The past week was filled with surprising and confusing changes in the leadership of the North Caucasus rebels. First, Doku Umarov’s plan to appoint a successor as leader of the North Caucasus rebels has ended up in his trivial resignation on health grounds. Still, Umarov also announced that he intended to continue to struggle to the end even without being the supreme leader of the rebels (www.kavkaz.tv, August 1). As EDM already reported, Umarov issued a decree on July 24 appointing Emir Aslanbek (aka Aslanbek Vadalov) as his heir. Emir Aslanbek, one of the most famous Chechen commanders, has led Chechnya’s Eastern Front for the past several years since the establishment of the Caucasus Emirate (www.kavkaz.tv, July 24).
One can only try to guess as to why this whole show was staged as many questions linger. First, why was not it announced right away that Emir Aslanbek was becoming the new leader of the North Caucasus armed resistance movement? While the partial version of the July 24 video featured only Emirs Aslanbek and Mukhadin, the complete version also showed Emir Tarkhan, Doku Umarov’s closest ally, who also confirmed the decision made on the appointment of the new emir and shared his impressions together with Emir Aslanbek and Emir Hussein. Given that, it could be presumed that Umarov was relieved from his position and a new emir from the Chechen Jamaat was appointed to replace him.
Umarov’s resignation surprised the Caucasus Emirate’s ideologues living abroad so much that they were speechless. But shortly after Umarov’s resignation was announced, his website and its mirror pages were shut down and then Umarov’s statement was corrected. And ultimately, on August 4, a new video appeared in which Umarov said he was refusing to quit the post of the Caucasus emir and said his previous statement had been fabricated by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) (www.kavkazcenter.com, August 4).
This apparently means that he in fact did not resign, but was removed by his comrades-in-arms. Under the influence of the more radical wing of the separatist movement: Movladi Udugov (who operates kavkkazcenter), Supyan Abdullaev and Isa Umarov, Doku Umarov seems to have retreated from his words and portrayed Emirs Aslanbek, Hussein and Tarkhan in a not so pleasant way (www.youtube.com/watch?v=aE17R5guzSc). Now, everyone has to wait and see how this peculiar palace coup d’état in the forest fiefdom of the North Caucasus rebels plays out. No matter the outcome, Doku Umarov will never be the same man he was in the eyes of either his comrades or the rebel sympathizers who respected him as the leader of the armed resistance movement.
Doku Umarov will be remembered by many Chechens as far from being a positive character. His name is associated with the betrayal of major values in the struggle for Chechnya’s independence. With his own hands, Umarov did away with the remnants of the statehood of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria by turning the system of the former republic into a new formal creation called the Caucasus Emirate. This virtual state was founded on the doctrine of Salafism. Umarov’s closest associates were yesterday’s Salafists, who devoted their whole lives to a struggle against secularism in Chechnya: Supyan Abdullaev, Isa Umarov, Movladi Udugov, Islam Khalimov and others who stood at the foundation of the Party of Islamic Revival in Chechnya in 1988 when the Soviet Union was still in existence.
Doku Umarov declared the creation of the Caucasus Emirate in 2007, and his disputes with the opponents of the new system were often not at all friendly. At times, it seemed that the Salafists spent more time quarreling with Sufis and representatives of Ichkeria than fighting against those who had been occupying Chechnya since 1999. Those actions caused nothing but a schism among the fighters for Chechen independence.
The newly-elected Emir of the Caucasus Emirate (although it still remains a mystery whether he indeed was elected) Aslanbek Vadalov is no neophyte for the rebels. He is well-known among those who have been fighting against the Russian rule since the war started in 1999. Born in 1972, Vadalov is from the village of Ishkhoy-yurt in the Gudermes district of Chechnya. The Kavkaz Center website says that he fought under the command of Emir Khattab, but this is somewhat doubtful as assertions by Udugov’s Kavkaz Center cannot always be trusted. The truth is that Emir Aslanbek was first a subordinate of Shamil Basaev and then later fought under Akhmad Avdorkhanov, but by no means under Emir Khattab. Emir Aslanbek maintained excellent relations with the late Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and that was why he became responsible for the Gudermes sector of the armed forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. After President Maskhadov was killed by the Russians and Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev succeeded him, Emir Aslanbek was appointed as deputy commander of Chechnya’s Eastern Front. And under Doku Umarov he was elevated to the post of the Emir of the Eastern Front before becoming the naib, or deputy emir, of the Caucasus Emirate a week ago.
The Eastern Front encompasses a rather large and densely populated area. It includes Chechnya’s Gudermes, Nozhay-yurt, Vedeno, Kurchaloy, and Shalin territorial and administrative districts. Emir Hussein (aka Gakaev Hussein) from the village of Elistanzhi succeeded Emir Aslanbek as the commander of the Eastern Front and he also became the Emir of Chechnya. Emir Aslanbek was reported to have been killed numerous times, as has often happened during the Russian military campaign in the North Caucasus. The last time he was “killed” was in 2007, when his body was even officially identified (www.gzt.ru/topnews/accidents/-v-chechne-unichtozhen-glavarj-boevikov-seleniya-/100874.html). No wonder Emir Aslanbek is on the list of individuals marked for liquidation by Russia’s special services (https://chechen.org/forums/showthread.php?t=302). On December 5, 2004, the Russian authorities arrested Aslanbek Vadalov’s three brothers as they tried to cross the Russia-Azerbaijan border. They had their passports and were crossing the border absolutely legally to undergo medical treatment abroad. Since that moment there has been no word on their whereabouts. Their father’s request to receive some information about his sons was left unanswered by the Russian authorities. At some point the Russians apparently wanted to use their arrest as a form of pressure on Aslanbek Vadalov.
Already recognized in Chechnya, Emir Aslanbek has yet to be granted allegiance by all other national jamaats of the North Caucasus. These are Sharia (Dagestan), Sharia (Ingushetia), Yarmuk (Kabardino-Balkaria), Karachay (Karachay-Cherkessia), the Nogai Steppe (the Stavropol region and the northern parts of Chechnya and Dagestan), and al-Garib (Adygea) jamaats; and possibly the Jamaat of Azerbaijan, which is better known as the Sumgait Jamaat. In his video appeal to the Emirs of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabarda, Doku Umarov had asked them to present their opinion on his choice as soon as they could. It is unclear what the national jamaats’ reactions might be now that Umarov has reversed his decision. In all likelihood, there will be many more interesting postings in the weeks ahead concerning the election or non-election of the new Emir of the Caucasus Emirate.