Split in the Caucasus Emirate, or an FSB Provocation?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 22

Suleiman Zailanabidov, one of the former emirs of the so-called Aukhov jamaat in Dagestan, took an oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State organization that has been proclaimed in Syria and Iraq. The Aukhov jamaat operates in the Khasavyurt, Novolak and Kazbekovsky districts of Dagestan, and part of the city of Khasavyurt. Zailanabidov took the oath surrounded by five masked militants against the backdrop of an autumnal forest (YouTube, November 21).

Zailanabidov was the leader of the Aukhov jamaat for several years. Strangely enough, the entire video recording is only 42 seconds long. The person taking the oath does not seem to know even the name of the person he is pledging allegiance to, so he reads it from a piece of paper. The uniforms worn by the people in the video are also strange: they are brand new and look like the uniforms of the Russian customs service. Their machine guns, all of which are 5.45 caliber, also appear to be new.

This oath can be seen as evidence of a split in the Caucasus Emirate that could pose the first serious internal challenge to the emir of the Caucasus Emirate, Sheikh Ali Abu Muhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov). The Caucasus Emirate’s emir took the side of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri six months ago, when the latter had a dispute with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (izlesene.com, June 23). The choice of the leader of the Caucasus Emirate was informed by his personal predilections; the allegiances of the Chechens fighting in Syria are split among various leaders. In 2013, Umar Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili) took an oath of allegiance to al-Baghdadi, who was then leader of the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda (beladusham.com, 2013).

A group of Chechen commanders, including Emir Muslim (Muslim Margoshvili) and Emir Salautdin (Feizula Margoshvili), remained outside the two al-Qaeda groups (YouTube, December 25, 2013). The leader of the Caucasus Emirate attempted to coordinate the North Caucasians in Syria, at least the majority of them, but instead he witnessed the deepening of the split between them (YouTube, June 26).

Even a visit by the Caucasus Emirate’s representative in Syria, Emir Salautdin, to Islamic State emir Umar Shishani did not help. Emir Salautdin asked Emir Shishani to stop the Islamic State’s war with the mujahideen of the Islamic jamaats of Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham and others, but the Islamic State leadership stated that it would not halt hostilities because “the emirs of all these jamaats are murtads and kafirs” (akhbarsham.info, November 12). Thus, the emir of the Caucasus Emirate has been drawn into a conflict between various Chechen groups in Syria and finds himself in a difficult situation as he tries to prevent the militants in the North Caucasus from splitting along the lines of their loyalties to leaders in the Middle East.

If the statement by former Emir Suleiman (Suleiman Zailanabidov) is serious and not simply a declaration, the consequences could be quite important. The forces associated with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi might be trying to destabilize the Caucasus Emirate from within. Another possibility is that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) might well be behind this provocation. The figure of Emir Suleiman is a little controversial because of how he has ended up back in the North Caucasus after being dismissed from the pro-Ukrainian Chechen units fighting in eastern Ukraine and later his detention in Kazakhstan by the Kazakhstani security services, who work closely with Moscow. On November 9, 2014, the emir of this sector, Islam Abu Ibragim (Islam Muradov) appointed Emir Hasmuhammad (Khasmagomed Charanov) as emir of the Aukhov jamaat (YouTube, November 9).

Even though the statement by Emir Suleiman was published on the Internet only on November 21, it could have been made prior to his dismissal from the post of emir. Possibly, Emir Suleiman was dismissed because of his positive opinion of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Even more interestingly, Suleiman Zailanabidov was reportedly detained on October 21 at the airport in Almaty, Kazakhstan, upon his arrival from Kyiv. Emir Suleiman reportedly fought in Ukraine on the Ukrainian side in the volunteer battalion of Isa Munaev (see EDM, November 7), but was forced to leave because his commanders were disappointed with him and his performance (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 22).

The Kazakh news agency also made quite an intriguing statement, reporting that the news about the arrest of Suleiman Zailanabidov was published on its websites by hackers and that the agency did not spread the news about the arrest (Interfax-Kazakhstan, October 21). These circumstances are highly controversial, since it appears that Zailanabidov was arrested by the Kazakhstani authorities only after he mentioned that he had fought in Ukraine. Kazakhstan’s authorities let him go and somehow he managed to return to the mountains of the North Caucasus, where he took an oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. How did Zailanabidov manage to leave Dagestan for Ukraine and come back to Dagestan via Kazakhstan without being caught? Of course the FSB is not an all-powerful agency, but it is hard to explain how they could have made so many blunders in regard to the same person, who was wanted for participation in the armed underground movement of the North Caucasus.

An additional spin also exists to this intriguing story. As some analysts have correctly pointed out, in the video of Suleiman Zailanabidov taking the oath of allegiance to al-Baghdadi, the map of Aukhov district flashes on the screen and its borders for some reason coincide with the map of the Chechen nationalists, showing Chechen access to the Caspian Sea, something which would put them at odds with the people of Dagestan (chechensinsyria.com, November 27). Thus, the video provokes an ethnic conflict between the Chechens of Dagestan and other ethnic groups in the republic, something that has not been seen since the start of the second Russian-Chechen war in 1999.

Suleiman Zailanabidov’s video statement evidently has three objectives. First, the statement compromises Isa Munaev, casting him in a negative light as the military commander of pro-Kyiv Chechens fighting in Ukraine. Second, the statement creates a schism within the Caucasus Emirate, since it supports al-Baghdadi against the wishes of the leader of the Caucasus Emirate. Third, the statement promotes ethnic conflict in the multinational republic of Dagestan, while also rejecting the Islamic principle, which recognizes no national borders and no nations apart from Muslims. Russia’s FSB would welcome all these consequences. Against the backdrop of these events, the leadership of the Caucasus Emirate will have to provide a detailed explanation in the near future in order to deflect suspicions of possible infighting in the ranks of the militants of the North Caucasus.