Who’s Who in the KBR Jamaat

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 26

Yesterday’s report about the killing of Ruslan Gidzhiev, a person that the Kremlin is portraying to the Western media as the “spiritual leader of the group Yarmuk,” once again highlights a need to explore the makeup, aims, and origins of the insurgent group operating in the Circassian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, a region that Shamil Basaev once referred to as “Sleeping Beauty” because of its strategic importance in the Circassian heartland of the North Caucasus. “Sleeping Beauty” did in fact stir to life in October 2005 when insurgents launched a major citywide attack on its capital of Nalchik, shocking the Russian intelligence services as the Circassian insurgency struck back for the first time since the Russian conquest of the Circassians in 1864.

With the death of Gidzhiev, however, the passing of “the spiritual leader” of Yarmuk is unlikely to have much of an impact on the group as it remains highly secretive, extremely diverse and well-organized. Contrary to what the Kremlin wants western policymakers to believe, the passing of Gidzhiev is merely the tip of the iceberg of the Circassian nationalist movement in Kabardino-Balkaria.

The first time Yarmuk appeared was at the end of September 2004 when the “Kavkaz-Center” website announced, “Everyone should be aware that, as of today, by the mercy of Allah, the Kabardino-Balkari military jamaat ‘Yarmuk’ has been formed. Divisions of ‘Yarmuk’ are quartered across the republic and are working toward meeting those military goals set before them by the demands of jihad.”

The Makeup of the KBR Jamaats

The youth jamaats of Kabardino-Balkaria represent a web of small groups, some of which number no more than five persons, while others have up to a 100-150 members. These groups are generally formed on a geographic and residential basis. Each group has a leader – an emir. Members of the same group tend to be very close; they not only pray together, but also support and assist each other in everyday life. Local jamaats are component parts of larger ones, including neighborhood and municipal groups, with all jamaats coming together to be part of the one jamaat of Kabardino-Balkaria. The republic’s jamaat is led by an elected emir, a man of undisputed authority and high reputation. The jamaat has governing institutions, including a court, a high council (shura), educational societies, as well as manufacturing and retail businesses.

This structure was created in Kabardino-Balkaria with record speed between the mid-1990s and 2003. According to Professor Irina Babich, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a specialist on the Islamic society of Kabardino-Balkaria, the Kabardino-Balkari jamaat had almost 10,000 members in 2005. “You could raise 10,000 young men today to fight the government in Kabardino-Balkaria,” she said in an interview with the internet news agency Kavkazky Uzel on May 27, 2006.

This massive structure was formed by a small group of young men with undeniable talents in leadership and organization. The leaders of the movement are highly educated, having received both college educations in Russia and religious educations in the Islamic universities of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Some of them fought in the First or Second Chechen Campaigns and many have participated in Circassian national movements. Specific individuals are:

Musa Mukozhev, 40, a man who has since the late 1990s became one of the most important leaders in the republic’s political arena. Mukozhev has a great deal of authority among the younger believers and was elected emir of the Kabardino-Balkari jamaat when it was originally formed.

In 1990, he finished a course of Islamic Studies at the DUM (Duhovnoe upravlenie musul’man) in Nalchik and then the Islamic Institute of Kabardino-Balkaria and interned in Jordan. Starting in 1994, Mukozhev was the director of the Islamic Center of the Kabardino-Balkari DUM. In 1997, he was appointed as imam and preacher to the village of Volnyi Aul (one of Nalchik’s suburbs), where his Friday prayers were so popular with younger believers that the mosque became too small to hold those who came to listen. Hundreds of Muslims traveled to Volnyi Aul not only from across the republic, but even from across the whole region. Predictably, this level of popularity became a concern to the Russian authorities and the mosque was raided repeatedly, with some believers being arrested, often violently during prayer. The mosque was finally closed by the republic’s police in 2004. In 1998, Musa Mukozhev was elected emir (leader) of the Muslim community (jamaat) of Kabardino-Balkaria and ever since that day, he has been a staunch opponent of the official clergy and the DUM.

The Attorney General’s office of the Russian Federation has accused Mukozhev of participating in a series of terrorist acts in the cities of Piatigorsk and Mineralnyi Vody as well as the republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The security services of Kabardino-Balkaria suspect Mukozhev of being connected to various Chechen field commanders and of providing them with aid, as well as popularizing “Wahhabist” ideas among the republic’s youth. That said, no accusations or indictments have led to a conviction in court so far.

In a September 2004 interview given to the Regnum news agency, Mukozhev stated that his jamaat unites around 40 Muslim groupings in Kabardino-Balkaria, and the overall number of his followers totals around 10,000, a figure later confirmed by professor Irina Babich (see above).

In all of his press releases, the emir has shown himself to be a staunch opponent of war in Kabardino-Balkaria, and in 2004-2005, he frequently declared that it was with great difficulty that he was keeping his jamaats from undertaking armed vengeance for the repressions undertaken by the government and the security services.

It is still unclear what role Mukozhev played in planning the October 13 attacks in Nalchik, since he never accepted responsibility for any part of the attacks. Following the attacks, the emir was completely silent until September 2006.

Anzor Astemirov, 31, referred to as “Sayfullah” – “The sword of Allah” in military dispatches. A Kabardin prince by birth, with the Astemirov family holding one of the highest ranks in Kabardin nobility, Anzor received a religious education in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and fought in both of the Chechen Wars. Following his return to Nalchik, he has worked as a journalist.

Astemirov is Mukozhev’s deputy and close friend. Along with the emir, Anzor was arrested by the Attorney General’s office in 2001 in connection with the terrorist acts in the cities of Piatigorsk, Mineralnyi Vody, Esentuki, and the village of Adygee-Khabl. Both of the accused spend two months in the “Belyi Lebed” (“White Swan”) jail in Piatigorsk, a place widely known across the North Caucasus.

Anzor Astemirov accepted responsibility for organizing the attack on an office of the Narcotics Police in Nalchik in December 2004. As a result of the raid, four officers of the Narcotics Police were killed and Astemirov’s men managed to capture the entirety of the office’s arsenal, including 275 firearms, as well as large numbers of grenades and ammunition. The attackers took no casualties. The Russian government has named this attack one of the most daring in the entirety of the North Caucasus and the event is still under investigation by the Attorney General’s office. Part of the captured weapons were later found in a cache in Ingushetia, while another part was used in Astemirov’s next large scale attack – the October 13, 2005 events in Nalchik.

Rasul Kudaev, 33, has a reputation as a scholar among the Muslims of the North Caucasus, and his achievements are such that he bears the title of sheikh. It should be noted that there are actually two different men known as “Rasul Kudaev” in Kabardino-Balkaria. One of them is a former prisoner of Guantanamo Bay and is currently incarcerated in Nalchik under suspicion of leading one of the groups involved in the events of October 2005. This particular Kudaev is not one of the leaders of the Kabardino-Balkari jamaat and the information below concerns the other Kudaev, who holds one of the most important positions in the jamaat organization.

Rasul Kudaev was educated in a madras and then in an Islamic Institute, both of which were opened by the DUM in Nalchik in 1992. Following the DUM’s recommendation, he entered and completed the Institute of Arabic Language and then the Department of Islamic Sciences in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In 2000, he graduated from the most prestigious Saudi university – the Mohammad ibn Saud Islamic University – with a degree in Sharia law.

In 2002-2004, Kudaev taught the Islamic sciences in the Arabic Academy in Moscow, where he was also a graduate student of Financial and Banking Sciences. After returning home to Nalchik, he lectured on Islamic law, as well as led prayers and preached in different mosques of the republic during 2002-2004. Due to his education, Kudaev held the eminent position of judge within the Kabardino-Balkari jamaat. His authority was so high that not only jamaat members, but also other residents of Kabardino-Balkaria (including members of the government) and the people from the whole of the North Caucasus, appealed to him when in need of conflict resolution.

In the summer of 2004, Rasul Kudaev left Russia following the insistent pleas of his friends from the jamaat. His life was in danger, and he was continuously persecuted by the Russian security services. Though Kudaev has not returned to Nalchik since that time, the Russian intelligence services believe that he has maintained his ties with the jamaat. In the spring of 2006, two mujahideen were killed in a Nalchik suburb during a gun battle with the police. Their belonging included CDs with personal correspondence intended for the leaders of the jamaat. Audio recordings on the discs justified the necessity of jihad in Kabardino-Balkaria and the voice of the preacher has been identified as that of Rasul Kudaev. That said, Kudaev’s status remains uncertain – his name periodically appears and then disappears from the lists of wanted men. According to sources within the Russian intelligence services, Kudaev’s file is currently being worked on.

Ruslan Nakhushev, 49, is an Arabist, has graduated from the KGB Academy of the Soviet Union with honors and then went on to complete the Andropov Academy of Foreign Intelligence. As a matter of personal choice, Nakhushev retired from the service with the rank of major. Following his retirement, he headed the Kabardino-Balkari department of General Lebed’s Peacekeeping Mission in the North Caucasus. Nakhushev searched out and rescued people from imprisonment in Chechnya. Alone, and without any bodyguards, he would travel to the camps of the abductors and negotiate with them. In 2001, he came into close contact with the leaders of the Kabardino-Balkari jamaat and helped them resolve certain legal problems. The release of Mukozhev and Astemirov from the jail in Piatigorsk was accomplished with Nakhushev’s help.

Mukozhev and Astemirov were Nakhushev’s deputies in the Institute of Islamic Studies that he had founded. His role in the jamaat is interpreted in different ways, with many Russian media outlets suggesting that his participation was part of his mission as a secret agent of the FSB. His purported goal was to prevent the jamaat from becoming militarized. According to a different theory, Nakhushev was actually a member of the jamaat and in the 2000s, held the post of deputy emir in charge of legal questions and relations with official government structures. A number of news outlets controlled by the intelligence services have also published articles about the “betrayal” perpetrated by a former KGB officer who came to side with the insurgents (“Severnyi Kavkaz” newspaper, and the Russian government publication “Rossiiskaia gazeta.”)

Following the October 13 attacks, the prosecutor’s office of Kabardino-Balkaria accused Nakhushev of terrorism, inciting terrorism, and of aiding and abetting terrorists. The local FSB division demanded that money laundering and financial support for the jamaat also be included in the list of charges, but the prosecutor’s office did not find the evidence compelling. Following his first interrogation at the FSB, Nakhushev vanished without a trace on November 4, 2005.

The Kabardino-Balkari Ministry of Internal Affairs and FSB believe that Nakhushev is alive and on the run, being listed as wanted among other organizers of the Nalchik attacks. Russian human rights organizations believe that he was probably killed by the Russian special services. Nevertheless, Nakhushev’s earlier analysis proved correct, and the situation in the republic has continued to heat up.

On October 13, 2005, small groups of guerillas simultaneously attacked 18 sites in Nalchik that belonged to the security, police and intelligence services. Russian President Putin ordered the blockade of the city in order to prevent reinforcements from the other republics from entering the area. At the same time, all communications, including telephone and cellular communications, as well as radio signals were jammed. These measures disrupted the rebels’ communications and seriously affected the outcome of the whole affair.

The events of the October 13-14, 2005 were described in great detail by the international press and even whole studies of those days are fairly common. It is worth remembering that as a result of the gun battles in the city, 35 members of various security services, 12 civilians, and 37 insurgents were killed. Subsequently, the number of dead insurgents more than doubled. Most of the attackers had no military experience and were insufficiently well armed. Less than 200 men participated in the attacks, 99% of whom were residents of the republic. The local jamaats represented in the attack originated in various districts of the republic. Almost all members of the Zolskii jamaat (from the town of Zalukokuazhe in western Kabardino-Balkaria, located about 10 kilometers from Piatigorsk) were either killed or tortured to death, while the jamaats of Nartan, Terek, Chegem, Shalushka, Kenzhe, Nalchik and Moscow suffered serious losses.

What do we currently know about the Kabardino-Balkari jamaat? Official information and the declarations of the jamaat’s leaders are curiously similar in this case, no matter how atypical such similarity may be for a propaganda war. During a March 2007 briefing in Rostov-on-the-Don, the head of the Operational Headquarters in Chechnya and deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation General-Colonel Arkadi Edelev confirmed this point by saying that “Chechnya is no longer the leading unstable factor in the North Caucasus. We are more concerned about Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria. There are two well-prepared and deeply concealed terrorist groups active here – the Astemirov and Mukozhev gang and also Salpagarov’s group (Salpagarov is one of the emirs of the Karachaevo-Cherkess jamaat).

There is a good reason for mentioning Salpagarov in the same sentence as the leaders of the Kabardino-Balkari jamaat. Sources in the resistance camp indicate that the Kabardino-Balkari jamaat has close ties with the Karachaevo-Cherkess jamaat, as well as the “Kutaib-al-Houl” (“Brigades of might”) jamaat from North Ossetia. It is possible that these connections deepened following the Nalchik incident, since there is information that when the Nalchik attacks were being planned, the Kabardino-Balkari jamaat attempted to contact the jamaats in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygeia in order to organize simultaneous attacks in all three republics, though this plan did not succeed. Even before October 2005, however, the ties with Ingushetia were much closer. Ilyas Gorchkhanov, one of Shamil Basaev’s close associates and a leader of the Ingush front, spent a long time hiding in Kabardino-Balkaria. His unit was given one of the crucial targets – the local FSB office – and it was there that Gorchkhanov was killed during the ensuing firefight. It is possible that with Gorchkhanov’s death, the connection with the Ingush jamaat has been lost, but no definite information on the subject is currently available.

Anzor Astemirov noted in his recent statements (available on www.kavkaz.center.com, www.camagat.com and www.kabardeyonline.org) that the numbers of the jamaat’s members continue to increase everyday. He has also said that all social groups within Kabardino-Balkaria, including government officials and security personnel, are helping the mujahideen. According to the emir, the jamaat has currently chosen to fight a guerrilla war combined with precision strikes, especially those aimed at terminating especially odious members of Russia’s governing and security organizations.

On September 23, 2006, almost a year after the Nalchik attacks, emir Mukozhev broke his long silence. “Kavkaz-Center” has published Mukozhev’s statement, entitled “Having entered into jihad we have found true freedom.” This particular statement is crucial for understanding the current state of the Kabardino-Balkari jamaat. A number of fundamental points need to be noted:

1) An admission that the older tactic of a “peaceful coexistence between the government and the jamaat was a mistake.” “We could not ignore the fact that the war in Chechnya, so near to us, is continuing and pretend that we have no connection to the mujahideen there. When our jamaat was formed, we tried to find a “golden mean” and combine a call for peace with jihad. In reality, this was not a golden mean, but an attempt to combine two contradictory things – peace and war.”

2) The dissolution of the jamaat and the formation of Muslim communities into battle groups. “Today the Kabardino-Balkari jamaat does not exist in the same form that it previously did. By the decision of the shura (council), the emirs of all local jamaats are freed from their duties and military commanders will be appointed in their place.”

3) A call to armed resistance. “Today, if I meet a man who wonders whether he should go to the mosque or commit jihad, the first thing that I tell him is – you must fight.”

4) Mukozhev’s statement also contains an admission of participating in the Chechen War. “The emirs of the Kabardino-Balkari jamaat have long participated in the war against the kafirs (unbelievers), secured supplies for the mujahideen, transported weapons, cared for the wounded, and directly participated in military operations.”

Overall, the statements made by Mukozhev and Astemirov allow certain conclusions to be drawn about the current state of the Kabardino-Balkari jamaat. They can be summarized as follows:

1) A schism occurred within the jamaat when the decision to begin military operations was taken. As a result, some of the organization’s members stopped obeying their emirs.

2) Autonomous military units have been created in Kabardino-Balkaria, each with its own commander.

3) The commanders of these groups are still in contact with each other and important decisions are made by means of a shura (council).

4) These military jamaats have ties to other resistance groups across the region and consider themselves part of the Caucasus Front.

5) The jamaat receives support from different socioeconomic groups, including individuals in the local government and security services.

Both Mukozhev and Astemirov are wanted by the Russian Federal government and international law enforcement agencies. Despite the large rewards offered for both men and the serious efforts made by the Russian security services since December 2004, neither man has been found. This fact confirms the broad-based support that the resistance movement has in Kabardino-Balkaria and the North Caucasus as a whole.