On September 27, a policeman died and four others were injured in an armed clash with insurgents in Chechnya’s Vedeno district. This was the latest reported incident in the mountainous area of the republic’s south, where Kadyrov’s government forces launched a large scale offensive against insurgent groups on September 24. Three servicemen died and one policeman was wounded in the first clash with the insurgents that day. While government sources stated the insurgents also suffered losses, no specifics concerning the losses were provided. According to local observers, this pointed to the absence of any serious success on the part of the government forces (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, September 28).
The insurgency’s website Kavkaz Center reported that the government forces had shelled the mountainous areas, using artillery and aviation, for a week prior to the launch of the ground operation. The website’s source in the insurgency declined to specify the number of casualties among the insurgents, which suggests there probably were some (www.kavkazcenter.com, September 27).
Chechnya’s Vedeno district has been considered to be an insurgent stronghold for a long while. The brothers Hussein and Muslim Gakaev are said to be in command of the strongest armed groups in this area. Another leader among the insurgents, Supyan Abdullaev, also comes from this area. Local experts and some officials consider the chances for the government having success in this area as low. The armed groups are small and the forested mountains are hard to sift through, even for a large force (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, September 28).
The large-scale operation in Chechnya coincides with the government’s strenuous efforts to fight the rebels in the neighboring Dagestan. On September 29, Russian news agencies reported that 15 suspected insurgents were killed in Makhachkala and its satellite city, Kaspiisk. Despite the visible results in Dagestan, Russian Deputy Interior Minister Nikolai Rogozhkin, who is commander of the ministry’s Internal Troops, admitted that the number of insurgents was not decreasing. According to his estimates, there are about 500 of them across the North Caucasus (RIA Novosti, September 29).
Meanwhile the split within the leadership of the insurgency that became evident in August developed further as the head of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, accused an Arab commander of the North Caucasus insurgents, Muhannad, of mutiny. Umarov said he first learned about Muhannad’s inappropriate actions one year earlier. Muhannad also allegedly opposed Umarov’s proclamation of the Caucasus Emirate in 2007 (www.hunafa.com, September 25). A short time earlier, Umarov had dismissed three Chechen “emirs” — field commanders — for disloyalty (see EDM, September 24, 2010). Some experts consider Muhannad to be al-Qaeda’s unofficial representative to the North Caucasus Islamists by some experts.
The well-known voice of secular Chechen separatism, Akhmed Zakaev, discerned big changes looming ahead for the North Caucasus underground movement. Zakaev stated that Chechen separatism, which has essentially local and specific goals, rejected ideas of global jihad and attacks against civilians. Zakaev alleged that Umarov had no standing among the Chechen field commanders and so was doomed to step down. Zakaev dismissed the Caucasus Emirate itself as a product of the Russia security services that was created to undermine those who seek Chechnya’s political independence from Moscow (www.bbc.co.uk, September 28). In their turn, Caucasus Emirate representatives accused Zakaev himself of collaborating with the Russian security services on a number of occasions.
Some experts say control over financial flows from the Arab countries may have caused the conflict. The Carnegie Moscow Center’s expert on the North Caucasus, Aleksei Malashenko, said the split between the leaders of the insurgency may have been sparked by the Russian security services, but he remained skeptical about its importance. The insurgents operate locally with little communication, if any, from top to bottom, so the armed groups in Kabardino-Balkaria, Dagestan, Ingushetia have nearly unlimited leeway to act (www.svobodanews.ru, September 27).
In this respect, it is indicative that Umarov made this statement on the Internet instead of deciding these matters in the small circle. The publicity of his statements about internal policies of the insurgency may signify that the communication networks of the insurgents are severely disrupted and indicate that they cannot afford to gather in person. Alternatively, Umarov’s positions may be so weak among the insurgents that the only way for him to have any sway is to address people via the Internet.
Umarov intriguingly accused al-Qaeda’s representative of mutiny, while Malashenko theorized that the Russian security services may have been involved in staging the split. Al-Qaeda would probably like to see the North Caucasus as part of the global jihad – but, paradoxically, so would the Russian government. Indeed, fighting jihadist groups in the North Caucasus alongside the American struggle with Islamists is much more advantageous for the Russians for political reasons than dealing with a distinct national liberation movement.
Change may be looming ahead not only for the North Caucasus underground movement. Moscow’s Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s abrupt dismissal may have unexpected repercussions for the North Caucasus. On September 29, the Russian president’s envoy to the region, Aleksandr Khloponin, stated he was ready to take up the vacant position of Moscow’s mayor, even though he added that he had plenty of work in the North Caucasus too (Interfax, September 29). If Khloponin moves to Moscow, the project for the economic overhaul of the North Caucasus is likely to be officially closed, while only crude force will be used to deal with the region’s issues.