Nearly seven years ago, in the fall of 2007, Islamic militants in the North Caucasus who were unhappy with the ideology of independence for Ichkeria replaced it with an Islamic ideology and declared the formation of the Caucasus Emirate (Kavkazsky Uzel, December 29, 2014).
The Caucasus Emirate existed while it was led by the Chechen Doku Umarov, but it did not last for even one year after its leaders made a tactical and strategic mistake by appointing the Dagestani amir Abu Muhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov) as its head. Those who elected Kebekov to head the Caucasus Emirate reasoned that since the Dagestani jamaat was the largest, it made sense for a Dagestani to lead the organization. However, in reality, the Caucasus Emirate in the North Caucasus is only part of the armed underground system. Another part is in Turkey and is made up of emigrants who left Russia. Many of them were members of North Caucasus jamaats. A conflict over the few resources they still had started in Turkey, as some forces attempted to limit the level of Chechen influence on that organization.
Why did the influence of the Chechens become an issue? The first centers of resistance to Russia were formed in Chechnya after the Soviet Union fell apart and Chechnya proclaimed its independence from Russia in 1991. Secondly, the first militant Salafist jamaats were also established in Chechnya, during the second Russian-Chechen war. The Saudi Emir Khattab set up Salafist centers for volunteers from the republics of the former Soviet Union. Thirdly, the Chechens were the first to establish extensive networks of support abroad after the first Russian-Chechen war of 1994–1996. However, after Russia started the second war in 1999 and members of other jamaats—Dagestanis, Ingush, Kabardins and Karachays—started to arrive in Turkey, they also attempted to obtain a share of the resources. This resulted in a reduction in support for the militants in the North Caucasus from their main Middle East donors and undercut the Chechen influence in the Caucasus Emirate. The organization of the militants began to decentralize, meaning that the system that had been created and maintained for 20 years started to fall apart due to the nationalist ambitions of the North Caucasus national jamaats. All the jamaats of the North Caucasus have had their own representatives in Turkey since 2002. Each jamaat representative has worked to defend his jamaat’s interests and put pressure on the Chechens to share the assistance they receive from their donors.
The pledge of allegiance made to Islamic State (IS) by the former commander of the Riyad as-Salihin suicide bomber battalion, amir Khamzat (Aslan Byutukayev), was the final chord in the history of the Caucasus Emirate (YouTube, June 12). In his audio address, amir Khamzat declared himself and his group of Chechen militants “subjects” of the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This oath of allegiance resolves all the differences and conflicts that existed in the Chechen segment of the Islamic armed resistance. Those Chechen amirs who pledged allegiance to IS back in December 2014, bypassing amir Khamzat (see EDM, January 8), may now join forces, and amir Khamzat is likely to be their leader again. The Investigative Committee of Russia suspects amir Khamzat of organizing the suicide bomb attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport and the attack in Grozny on December 4, 2014 (Kavpolit.com, June 13). He is one of the few remaining Chechen commanders who date back to the Chechen resistance of the fall of 1999.
Despite the enthusiasm of the North Caucasus militants about the Islamic State, IS seems to have little interest in them. Since the end of November 2014, when amir Suleiman (Suleiman Zainalabidov), the leader of the Aukhov jamaat who was recently killed in Dagestan, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, the North Caucasus insurgency has not received any hints of support from the IS leadership. Even Chechens well-positioned in IS, like Umar Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili), have not signaled their support. The impression one gets is that the IS leadership is not actually happy about gaining support from the North Caucasus militants. This strange silence on the part of “the Caliphate” is embarrassing for the members of the Islamic armed underground movement who declared their willingness to subordinate themselves to those who do not see them and do not respond to their oaths of allegiance.
After the Caucasus Emirate is gone, the influence of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on the North Caucasian rebels will also diminish and eventually disappear. When Abu Muhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov) was elected amir of the Caucasus Emirate, al-Zawahiri began to drift toward recognizing the North Caucasus militants as a part of the worldwide jihad (hunafa.com, June 23, 2014). Even though dozens of analysts and researchers have been saying over the past two decades that Chechen militants were part of al-Qaeda, in reality, throughout the existence of this organization, its leadership has never declared the Chechens to be part of al-Qaeda and never treated the Chechens as its militant force in the Caucasus.
A virtual Islamic State appears to be replacing the virtual Caucasus Emirate. IS in the North Caucasus is virtual because this creation of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has little to do with the region. The former Islamic armed resistance in the North Caucasus will have to prove it is a capable branch of the Islamic State by carrying out brutal terrorist actions to attract the attention of IS’s leadership.
What will this mean for Russia? If the leadership of the Islamic State recognizes the militants of the North Caucasus Islamist armed underground, it will lead to a new stage of tensions in the region. Russia will have to cope with the joint forces of the North Caucasus rebels and Middle Eastern radicals. The new rebel organization will be one of the most extremist in the history of Islamic radicalism. As the militants of the North Caucasus transition from the Caucasus Emirate to the Islamic State, the prospects for more destabilizing developments in Russia’s restive North Caucasus may only grow worse.