Why Do Jamaat Leaders Die so Often in North Caucasus Special Operations?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 22

Rarely a week passes in Dagestan without the authorities launching a new special operation against militants. Some weeks, several special operations take place across the republic. In most instances, these law enforcement actions are based upon information received from Russian moles planted in the ranks of the rebels. This makes the government forces’ job easier, narrowing the focus of the counter-terrorist operations.
The latest large-scale special operation took place in southern Dagestan, in the city of Derbent. “During a search operation by forces under the operational command of the National Antiterrorist Committee (NAK) in Dagestan, the government received information about the possible location of several militants from the so-called southern group of militants in one of the apartments in a nine-story building on Salman Street in the city of Derbent,” the NAK reported (gazeta.ru, November 21).
Using grenade launchers, Federal Security Service (FSB) special forces and police stormed the unfinished nine-story apartment block in Derbent where the two suspected militants were hiding (Kavkazsky Uzel, November 21). The militants opened fire in response to the government forces’ demand that they surrender and were killed in the ensuing armed clash. As in many other special operations, the government forces contacted the militants by telephone to convince them to surrender. When the rebels fired shots, however, the decision was taken to kill them.
It should be noted that government forces practically never take militants alive in special operations in the North Caucasus. The government justifies the decision to kill the suspects by saying it was necessary to preserve the lives of the servicemen. In this particular case, for example, it is unclear why the government forces did not force the surrounded militants to fire until they ran out of ammunition and then try to take them alive. The fact that snipers aimed at the heads of the suspects also shows that the government forces did not want to capture them alive. Both slain suspects were killed by sniper fire, as can be seen in a video published by sources close to the Dagestani Ministry of Interior (dailymotion.com, November 21).
Russia’s security services apparently have no need to capture militants alive since they are confident they have enough informers in the ranks of the militants to maintain a proper level of counter-intelligence on their activities.
One of the slain militants was preliminarily identified as 26-year-old Velibeg Veliev, the leader of the so-called Suleiman-Stalsky jamaat, who was on the Russian government’s wanted list. According to Dagestani law enforcement agencies, Veliev participated in extorting large sums of money from the businesses and conducted a series of bombings of police cars that included the detonation of an improvised explosive device (IED) near a police checkpoint in the village of Gereikhanovo on September 10 (regnum.ru, November 21). Veliev joined the underground movement in the summer of 2013 and became the deputy to the emir of the Dagestani insurgency’s southern sector, Gasan Abdullaev (vdagestan.com, November 21).
Veliev was the emir of the Lezgin districts of Dagestan, and the Lezgin-populated areas across the Russian-Azerbaijani border were also most likely under his command. The official media reported that Veliev was the emir of five Lezgin districts of southern Dagestan, which shows that the information comes from Moscow, since people in Dagestan know perfectly well that there are seven Lezgins districts in southern Dagestan, not five (gazeta-nv.info, December 20, 2013). 
The second individual killed by the Russian security forces was 41-year-old Robert Alibekovich Abdulgamidov. In 2013, Abdulgamidov was in Syria, where he became a member of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS—since renamed as just the Islamic State), but he subsequently returned to Dagestan and joined the ranks of the local militants. In 2001, Abdulgamidov was sentenced to 12 years in prison for assisting in the murder of three persons. However, in 2002 he appealed against the verdict and his sentence was reduced to two years in prison (docs.cntd.ru, February 07, 2002). 
According to official information about the incident, there were no losses among police or civilians during the special operation in Derbent. However, militant news sources disagree with that: rebel websites assert that another person who helped the authorities was killed in the special operation (kavkazcenter.com, November 21). That person may have been a security services agent who played the role of mediator in the talks with the rebels.
The lingering question is how the Russian security services manage to eliminate mid-level insurgent leaders again and again. This cannot simply be the result of the security services’ experience in conducting special operations. Rather, it indicates that the security services have successfully planted numerous moles in the jamaats throughout the mountainous North Caucasus republic.  One indicator of this, for example, is the fact that the websites of the security services seek to pin the insurgency’s failures on the insurgent leaders. However, such assertions do not seem plausible. In the recent Derbent operation, for example, the police again attempted to put the blame for the information they received on the leader of the insurgency’s southern sector, Gasan Abdullaev. “[A]gain the FSB officers were tipped off about the insurgents’ location; it will not be hard to guess who tipped them off” (kavkazpress.ru, November 21). The militants are unlikely to believe this crude attempt to frame the emir. Nonetheless, the death of yet another emir will likely force the insurgents to try to find the moles within their ranks.
During the 15 years of war in the North Caucasus, Russia’s security services have captured only one high-ranking leader of the insurgency, the military emir Magas (Magomed/Akhmed Yevloev, Ali Taziev) in 2010, and no one else (lenta.ru, accessed November 26). This is an indicator of the difficulties that the Russian security services face in trying to plant moles in the entourage of the top-ranking emirs in the North Caucasus resistance movement. However, the security services have evidently achieved some success in planting moles among the lower-level emirs. This probably means the Russian security services will continue to fail to capture the top leaders of the Caucasus Emirate, while seeing more success in capturing the lower-level leadership of the jamaats.