On November 15 and 16, a video statement made by Anzor Astemirov, aka Emir Seyfullah, the leader of the rebels of Kabardino-Balkaria, a region in the North Caucasus, was posted on the rebel-based Camagat website as well as the Kavkaz Center website.
Astemirov said that the militants were planning to conduct a large-scale operation in Kabardino-Balkaria soon, but that prior to this they were getting ready to target local residents who had cooperated with the Russian authorities, including policemen, officials, clerics, and businessmen. “For some time, we have been indulgent toward anyone who considered himself a Muslim, but this will now change,” the rebel leader warned on the video. “Now we will consider who is a Muslim in deed and not just in word.”
At the same time, Astemirov claimed that more and more people in the region are joining the ranks of the insurgency, including students, workers, businessmen and even policemen.
Even before Astemirov’s statement appeared, it was evident that the rebels were preparing large attacks in the North Caucasus. In September, Dagestani Interior Minister Adilgerei Magomedtagirov announced that “the leaders of these bandit formations plan to carry out several terrorist acts in several republics of the North Caucasus.” Furthermore, on October 17, General Arkady Yedelev, commander of the Russian Anti-Terrorist Forces in the North Caucasus, said at a press conference in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, that, “until Astemirov and [Musa] Mukozhev [another leader of Kabardino-Balkarian militants] are caught, there is a possibility of terrorist attacks and extremist raids in Kabardino-Balkaria” (Vesti, October 20).
The tactics that Astemirov discussed have been already implemented throughout the Caucasus. Clerics, local policemen, and officials are being killed everywhere, from Karachaevo-Cherkessia in the western North Caucasus to Dagestan in the east. As for Kabardino-Balkaria itself, a colonel from the Organized Crime Department of the republican police was wounded in September by a car bomb, while a district police chief in Cherkesy (a Kabardinian city about 10 kilometers west of Nalchik) was recently fatally shot by rebels when he was driving to work.
The aim of these tactics is to weaken the pro-Russian authorities by eliminating or intimidating those who support the Russian cause and who oppose the insurgency. The rebels believe that this strategy, which appears similar to the tactics of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, will help to isolate the Russian forces in the North Caucasus. Afterwards, it will be much easier for the insurgency to prepare and to conduct a large-scale offensive against the newly-isolated Russian troops.
The question is, what is the true strength of the insurgency in Kabardino-Balkaria, and how popular is it with the locals?
There has been no official reaction in Kabardino-Balkaria to Astemirov’s statement. Unofficially, republican security officers told the newspaper Kommersant that the rebels did not currently possess the capability to organize another large-scale raid on Nalchik like the one they had conducted on October 13, 2005, but that they could target senior police officers, which is similar to what the insurgents in Dagestan do. (Kommersant, November 18).
It should be noted that the authorities cancelled access to the Internet in Kabardino-Balkaria as soon as Astemirov’s video was posted on the Camagat website on November 15. It was impossible to access the Internet in the republic for several days after this. The shutdown of the Internet was an obvious and immediate reaction to the statement. Yet, at the same time, security officials have not visibly tightened security measures. At the very least, there have been no noticeable additional patrols or mobile posts in Nalchick. A possible explanation for this, though, is the fact that there are already so many troops in the region that it is virtually impossible to send in even more or to keep them in a state of full alert all the time. The authorities are now focusing on combating the propaganda campaign initiated by the rebels in Kabardino-Balkaria when Astemirov’s statement was posted on the Internet. Larisa Dorogova, a famous regional lawyer, told Jamestown that three young men, who had been distributing video cassettes and DVDs of Astemirov’s statement, were recently arrested in Nalchick. However, the statement is also circulating on cell phones, which is much harder to block.
Despite the big losses suffered by the insurgents during the raid on Nalchik last year, the insurgency in Kabardino-Balkaria still has quite a bit of indigenous support. Last summer, Kabardino-Balkaria’s Interior Minister Yuri Tomchak admitted that local officials had not yet discovered the identities of more than 100 of the gunmen who took part in the raid. Likewise, the authorities have been unable to locate 40 rebels wanted in connection with the raid (Kavkazky Uzel, July 13).
Nevertheless, sources in the regional Interior Ministry told Jamestown that the police are looking for more than 300 men who are involved in rebel activities. Irina Babich of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who studies the role of Islam in Kabardino-Balkaria, estimates that the number of potential supporters of the Islamic insurgency in the region could number up to 10,000. It should be noted that Anzor Astemirov, the top rebel commander, as well as Musa Mukozhev, the spiritual leader of the rebels, are both highly respected by the young Balkars and Kabardinians. Both studied in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990s and speak excellent Arabic. Moreover, Astemirov’s local popularity is based upon the fact that he is a descendant of one of the most influential aristocratic families of Kabarda; and Mukozhev had already attracted thousands of disciples by the end of the 1990’s as a result of his public sermons in local non-government run mosques.
A source from inside the Kabardino-Balkarian insurgency told Jamestown that the rebels had dispersed into small groups. In addition to their camps in the mountains, these groups have also established a network of settlements and villages throughout the region. It is interesting to note that Astemirov – who is himself Kabardinian – has a personal bodyguard unit that consists of Turkic-speaking Balkars. This once again proves that the Islamic ideology of the insurgency in the North Caucasus helps the rebels to overcome the ethnic differences that characterize the region.
It seems that the locals in Kabardino-Balkaria are taking Astemirov’s latest threats very seriously. After his statement appeared on the Internet, the supply of local real estate, as reflected in the local advertising newspaper, exceeded demand for the first time in many years. The exodus of Chechen refugees from Kabardino-Balkaria, which began last year after the October 2005 raid in Nalchik, has intensified in the past month. The republic seems to be holding its collective breath in anticipation of what the rebel threats may bring.