Reports about armed encounters have been streaming in from Dagestan for the past week. For three days, the Russian army jointly with the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Dagestan’s Interior Ministry carried out a military operation aimed at eliminating a group of militants in the vicinity of the village of Kakashura in Dagestan’s Karabudakhkentsky district. The district is located 30 kilometers to the south of the republic’s capital, Makhachkala, and southeast of the town of Buinaksk, meaning that it lies in the direction of the Caspian Sea.
The aforementioned military operation allegedly began after a traffic police patrol car came under attack in the Derbentsky district (in the southern part of Dagestan on the border with Azerbaijan). During the incident, which occurred on March 18, at about ten in the evening local time, a police officer was shot dead (Newsru.com, March 19). The police patrol had apparently accidentally run into a group of militants traveling under the cover of darkness, who opened fire while attempting to evade pursuit. The authorities immediately launched an operation to detain this group of militants.
In reality, before the armed assault on the traffic police patrol car, Dagestan’s leadership, as represented by its Interior Minister Adilgerei Magomedtagirov and the deputy chairman of it government, Shamil Zainalov, met with the residents of the Karabudakhkentsky district village of Gubden on March 17. During the meeting they told village residents that the authorities were planning to conduct special operations to capture Karabudakhkentsky district militants (Gazeta.ru, March 18).
There was also a hefty infusion of Soviet-style propaganda involved, when the announcement was followed by the caveat that the special operations were to be carried out in accordance with a request from district residents “concerned” by the actions of the militants. Judging by the example of the residents of the village of Gymry, where similar law-enforcement operation was conducted continuously for around nine months (from December 2007 to August 2008), it is possible to predict that this time around the operation in the Karabudakhkentsky district may last for an indefinitely long period. The authorities specifically identified the end goal—the capture or liquidation of the emir of the jamaat of Gubden, Magomedali Vagabov. The Dagestani authorities accused him of multiple attacks on police officers and dozens of other crimes. Moreover, according to the Itar-Tass news agency, his name is not only included on the federal list of fugitives, but also in the Interpol database. (The Interpol database does include Abdulmalik Vagabov [http://www.interpol.int/public/Data/Wanted/Notices/Data/2007/64/2007_35864.asp] but it is not quite clear whether this is the same Vagabov as the one sought by the Dagestani authorities.)
The choice of the village of Gubden is not accidental because, according to the Dagestani professor Kh.G.Adziev, this village represents the epicenter of support for radical Salafi ideas in the area. In Adziev’s view, other centers of Salafi sympathizers are located in Kizilyurt district—the villages of Staroe and Novoe Miatli; Khasavyurt district (bordering Chechnya)—the villages of Pervomaiskoe, Mutsalaul, Terechnoe, and Sovetskoe; Kazbeksky district (also bordering Chechnya)—the villages of Inchkha and Gertma; Gunibsky district—the villages of Kudali and Sogratl; Karabudakhkentsky district—the villages of Gubden and Manas; Derbentsky district—the villages of Belidji and Khpedj; and in Makhachkala district—the settlement of Khushet
Thus, as the result of a confluence of many objective and subjective circumstances, a group of militants was discovered on March 19 in the vicinity of the village of Kakashura and, with the aim of liquidating them, the entire adjacent region was declared a counter-terrorist operation zone. (Strangely, the purpose of all operations in Dagestan and Ingushetia, for some reason, is most often described as the elimination but never the capture of the militants.) The very fact that a large-scale operation involving military aviation, artillery and armored vehicles was necessary against a handful of militants implies that the authorities were counting on a major success during its implementation.
On March 19, the blockaded group of militants not only managed to repel the attack on its positions but also, according to the version provided by the armed underground, shot down a military helicopter (kavkaz.tv/russ/content/2009/03/19/64576.shtml). Yet, the Dagestani authorities only admitted that the militants wounded the gunner/communications officer from the crew of a military helicopter, who died from his injuries, while the fact that the helicopter had been downed was flatly denied (www.riadagestan.ru/news/2009/03/20/78486). Nonetheless, both the establishment of a military encampment and the participation of the embedded journalists from the federal television channel meant that the group of militants was encircled and the authorities felt sure of their success. The first day of the standoff, however, ended with troops launching artillery and mortar volleys to deny the group the opportunity to break out of the encirclement. The sky was illuminated with incendiary rockets. The militants tried to penetrate the tight encirclement but their attempt was unsuccessful (http://www.interfax.ru/society/news.asp?id=69441).
The second day (March 20) began with a massive bombardment of the entire area where the militants were supposedly holed up. The helicopter gunships shown on a live broadcast (on the Vesti 24 television channel) were pummeling the ground with all their weapons, square after square. Throughout the day, a spetsnaz detachment attempted to reach the defensive positions set up by the militants. Yet, after the militants killed four spetsnaz fighters, the idea of storming the militant hideout was abandoned. The night of March 20-21 was also spent continuously bombarding the territory held by the militants. On the same day, the elite spetsnaz group Vympel was dispatched from Moscow to reinforce the encirclement, and all personnel from the nearby district police departments were summoned to the site of the counter-terrorist operation.
By dinner time on March 21 it became clear that the majority of the militants apparently died from the continuous bombardment of bombs, rockets and artillery shells. The first reports about dead militants began to appear in the mass media. Various news agencies quoted conflicting casualty figures. While the television broadcast repeatedly mentioned the many weapons allegedly found by the spetsnaz, the camera constantly zoomed in on several Kalashnikov assault rifles. More importantly, the earlier announcement that the special operation was under way against Vagabov’s group was suddenly changed to Zakariev’s group, as if to appear that the latter was the only person the law enforcers could actually identify. At the same time, as has already become a tradition among law-enforcement bodies in the North Caucasus, the authorities made an unsubstantiated claim regarding the possible participation of three or four foreign “mercenaries” in the decimated group of militants.
Speaking of the casualties, it is always difficult to separate the propaganda from the reality. Thus, the news report broadcast by the Russian television channel Vesti 24 (http://www.vesti.ru/videos?vid=197830, March 21) showed a group of Russian spetsnaz fighters examining only seven bodies laid out in front of the suspected militant dug-out. It is not clear why would it be necessary to hide other bodies from the camera of the federal television channel, considering how much the Russian television channels like to show their viewers the bodies of slain militants.
We can only guess about the losses among the Russian law-enforcement bodies from the news reports issued by the authorities. According to these, five soldiers from the federal Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops died over the course of the special operation in Dagestan’s Karabudakhkentsky district. During two days of fighting overall casualties amounted to five dead (including the gunner/communications officer from the Mi-8 helicopter gunship and four spetsnaz fighters) and two wounded spetsnaz fighters (www.riadagestan.ru/news/2009/03/20/78527).
In the meantime, because all attention was diverted to the operation in the vicinity of the village of Kakashura, the assassination of four young men in Makhachkala was barely noticed. The media presented them as members of the underground armed group led by Arsen Aldaev (http://www.rosbalt.ru/2009/03/21/627778.html). Aldaev stands accused of organizing a number of spectacular terrorist acts. It is still unclear why the name of Arsen Aldaev, the alleged “leader” of the group, had never surfaced in the operational reports of the Dagestani police prior to his death. This peculiarity of the Russian authorities—to attribute fictitious militant ranks to slain individuals—has become customary, and it appears that in Dagestan the title of “group leader” is applicable, while in Ingushetia it has to be the emir and in Chechnya it is always the general of Ichkeria.
The result of this operation can be described in the words of Dagestani Interior Minister Adilgerei Magomedtagirov, who in an interview with the newspaper Vremya Novostei was forced to admit with bewilderment that, in spite of everything, young people continue to gravitate toward the militants and that young people today represent the authorities’ main concern (http://www.vremya.ru/2009/45/4/225224.html). Magomedtagirov also acknowledged that the liquidated group was only one out of seven operating in the republic, which is disputable. It is highly unlikely that there are only 70 militants in Dagestan. In this particular instance, it is possible to speak of some local and grassroots jamaat, but definitely not of a group representing the entire region. As long as the youth replenishes the ranks of armed underground, the authorities should probably abstain from discussing successes.