Since the commanders of the former Caucasus Emirate started joining the Islamic State at the end of 2014 (Kavkazsky Uzel, December 20, 2014), they have failed to demonstrate any tangible successes of the Islamic State in the North Caucasus. However, that does not mean that the North Caucasian militants cannot succeed in the future. Now, following the fake reports about the attack on the military barracks, the North Caucasian militants will be expected to organize an actual attack to repair their tarnished reputation.