Warriors of the Nogai Steppe: A Profile of the Nogai Jammat

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 31

It has become fairly common for the Nogai jamaat to be overlooked, even by the leaders of the Caucasus resistance movement. It is never listed as one of the “fronts” or “sectors” of the resistance, making some believe that the Nogai battalion is finished forever. This is most certainly untrue, since a separate Stavropol sector does exist, and this is exactly the territory for which the Nogais are responsible. Additionally, the Nogais are present in not just Stavropol, but also in northern Chechnya (Shelkovskii district), northern Dagestan (Nogaiskii district) and parts of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, making them a presence in four republics of the region and a mobile force that is capable of exerting its influence in a variety of different places.

Today’s Nogai jamaat was formed from the fighters of the Nogai battalion that participated in the first Chechen campaign. During the second Chechen campaign, the battalion was composed of those Nogais that lived in the Shelkovskii district of Chechnya and was commanded by Shamil Basaev. One of the first leaders of the group was Sultan Dautov, a well-educated man who had served as a representative in the 1997 Chechen parliament. Dautov was perfectly at home in the jungles of Chechen politics and although known as “one of Basaev’s men,” he never allowed the Nogai battalion to become part of the political infighting that occurred in 1998-99.

The entire battalion fought in the battles for Grozny in 1999-2000, where it lost the majority of its members (which according to some estimates consisted of approximately 20 men), including the political and military leader Sultan Dautov. The remnants of the battalion (including Ulubey “Sedik” Elgushiev, Rasul “Volchok” Tambulatov, Kamil Kuntuganov, Arislan Bimurzaev, Emir Takhir Bataev and many others) followed Basaev’s orders and relocated to northern Chechnya. Following their withdrawal from Grozny, and much like the rest of the Chechen units, the Nogais were reorganized and starting in 2000 were being referred to as a jamaat, instead of a battalion. While small in number and somewhat removed from the main theater of hostilities, the Nogai jamaat focused their attention on northern Chechnya and southern Stavropol where the presence of numerous Nogai settlements makes them undetectable by the Russian special services. This was seen clearly during one attempt by federal forces to surround several guerrillas from the Nogai jamaat in a village house, with the Russian Minister of Internal Affairs admitting that it was impossible to successfully conduct an operation when the entirety of a village was assisting the guerillas.

Such loyalty is a unique feature of the Nogai ethnic group, which is one of the “small” ethnicities of the Northern Caucasus and numbers only 70,000 strong. Most Nogais are related to each other and the notion of defending each other against external threats overrides all other considerations, with individual Nogais seeing themselves as obligated to help their ethnic group in any way possible.

The Nogais are one of the oldest Muslim ethnic groups in the region, with their Islamic affiliation going back centuries. The Soviet practice of discrediting Islam during the decades-long period of total atheism has taken its toll, however, and many Nogais have become nominal Muslims, with religiosity being confined to the older generations. It is unsurprising that the rebirth of Islam in the region has affected the Nogais just as much as the other ethnic groups. It was the Nogai youth who actively pursued the study of Islam and became the advocates of radicalism. This is also unsurprising given the overwhelmingly Sufi background of most of the neighboring peoples, a background that made Salafism particularly attractive after the dissolution of the USSR and that attracted many young men from a traditionally Sufi background.

Having lost so many of its members during this war, the Nogai jamaat has become quite professional, having completed training in the camp of Emir Khattab and having fought extensively in Grozny and its environs. Nonetheless, it was dangerous for them to remain in the highlands of Chechnya, since they were noticeably different in appearance from the Chechens (having Mongolian features) and so were unable to hide amongst the villagers of the region. This was probably the reason behind Shamil Basaev’s order to relocate north and lay the foundations for the resistance in that area.

While the authorities in Stavropol are concerned about the situation in the province, they are overwhelmingly focusing on those areas traditionally inhabited by the Nogai ethnic group. All mentions of “Wahhabist” groups in the province also refer to the Nogais and Karachais (closely related ethnicities that along with the Balkars and Kumyks belong to the same Turkic language group) (www.kavkazmemo.ru, December 15, 2005).

Turkey played a noticeable part in the spread of religious education due to its pan-Turkic foreign policy. Along with the Crimean Tatars, Karachais and Balkars, the Nogais were welcome guests in Turkey. The Kumyks are the only missing link in Ankara’s pan-Turkic policy, since for two centuries now they have seen their future tied to that of the Russian state, a view strongly advanced by the Kumyk intelligentsia and aristocracy.

The attacks that were organized in northern Chechnya and Dagestan are indisputably the work of the Nogai jamaat (these attacks were against local militia in 2005 and in 2006 and other places during the past several years that total no less than ten separate attacks). Having recovered from its previous significant losses, the jamaat has been reformed and is able to fulfill the goals set by the commanders of the Caucasus resistance movement. During a period of six months in 2006, a beat policeman and a businessman were killed, while the homes of those who criticized the jamaat were fired upon (www.neftekulmsk.ru, March 14).

The military dispatches mention the notable battle in the village of Tukui-Mekteb, which occurred on February 8-9, 2006. During the battle, federal forces were directed by Aleksandr Chekalin, the deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation, and included hundreds of fighters from the Nefterkum Brigade of the Ministry, as well as fighters from the FSB and the Attorney General’s office. Seven policemen, five guerrillas and seven local civilians were killed, with most jamaat members successfully withdrawing (www.grani.ru, February 10, 2006). On February 24, 2007, a similar battle took place in Kizliar, where four guerrillas were surrounded in a home and killed (Kommersant, #29 (3605), February 26).

The actual numbers of the jamaat are unlikely to exceed several dozen, but may reach 30-40 fighters, a notable number for such a small ethnic group. The jamaat is split into several smaller groups (three to five men each), that are determined by the place of residence. There are two such groups in Chechnya, three in Dagestan, two in Stavropol and one in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. An emir generally elected from among the “Chechen Nogais” (those that live in Chechnya) is the leader of the jamaat.

All of the above clearly shows that the Nogai jamaat not only exists, but that it also functions. Yet because of the geographic location that it occupies, it is far less likely to undertake serious action unless assisted by the jamaats of Chechnya, Dagestan and Karachai-Cherkessia. The Nogais prefer to work with other jamaats, coordinating their actions with resistance groups from the nearby regions.

It is true that the Nogai jamaat is currently in stasis, but it is by no means destroyed, despite the declarations made by the Russian politicians and military officials. At any moment, the fighters of the resistance movement can find help as well as a base for further operations among the members of the Nogai jamaat. The reasons for the continued existence of this group lie in Russia’s policies in the region, making further developments inescapable.