Moscow Kills Rebel Leaders in Kabardino-Balkaria, but was it a Mortal Blow?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 12 Issue: 9

April was an extremely successful month for the Russian security forces in the North Caucasus, following the liquidation of Israpil Validzhanov, the leader of the Dagestani jamaat on April 18, and of Emir Mukhannad, a well-known Arab volunteer in the ranks of the Chechen armed resistance movement, on April 23, and the virtual decapitation of the leadership of the Kabardino-Balkaria jamaat at the end of the month.

The most recent series of attacks began on the night of April 29 when a group of armed men was spotted in a private home in a residential district near the village of Progress on the border between the Stavropol region and the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic. In the ensuing firefight, which lasted several hours, everyone in the house was killed – in total, eight men and two women ( Among the bodies identified were some of the leading figures in the Kabardino-Balkaria jamaat: Emir Abdullah (aka Arsen Dzhappuev), the jamaat leader himself; Abdul Jabbar (aka Kazbek Tashuev), the emir of the northeastern sector; his naib, or deputy, Abdul Gafur (Aslanbek Khamurzov); and Emir Zakaria (aka Ratmir Shameyev), one of the toughest senior commanders of the Kabardino-Balkaria jamaat and head of its southwestern sector. The men were listed on the federal wanted list for being members of illicit armed groups and for illegal possession of weapons.

As is common Russian practice, the slain men are now blamed for all kinds of horrible crimes:  a representative of the Investigative Committee of Russia (SKR) told reporters that they were accused of committing a series of violent offenses against law enforcement officers. According to the SKR, militants under Dzhappuev’s command were involved in the murder of tourists from Moscow in the town of Prielbrusye in Kabardino-Balkaria in February 2011. The rest of the men were on the federal wanted list for committing serious crimes against the Russian law enforcement personnel, and Kazbek Tashuev is suspected of organizing a bombing at the Baksan hydropower plant and of participating in a series of killings of siloviki across Kabardino-Balkaria ( ).   

The bodies of Tamerlan Dyshekov, Albek Kokarov and Zalim Kunov were also identified among those liquidated in this special operation. A day after the operation, Kavkaz Center, the information agency associated with the armed resistance movement, officially acknowledged the deaths of the prominent figures of the Kabardino-Balkaria jamaat ( It is worth mentioning that both Kokarov and Kunov were not on the wanted list of Kabardino-Balkaria’s Interior Ministry ( This means that the list available on the latter’s website could hardly be treated as a reliable source of information on the exact number of militants operating throughout this tiny North Caucasus republic. Against the background of the situation unfolding recently in this part of the North Caucasus, it would not be difficult to come to the conclusion that the mere 34 militants officially listed on the government’s website are by no means an accurate figure.

The deaths of these leading figures of the Kabardino-Balkaria jamaat represent a major blow to the rebels and will likely have a serious impact on the standing and operability of the local jamaat. Incidentally, all of the leaders killed in that battle were hafiz (those who have memorized the Koran), which gave them an impeccable reputation in terms of knowledge of the general theology of Islam. Should the Kabardino-Balkaria jamaat continue to function even after this major setback, it would be a clear sign that its viability is irreversible. The experience of the neighboring Karachay jamaat – which could not recover fully after the attacks against its leaders from 2005 to 2007 – indicates that if a jamaat represents a narrow circle of like-minded individuals who do not enjoy broad public support, then after the leaders are eliminated the remaining structures of the jamaat plunge into a deep recess. But if the loss of the leaders does not result in the decomposition of autonomous units within the system of the Kabardino-Balkaria jamaat, then they will survive and manage to regroup after a while, and eventually gradually regain their fighting spirit. A month or two would show how big the impact of the loss could be on the jamaat’s performance.

The Kabardino-Balkaria jamaat’s future fighting tactics will greatly depend on who becomes its next leader. While Anzor Astemirov (aka Emir Seifullah) emphasized the ideological aspects of the Caucasus Emirate  –  he indeed was one of the most prominent supporters and architects of the idea of an Islamic state in the North Caucasus –  his immediate successor Dzhappuev (Emir Abdullah) shifted the jamaat’s modus operandi to frequent operations against the Russian siloviki — attacking, at the same time, religious officials who condemned Salafism and nationalist leaders who rejected the militants’ vision of the future of the North Caucasus within the framework of an Islamic state.

Whatever the result, the local authorities can no longer guarantee a return to the days when Kabardino-Balkaria was a citadel of stability and tranquility in the North Caucasus. The population has now lived in a state of war for a long time and local youth have been involuntarily involved in the dispute between the authorities and those considered Salafists. It is therefore not surprising that the backbone of the resistance movement is locally represented by young people of student age, often with a higher or incomplete higher education. This crisis of Moscow’s policy in the Caucasus will bear bitter fruit in the near future with an increasingly radicalized youth, some of whom will embrace Islamic views while others will share nationalistic sentiments. Local nationalists seem to be benefiting from actions taken by the militants; that is, the weakening of Russian power is being exploited by those who not long ago worked hard to solve all of their problems by sending letters of complaint to Moscow.

Meanwhile, Dagestan has become a new hotbed of tension despite the killing of the local militant leader Israpil Validzhanov. Rebels there carry out operations on a daily basis and sometimes even more frequently ( In Chechnya, on the other hand, the local leadership reports daily about their successful strikes against the militants. The highly intensive activity of the siloviki across the entire North Caucasus in April should not be considered as accidental. In all probability, there is an ambitious operation underway aiming to strike a blow at the armed resistance movement simultaneously in different parts of the troubled region. However, the historical experience of Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus shows convincingly that this kind of approach has always been unsuccessful from a long-term strategic perspective. Russia’s Caucasus policy will likely have no tangible results this time around as well.