Rebel Restructuring Revitalizes Insurgency

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 17

It has been almost a month since this author first wrote about the Alkhazurovo raid for Chechnya Weekly (Chechnya Weekly, April 3). By now, some preliminary conclusions may already be drawn, and it is worth noting that certain changes have occurred that cannot be ignored by those who consistently monitor developments in Chechnya.

It has become obvious, for example, that the actions staged by the rebels are becoming a permanent trend—that is, the resistance movement is trying to catch up for the loss of the last two years during which its leadership has been focused on political issues without giving the military aspect its due importance. The latter has even led some armchair analysts to rush to judgment and declare that the resistance movement had been defeated once and for all.

The loss of key leaders with the assassinations of Aslan Maskhadov, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev and Shamil Basaev has certainly affected the resistance movement, but not in the way envisaged by the analysts of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the Ministry of Defense. That is, instead of causing the resistance movement to fade away naturally after its key leaders were eliminated, the assassinations triggered qualitative and structural changes within the movement that have complicated things for Moscow, which now has to deal with rebel fighters in virtually all of the republics of the North Caucasus rather than in Chechnya alone.

The recent changes, however, have also not been uniformly positive for the resistance movement, and this is particularly true with regard to the declaration of the Caucasus Emirate and the underlying replacement of the principles of independence with a radical Islamic platform. This was a negative development for Chechnya’s political leadership that has cost it much time and caused a rift in the resistance movement between a faction that identifies with Islamic ideology and a faction that supports democratic ideas and retains the goal of independence.

Today the longtime close friends, Dokka Umarov and Akhmed Zakaev, find themselves at the opposing ends of a debate over the ideological core of the resistance movement. What should form the foundation of the resistance movement’s philosophy? These are the disagreements that landed the onetime friends in the middle of online debates hosted on Chechen websites ( for Akhmed Zakaev, for Dokka Umarov, and the many other Web resources that each of them control) that occasionally eclipse the identity of their common enemy—that is, the Russian army in Chechnya.

In the meantime, it remains as true as ever that Umarov and Zakaev need each other. As a politician with no on-the-ground military support from rebel fighters in Chechnya, Akhmed Zakaev is unable to attract much interest or support. Dokka Umarov is similarly handicapped by not having a political wing, although he has been trying to build his own political network by appointing representatives. In truth, however, few people would be willing to deal with Umarov’s men because of their affiliation with Salafism, the radical strain of Islam.

Qualitative changes within the resistance movement should also be noted. Prior to 2007, the most active resistance units were based in the eastern part of Chechnya. Yet the attacks they suffered last year, in which commanders of these units were killed one after another, took a toll on their capabilities. Today, the center of activity is shifting toward the units stationed in the western part of Chechnya. The name of Tarkhan Gaziev, the western sector commander, is gaining more and more recognition, although lately he became better known for his appointment by Dokka Umarov as the head of the mukhabarrat (a sort of intelligence service). The Alkhazurovo raid, the subsequent rebel operation in Yandi-Kotar village (Caucasus Times, April 7; Chechnya Weekly, April 10) and a reported mass invasion by rebel fighters (which was reported only by the Kavkaz-Center website on April 20, and may be partially true even if the real fighter headcount was ten times lower than the reported 400) all indicate that the long-awaited restructuring by Dokka Umarov is already in progress.

Out of all the attacks reported online by the rebel websites, the only ones that have been confirmed was the arson attack on the administration building in the village of Bamut (, April 21) and perhaps the raids on other settlements, which have revived the tactic originally used by the rebels under Aslan Maskhadov’s leadership but was abandoned for fear of putting the village residents at risk. Nevertheless, the levels of activity in the western part of Chechnya are slowly rising after a long lull—a development eagerly awaited by Ingushetia and Dagestan, which have been bearing the brunt of actions by Russia’s special services and Interior Ministry for a long time now.

Against the backdrop of an increase in actions by the resistance, the scandal that put a question mark over the stability of Ramzan Kadyrov’s rule could become a cold shower, of sorts, for both Russia and the many Western analysts who have prematurely declared the death of the resistance movement.

The conflict between Kadyrov and Sulim Yamadaev, commander of the GRU’s Vostok battalion, served as proof that installing pro-Moscow appointees by force is a dead-end strategy. Colossal sums of money have been invested into these handpicked appointees to make them into cooperative politicians. The clash, however, exposed the weaknesses of Moscow’s policy and its inability to maintain control over the relationship between the two clans. Because of their criminal past, these two groups must demonstrate their loyalty to Moscow on a daily basis, and the fact that Moscow continues to use individuals with a questionable history shows its failings in Chechnya. That is, Moscow has no hopes of finding intelligent or even competent public servants, and therefore has to make do with former criminals like Kadyrov, Yamadaev, Gantamirov, Kakiev et al.

The seeds of the recent disagreement, which resulted in casualties and hostages captured on both sides, were sown during the first Chechen campaign after the first confrontation between Kadyrov and Yamadaev. Incidentally, it would be a mistake to believe that Sulim Yamadaev is the one calling the shots—he has lived in Moscow since 1992 (except for a break between 1995 and 2000) and his family and business interests are based in Moscow. Sulim Yamadaev visits Chechnya only occasionally, which is why his brother Badruddin Yamadaev is the real commander of his people in Chechnya, meaning the members of the Vostok battalion (and before Bardruddin, Vostok’s de facto commander was another Yamadaev brother—Dzhabrail, who was assassinated at his base in Dyshni-Vedeno in 2003). Their older brother Khalid also settled in Moscow after winning a seat in the Russian parliament.

This was not Kadyrov’s first run-in with the Yamadaev brothers. This time, the murder of two members of the Vostok battalion, which is under the GRU (it’s not quite clear why a unit specializing in Russia’s foreign operations has been deployed in Chechnya), made Badruddin Yamadaev look for an excuse to take revenge for the death of his people. Kadyrov certainly knew that retaliation would follow, but it appears that his closest associates have prepared for exactly that type of response. Everyone close to Kadyrov hastily made televised statements blaming the Yamadaev brothers for all and sundry. The local television coverage made one believe that everything has been planned ahead of time. Notably, the local TV channels tried to present the matter as an event of international magnitude and everyone without exception expressed support for the beloved and esteemed leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Comparisons with Movladi Baisarov’s case are not quite warranted; that conflict was between the FSB and Ramzan Kadyrov and it was not surprising that FSB gave Baisarov up so quickly, given that Vladimir Putin backed Kadyrov and hardly anyone would stand up against Putin’s support. The current skirmish is between Kadyrov and the GRU, and the GRU might not give their people up as easily as the FSB (, November 20, 2006). Besides, giving up the only family in Russia with three members (Sulim, Khalid and Dzhabrail) who have received the Hero of Russia award would be tantamount to admitting errors in policy towards that family and consequently entail a revision of government policy toward the Yamadaev family in general.

This conflict will not be without consequences for public opinion in Chechnya. For the people who came to believe that Ramzan Kadyrov has no serious opposition (as evidenced by the departure of notorious individuals like Bislan Gantamirov, Malik Saidullaev, Movladi Baisarov and others from the republic’s political arena), the conflict will serve as proof that there is trouble brewing at home, and that conflicts of this sort may not be limited to the Yamadaev brothers. The real question is who will be next after the Yamadaevs?