The North Caucasus Insurgency: One Year Without Doku Umarov
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 160
The armed resistance in the North Caucasus is transforming and adapting to the new conditions under the Caucasus Emirate’s new emir. September 7 marked exactly one year since the death of the insurgency’s former leader, Doku Umarov (Kavkavsky Uzel, March 18). Umarov was poisoned by food prepared by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and channeled through the Ingush jamaat (Dailymotion, July 20 ; see EDM, July 24). Although Umarov’s encounter with the Ingush jamaat was accidental, it proved fatal for the leader of the North Caucasus militants. The poisoning did not personally target Umarov, but rather members of the Ingush jamaat in Ingushetia’s Sunzha district. This explains why the FSB had not boasted of assassinating Umarov for a long time—they did not actually know who had been killed by their poisoned food supplies.
Umarov went all the way from being a member of the Sufi Brotherhood of Kunta-Haji Kishiev of the Kadiri Tariqat to an ardent Salafi who declared the Islamic state of the Caucasus Emirate on the remnants of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (checheninfo.com, September 7). Umarov will be considered one of the most controversial figures in the history of the North Caucasus resistance. His six years leading the Caucasus Emirate were full of contradictory decisions.
Umarov’s departure from the scene did not change things for the North Caucasus armed resistance, impacting neither its tactics nor the distribution of forces in the region. Under Umarov, the center of the armed resistance of Islamists gradually moved to Dagestan and has remained there ever since.
Yet, the Chechen armed resistance still brings surprises. Illustratively, the Chechen rebels have started actively advertising themselves, something that did not happen under Umarov (see EDM, August 8). This development may have been the result of the lifting of the heightened security regime that was imposed after Umarov was poisoned, thus allowing the militants to hold the kinds of large meetings that were impossible in Chechnya since 2011 (YouTube, July 23). Recently, the Velayat Nokhchiycho, the Chechen wing of the insurgency, launched its own website for the first time since the Caucasus Emirate was proclaimed (checheninfo.com, July 12).
Moreover, on August 30, Internet users in Chechnya had the opportunity to pose questions to a representative of the Caucasus Emirate’s Velayat Nokhchiycho, Emir Khamzat (Aslan Byutukaev), via the Zello Internet service. The organizers of the Internet conference proposed that the audience ask questions about public affairs in Chechnya and beyond. The web administrator of the Chechen militants’ website proposed to hold such Internet conferences via Zello on a monthly basis. According to the administrator of Checheninfo.com, the leader of Chechen militants who assumed leadership of the Caucasus Emirate after Umarov’s death agreed to have regular Internet conferences (YouTube, April 9). The next web meeting is set to take place on October 1, if no complications arise in Chechnya.
For the first time in recent years, Chechen insurgents have managed to connect to their audience, bypassing multiple intermediary channels. Under Doku Umarov, this seemed to be completely impossible. What changed? It appears that after Umarov’s death, the Russian security services and the Chechen forces that were looking for him decreased their pressure on the Chechen insurgency, allowing the insurgents in the republic to become more visible. In a recently published video, Chechen militants show themselves shooting, dismantling an unexploded bomb, making statements, and sharing their plans about future attacks (YouTube, July 30).
It is easy to see that once a Dagestani, Ali Abu Muhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov), was elected the new emir of the Caucasus Emirate, the activities of the Russian security services of Russia would now focus on this easternmost North Caucasian republic. This removes from the Chechen jamaat some of the pressure it experienced while Umarov, an ethnic Chechen, led the organization. Ali Abu Muhammad, who is quite an outspoken person, has now become the Russian security services’ primary target. The new insurgent leader constantly delivers lectures and speeches on important issues, publishing his addresses on the website of the Dagestani insurgency (vdagestan.com, accessed September 12). These public activities are unlikely to escape the close scrutiny of the FSB.
The security situation is different in Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia. Insurgent activities in these republics plummeted after multiple successful crackdowns on the armed underground movement by the security services there. In recent months, the tactics of the rebels in these republics have been to wait and avoid contact with government forces. It would be erroneous, however, to regard the relative decrease of rebel activity in this area of the North Caucasus to be solely the result of Umarov’s death. In fact, the decrease in their activities in these areas was quite evident even before the previous Caucasus Emirate leader died. This reduction is most often connected to regrouping in the rebel ranks.
It should also be remembered that the Caucasus Emirate now has a foreign base in Syria, where thousands who consider themselves Emirate members are fighting under the flags of forces opposing Bashar al-Assad. These people will most likely turn their attention back to the Caucasus after the war in Syria is over. Furthermore, the North Caucases armed resistance has not become less radical in the past year—despite its rejection of the ideas of the Islamic State, its rejection of attacks on civilian targets, its prohibition on shahid (suicide bombing) operations, and so on.
For now, the North Caucasus resistance remains a separate movement that has not developed solidarity networks with the Middle Eastern radicals. And although the North Caucasus insurgents could potentially choose to ally themselves with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, to balance against the leaders of the Islamic State, only time will tell which path they will follow.