On June 4, two masked men from North Ossetia calling themselves “members of the anti-Wahhabi resistance” were shown on the Russian NTV channel. In the interview, which was cited by Regnum news agency but not available on the TV channel’s website, the masked men said that because of the rise of radical Islam in North Ossetia, “people are taking up arms, because there are no security guarantees [provided by the state].” The supposed activists stated they were not against the government authorities or security services and were “against war as such,” but they had to fight the Wahhabis. “I heard that in the neighboring republics they attach a price tag to the heads of servicemen, one for the customs’ officers, another for an FSB officer,” one of the masked men said, adding “I would not like it to be like this in our republic” (www.regnum.ru, June 6).
The “anti-Wahhabi group” emerged in North Ossetia days after events that shook the republic. On May 26, an Ossetian poet and dean of Ossetian philology at the University in Vladikavkaz, 70-year-old Shamil Jikkaev, was found nearly beheaded at the outskirts of the city. The day after the murder –May 27– the police announced that the suspected killer was a radical Islamist named David Murashev and, on May 31, Murashev was killed in a police operation in Vladikavkaz after he wounded three policemen in a shootout. An estimated 7,000 people attended Jikkaev’s funeral and a street in Vladikavkaz was promptly renamed after him (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, May 31).
A similar “anti-Wahhabi group” that threatened to fight the insurgents appeared in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria in February 2011, when the influence of the rebels peaked in that republic. Most observers concluded at the time that the Russian security services were behind the group. In the North Ossetian case, the masked men cited armed servicemen as supposedly being the most vulnerable part of society and needs to be protected by the civilians.
On May 31, following the killing of the suspected militant David Murashev, police in North Ossetia arrested Muslim activists in the republic. According to official information, 18 people were arrested, but the real numbers may be even higher. To date, only one of the detainees has been released, while the rest have reportedly been denied access to lawyers and their relatives, and even their whereabouts are unknown. On June 6, investigators charged the arrested Muslims with possessing illegal arms, drugs and extremist literature. The head of the official Spiritual Board of Muslims in North Ossetia, Khadzhi-Murat Gatsalov, held an emergency press conference in Vladikavkaz on June 1, threatening to resign if the government did not take action against what he regarded as unlawful police actions (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, June 6).
Jikkaev wrote a notorious anti-Islamic poem in 2008, following an incident with Chechen and Ingush hajj-goers in North Ossetia. The group allegedly desecrated a memorial cemetery dedicated to the victims of the Beslan school hostage attack in 2004. According to members of the group, they stopped near the cemetery to have a scheduled Muslim prayer when local Ossetian teenagers attacked them. Jikkaev reportedly received anonymous threats after his poem was printed in a local Ossetian-language magazine, and North Ossetian Muslims tried to take legal action against him, to no avail.
Until recently, North Ossetia, where Muslims are a minority, was one of the quietest republics in the North Caucasus, with only occasional terror attacks, but after several violent events the situation in this republic became much more precarious. Large-scale repression against the North Ossetian Muslims caused serious concern in the Russian Public Chamber, which denounced the actions of police as a provocation in the run up to presidential elections in Russia in 2012 and the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. “Arrests were carried out with violations of laws and human rights, with physical force, beatings, insults to religious dignity and the feelings of the [Muslim] believers,” the Russian Public Chamber said in a special statement. The statement assumed that most of the arrested people would be subjected to torture to squeeze testimony on Jikkaev’s murder out of them. The chamber, which has close ties to the Russian government, equated the volatility of the situation in North Ossetia with that of Dagestan (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, June 3). So within just a few days, the previously quiet North Ossetia was, at least rhetorically, put on par with one of the most violent republics in the North Caucasus.
Conspiracy theories now abound in North Ossetia about the security services staging the killing of Jikkaev and subsequent killing of his killer to unleash repression against local Muslims and destabilize the republic. However, the explanation may be much more trivial. Repression against the Muslims started after the killing of David Murashev on May 31, while Murashev’s name and affiliation with radical Islam was known at least on May 27. What changed on May 31 was that Murashev apparently wounded three policemen in a shootout, one of whom is still in critical condition. So it is highly likely the policemen simply decided to retaliate against Muslims. Since the public has no control over police actions, and crackdowns on Muslims are popular with the Russian government, the police in the North Caucasus enjoy unprecedented freedom of action. In addition, the Russian security services have no vested interest in maintaining stability in the North Caucasus, since security officials are generally not punished for attacks or other forms of violence or destabilization. So the security services can act freely on almost all their whims.
The political dimension of the violence in North Ossetia concerns the current leadership of the republic. The head of North Ossetia, Taimuraz Mamsurov, is an ethnic Muslim, as are a few other officials in his government. So there may be some forces in the republic and in Moscow that could be willing to portray Mamsurov as an unreliable person. That is probably why the head of North Ossetia made a harsh statement hours after the suspect Islamic radical was killed, saying that Murashev “was deprived of his life in accordance with the law” (www.rso-a.ru, May 31). The latest events in North Ossetia highlight the profound fragility of the situation even in republics traditionally perceived to be most stable.