The Dagestani Jamaat (Part 1)

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 48

The Dagestani Jamaat “Shariat” is the direct successor of the Dagestani Jamaat supposedly destroyed on the orders of Vladimir Putin in August and September of 1999 [1]. As such, it is one more example of how inefficient a military response is for suppressing an ideological opponent. It is possible to destroy bases, to destroy active participants, but it is quite impossible to destroy an underlying ideology using tanks and planes. Since the large-scale military operation carried out in Dagestan in August-September 1999, Salafi teachings have spread throughout the whole of Dagestan, especially enjoying popularity among the youth of the republic. Thus, Salafi ideology has become a form of protest against Russian policies in Dagestan [2]. It is worth noting that while not all the members of the Dagestani Jamaat are dedicated Salafi adherents, all of them stand united in the anti-Russian struggle, making this ideology a unifying force. There are also small groups in the armed resistance movement in Dagestan that are not controlled by the Jamaat, but they still identify themselves with the resistance movement forces.

The earlier Jamaat, which tried to coexist with the official rulers of the republic, was destroyed in the Kadar zone (the villages of Chabanmakhi and Karamakhi) and replaced by a more aggressive group that no longer wanted to negotiate with those who killed their comrades. Moscow promised not to interfere in the affairs of the Jamaat in the Kadar zone, in exchange for the Jamaat not supporting those who invaded the Botlikh district in August 1999 [3]. After the federal authorities dealt with the actions of the militants in the Botlikh district, they physically liquidated all of those who had not supported their ideological brethren—that is, many of the Kadar zone inhabitants who had trusted the federal authorities and refused to support Magomed Kebedov and Shamil Basaev.

Moscow today faces guerrillas who have fought in Chechnya and are able to strike blows against Moscow in the most unexpected places. The recent declaration by the “Shariat” Jamaat concerning future attacks against Russian Olympic interests in the Crimea should not be discounted. Today, all North Caucasus Jamaat groupings have members across the whole of Russia, with the Dagestani Jamaat similarly having eyes and ears capable of aiding the organization’s plans. Dagestani youth, a majority of whom study and live outside the North Caucasus, sees the members of Jamaat resembling Robin Hoods—that is, noble rebels—and their sympathy most often takes the form not only of giving moral support but also to the extent of forming cells in Russia proper.

How did such a group appear in a heavily Sufi populated region such as Dagestan, where Sufi traditions originated over two hundred years ago? The republic is different from Chechnya and Ingushetia in that there are many Sheikhs alive today—Sheikhs who are often hostile to each other. One can almost say that an endless struggle between Sheikhs for student’s hearts and minds is going on, with each Sheikh considering himself the true teacher (ustaz) and questioning the legitimacy of other Sheiks and their spiritual succession [4].

The Soviet policy of discrediting all religious leaders affected Sufism following the years of militant atheism. Sheiks have come to rely on the authority of their teachers while remaining ignorant in matters of theology. Mysticism was heavily emphasized as a way of compensating for a lack of real theological knowledge. This scared people off and made them skeptical of what was said by the Sufi Sheikhs of Dagestan, who were often controlled by the authorities and the Soviet KGB.

At the same time, the conflicts between Sheikhs and the struggle over followers did much to discredit the status of Sufi teachings itself. Some Sheiks, such as Said Effendi Chirkeisky, having found support among those in power, used their influence to attack their opponents [5]. Today, the clergy and the ruling elite of Dagestan are the pupils and followers of Said Effendi, with their Sheikh perfectly willing to let his teachings be spread by force within the republic. In order to raise his authority, Chirkeisky has declared himself to be the Sheikh of all three tariqats (Sufi orders) [Naqshbandi, Shazili and Qadiri] that are known in the republic. The fact that the three schools have radically different teachings and practices does not seem to matter. Such support offered to Sheiks by the authorities has made people see them as political rather than religious leaders, and led them to be associated with all the negative aspects of Dagestani elite politics—its pro-Russian orientation, corruption, and incompetence. In the end, such support only undermines the authority of Sufi Sheiks.

It is easier for the Dagestani authorities to do business with one compliant Sheikh than try to find a common language with a dozen local Sheikhs who vary in their beliefs; but that choice became a defining one for those who consider themselves outside of Sufism. They accuse the Sheikhs of colluding with the authorities and view them as being directly responsible for the fact that Muslims outside the tariqats essentially became enemies of the republic. Following the events of August 1999, a law banning Wahhabism was adopted in Dagestan [6]. After that, laws of this kind were also adopted in Chechnya and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. At the same time, few know what is actually meant by the term “Wahhabite.”

The Sheiks are ignorant in theological matters: traditionally they demanded only obedience, rather than scholarship, from their students, making them easily overwhelmed when forced to talk about Islam solely based on the Koran and the Sunnah. Sufi Sheiks always had difficulties when Salafis called for public debates over the foundations of Islamic theology, and the story is the same all over the North Caucasus, with no official clergymen agreeing to an open debate with the Salafis. In Dagestan, there were many incidents when a debate was possible, but these events were always cancelled at the last minute, with the authorities presenting the cancellations as the result of Salafi unwillingness, although there is no evidence to show that this was ever the case.

On the other hand, those few individuals who did not support the Sufi doctrine became more and more popular with the Dagestani youth starting with the 1970s. Thus, Magomed Kebedov, a future Salafi leader, was able to attract quite a number of young followers with his knowledge of Islamic theology and the fact that he expertly pointed out the mistakes of the Sufi Sheikhs of Dagestan.

The original Kebedov Jamaat was supported both ideologically and financially by many overseas foundations, many of which were registered locally in Russia. These included the “Salvation” International Islamic Organization; the “Benevolence International Foundation,” (Chicago, USA); “Jamaat Ikhia at-Turas al-Islami” (Kuwait); “Lashkar Taiba” (Pakistan); “Al-Haramein Foundation” (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia); an American Islamic educational foundation out of Ashland, Oregon; “Qatar” and “Ikraa,” (Jiddah, Saudi Arabia); “Ibrahim bin Ibrahim” (Jiddah, Saudi Arabia); and others [7]. The presence of such international organizations made it much easier for locals to get in contact with radical Islamic organizations throughout the rest of the world.

The Dynamics of Jamaat Activity

Against the backdrop of the appointment of Ingush Jamaat leader Magas (Akhmed Yevloev) to the post of head military resistance leader, it was fully expected that the leader of the Dagestani Jamaat, Rappani Khalilov, who by that time was already very well known and popular among the militants, would be appointed to such a post. Under Dokku Umarov, we are witnessing the changeover of a whole generation of old-guard leaders in the resistance movement. The older men are being replaced by new leaders who were only young boys during the first Chechen War. The resistance movement is becoming “internationalized” with the infusion of non-Chechens into its leadership.

Skeptics who have studied the resistance over the last seven years have often spoken of the “death” of the resistance following the killing of individual leading figures in the movement. Yet for reasons unknown, these skeptics are unable explain whom—over the last nine years of warfare in region—have been blowing up, killing and striking siloviki and conducting military operations. Why—if the war has ended—do troops still remain in the region and new Russian military bases and FSB training centers are opening, with new military firing ranges in the mountains? Against whom are they building up forces if the war has ended? Why are these “analysts” unable to explain why thousands of police units from across Russia continue to be on tours of duty in the region?

Much to their astonishment, the movement has not disappeared and has even spread across practically the whole of the North Caucasus. For a long time now, the resistance movement has not operated on the “leader and the rest of the resistance” principle: indeed, since 2001, it has really worked along the lines of “the resistance and its leaders.” The personality of the leader is no longer of primary importance and the structure of the organization is such that slain leaders are easily replaced, something that has been observed many times over the years.

If we look at the actions undertaken by the Jamaat in Dagestan, it is clear that the scope of activity was minimal in 2000 and 2001, but that the number of actions by the militants against federal power structures climbed steadily in subsequent years. In 2000-2001, the group was probably completely focused on Chechnya, but following a return to their homeland, terrorist activity in Dagestan quickly started to increase. In one of his early video recordings, the late Dagestani rebel commander Rappani Khalilov thanked all the Dagestanis that came to fight with him and the Jamaat in Chechnya. In 2002-2003, a certain adaptive process was underway, as the group adjusted to the new realities of Dagestan. By 2004, the Jamaat was carrying out well-organized, powerful and frequent attacks, indicating that they were finally ready and prepared to fight. Today, the activities of the Jamaat are no longer isolated episodes, but well coordinated elements of a greater struggle executed by a cohesive militarily and politically structure opposed to the republic’s authorities.

The sphere of actions of the Jamaat, which was subsequently transformed into a sector of the resistance’s Caucasus Front (and is now known as the “vilayet of Dagestan” within the Caucasian Emirate recently proclaimed by resistance leader Dokka Umarov), shows that it has its affiliates or cells all over the republic [8]. Insurgent influence is spreading from Khasavyurt and the Chechen border in the west, to Makhachkala in the east, as well as Kizlyar in the north, and Gimry and Buinaksk in the south. Derbent, in the far south of Dagestan, is free of their influence, but this is explained by the existence of ethnic divisions within the republic. Derbent is a predominantly Lezgin city, while the Jamaat is mostly composed of Avars, Laks, Kumyks and Dargins. This also means that the northernmost parts of the republic are part of the Nogai jamaat and are included in the Stavropol sector of the resistance’s Caucasus Front.

The Evolution of the Jamaat

Though the history of the Dagestani Jamaat dates back to the 1980s, its emergence into the militarized structure that it is today took place in Chechnya in 1997. It was here that an ideological group was transformed into a military one aiming at seizing political power, creating and Islamic republic and forcing the Russian army to leave Dagestan.

After the first military campaign in Chechnya (1994-1996), all of the followers of Bagautdin (Magomed) Kebedov began leaving Dagestan for Chechnya, as did their spiritual leader. They called this the Muhajiroon, after the flight of followers of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca do Medina in A.D.622). For a while the center of Jamaat activity was the Chechen city of Gudermes, but following the confrontations between Sulim Yamadaev and those Salafi detachments loyal to emir Abdurakhman al-Zarki (an ethnic Chechen born in Zarka, Jordan) in the summer of 1998, activity shifted to Urus-Martan and Emir Khattab’s (Samir Saleh Abdalla al-Suveilah) training camps near the village of Avtury [9].

During the confrontation in Gudermes, the Dagestani militants maintained their neutrality and did not intervene to aid their comrades, the Chechen Salafis. Such a policy was confusing for many and Kebedov was later frequently reminded how the utter defeat of the Chechen radicals Aslan Maskhadov’s governmental troops was entirely his fault. At that time, however, Kebedov’s reputation was still solid enough to shield him, though it was unshakable, as it had seemed earlier.

Kebedov’s second important failure was caused by his weak character and his behavior in Dagestan. He had to know that it was impossible to overthrow the local government the same way it had been done in Chechnya in 1991, and it was clear that the 1999 incursion into the Botlikh district and the proclamation of the “Islamic Republic of Dagestan” elicited a completely negative response from him. Prior to any confrontations with the Russian army, he approached Shamil Basaev and asked him for help in disposing of Dagestan’s pro-Russian rulers while also officially announcing and disseminating information about the creation of an “Islamic Republic of Dagestan” [10]. It was clear that the whole affair was planned, including the role of Kebedov’s Jamaat as the vanguard, in order to prevent the Chechens from being accused of attacking Dagestan. Kebedov’s excessive haste—more correctly his cowardice—led to the precise reaction that the guerrillas sought to avoid. With the help of Russian politicians and the media, it was declared that the Chechens had invaded Dagestan, which led to a surge of support among Dagestanis for the local authorities. Even if this had not happened, it seems as if there were a few men willing to stand under the Salafi banners in the republic at the time.

Following the Botlikh operation, Shamil Basaev became convinced that Bagautdin Kebedov and Nadir Khachilaev were taking a treasonous wait-and-see policy, and hiding behind the Chechen guerrillas rather than actively participating in the conflict. In private conversations, Basaev indicated that both men ought to be shot. Khachilaev was the first man to quit, with Kebedov following suit thereafter. He moved to Turkey, where he now writes books that are published in Moscow, giving him the opportunity to condemn Sufism and those liberal Chechen politicians that were never “truly with him” or his followers.

This whole episode showed that there was the emergence of a new Jamaat, with new functions and new leaders operating as part of a wider North Caucasus resistance movement. Leadership of the resistance passed to Rappani Khalilov and Rasul Maksharipov at the end of 2000 and the beginning of 2001. Spiritual leaders were less necessary in times more martial, as spirituality gave way to Kalashnikovs.


1. In August and September 1999, guerrillas led by Magomed Kebedov, (also known as Bagaudin Kizilyurtovsky), entered Dagestan and three days later requested and received the support of Shamil Basaev in the Botlikh and Khasavyurt districts of Dagestan. After the conclusion of the military operation, the Russian authorities claimed that they totally and completely destroyed the Salafites (Wahhabites) of Dagestan.

2. The theoretical underpinning of this teaching is to be found in the works of 20th century Egyptian fundamentalists such as Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, along with the Pakistani Abu al-Ala Maududi, as well as their historic predecessors, Ibn Taimiya (1263-1328), Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1787), and others.

3. Local adherents of Salafism in the villages of the Kadar zone refused to help their ideological brethren among the fighters of Magomed Kebedov, who organized the August 1999 incursion into Dagestan from Chechen territory. Kadar zone inhabitiants hoped to stay out of it and that the authorities would not violate the understanding that had been reached in September 1998 during a visit to the zone by Sergei Stepashin, who was then Russia’s Interior Minister.

4. Almost all Dagestani sheikhs trace their line of succession to the person of Magomed Yaraginsky, a man who was the ustaz of all the 19th century Dagestani imams such as Gazi-Magomed, Gamzat-Bek and Shamil.

5. Said Effendi Chirkeisky is one of the most powerful tariqat sheikhs in Dagestan officially supported by the authorities. His murids (pupils) include Dagestani President Mukhu Aliev, Interior Minister Aldilgerei Magomedtagirov and many other prominent political figures in the republic.

6. On September 16, 1999, the People’s Assembly of the Republic of Dagestan passed the law, “On banning Wahhabite and other extremist activities on the territory of the Republic of Dagestan.”

7. Khanbabaev, K. “Religio-political extremism and terrorism in a multifaceted ethno-religious society (the example of the Northern Caucasus),” “Dagestan” information agency, 9/20/2006.

8. Official release of Amir Dokka Umarov’s statement on the declaration of the Caucasus Emirate, Kavkaz-Center, 11/21/07.

9. An armed confrontation took place on July 14-15, 1998, between supporters of Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov and the Salafis. The Salafis were saved from complete destruction only by the “peace-keeping” activities of Shamil Basaev and Vakha Arasanov, who begged Maskhadov to provide a corridor for them to leave their encirclement in Gudermes and permit the Salafis to move to the city of Urus-Martan.

10. On August 9, 1999, the rebels declared the State Council of the Republic of Dagestan deposed and announced the formation of an Islamic government headed by Serazhutdin Ramazanov, with Magomed Tagaev named its press and information minister.