North Caucasian militants who recently pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his so-called Islamic State (see EDM, January 8) have experienced their first losses. It happened during a counter-terrorist operation conducted on March 31 in the city of Khasavyurt, near the administrative border with Chechnya, during which government forces ambushed militants operating outside the North Caucasian resistance movement, the Caucasus Emirate. A counter-terrorism operation regime has been in place in the city of Khasavyurt and the adjacent Khasavyurt district since March 16 (Interfax, March 31).
National Antiterrorist Committee (NAK) in Dagestan received information on March 31 that an active member of the Dagestani jamaat was holed up in a five-story apartment block on Datuev Street in the city of Khasavyurt. The apartment block was sealed off and residents were evacuated from the area (Echo.msk.ru, March 31). After negotiations between the militant and security forces, a female was allowed to leave the apartment. The militant himself refused to surrender, despite attempts by his parents to persuade him to do so, and he opened fire on the security forces. Militant leaders prefer to die in a shootout with government forces than surrender and then experience the daily humiliations of a Russian prison. This is why militant leaders in Dagestan practically never give themselves up to law enforcement.
The militant was identified as 25-year-old Shakhban Gasanov. He was not a novice: in May 2011, government forces killed his two older brothers, Murad and Vitaly, along with six other members of the Kizlyar militant group near his home village of Chernyaevka (Rg.ru, May 9, 2011). Shakhban Gasanov later served two prison terms for illegal arms possession. He was sentenced to a year and a half in 2011 and released early on probation in 2012. Later that year, the police found a machine gun and ammunition in his home and he was sentenced to two years in prison. Gasanov was released from prison after serving the entire sentence, and, in October 2014, he joined the underground movement (Kommersant, March 31, 2015). He became the amir of the Kizlyar rebels, known as amir Abdurakhman Agulsky, and one of the last attacks he may have organized was on March 25, targeting police officers. Two of the attackers in that incident were killed and their leader probably was wounded.
In the March 31 incident, dozens of security agents opened fire on the apartment where Gasanov was holed up after talks broke down (YouTube, March 31). According to preliminary information, he may not have been the only rebel in the apartment: several others were reportedly with him (Kavkazpress.ru, March 31), but only Gasanov was reported to have been killed in the operation. This means that either the government forces did not have accurate information or some of the rebels managed to escape from the siege, although the latter is less likely (Vdagestan.com, March 31). The website of the Dagestani insurgents quickly reported that Gasanov, the former leader of the Kizlyar rebels, had been killed, noting he had switched allegiances from the Caucasus Emirate to the Islamic State.
According to the NAK, Gasanov went into hiding in October 2014 and became the leader of the Kizlyar militants. In January 2015, Gasanov pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (YouTube, January 19). The NAK asserted that Gasanov planned to intensify his rebel activities in the North Caucasus under the flag of the Islamic State (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 31). The fact that Gasanov became the leader of a rebel group soon after his release from detention either means that he was highly regarded by the rebels or that they had little choice because he had put the group together on his own.
Thus, it appears that a North Caucasian rebel leader who joined the Islamic State was killed at a time when the authorities were assigning more importance to fighting this group than others. Police in the region now may report to Moscow that they have ramped up their fight against Islamic State. From now on, observers of the Dagestani insurgency will have to take into consideration that the rebels are divided between the two groups: Caucasus Emirate and the Islamic State. It remains unclear whether the two groups will divide up areas or coexist in the same territory. This uncertainty may make the situation harder to understand, but it does not mean that the insurgency is weaker, as the Russian government would like. In fact, the convoluted relationship between the two Islamic movements in Dagestan is likely to result in greater competition between themselves and fuel an increase in their activities as they try to display their strength and recruit new followers.