Was Chechnya’s Leader the Target of an IS-Inspired Assassination Plot?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 16 Issue: 22

Experts have paid insufficient attention to news of an assassination attempt against Ramzan Kadyrov at the beginning of November 2015. The reported attempt on the Chechen ruler’s life illuminates what the current situation in Chechnya is like. On November 1, Russian media made the surprise announcement that the authorities had prevented an assassination attempt on Kadyrov (Vesti.ru, November 3).

According to officials, the authorities became suspicious after a group of young men in the city of Argun, located 14 kilometers southeast of Grozny, developed the habit of remaining behind with the imam of a mosque, after the conclusion of prayers there. Such discussions following prayers are normal among Muslims, but imams in Chechnya are not simply Muslim clerics: they are also responsible for reporting the views of their parishioners to the authorities. According to various sources, the group consisted of about 20 people. One of them, named Ilyas Khizriev, is believed to be the head of the group and, according to the authorities, a recruiter for the “Iblis State,” as the Chechen authorities call the Islamic State (IS). The Islamic State is banned in Russia (Lenta.ru, November 3).

It appears that one member of the group reported on it to the authorities. The young parishioners regularly stayed behind after prayers and had long discussions with the mosque’s imam. The police arrested all 20 suspects and held them at the Argun district police station for three days. Kadyrov himself eventually arrived at the police station and pardoned them all, except for the imam of the mosque, after talking to them for five hours. The suspects’ parents also were present during the discussion with the Chechen ruler (Grozny.tv, November 2).

According to another version of the story, the suspects were preparing a terrorist attack on the mosque in Argun. A local TV channel asserted that brainwashing of the suspects had changed them so much that one of them joined the group despite that fact that he was a Sufi and the brother of a police officer who had been killed in a terrorist attack (Newsru.com, November 3).

Kadyrov decided that all of this was the fault of the mosque’s imam, who he said was acting in the interests of the IS (Instagram.com, November 2). The fact that the young people sought answers from an imam illustrates the current situation in the republic. People tend to trust not the officially-appointed imams, who are on government’s payroll, but those imams who do not have direct ties to the government and can discuss controversial topics with them. It is also not surprising that the young men gathered in the mosque’s boiler room to hold their discussions. People in Chechnya are frightened to have frank discussions in mosques, which they believe are under government surveillance.

Ramzan Kadyrov has been the target of previous assassination attempts. In the summer of 2008 (Novayagazeta.ru, July 7, 2008) and September 2009 (Newsland.com, September 28, 2009), members of his inner circle tried to shoot him. In August 2010, insurgents attacked Kadyrov’s clan village, Tsentoroi (Newsru.com, August 30, 2010). In February 2015, someone planted a bomb in Chernorechye that was supposed detonate upon his arrival there (Dni.ru, July 30). Both the authorities and independent journalists have reported many other such incidents.

All of the perpetrators of the previous attacks were killed, but the last assassination attempt took an unusual turn since Kadyrov let all the suspects go free. This raised doubts among the republic’s residents about whether there had been an actual attempt on Kadyrov’s life. Kavkazsky Uzel spoke to Argun residents and concluded that the assassination attempt was fabricated (Kavkavsky Uzel, 3). According to the independent website, one of the group’s members must have interpreted the group’s criticism of the republican authorities as a conspiracy against the authorities. The imam of the Argun mosque probably criticized the official policies in Chechnya with a small group of parishioners.

Also crying out for explanation is how Kadyrov was able to rehabilitate so many people whose guilt was presumably proven by investigators. Russian law does not grant regional governors the right to amnesty criminals. Thus, it is fairly obvious that the suspects were not actually involved in a conspiracy at all.

Kadyrov said during the meeting with the suspects that even though children from disadvantaged families are more likely to fall under a negative influence, the suspects overwhelmingly came from good families. So, social factors do not explain support for the IS, according to the Chechen ruler. Russians still do not realize that people join the IS not because they face social problems, but because they regard this militant group as a force that can build a perfectly just society. That is why the IS is so dangerous.

If the imam of the mosque in Argun actually turns out to have been an IS recruiter, it will mean that there are IS supporters in Chechnya outside the insurgent forces in the republic. In other words, this will signify that the IS may have wider support within Chechen society than was previously known.

Thus, reports about the attempt on Ramzan Kadyrov’s life provide more information about the situation in the republic than about the attempt itself. Kadyrov did not acknowledge the previous attempts on his life, because he thought that they undermined his authority. But now it appears that Kadyrov is using them to increase his influence among the Russians.