Understanding the Motivations behind the Dagestani Rebels

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 36

The more unstable the North Caucasus becomes, the more discussions take place in Russia about why it is happening and why people are taking up arms and fighting. Observers particularly focus on Dagestan, the biggest Caucasian region and the most complicated one due to its multiethnic population. Local and federal officials usually stress economic problems and ethnic conflicts as the main reasons for the rise of the insurgency in Dagestan. Unemployment and corruption are mentioned as the two main issues in the republic.

On September 18, when security officials managed to track down and kill Rappani Khalilov, Dagestan’s top rebel leader, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, the Russian president’s personal aide, again cited unemployment as the problem that needs to be solved first in order to normalize the situation in Dagestan. At a press conference in Moscow, Aslakhanov said he believes that is necessary to find jobs for young people in order to improve the situation in Dagestan. “All children in the North Caucasus have a common upbringing,” he said. “A young man grows up with a strong belief that he has to become the protector and breadwinner of his family. Many healthy young men have no work and they feel ashamed when they return home with nothing. Then some approach the jobless youngsters and tell them that they will help them support their family, but they should go and pull a trigger for that.”

However, during the same press conference, Aslakhanov disavowed his own thesis that poverty is forcing young Dagestanis to join the militants. Commenting on the elimination of Khalilov, he noted that “except for this slain bandit, there are many others in Dagestan who believe that they have a right to kill, to take revenge and to fight for their rights with weapons” (RIA Novosti, September 18).

To know the real motivations of the rebels in Dagestan and in the North Caucasus, one should ask the insurgents directly about their demands and the main goal of their struggle. In addition, it should be noted that the motivations of the rebel leaders and the common fighters could differ. Unfortunately, we do not have the opportunity to speak with the rebels directly since they operate underground. It would be especially difficult to interview ordinary guerrillas, but would be interesting to know the mindset of a Caucasian mujahideen. Just yesterday, he was an ordinary Russian schoolboy or student, but now he has a long beard and lives in a tent high in the mountains, sleeping together with his assault rifle instead of his wife or girlfriend.

The Dagestani rebels have intensified their propaganda campaign this fall, posting on their websites video statements and interviews of commanders and ordinary guerrillas. Despite the propaganda purposes of such video materials, they give us a chance to look closely at those who give the North Caucasus its image as a volatile region.

The Kavkaz-Center rebel website has posted two videos of the Dagestani insurgents. One is a video of the leader Rappani Khalilov, in which he appeals to Dagestani Muslims, calling on them to join the jihad. The other is a collective appeal of a group of rebels from the Dagestani rebel group Sharia Jamaat.

The second video features four armed Dagestanis, each of whom says a few words about the motivations behind their struggle. They discuss their perspectives and understandings of Islam. They are followers of the Islamic religious doctrine, which teaches that those who fight for Islam will become martyrs and go to heaven after death. It seems that the rebels really believe this and have no doubts about it. What influenced them to believe this remains a question; while there is more than one way in which a Muslim arrives at this belief, the way one is raised since childhood is a possibility. At the same time, many of them may have received their education at religious institutes in Muslim countries. One of the rebels in the video speaks fluent Arabic.

One of the most notable points in the rebel propaganda is their reference to the history of Dagestan as being rich in anti-Russian uprisings under jihadist slogans. One of the rebels says: “We are proud of such heroes as Imam Mukhtar, Imam Shamil, Shamil Basaev, Khattab and Osama bin Laden and we will follow their path.” Mukhtar and Shamil were leaders of Dagestan who had fought against the Russian empire in the 19th century; Basaev and Khattab are famous Chechen rebel warlords; while Osama bin Laden is the most notorious international terrorist, who has declared jihad against the United States. Naming these men together in one row means that the insurgents, in their minds, have combined the old traditions of the anti-Russian resistance of the Caucasian peoples together with Chechen separatism and the anti-American and anti-Christian terrorism of al-Qaeda.

However, in the video, more speak more about the relations between Dagestan and Russia than about Islam. One of them, addressing Dagestani policemen and officials, says: “Putin and Vanya [Russians] govern you. You are not men if you let dirty Russians tell you what to do.” Another rebel then adds that he would be glad to serve in the army for pay if it was an army of his own Islamic state. It should be noted that in his video appeal, the late Rappani Khalilov also says that Dagestanis cannot be called men as long as they are under the control of Moscow.

In neither video is anything said about money. The analyses of these videos show that nationalism and separatism, mixed with the religious doctrine of radical Islam, form the ideology of the Caucasian insurgency. Given the lack of freedom in the region, nationalism and separatism, which have traditionally been linked with Islam in the North Caucasus, combine to create the real motivation for the militants.