Umarov Bows to Pressure Inside Militant Command to Target Sochi Olympics

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 128

Emir Doku Umarov, leader of the Caucasus Emirate (Source: nationalpost.com)

Many observers were surprised by rebel leader Doku Umarov’s videotaped statement recently posted on the Internet announcing an end to the moratorium on attacks on Russian territory (http://archive.org/details/AmirIkDokkuAbuUsmanOtmenilMoratorijNaOperaciiVRossii), but this announcement should have been expected by those who follow the developments in the region. The only question was exactly when the moratorium would be lifted. Back in May, a group of rebels from Dagestan, bypassing their own commander, Emir Abu Muhammad, asked Umarov to lift the ban. They claimed that the prohibition was preventing them from launching strikes on Russia. The authors of the appeal were most likely from the battalion of suicide attackers, because they stressed in particular the need “to abolish that moratorium that he imposed on carrying out shahid operations on the territory of Rusnya [the derogatory term used by the North Caucasian rebels for Russia]…” (http://zulikhan.livejournal.com/148729.html).

Umarov, the leader of the militants in the North Caucasus and emir of the Caucasus Emirate, announced a moratorium on attacks on Russia’s civilian population at the time of mass Russian opposition protests against Vladimir Putin in fall 2011–spring 2012. On February 2, 2012, the rebel Kavkaz Center website posted Umarov’s decision, in which he stated he was changing the status of the civil population of Russia and prohibiting militant attacks on civilian targets (http://kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2012/02/02/88586.shtml).

The decision to impose a moratorium on attacks on civilian targets in Russia was certainly more than a propaganda trick. Indeed, well-known Chechen rebel commanders, such as Muslim Gakaev, Aslanbek Vadalov and Tarkhan Gaziev, were fiercely opposed to attacks on civilian targets in Russia. In August 2010, these commanders even severed relations with Umarov. The conflict was eventually resolved, in part because Umarov quietly agreed not to take responsibility for every attack that takes place in Russia (http://kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2011/07/25/83783.shtml). It was unclear, however, which targets Umarov considered to be civilian. Since the moratorium was announced, 24 terrorist attacks and 637 terrorism-related crimes were reported in Russia (www.mk.ru/social/article/2013/07/03/878846-doku-umarov-otmenil-moratoriy-na-teraktyi-kotoryiy-i-tak-nikto-ne-soblyudal.html).

Interestingly, in his recent video rescinding the moratorium on attacks on Russian civilian targets, Umarov, also named the Volga region as being an area where he has influence. Another curious feature of Umarov’s video is that those who posted Umarov’s statement apparently did it with substantial hesitation. It is hard otherwise to explain why there was a more than ten-hour gap between the announcement about an impending urgent message from Umarov and the actual appearance of the message. The statement was only four minutes long and no translation was needed, since Umarov’s message was delivered in Russian.

The Russian authorities evidently disliked Umarov’s video announcement: as of the morning of July 3, it had been removed from YouTube (http://kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2013/07/03/98961.shtml) because of the threats Umarov made on it. The administration of the Kavkaz Center website video, however, continued to disseminate the video on other Internet servers.

Despite being predictable, the lifting of the ban on attacks still raises the question of why Umarov did it. Is there a real danger of attacks? At this moment there is no clear answer to this question. The head of Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website, Grigory Shvedov, believes the threat is quite real and that the Olympic Games may be targeted by the militants (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324399404578583040427479564.html?mod=wsj_share_tweet). Alexander Perendzhiev, a member of the association of military analysts, thinks that if the militants were capable of carrying out an attack they would have done so already (http://kommersant.ru/doc/2225448). Still, Russian law enforcement agencies admit that the “possibility of a threat cannot be ruled out completely and to prevent it from taking place, all possible measures are being implemented, including some preventative ones” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/226558/). Back in 2012, Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, announced the interception of a whole cache of arms in Abkhazia that were allegedly to be smuggled into Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held (www.rg.ru/2012/05/10/terakty-anons.html).

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov did not refrain from reacting to Umarov’s video statement. He said Umarov’s statement indicated the rebel leader wanted to call attention to himself even though his movement lacked the strength and manpower to carry out any attacks (http://echo.msk.ru/news/1107972-echo.html). Moreover, Kadyrov stated that Umarov would be obliterated prior to the start of the Olympics (http://www.rosbalt.ru/federal/2013/07/03/1148490.html). Kadyrov noted that in 2012 Chechnya hosted hundreds of public events, which millions of people participated in, and the militants did not attempt to disrupt them. However, it should be noted that 174 people were victims of the conflict in Chechnya last year, 82 of whom were killed and 92 wounded (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/218940/).

So, realistically, there has been a threat to civilian targets in Russia ever since the start of the second military campaign in Chechnya. Various North Caucasian groups that are formally under Doku Umarov’s command carry out attacks. Most or perhaps even all of these attacks are conducted without Umarov’s direct consent. Most rebel groups are autonomous. Today, the jihadist movement is especially well-rooted among the intelligentsia and students, which makes this threat hard to contain, unpredictable and dangerous. Neither the FSB nor other security agencies are able to neutralize all of these forces. Many people across Russia do not necessarily declare their support for the Caucasus Emirate but are prepared to help when asked.

Thus, even though Umarov’s recent announcement was a propaganda move, it should also be taken seriously in the run-up to the Olympiad in the region, especially because the North Caucasian militants consider Sochi to be part of the Caucasus Emirate’s territory.