Killing of Gakaev Brothers Setback for North Caucasus Insurgency, but Not Fatal

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 14 Issue: 2

January brought unexpected news from Chechnya. In the course of a six-day military operation against the militants in the republic’s Vedeno district, government forces killed 11 militants and captured one (www.rbc.ru/fnews.open/20130124152140.shtml). The government forces also suffered losses—two servicemen died and seven were wounded in fighting (www.newstube.ru/media/v-chechne-v-xode-specoperacii-ubity-2-policejskix). As usual, rebel sources provided different estimates of government losses, alleging that up to 15 servicemen were killed (http://kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2013/01/26/95798.shtml). The authorities very quickly moved on to announce that the Gakaev brothers were killed in the clashes. Normally, it takes the government one to two weeks to confirm this type of information.

This counterinsurgency operation will certainly be remembered not for the high number of rebel losses but for the names of the rebels killed. The operation reportedly started on January 18 in Chechnya’s Shatoi district and gradually shifted to the east, concluding at the village of Elistanzhi on January 24 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/218864/). Among those killed was Emir Husein (Husein Gakaev), one of the best known rebel commanders and most popular among the militants, and his younger brother Muslim, who was also well known. The names of the other nine rebels killed in the operation are practically unknown to observers who follow the events in the region. Isa Vagapov, Akhmed Labazanov, Umar Dadaev, Sidik Abasov, Ruslan Suleimanov and Aburaik Yusupkhajiev were listed as being from the city of Shali, while Ibragim Saidkhasanov was listed as being from Grozny and Vakha-Murad Bakaev was listed as being from Dagestan. The authorities also named Abuezid Dzhabrailov, nicknamed Pilek, whom they portrayed as having been a well-known commander. However, nothing had been known about his activities. Another rebel, Islam Temishev, surrendered to the authorities (www.yuga.ru/news/285259/).

Many people learned about Emir Husein in the summer of 2010. Gakaev, along with his closest associates Emir Aslanbek (Aslanbek Vadalov) and Emir Tarkhan (Tarkhan Gaziev), announced they were impeaching the leader of the North Caucasian rebels, Doku Umarov (http://vestiplanety.com/index.php?newsid=3342). Emir Husein was proclaimed emir of Chechnya. At the time, almost all other more-or-less known leaders of the insurgency left Doku Umarov along with Husein Gakaev, undermining Umarov’s reputation also among non-Chechens in the insurgency (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/173026/).

Moreover, this split pushed the Chechens living in the West to step up their efforts to support the commanders who went against Umarov (http://rusnovosti.ru/news/114695). Pro-Western Chechen activists were prepared to recognize anyone who would, at least in name, adhere to the course of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who was killed by the Russians on March 8, 2005. However, the schism was overcome in July 2011 with the assistance of Dagestani mediators (www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkRcpfchSU8). As a compromise, Doku Umarov was forced to appoint Emir Husein as one of the two top emirs and give him responsibility for the eastern sector of Chechnya. Meanwhile, Emirs Aslanbek and Tarkhan probably did not agree to accept any positions within the Caucasus Emirate structures. Nothing has been heard from them in the past one and a half years now, so it can be assumed they quit the insurgency. The Chechen authorities, in their turn, tried to spread rumors about Husein Gakaev alleging that he was a government agent (http://rusnovosti.ru/news/243587/)—an allegation that was not taken seriously by anyone.

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov had stated that the Gakaev brothers were far more lethal rebels than Doku Umarov himself. Many brazen attacks during the last 13 years were attributed to the Gakaevs, the most notorious of which took place on August 29, 2010, when a rebel group descended on the village of Tsentoroi in Chechnya’s Kurchaloi district, which is regarded as Kadyrov’s birthplace and a major stronghold (www.echo.az/index.php?aid=34343). Kadyrov stated on several occasions that the perpetrators of that attack had been eliminated. The last time Kadyrov reiterated that statement was when the brothers Zaurbek and Ibragim Avdorkhanov were killed in Ingushetia at the end of July 2012 (www.vz.ru/news/2012/8/1/591363.html). The Gakaev brothers now were also declared the organizers and perpetrators of the attack on Kadyrov’s home village. The Gakaevs were also accused of organizing a suicide bomb attack near a Russian military-owned store in Grozny on August 6, 2012 (www.gazeta.ru/social/2012/08/06/4713257.shtml).

In contrast to insurgent leader Doku Umarov, who does not take part in armed clashes, the Gakaev brothers were active military commanders of the Chechen armed resistance. However, Kadyrov’s statement hailing the killing of the Gakaev brothers as the greatest achievement of the government forces since the killing of Shamil Basaev in 2006 is vastly overblown. The killing of the Gakaevs is a considerable achievement for the Chechen government, but not for the whole North Caucasus. The arrest of Emir Magas (a.k.a. Ali Yevloev, Akhmed Taziev) was perhaps the greatest region-wide achievement of the Russian security services in the past seven to eight years due to his role in building an extremely vibrant military resistance to control in Ingushetia.

Numerous analysts and experts have discussed the results of the operation that the Chechen government forces carried out in the area of the village of Elistanzhi on January 24 and unanimously concluded that the Chechen rebels suffered heavy losses (http://rss.novostimira.com/n_3968743.html). It is hard not to agree with this assessment. However, the center of the resistance has shifted from Chechnya to Dagestan, where it appears to be intensifying from year to year (http://skfonews.info/news/3244). According to the latest counts by the Russian security services, out of 40 rebel groups in the North Caucasus, 10 are located in Chechnya and 16 in Dagestan (www.yuga.ru/news/285244/). Out of 391 rebels killed in the North Caucasus in 2012, only 42 were killed in Chechnya (www.rosbalt.ru/federal/2013/01/22/1084537.html).

Thus, the impact of the operation in Chechnya on the North Caucasus should not be overestimated. During the past 13 years of the ongoing armed resistance against Russian authorities, it has become clear that rebels often quickly rebound from setbacks related to the deaths of famous commanders. However, in the case of Chechnya, the death of the Gakaev brothers will force the resistance to spend some time regrouping before they start a new chapter in the resistance movement (www.itar-tass.com/c188/631506.html).