Militants Loyal to Islamic State Become More Active in North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 17 Issue: 4

Two years ago, the then-leader of the Caucasus Emirate (CE), Ali Abu Muhammad (Aliashab Kebekov), surprised many observers when he condemned suicide bomber terrorist attacks. Moreover, he stated that such attacks were in breach of the principles of Islam (Kavkazsky Uzel, July 1, 2014). Many experts then were convinced that those were empty words; and due to the absence of a unified militant organization in the North Caucasus, the CE leader’s prohibition of suicide bombing attacks would be ignored. However, over time, it appeared that the order was actually followed, and that the insurgents were apparently obeying their commander.

The situation in the region changed drastically after Amir Ali Abu Muhammad and his successor, Abu Usman Gimrinsky (Magomed Suleimanov), were killed. The former was killed on April 19, 2015, and the latter on August 10, 2015 (, August 11, 2015). A group affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) and more radical than the CE gradually gained support among the North Caucasian insurgents, and the IS eventually declared its own “velayat” (province) in the North Caucasus (, June 25, 2015).

Even though some militants in the armed Islamist opposition still try to counter the IS and restore the influence of the CE, a majority of militants in the region are now affiliated with the Islamic State. The caliph of the IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appointed Abu Muhammad Kadarsky (Rustam Asilderov) as the leader of the newly created “Velayat Caucasus” (, June 23, 2015). Prior to his appointment by the IS head, Abu Muhammad Kadarsky was the amir and the wali of the CE’s Velayat Dagestan. Since Kadarsky occupied such an elevated position within the CE, he was able to bring many Dagestani militants with him into Islamic State. The amirs of other jamaats in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria soon followed his example.

After the militants in the North Caucasus switched their affiliation, changes in their tactics and policies were expected. However, the transition and regrouping took months, as some commanders refused to switch allegiances to the IS. Russia’s security services also ramped up operations against the resistance movement and inflicted substantial losses on it. This may have prompted the militants to go deep underground, in order to preserve their forces, improve coordination between groups in Dagestan and in the other republics, and establish better ties with the central command of the IS based in Syria.

On February 15, an explosion took place at the Jimikentsky checkpoint in Dagestan’s Derbent district as police were checking a car. According to initial reports, two police officers died in the blast and two others were injured and hospitalized. But Dagestan’s governor, Ramazan Abdulatipov, subsequently said four people were killed and 18 injured, including a woman (Kommersant, February 15). The authorities initially tried to portray the blast as an accidental gas explosion (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 15), but it soon became apparent that it was a suicide bombing when police identified the driver of the car as someone named A. Talibov, a radical Islamist and IS supporter. The explosive used in the attack contained aluminum powder, which is reportedly used by North Caucasian militants to carry out attacks. The improvised explosive device (IED) exploded with the force of up to 30 kilograms of TNT (, February 15). Eyewitnesses said four cars that were parked near the police checkpoint were burned and the police checkpoint partially destroyed in the blast.

According to the police, rebels from southern Dagestan organized the attack, which was quite obvious anyway. The militants in southern Dagestan are currently even more active than those in Makhachkala. According to the Russian security services, the group in southern Dagestan was established in 2011 and has operated ever since in that part of the republic. That, however, is incorrect: in fact, the southern Dagestani group of militants has been around for the past 10–12 years. Two amirs of Dagestan’s militants came from the ranks of the southern Dagestani insurgents, including Amir Abdul-Majid (Ilgar Mollachiev, who was killed in 2008) and Amir Khasan (Israpil Valijanov, who was killed in 2011). It is unclear, therefore, why the security services said the jamaat in southern Dagestan was created in 2011. According to security officials, the group has been reduced from 30 to 10 members recently. However, since the authorities provided an incorrect date for the establishment of the jamaat in southern Dagestan, their information on the numbers of militants might also be misleading. The rebels from the Yuzhnaya group (YzhDag) were among the first to pledge allegiance to the IS in the republic. Another recent attack by the group took place on December 30, 2015, when militants opened fire on a group of tourists at the historical Naryn-Kala fortress, in Derbent. One officer of the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) border guards died in the attack, and 11 were injured (, December 30, 2015).

The Islamic State took responsibility for the February 15 suicide bombing attack (, February 17). Thus, the recent attack can be considered a significant strike by the IS in the North Caucasus, as the group appeared in the region only at the end of 2014. The attack is probably only the beginning of their activities, since the North Caucasian branch of the IS will have to win the approval of IS headquarters in Syria. Thus, the local branch of the IS in the region needs some notoriety, which means Moscow may be facing greater IS involvement in destabilizing southern Russia.