One Year After: Assessing the Life of Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 25

On June 17, 2006, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, the successor to Aslan Maskhadov, the president of independent Chechnya, was killed in Argun, his native town. Following Maskhadov’s death, Sadulaev was the top rebel leader for a period of just slightly longer than a year. However, during this brief period, the armed Chechen resistance underwent such great changes that it ultimately transformed into a more regionalized North Caucasian movement. Certainly, neither the creation of a rebel Caucasian front, established by a decree issued by Sadulaev in May of last year, nor the rebels’ penetration into Dagestan, were solely the result of Sadulaev’s initiative. But Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev was the first man in the insurgency to openly declare this new strategy of the Chechen rebels. Moreover, Sadulaev played an important role in unifying all Chechen separatist groups in Chechnya itself. The first anniversary of his death provides an opportunity to look once again at his profile before and during the second military campaign in Chechnya.

Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev graduated from the philological department of the Chechen State University. He had never been abroad, but along with his native Chechen and Russian languages, he also spoke fluent Arabic as well as a little English. Unlike many Chechen rebel leaders and field commanders, Sadulaev had a genuinely deep understanding of Islam, and this helped him to become one of the most authoritative figures among the militants. Abdul-Khalim was not a Wahhabi or Salafi, as his enemies have often called him. Being a true Muslim, he wanted to understand all aspects of Islam, but above all, he followed traditional Chechen Islamic teachings. As Sadulaev said in his final interview to The Jamestown Foundation, “I have learned mainly from the teachings of Imam Shafi’i, although I am also acquainted with the works of the other three great Imams and the teachings of the four basic Islamic schools, the Four Madhabs. I have also tried to draw on Hanbali Maskhab, but Chechens have always belonged to Imam Shafi’i; that is the reason I have thoroughly studied him” (Chechnya Weekly, July 6, 2006).

Prior to the second Chechen war, Sadulaev delivered an Islamic sermon on regional television. This would help him later, because when rebel commanders proclaimed him as the new president of Ichkeria, there was no need to explain to ordinary Chechens who he was; the whole republic already knew of him as a brilliant religious preacher.

In 1999, just before the second Russian invasion, Maskhadov set up a commission for the purpose of working out a new Islamic constitution. Sadulaev, as well as Akhmad Kadyrov, who later switched over to the Russian side, were members of the commission. The experience that Abdul-Khalim gained working on the commission helped him to seek out compromises and clarify disputes. It was also while working on the commission that Sadulaev most likely realized how difficult it was to build a true and fair Sharia state, and it must have been during this time that he began to explore new ways to combine Western-style democracy with Islamic values.

Some have said that Sadulaev was just a preacher and not a fighter. When Jamestown asked him directly whether he had ever personally taken part in combat operations, he preferred not to answer. However, those in Chechnya who were well acquainted with Sadulaev told Jamestown that his skills as a commander made it possible for the rebels to defend Argun until the end of December 1999, which was more than a month after the beginning of the Russian assault on the city.

Nevertheless, the fact that he did not fight in the war made Sadulaev a respected person within the insurgency. As the rebel Daymokh website reported, in the early winter of 2000, when decentralized rebels squads and their leaders were trying to find ways to continue the resistance, Sadulaev was the man who persuaded everyone that all of the commanders should subordinate themselves to Maskhadov. In 2002, thanks to Abdul-Khalim, the rebels finally managed to reunite their forces. It was Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev who found a happy medium, a compromise, between the separatists’ two rival camps – the Islamic fundamentalists and the supporters of the idea of a secular state.

Aslan Maskhadov also tried to find an ideal model for an independent Chechen state in which Sharia laws were combined with democratic values and human rights. He hoped that Sadulaev would find a way to fulfill this difficult but crucial task for Chechen society. In the summer of 2002, Maskhadov appointed Sadulaev as his successor, and the ensuing events proved that the first freely elected president of Chechnya was right to believe that Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev would continue his cause.

Sadulaev’s political model for a future Islamic state in the North Caucasus was one that could be acceptable for both the West and the East. In his declaration posted on the internet in early February 2006, Sadulaev said that elections in the North Caucasus would be carried out according to an Islamic principle that “approximately adheres to the U.S. system of elections (the system of electors)” [meaning the Electoral College].

In discussing a future Caucasian state, Abdul-Khalim said that “the peoples of the Caucasus have a common history, a common struggle for freedom and independence, a common religion, common ideals and values. In the future, there are plans for creating a Majlis-Ul-Shura of the Caucasus [and] a Council of Ulema of the Caucasus, and for creating a confederated state similar to the European Union” (Chechnya Weekly, February 16, 2006).

Such declarations could sound absurd to many people today, but it is possible that one day, events may lead us to recall Sadulaev’s statements and to look more closely at his ideas of an independent state in the North Caucasus.