Early on the morning of September 17, specialized detachments from the Russian police and the Federal Security Service (FSB) surrounded a small house in the village of Novy Sulak, located in the Kyzyl-Yurt district of Dagestan. Two armed rebels were inside the house. The troops encountered fierce resistance when they tried to arrest the rebels. First, police SWAT units armed with light weapons attacked the house, but the rebels fired back and the police had to retreat. Finally, after exchanging gunfire for several hours, the police used flamethrowers to destroy both the house and the gunmen.
At 10:00 pm, local time, after the house had burned to the ground, police and local FSB officers moved closer to inspect the smoldering ruins. However, they were stopped by a sudden burst of gunfire from the basement of the burned-out house. Fighting resumed and reinforcements were called to the scene, including the renowned Vympel squad from the FSB Special Task Force Center. However, these well-prepared and well-armed soldiers were no match for the two Dagestani rebels, who were fighting for their lives. Armed with only light weapons, the rebels managed to destroy two armored trucks that the special forces had used to approach the basement. According to the official version, the militants used armor-piercing bullets.
Then the commanders called in a tank, three infantry combat vehicles (ICVs), and three armored personnel carriers (APCs) from a Russian military garrison in the city of Buinaksk, about 50 miles away. The ICVs and APCs shelled the basement and the tank drove over the rubble.
Late that night the security officials identified the two holdouts at Novy Sulak: Rappani Khalilov, the top Dagestan rebel leader, and his deputy, Naib “Abdurakhman” Naibov.
According to the FSB, the whereabouts of Khalilov became known after several of his couriers were detained. Law-enforcement agencies first received information about the location of Abdurakhman, and then realized that Khalilov was hiding with him. Nevertheless, FSB and police officers were not sure until the end that Khalilov was really in the house. Only after his wife and some of his fellow rebels already in custody identified him from among the dead militants was an official announcement made that the top leader of the Dagestani insurgency had been eliminated.
Khalilov’s death is a major victory for the Russian security agencies in Dagestan. This year the local rebels have been less active, but their numbers are increasing, and new guerrilla groups are forming in mountain areas of the region. This fall the rebels have intensified their propaganda campaign. More video statements by Dagestani field commanders have appeared on the Internet. The insurgents have declared that they are going to widen the scope of their operations in Dagestan, which could presage a new wave of attacks in the Dagestani plain and in larger cities. On the first day of Ramadan, the Islamic fast, Khalilov issued a statement promising new attacks in the near future.
Of course, the Russian authorities were not pleased by such statements or by the rebel activity in the mountains of Dagestan. Nikolai Graznov, the chief of the Dagestani branch of the FSB, and Adilgirei Magomedtagirov, the republican interior minister, both resigned this month and have been replaced by Vyacheslav Shanshin and Magomed Gazimagomedov, respectively. These new leaders proved their skills quite soon by locating and eliminating Khalilov. At the same time, it is most likely that the main reason security officials were able to kill Khalilov was that the rebel leader had come down from the mountains to prepare new attacks. Khalilov had successfully fought against Russian troops in Chechnya and Dagestan for many years, but as soon as he moved closer to the main urban centers of Dagestan he became an easy target for Russian security officials.
The future will show how much the Dagestani insurgency will suffer from the loss of its top leader. The FSB leadership is not too optimistic about his death. The new chief of the FSB in Dagestan told the Russian media: “I do not want to make a prognosis. We know those members of illegal armed formations who could take his post. Life will show. Anyway, all of them are within our range of vision” (Kommersant, September 19).
The elimination of Khalilov demonstrates the efficiency of intelligence operations in the Dagestani lowlands. Despite many losses among senior police and FSB officers, local security bodies can still get information regarding the whereabouts of many local field commanders, including such top leaders as Khalilov. Nevertheless, the combat capability of elite Russian forces is disappointing, because they needed tanks and several hours to eliminate two lightly armed rebels hiding in an ordinary village dwelling. Such operations could provide a strong propaganda boost for the rebels, who could claim that it was Allah who had protected the two rebels in their prolonged fight against the many well-armed soldiers. Such incidents reveal a lack of motivation to fight even among members of elite Russian units and raise the question of how Russia can still claim to be a resurgent superpower.