Moscow Considers Kabardino-Balkaria Jamaat as Threat to the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 11 Issue: 11

Speaking in the regional capital of Pyatigorsk on November 18, Russian Interior Minister, Rashid Nurgaliev, put Kabardino-Balkaria next to Dagestan and Ingushetia as the most dangerous places in the North Caucasus in terms of the terrorist threat (http://www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=20543). Up until last year, the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria did not cause any particular concern for the Russian leadership. Rather, they saw the sporadic insurgency-related incidents taking place there as being completely under control and easy to eliminate.

But in less than a year, the number of terrorist acts in Kabardino-Balkaria has increased fivefold –from 21 in 2009 to 117 in the first nine months of 2010. It was for this reason that Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, fired the republic’s Interior Minister, Yuri Tomchak, who had been promoted to that post by his longtime friend, Arsen Kanokov, the head of Kabardino-Balkaria. Kanokov’s protégé was replaced by Sergei Vasiliev, a colonel who before this appointment served in the interior ministry of the Siberian city of Kemerovo –thousands of miles away from the North Caucasus. Not surprisingly, he has no understanding of the specifics of the fight against the rebels, nor does he know anything about real life in the North Caucasus. The same was true of his predecessor. It is expected that the same tactics will be used against the insurgency in Kabardino-Balkaria as in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. It is also anticipated that Kanokov’s influence will be minimal; otherwise it would have been senseless to dismiss the previous interior minister in the first place.

Speaking of Kanokov’s influence, it is worth remembering that he came to power pledging to protect Muslims from harassment by the security services –an apparent attempt to gain the support of the population. His election had no impact on the insurgents’ plans, however. On October 13, 2005, militants simultaneously attacked all law enforcement structures of Kabardino-Balkaria, including the airport, railroad station and other key facilities (http://www.chechna.com/news/2009-07-20-43).

It should be noted that rebel actions played a decisive role in changing the public mood in Kabardino-Balkaria. Residents in the erstwhile pro-Russian republic started criticizing the relationship with Moscow more clamorously. Against this backdrop, a public opinion poll found that 39 percent of Kabardino-Balkaria’s residents were “positive” or “rather positive” about Wahhabism, the radical Islamic doctrine (20 percent were “positive” and 19 percent “rather positive”). This means that 39 percent of those polled consider Salafism as a positive development in their republic. The same number, 39 percent, have a negative view of radical Islam and 22 percent are “rather negative” (www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?language=2&id=20224). This is by far the biggest support for Salafism in the entire North Caucasus region, and it has been developing over a decade since the second Chechen war.

That part of the Muslim population which supports the radical doctrine has influenced the establishment of groups opposing official Islam. Young followers of radical Islam in Kabardino-Balkaria founded the Yarmuk Jamaat, which exists to this day. The organization is named after the battle on the River Yarmuk in Palestine where the armies of the Byzantine Empire and the Arab Caliphate clashed on August 20, 636 for the control of Syria. The author will not discuss here the history of the jamaat itself except for saying that Shamil Basaev, one of the most famous Chechen commanders, played an important role in establishing the group. Today, the Yarmuk Jamaat is much more than one or two groups concentrated in the outskirts of Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital Nalchik; it constitutes a complex and stratified system operating all across the republic. After the death of Anzor Astemirov –the ethnic Kabardinian who was one of the major ideologues of the North Caucasus armed resistance movement and the ideological “founding father” of the Caucasus Emirate, who was killed in Nalchik on March 27 during a document check– Abdullah (aka Asker Dzhappuev) was made the new emir. The Kabardino-Balkaria Jamaat has become highly active in all directions under his leadership.

The Kabardino-Balkaria Jamaat, like other jamaats in the North Caucasus region, has a three-tier structure:

Emir of the Kabardino-Balkaria Jamaat heading the Shura Majlis –an organ that includes the high-ranking emirs of cities and sectors (in Chechnya, there is also a modified and expanded body of the Shura Majlis consisting of veterans of the first Chechnya war of 1994-1996)
Emir of a village, town or city that forms a mid-level shura majlis combining local commanders
And a third level –  primary group or association– the leaders of which are members of a shura majlis led by the emir of a specific local jamaat
In parallel with this structure, there is also the judicial representation of qadis (Islamic judges). In some instances, the qadi of the whole jamaat might deputize the persons authorized to represent the Sharia court in case of their absence. It means that the structure is not necessarily vertical in this part of the jamaat. The three-tier configuration does not always work and this is due to the fact that there is a shortage of people on the ground with a good knowledge of the fundamentals of Sharia law.

The scheme described here shows that a jamaat consists of three levels and each level is represented by its own emir, who commands the lower level while being simultaneously subordinate to the higher level. Altogether, there are approximately 40 smaller constituent units in the Kabardino-Balkaria Jamaat (www.djamaattakbir.com/2009/05/blog-post_8457.html). Among them, the most important leaders are Abdul-Zhaber (emir of the Baksan Jamaat), Zakari (emir of the Chechem Jamaat) and Ubaydallah (emir of the Nalchik Jamaat). The May, Nart and other jamaats are also important units. Each jamaat, for its part, is divided into smaller mobile groups.

The capital city of Nalchik consists of seven territorial units: the Aul Jamaat (the Volny Aul district), the Ali Jamaat (the Iskozh district), the Taukhid Jamaat (the Central district, Sovietskaya Street), the Nur Jamaat (Krylov Street, the Strelka district), the Gorny Jamaat (the Gorny district), the Severny Jamaat (the Severny district), and the Mansur Jamaat (the Aleksandrovka district). They elected Ubaydallah as the emir of the city of Nalchik (http://kabardino-balkaria.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/142989/#s247up). Along with all other emirs of the cities and villages of Kabardino-Balkaria, Ubaydallah is a member of the Shura Majlis, which is subordinated directly to the emir of the Kabardino-Balkaria Jamaat. Although the organizational structure is hierarchical, the local councils have a say in tackling local issues. And lastly, at a more basic level, there exists a core jamaat consisting of residents of particular streets or adjacent areas. The three-tier provides for the viability and sustainability of the organization against strikes by the Russian special services, which usually claim “final collapse” of the entire jamaat whenever they disclose even the smallest part of it.

Only the emir of the whole jamaat knows how many people it has; others can only guess. The membership of the Kabardino-Balkaria Jamaat allegedly ranges between several hundred –which is quite realistic– and, according to rebel leaders, 2,000, which is unlikely today. The Caucasus Emirate claims that this particular jamaat is united with the Karachai Jamaat, which suffered heavy losses after 29 of its members were arrested and dozens killed by Russian law enforcement agencies in 2005-2007 (www.islamdin.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=270:–29————&catid=2:kavkaz&Itemid=3).

The Kabardino-Balkaria Jamaat asserts that rebel groups conducted several successful operations in November-early December 2010. Their press releases reported numerous instances in which they killed Russian police officers and military personnel or attacked their vehicles (http://kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2010/12/01/76907.shtml). There are quite a few websites representing the interests of the Kabardino-Balkaria Jamaat, with www.islamdin.com being the most important one.

In conclusion, we see a functioning armed resistance movement in Kabardino-Balkaria that intensifies its activities year after year, and there is no reason to think it will not increase its activities in the upcoming year. Today, the jamaat there represents a synthesis of Islam and nationalistic sentiment that is driven by protest against Russian policies in the region.