Sadulaev’s Death and the Future of the Chechen Insurgency

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 25

Like his predecessors in the war, the leader of the Chechen resistance movement, president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI), Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, has been killed [1]. A. Sardali, a resident of Argun, was quoted by the Kavkazcenter website as saying that up to several hundred spetsnaz from the FSB RF [Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation] were used for Sadulaev’s capture. The forces of the MVD of the Chechen Republic were also used as auxiliaries, though they may not have known whom the Russians were hunting for in the outskirts of the southwestern parts of the city of Argun, 12 kilometers from the Chechen capital of Grozny. According to other sources, however, Sadulaev’s neighbors did not notice that a special operation was underway (Kommersant, June 17), suggesting that the killing may have been committed in a different place. None of the neighbors noticed the large quantity of military hardware, not to mention the prolonged battle. Both the killing itself and the supposed large-scale operation to liquidate Sadulaev were a surprise to the residents of the section of Argun where these things supposedly took place.

That part of Argun, known as the “Indian Hamlet,” borders the Argun River on the west and a small forest belt on the south. One the east, it is separated from the other part of the city by the main Grozny-Shail route, where the bulk of the territory is occupied by a Chechen cemetery abutting a neglected Russian cemetery. Sadulaev probably picked this part of Argun for its geographical convenience. Should he have needed to escape, he would have been able to go in the direction of the mountains and cross a narrow strip of woods ending at the village of Belgatoi and the gardens that face the Black Mountains. From there, he would have crossed the Argun River and melt into the large population centers of Chechen-Aul and Berdykel. It is incomprehensible what happened: why were his two aides able to escape, but the leader of the resistance movement unable to do so himself? What actually happened at the time of Sadulaev’s murder will become known later, from both Chechen and Russian sources.

Reports in the Russian media were contradictory: Officially, Sadulaev was killed at 11:00 AM, but it was reported that his fellow-fighters “managed to escape under the cover of darkness” (RIA Novosti, June 17) [2]. In that case, it is unclear how Ramzan Kadyrov was able to make a statement to Russian information agencies at 10:44 AM about the Sadulaev’s death (Kavkazky Uzel, June 17). In all likelihood, a brief battle took place during the night or at dawn, explaining why the battle was not heard in nearby buildings; shots have long become common for Argun, and therefore, very few paid attention to the fact that there was shooting in the “Indian Hamlet.” If the battle had taken place at night, then it becomes understandable how Sadulaev’s two comrades-in-arms managed to escape.

As was noted in only one Russian newspaper, Sadulaev was neither charged with a single criminal case nor identified on federal wanted lists, including those of Interpol (Gazeta, June 19). For Sadulaev, an enormous benefit was the fact that the Russian special services essentially did not know him. They could not understand who he was, how to fight him and who was in his entourage. Many analyses make the same mistake, saying that he was merely Shamil Basaev’s helper (Interfax, June 17), when in fact it was precisely the opposite. Sadulaev succeeded in restraining Basaev and convincing him to reevaluate his priorities in carrying out the struggle. Sadulaev’s authority and erudition in the field of theology forced many, if not all, to trust him completely. This explains the fact that during his period [as separatist leader], not a single action was taken in which civilians would have suffered (e.g. Beslan and Nord-Ost). Shamil Basaev was enlisted in the formation of the Caucasian Front, and this ensured that the heat of the struggle flowed out from Chechnya into the front-line districts (Ingushetia, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria), which allowed a regrouping and concentration on internal affairs.

In tactical terms, the death of Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev may have an even larger resonance than can be imagined today against the backdrop of numerous mass media reports, and it is a question not only of the Chechen resistance movement. After all, the death of the president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria was also the leader of all the militarized formations in the North Caucasus. In contrast to Aslan Maskhadov, Abdul-Khalim was not perceived as an ethnically specific politician. Sadulaev managed to transcend the ethnic barriers and become an inter-ethnic leader, which in the conditions of the multi-ethnic North Caucasus, has always been considered a very difficult pursuit. Yet, it was precisely the actions of Aslan Maskhadov (together with Shamil Basaev) to start the process of creating jamaats outside the territory of Chechnya that Sadulaev’s work to organize the Caucasian Front became decisive.

Strategically, it is entirely possible that the death of Sadulaev will produce a return to a policy of focusing on Chechnya. This is possible, especially given that none of the jamaats were base units of Dokku Umarov, Sadulaev’s successor, even though the Ingush and Kabardino-Balkarian jamaats were territorially contiguous with the Southwestern Front, where Umarov was in charge. Even in the operation to seize the Ingush Interior Ministry on June 22-23, 2004, it was Shamil Basaev’s units and the Ingush jamaat that took part, demonstrating the lack of Dokku Umarov’s influence on the ‘non-Chechen’ sector.

An important factor is that Sadulaev was a consistent opponent of acts aimed against the civilian population, and he managed to restrain actions that would deliver a blow precisely to that part of the population. He had spoken out unequivocally [against such actions] in his last published interview, with the Bulgarian weekly Politika (Politika, June 9-15).

Politically, the killing of Sadulaev brings little advantage to the Russians, given the fact that little was known about Sadulaev as a person, which made it possible to convey a negative image of the Chechen [separatist] leadership abroad by portraying Sadulaev as an Islamic radical (with which he had no connection). His title of “Sheikh”—given to him by members of his entourage, not without the advice of those who were oriented exclusively toward the Middle East— caused confusion among many of those in the West who were still trying to render assistance to the Chechens. Against the backdrop of anti-Islamic hysteria, this did not lead to an increase in the number of supporters of the Chechens in the West and in America.

The loss of Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev will not pass without leaving a trace on the entire North Caucasian resistance movement. For the movement, Sadulaev was thought of as both a president and, in a broader sense, a nationalist leader; in contrast to Aslan Maskhadov, who was perceived as only being the president of Chechnya. Sadulaev managed in a very short a time to create the Caucasian Front, uniting under him all the jamaats from the Caspian to the Black Sea. The Islamic image of Sadulaev was attractive for those who were fighting under the banner of Islam.

With the death of Sadulaev, his position was automatically assumed by his vice president, Dokku Umarov. Umarov is not an unknown figure: indeed, he is well known, both in Chechnya and in the Russian military from both military campaigns in Chechnya. Born in 1964, Dokku Umarov is a native of the village of Kharsenoi in the Shatoi district, a member of Mulkkhoi teip who lived in the Achkoi-Martan district of Chechnya and is married and the father of two children [3]. An active participant in the Chechen resistance movement he is one of the veterans of the Chechen military-political establishment of adherents of independence [4]. Before the start of the first war in 1994, he served in the Borz special unit under the command of Ruslan Gelaev; in 1996, due to disagreements with Gelaev, he left Gelaev’s unit [5]. From that moment on, he independently led a large military unit, held the rank of colonel in the ChRI armed forces and actively supported Aslan Maskhadov in the elections.

In 1997, ChRI President Aslan Maskhadov named Umarov secretary of his Security Council. Following disagreements with Maskhadov, Umarov’s position was abolished. In 1999, shortly before the start of the second war, he was again named to the same post. He was seriously wounded in fighting in Grozny and in 2000, underwent medical treatment abroad. In 2003, he returned to Chechnya and took command of the Southwestern Front [6]. Before the death of Maskhadov, Umarov was named Minister of Security. In June 2005, following Maskhadov’s death, Sadulaev appointed him as ChRI vice president.

Having now become president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Umarov will also hold such posts as Emir of the State Defense Committee, Madzhlis Shura of the Caucasus, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and finally, Emir of the Mujahideen of the Caucasus.

Umarov has great and steady influence in the southwestern part of Chechnya, but he is little known in other parts of the republic. He is an adherent of the Sufi Qadiri Tariqat and a follower of the vird—brotherhood—of Sheikh Kunta-Khadzhi.

The Russian law-enforcement organs and special services have pinned responsibility for the March 1999 kidnapping of the Russian Interior Ministry’s special representative in Chechnya, General Gennady Shpigun, on Umarov. He is also believed to have participated in the June 2004 attacks by militants in Ingushetia, the attack on Grozny in August of that year and the taking of hostages in Beslan (Gazeta, June 17). However, the Russian services of law and order have made such accusations against practically all Chechens.

In predicting what will happen in the near future, one can be certain that there will be no radical changes either in the Chechen zone or in the North Caucasus. The fact is that with the departure of Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, there remains Shamil Basaev, who was mainly involved in the implementation of the plans to create a Caucasian Front. As military leader, Basaev will continue to work in that same direction. Dokku Umarov will not change this direction, inasmuch as he was directly involved in approving the Caucasian Front’s action plan. It is quite another matter that he has no experience in political activities. In all probability, Umarov’s influence will be on military operations. In his most recent interview, he said that he no longer planned to offer to negotiate with Moscow, although now that he is the top person, he may have to amend his vision of relations with Russia at some future point

Dokku Umarov will more closely resemble Aslan Maskhadov than his predecessor Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev. In his policy, he will lean on politicians such as Akhmed Zakaev and Usman Firzauli. He will have to try hard to make the transition from local politics to being the leader of all the jamaats of the North Caucasian region.

To begin with, there will need to be actions that will allow him to take over the leadership of the whole North Caucasian resistance—in particular, an appeal from the national jamaats (Dagestani, Ingush, Kabardino-Balkarian, Karachai and Nogai) for him to succeed Sadulaev.

Generally, it should be noted that the political maturity of the Chechen resistance movement no longer depends on one person. The departure of such people as Maskhadov and Sadulaev is a loss in human terms, but is not capable of causing significant changes in the already existing principles for the actions of the resistance. More problems will appear for the Russians owing to the fact that they essentially do not know whom they are dealing with. The new individuals and the new names mean nothing to them, and they are ready to attribute everything to foreign influence—an element which today is paltry, if not almost completely absent.

Moreover, the change in leadership in the resistance movement will not bring about significant changes. While a new phase of the military operation is completely predictable, the timing of this is not predictable. All the operations conducted under the command of Shamil Basaev have always been unpredictable, in terms of both time and place.


1. Dzhokhar Dudaev, president from 1991-1996; Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, acting president from April 1996 through January 1997; Aslan Maskhadov, president from 1997-2005.

2. If you consider that dawn in Chechnya now arrives at around 4 AM.

3. According to the Kavkazky Uzel agency, on 5 May 2005, Dokku Umarov’s 70-year-old father, wife and 6-month-old son was kidnapped. Earlier, his two brothers and members of their families were kidnapped.

4. Also from this cohort of veterans, unquestionably, is Shamil Basaev, who, as a result of his age and the extent of his influence, surpasses Dokku Umarov, particularly among the national jamaats of the North Caucasus.

5. These sorts of contradictions with Ruslan Gelaev began even during the battle for Goisty during the first military campaign, and at that time Akhmad Zakaev, Khusein Isabaev and t Khamzat Labazanov also left Gelaev’s ranks.

6. He replaced the former military commandant of Chechnya, Isa Munaev.