The Roots and Transformation of the Dagestan Insurgency

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 11 Issue: 6

In early April, two women from Dagestan were named by the federal authorities as key suspects in the March 29 suicide attacks which targeted the Lubyanka and Park Kultury metro stations near to the interior ministry and the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Moscow (RIA Novosti, April 1; ITAR-TASS, April 6). On July 14, representatives of the Caucasus Emirate announced that Magomed Vagabov had been appointed as the Emir of the Dagestani Front (Kavkaz Tsenter, July 15). Vagabov, the bombers who struck in Moscow, as well as another terrorist who launched a suicide operation in Makhackala on January 6, all represent a younger generation of volunteers who have pledged allegiance to the Caucasus Emirate, led by Doku Umarov. Indeed, Vagabov (known as Emir Seyfullah of Gubden) and other former leaders of the Dagestan militant underground including Umalat Magomedov (Emir Al Bara) and Omar Sheikhulaev (Emir Muaz) have overseen the transformation of the regional militant movement, from a diffused facet of the Chechen-led resistance to a home grown insurgency, prepared to employ radical tactics such as suicide operations to retaliate against federal operations.
The first wave of key figures in the Dagestani militant underground rose to prominence in 2002. Prior to this, the military Emir, Rabbani Khalilov, had established a link to the Islamic Peacekeeping Battalion (IPB); a military formation led by Shamil Basayev and Ibn Khattab, which sought to unite Salafi enclaves in parts of Chechnya and Dagestan. Khalilov, an ethnic Lak born in Buinaksk, moved to Karamakhi in the late 1990’s becoming close to a number of Salafi ideologists, before allegedly moving again, this time to the training camp run by Ibn Khattab at Serjen Yurt (Kommersant, May 13, 2002). Meanwhile, another relatively young Dagestani, Rasul Makasharipov, had assumed the post of Basayev’s Avar interpreter. Both Khalilov and Makasharipov, and others such as Zaur Akavov and Shamil Omarov, played roles in the IPB incursion into the Botlikh zone, and although the popular Salafi uprising did not occur in Dagestan, they remained loyal to both Basayev and Khattab. Throughout 2000, Basayev and Khattab began to organize a system of military jamaats following the federal invasion of Chechnya in 1999. Basayev instructed key aids to return to their homes and establish a network of clandestine semi-autonomous military jamaats outside of Chechnya. Khalilov formed a close link to another of Basayev’s Dagestani deputies, Suleyman Ilmurzaev, and together they established a zone of operations which spanned the Chechen and Dagestani border region near Vedeno. Khalilov and others became more integrated into the hierarchy of the Chechen-led military jamaat structure, as Dagestani Salafi’s (including Bagaudtin Kebedov) fled abroad throughout 2001.
At around the same time Basayev’s supporters established a madrassah in the mountainous village of Gubden, to the South of the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala. The madrassah, in the Karabudakhkentsky district, was used to recruit and train local volunteers to carry out acts of sabotage in the Dagestani capital. Makasharipov became involved with a number of the volunteers, establishing his own military group, known as Dzhennet, which operated in the wooded areas near Makhachkala. By 2002, Khalilov had assumed the position as a military Emir, or commander of the Dagestani jamaats. He was accused by Nikolay Patrushev, former Director of the FSB, of planning the 2002 bombing of the May 9 military parade in the town of Kaspiisk (Interfax, May 22, 2002). The bombing led to the death of over forty military personal, and could be viewed as a response to the killing of Ibn Khattab (he was killed in a federal operation in March 2002), given the familial connections between Khalilov and Khattab (Khattab and Khalilov were married to two sisters from a family in Karamakhi).
From 2002 to 2004, Dagestani groups launched a number of attacks, killing federal officials and security personnel. Affiliates, not directly tied to the Dagestani underground, including members of the Stavropol and Shelkovsky jamaats, were often targeted in federal operations designed to curtail the operations of Basayev’s military underground in the region. Of course, the actions of these groups and the federal campaign against them should not be confused with operations led by the Dagestani jamaats. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that Dagestan remained one of the operational fronts employed by groups loyal to Basayev.
In Dagestan itself, the federal authorities also had a series of successes, quickly closing down the Gubden madrassah, making scores of arrests and killing dozens of jamaat members. This appears to have led Khalilov and Makasharipov to disband Dzhennet and consolidate the nebulous jamaats into one larger group, which operated under the name, Shari’ah Jamaat. This process of centralisation led to the creation of a series of smaller groups which operated across Dagestan (Buinaksk, Makhachkala, Gubden, Khasayurt, Kaspiask jamaats). These military jamaats, which acted as semi-autonomous clandestine sub-groups, were represented on the Chechen-led military Shura by the likes of Abdul Madzhid, another Dagestani volunteer who had trained at Serjen Yurt in the inter-war years. It appears that Khalilov and his deputy Abdul Madzhid oversaw strategic operations in support of Basayev’s use of the system of military jamaats, while Makasharipov coordinated tactical operations targeting federal officials at a local level. At the same time, the consolidation of the jamaats in the latter part of 2004 led to the full integration of the Shari’ah Jamaat, which sought to instigate a local jihad directed against the federal authorities, into the hierarchy of the Chechen-led anti-federal movement (Kavkaz Tsenter, January 21, 2005). In effect, the Shari’ah Jamaat became the key focal point for operations in Dagestan, as part of a regional insurgency. It recruited local men from sub-ethnic groups, as the economic and political situation in the republic continued to flounder, and undertook a series of high-profile assassinations and a relentless bombing campaign in 2004 and 2005 (ITAR-TASS, July 27, 2005).
Volunteers and sympathizers beyond Chechnya had freedom of movement which not only granted them a measure of tactical importance –they could, after all, initiate low-intensity operations to stretch federal forces– but allowed them to form part of the broader strategic goals of the Chechen-led insurgency. However, the insurgency was tainted by the events in Beslan, along with the killing of Aslan Maskhadov in the spring of 2005. The new leader of the movement, Abdul Khalim Sadullayev quickly established a new system of military jamaats –named the Caucasus Front– recognizing the importance of the Dagestani militant underground (Daymokh, August 19, 2005). In the spring of 2005, both Khalilov and Makasharipov pledged allegiance to the new military structure organized by Sadullayev (Kavkaz Tsentr, March 18, 2005). However, the federal authorities managed to corner and kill Makasharipov in Makhachkala in July 2005 (Kavkaz-Uzel, July 8, 2005). Thereafter, Khalilov assumed control of the Dagestani jamaats which maintained a low level threat, targeting police and governmental officials in a campaign of assassinations and bombings as part of the Chechen-led war effort (Kavkaz Tsenter, July 12, 2005). By this stage, small clandestine jamaats had been established in Buinaksky, Karabudakhkentsky and the Khasayurtsky districts. These were often targeted by the federal authorities, leading to reports of the deaths of jamaat leaders (RIA Novosti, April 16, 2005; ITAR-TASS, November 21, 2005).
However, Chechen leader Sadullayev was killed in Argun on June 17, while Basayev died shortly afterwards, on July 10. These deaths paved the way for a comprehensive restructuring of the military infrastructure led by the veteran field-commander, Doku Umarov. Throughout 2006 and 2007, military jamaats outside Chechnya (in Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan) took an oath of allegiance (Bayat) to Umarov, and the new political and religious structure known as the Caucasus Emirate (Kavkaz Tsenter, September 30, 2006), which governed military operations. The system of regional military jamaats replaced the Chechen-led and Chechen-focused strategy of Sadullayev, with Umarov advancing a regional and radical agenda. A host of non-Chechen figures were promoted into the hierarchy of the movement (Emir Magas leader of the Ingushetia jamaat; Emir Muhannad the leader of the Arab mujahideen) which oversaw the transformation of the movement. In Dagestan, federal operations continued to target Basayev loyalists –leading to the death of Khalilov in September 2007 (ITAR-TASS, September 17, 2007). Umarov, named Abdul Madzhid as the leader of the Shari’ah Jamaat (Kavkaz Tsenter, October 1, 2007) and posthumously awarded Khalilov the rank of army general (Kavkaz Tsenter, October 7, 2007), while the federal authorities continued to target the local jamaats (ITAR-TASS, November 12, 2007).
Madzhid’s appointment effectively led to a renewed attempt to replenish the ranks of the jamaats, and consolidate the militant underground. A period of inter-generational change followed, as a series of younger commanders, many of whom had not participated in the second Russo-Chechen war, took control of the jamaats which now existed throughout Dagestan. Omar Sheikhulayev, known by the nom de guerre Emir Muaz, was a younger volunteer whose star rose in the ranks of the Dagestani jamaats. Reportedly, he had served in Makasharipov’s group and acted as an aide to Khalilov (RGVK TV, Makhachkala, September 21, 2006; Interfax, February 5, 2009). Muaz pledged allegiance to the Caucasus Emirate, led by Umarov, and continued to lead the operations of the Shari’ah Jamaat, following the death of the Madzhid in September 2008. Numerous federal officials were targeted and killed by the independent subunits led by Emir Muaz.
Muaz himself was killed in February 2009, once again, accelerating the inter-generational change in the Dagestani militant underground. His successor was Umulat Magomedov, a young man who operated under the title Al Bara. While Magomedov once again consolidated the movement, three local jamaats took the lead in operations in Dagestan: the Gubden jamaat led by Vagabov, the Karabudakhkentsky jamaat led by Abdugayev Zakarayev, and the jamaat led by Vagabov’s deputy, Shamil Magomed (aka Kuppa-Shamil). Each was targeted by the federal authorities throughout 2009, in so-called special operations from March to June (ITAR-TASS, March 20, 2009). Zakarayev was killed, along with twelve others, in March 2009 (Interfax, Match 21, 2009). Throughout the rest of that year, the remaining jamaat members loyal to Kuppa-Shamil and Vagabov orchestrated a series of attacks, although they were relentlessly targeted by the federal authorities. Then on December 31, Umulat Magomedov, known as Al Bara, was killed in a skirmish with federal officials. While Al Bara’s death yielded valuable information on the financial infrastructure of the Dagestani underground, the shootout also had a more immediate impact on the various jamaats. Shamil Magomedov –known as Kuppa-Shamil– the deputy of the Gubden jamaat and close associate of Magomed Vagabov was also killed, as was Ibragim Ibiev, leader of Kazbek militant group (Kavkaz-Uzel, January 1). In fact, Kuppa-Shamil had led an offshoot of the Gubden jamaat, and his death along with Al Bara and Ibiev was a significant blow for Dagestani militant underground. Since then, other jamaat leaders, including Marat Kurbanov, leader of the Makhachkala jamaat have been killed in skirmishes with the federal authorities (Interfax, January 10).
The recent appointment of Magomed Vagabov (rendered Vagapov in local Arabic script) indicates that the Dagestani militant underground has survived the harsh federal crackdown throughout 2009, and the spring of 2010. By early 2010, suicide attacks had occurred, for the first time, in Dagestan proper. On January 6, a truck bomb was detonated at a federal barracks in Makhachkala, killing and wounding scores of people. The suicide attack was clearly part of a renewed wave of regional operations, which began in 2008, organized by the leadership of the Caucasus Emirate. The January attack in Dagestan was followed in March by the suicide attacks in Moscow, by Dagestani volunteers. Evidently, the attacks in Moscow were a direct response to the killing of the jamaat leaders at the turn of the year, given that they targeted the two institutions held responsible for the deaths of Al Bara and his affiliates. However, on March 31 two further suicide attacks took place in Kizlyar in Dagestan, killing scores of police officers (Interfax, March 31). These attacks, and the appointment of Vagabov as the Emir of the Dagestani jamaats, indicate that a younger more radical and resilient group is now at the forefront of the regional Islamist insurgency. While Vagabov had a long-standing role in the Dagestani insurgency, his rein as spiritual leader of the Sharia Jamaat and his role in the hierarchy of the Emirate was short-lived. Federal authorities surrounded a house in Gunib on August 21, killing Vagabov in the ensuing fire-fight (Interfax, August 21).
The Sharia Jamaat website issued a statement shortly afterwards, confirming the death of Vagabov, his deputy (named as Salakhuddin) and another aide. The statement noted that another Emir would be appointed shortly, and that attacks directed against federal targets in Russia would continue (Sharia Jamaat, August 22). While other militants linked to Vagabov were killed in Khasayurt around a week later (RIA Novosti, August 25), the statement by the Sharia Jamaat was quickly realized. Vagabov’s successor, named as Emir Hassan, was appointed by decree at the start of September (Kazkaz Tsentr, September 1). Then, on September 5, a suicide attack targeted a military training base, which housed the 136th Motor Rifle Brigade, killing at least three service personnel and injuring over thirty (RIA Novosti, September 5). A relentless wave of counter-terrorist operations followed the attack, as the militant underground, including members of Emir Hassan’s group, were targeted by the federal authorities (Interfax, September 16, 14).
Despite significant losses, the poverty in the republic, harsh measures deployed by federal authorities, alongside inter-generational change, appear to have helped create a militant underground in Dagestan. The relentlessness and precise nature of attacks by the military jamaats indicate that a resilient indigenous armed resistance movement has become embedded. A militant underground focused on Dagestan has now emerged and may be willing to support further operations outside of the North Caucasus.