Putin Overlooks Assassination Campaign Sweeping the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 6

During his most recent annual press conference, which took place in the Kremlin on February 1, Vladimir Putin said very little about one of the most painful issues of his country: the security problems in the North Caucasus. He probably would have preferred not to mention the Caucasus at all, but the situation in the region simply cannot be ignored. Just a day before Putin’s press conference, there was an assassination attempt on Isa Khamkhoev, the mufti of Ingushetia, a North Caucasian republic adjacent to war-torn Chechnya (Chechnya Weekly, February 1). “The assassination attempt on the mufti of Ingushetia demonstrates again that problems with fighting crime and terrorism are far from being solved in our country,” Putin said at the press conference, adding: “People who commit such crimes have no conscience, honor, or religion.” He also declared: “We will continue to suppress the activities of such criminal groups” (Interfax, February 1). Nevertheless, the struggle against the Caucasian insurgency still looks like a back-and-forth battle rather than a real crackdown on terrorists. The attempt to kill Khamkoev, who is the official Muslim leader of Ingushetia, is just another episode in the confrontation of the authorities and the insurgency in the North Caucasus.

On January 31, Khamkhoev was returning home in a car that was driven by his son when the car was suddenly overtaken by an automobile with two rebels in it. The militants attacked Khamkoev’s car with an assault rifle, but the mufti’s son managed to drive away. He was seriously injured while Khamkoev himself was only slightly wounded.

This was not the first attack on a religious official in the North Caucasus. Last year was marked by a new campaign of targeted assassinations by the militants against official clerics. It was their response to the attempts of Russian authorities to use Muslim leaders in the war on the insurgency in the region. In July 2004, the United Council of the Spiritual Directorates of the Russian Muslims to Confront Extremism and Terrorism was formed. The North Caucasian Muslim Coordination Council, consisting of muftis from the Caucasian regions, was also incorporated into the United Council. The activity of the Caucasian Coordination Council had been very low before 2006, when Dmitry Kozak, the Russian president’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, demanded that the clerics be more aggressive in condemning the insurgency.

As soon as the imams in Caucasian mosques began to criticize Wahhabis, as the Islamic militants are usually called in Russia, they became targets for the rebels. Over the last year, three imams have been killed in the North Caucasus, two of them in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and one in Dagestan. On September 29, Abubekir Kerdzhiev, a deputy of Ismail Berdiev, chairman of the Caucasian Muslim Coordination Council, was killed in Stavropol krai. Berdiev’s house in Karachaevo-Cherkessia was attacked twice in 2006. On December 15, deputies of Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s parliament voted to provide the chairman of the Caucasian Muslim Coordination Council with a bodyguard (Interfax, December 15).

The rebels in the North Caucasus react immediately to any new Kremlin strategy that is introduced to suppress or weaken them. When the Russian authorities wanted ethnic Russians to return to the Caucasus, the rebels started to terrorize Russian civilians in the region (EDM, March 6, 2006), and local Muslim clerics were targeted when Moscow decided to use them in its counter-insurgency campaign.

However, it is the local police, not the clerics, who continue to be the main targets for the militants. Police departments, senior police officers and police patrols in Ingushetia regularly come under rebel attack. Last fall, there was an assassination attempt on the head of the Sunzha district police department, and on November 7, the rebels set up a booby trap near the entrance to the police department in the Troitskaya settlement. Three police officers were seriously wounded. On January 8, the same department was attacked with grenade launchers; on January 10, a police patrol defused a bomb that had been placed near the same police station again. In addition, last month, the militants attacked cell phone communications stations in different Ingush districts with grenade launchers, although the aim of such attacks remains unclear. On December 9, the rebels attacked and disarmed a police unit at a checkpoint on the administrative border between Ingushetia and Chechnya, seizing the policemen’s personal weapons as well as a heavy machine gun and ammunition (Kavkazky Uzel, December 10).

The response of the law-enforcement agencies to the rebels’ activity in the region was traditional: security sweeps in Ingush villages, arrests of insurgent sympathizers and shelling of the mountain’s forests. According to the Ingushetiya.ru website, Russian forces bombed and shelled forests between the villages of Ali-Yurt and Yandiri on January 25. “It was an operation to destroy guerilla groups and camps of the militants,” a source in security agencies told the website’s reporter.

The continuing rebel attacks on Ingush policemen have seriously affected the work of the local cadres, so the Russian authorities have been forced to establish parallel police entities in the republic. These entities are called “temporary police departments” and consist of police officers dispatched from other parts of Russia. According to Kavkazky Uzel, an operational team of 25 Russian police officers was set up in each district or city police department. These teams do not report to the regional Interior Ministry but directly to the Regional Operations Headquarters for the Anti-Terrorist Operation in the North Caucasus that is located in Khankala, the main Russian military base in Chechnya. Major-General Gennady Ivanov leads these temporary operational teams in Ingushetia (Kavkazky Uzel, February 5).

The Russification of the police is also called for in another Caucasian region, Dagestan, where six policemen have already been killed and two assassination attempts have been made – one on the republican Interior Minister and one on the head of the criminal police in the city of Khasavyurt – this year (see above).

The establishment of the temporary police team in Ingushetia and the poor efficiency of the Dagestan police show that the real war on the Caucasian insurgency looks less confident than the Russian president’s speeches.