The Capture of Magas May Prove to be More of a Challenge Than a Triumph for the Kremlin

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 114

On June 9, Russian news agencies broke the news about the capture in Malgobek, Ingushetia, of the military commander of the Caucasus Emirate, nicknamed Emir Magas (RIA Novosti, June 9). Such a high-ranking leader of the North Caucasus insurgency had not been apprehended since 2000, when two veterans of the first Chechen war, Salman Raduev and Turpal Atgeriev, were arrested by the Russian security services. The rebel Kavkaz Center website confirmed the capture of Emir Magas and expressed its high regard for him, calling him one of the key military leaders of the insurgency (www.kavkazcenter.com, June 9). FSB (Federal Security Service) Director Aleksandr Bortnikov reported the capture to President Dmitry Medvedev in person on the same day (www.kremlin.ru, June 9).

Providing the outline of the crimes ascribed to Magas – his real name is believed to be Ali Taziev – Russian news agencies referred to the assassination attempt on Ingushetia’s President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov in June 2009, the raid on Nazran, Ingushetia by rebel forces in June 2004, the attack on the police headquarters in Nazran in August 2009, explosions on buses and taking family members of the ex-president of Ingushetia, Murat Zyazikov, hostage. Emir Magas is believed to have been very close to Shamil Basaev until the latter’s death in 2006 (RIA Novosti, June 9). Surprisingly, the participation of Magas in the hostage-taking at the Beslan school in 2004 is missing from the list. This is despite repeated statements by Russian prosecutor generals about Magas’ involvement in the school siege (www.ej.ru, May 29, 2006).

Magas’ involvement in the Beslan raid was subsequently brushed aside by the prosecutors, but many observers believed the reason for this is that the government did not want to admit that some of the hostage-takers had escaped from the school. According to eyewitness accounts by former hostages, Magas managed to escape from the Beslan school on September 2, 2004. The hostages reportedly were able to identify Magas by themselves, even though Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel officially refused to allow the identification procedure (http://golosbeslana.livejournal.com, May 28, 2006).

The investigation of the primary criminal case in connection to the Beslan hostage attack in 2004 has still not been concluded, and Magas could prove to be a very valuable information source. Alexander Torshin, the first vice-speaker of the Russian Federation Council who was in charge of parliamentary investigation of the Beslan terror attack, stated that the police should check out Magas’ possible involvement in the attack (Interfax, June 10). However, a number of inconveniences could arise for the government if Magas starts talking at a court hearing. One of them is the fact that at least 10 of the 32 officially admitted hostage-takers in Beslan had previously been arrested as suspected insurgents by the Russian security forces and released from detention under strange circumstances (www.novayagazeta.ru, November 20, 2008).

Some commentators suggested that the assassination attempt on Yevkurov in June 2009, which is attributed to Magas, was linked to unknown corrupt officials in Ingushetia who hoped to get rid of the unduly inquisitive new president of Ingushetia. Following the capture of Magas, Yevkurov obliquely confirmed this by saying that he expected the investigators to uncover the names of the Ingushetia’s corrupt officials who had paid bribes to the insurgents to buy their own security (www.ingushetia.org, June 11).

Ivan Sukhov, a well-known Russian journalist who focuses on the North Caucasus, noted that Magas might not survive in detention to provide testimony before the court. Sukhov reminded his readers that both Raduev and Atgeriev died shortly after being sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Sukhov also pointed to the coincidence of the appointment of a new Moscow envoy to the North Caucasus, Aleksandr Khloponin, in January 2010 and the subsequent elimination of several leaders of the insurgency — Said Buryatsky, Anzor Astermirov and now Ali Taziev (Magas). Sukhov argued that capturing Magas was not necessarily the turning point of Russia’s counterinsurgency efforts in the North Caucasus, given that the end of March 2010 bombings in Moscow took place after Said Buryatsky was killed in Ingushetia three weeks earlier (www.vremya.ru, June 11).

Jumping on the success of the Russian security services, President Yevkurov offered all of Ingushetia’s insurgents to surrender, while Khloponin paid a quick visit to the republic and met with local university students (www.ingushetia.org, June 11).

Killing or capturing leaders of the North Caucasus’ insurgency is arguably an effective tool to organize PR campaigns both to promote the government’s efficiency and to discourage new forces from joining the insurgency ranks. However, without removing the systemic causes of the insurgency it is unlikely to resolve the issue of spreading violence. The insurgency in the North Caucasus evidently has a decentralized management that will prevent the insurgency from being eradicated no matter who among the insurgency’s leaders is captured. At the same time, the security services retain oppressive practices in Ingushetia that are likely to supply the insurgency with the new recruits and further widen the gap of mistrust between the authorities and the general population. On June 8, the two Tsechoev brothers were arrested in the village of Sagopshi in Ingushetia and reportedly tortured at police quarters (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, June 9). The reports about torture alerted the brothers’ relatives, who staged a protest outside the police station in Malgobek (www.ingushetiyaru.org, June 10).

The systemic causes of the violence in the North Caucasus are intimately linked to attributes of the modern Russian state itself, such as its inherent oppressiveness, non-democratic nature, corruption and absence of rule of law. So while isolated success stories involving the Russian security forces are good news for the Kremlin, they do nothing ultimately to resolve the underlying issues driving the insurgency in the North Caucasus.