Despite the constant upbeat reports from Russian ministries and agencies concerning the “neutralization” of 316 militants in the North Caucasus since the start of 2012, the number of militants in the region for some reason does not appear to be decreasing. “Neutralization,” as a rule, includes both killings and arrests (https://echo.msk.ru/news/890356-echo.html). To have a greater impact on the situation in the North Caucasus, Kremlin-backed authorities often revert to propaganda tools once used by Soviet officials. As a recent example, it is hard to find another explanation for one of the Chechen government’s latest decisions – to force Chechen schoolchildren to write letters to militants, asking the rebels to come out from the forests. Some 25,000 of these letters were dropped from helicopters in areas where Chechen fighters are believed to be concentrated (www.stav.kp.ru/online/news/1154744/). However, it is unlikely that the militants will be moved by the appearance of these letters.
Meanwhile, the militants have conducted their own propaganda event. A video recording and photographs of the Chechen rebels taking part in a meeting chaired by the leader of the North Caucasus armed resistance, Doku Umarov, on April 29 were posted on rebel websites. In Chechnya, the local authorities have been repeating the mantra about there being “40-50 surviving” rebels for the past seven years. Yet the video and photographs from the recent meeting depicted dozens of militants in attendance. Information from various sources in the North Caucasus armed resistance allows us to assess the approximate number of militants in each area of the republic.
Umarov chaired the April meeting of the Shura (council) of Western Chechnya, in which his naib (deputy) Emir Khamzat also took part along with commanders of the Western Chechnya sectors. The latter included the emir of the Achkhoi-Martan sector, Abu Muslim; the emir of Urus-Martan district, Abdullah; the emir of the Shatoi sector, Assadullah; the emir of the Itum-Kale sector, Abu-Daud; the emir of the Sunzha sector (in Chechnya), Abdusabur; and the emir of the united Chechen and Ingush Sunzha sector, Mohammad. From eastern Chechnya, the emir of the Kurchaloi sector, Zaurbek, and the emir of the Gudermes sector, Abdurakhman, also attended the meeting. Emir Islam, Emir Assad and a few other unnamed commanders were also present (https://kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2012/05/17/90620.shtml).
From the photographs posted on insurgent websites, over 50 participants in the meeting can be counted. This figure obviously does not include those who provided safety for the event or those who declined to be photographed. Therefore, if we are to believe that the people shown participating represent only the command level of the insurgency, the numbers are certainly impressive and show that Umarov’s fortunes have improved in this part of Chechnya. It must also be pointed out that rebels associated with Emir Tarkhan Gaziev, who was not part of the reconciliation between Umarov and the dissenting Chechen commanders in August 2011, probably did not attend the meeting (https://kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2011/07/23/83748.shtml). Gaziev is not the only dissenting commander in Chechnya. Hussein Gakaev and Aslanbek Vadalov have also kept their distance from Umarov, allowing them to act outside the general command of Western Chechnya. Vadalov may be under Gakaev’s command, while Gakaev also was appointed naib to Umarov, despite his previous leadership of the dissenting faction in the resistance (https://kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2011/07/23/83748.shtml).
Judging by what is shown in the Shura photographs, Umarov has managed to reassert his authority in this part of Chechnya, which was shaken after a group of rebels led by Emir Tarkahn disavowed him. Meanwhile, the authority of Emir Khamzat appears to be rising in Western Chechnya – a sector created to replace the Southwestern front that Umarov disbanded in September 2011. Emir Khamzat is reportedly the closest person to Umarov today (www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2011/07/23/83759_print.html).
Another curious feature of the insurgent meeting was the participation of very popular insurgent leaders from eastern Chechnya, such as Emir Zaurbek (Avdorkhanov), the brother of rebel commander Akhmad Avdorkhanov who died of battle-related injuries on September 12, 2005. In the conflict between the three emirs – Hussein, Aslanbek and Tarkhan – Emir Zaurbek took sides against Doku Umarov. Emir Zaurbek enjoys unchallenged authority in eastern Chechnya and serves as an example to Chechen youth who sympathize with the rebels. The pro-Russian government of Chechnya has offered a bounty of more than $300,000 for any information on Emir Zaurbek (https://grozny-inform.ru/main.mhtml?Part=11&PubID=20619). Ramzan Kadyrov equates the importance of Emir Zaurbek to that of emirs Aslanbek and Hussein. Along with Emir Zaurbek, eastern Chechnya was represented also by Emir Abdurakhman, who is under Emir Hussein’s command. Emir Hussein most likely sent them to the meeting in his place.
Rebel news sources also announced that Doku Umarov had inspected several mobile and stationary militant bases in the Chechen mountains, including a training base that was preparing to release another 30 “Mujahideen-trainees” (https://ummanews.ru/news/last-news/6944-2012-05-18-14-21-59.html). It is difficult to assess how truthful this information is. It is unlikely the rebels in Chechnya can maintain permanent training facilities given the high concentration of Russian military and security personnel that continue to operate there. It is more likely that the young rebels are trained “on the job” in various small groups while at the same time carrying out attacks. Chechnya is only about the size of the US state of Connecticut, with about one-third of its territory being treeless and about a quarter of its territory consisting of highland grassland. Under these circumstances, it is highly unrealistic to expect the rebels to have such bases. The only zone where a rebel military base could possibly exist includes three districts of Chechnya – Urus-Martan, Achkhoi-Martan and Sunzha – which narrows the search area and simplifies the counter-insurgency task for the Russian security services.
Although the meeting of Chechen militants was designed as a propaganda event, it still allowed for an assessment of the situation inside the armed resistance movement in Chechnya. One can conclude, first of all, that the number of the militants in Chechnya is far greater than the official pro-Moscow authorities of Chechnya are willing to admit. Second, there seems to be no shortage of ammunition. Third, the unity among the militants appears to be unquestionable, with only a few uncertain cases. If the same trend holds true in eastern Chechnya, we will likely see a deterioration of the security situation in this part of the republic with rebel attacks increasing in the summer-fall season.