Will the Islamic State Overplay Its Hand in the North Caucasus?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 9

Caucasus Emirate leader Abu Muhammad (center) (Source: jihadology.net)

It was an uneasy start to 2015 in the North Caucasus. On the very first day of the year, government forces clashed with militants in Mekkensky village, located in the lowlands of northern Chechnya’s Naur district. Two militants were killed in the battle. According to the authorities, one of them, identified as Musa Zavgaev, was an “especially dangerous” rebel who had organized the attack on Grozny last December 4 (Interfax, January 1, 2015). In reality, however, the slain individuals were members of the group headed by Tagilov, the emir of the western sector of the Chechnya velayat (Lifenews.ru, January 1, 2015). Since October 2014, frequent rebel attacks have forced Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to implement new tactics for fighting the militants. From now on, every Chechen security forces commander will be personally responsible for a militant assigned to him (Newsru.com, January 2, 2015).

In Dagestan, the year also started with attacks on government forces. Two police officers and one suspected rebel died in a battle in the republic’s Khasavyurt district. Two other police officers were wounded in the attack (Regnum, January 7, 2015).

The disintegration of the Caucasus Emirate has attracted more attention than these attacks. Established in 2007 (Kavkazcenter.com, December 9, 2007), the Caucasus Emirate is now facing the same challenge as its predecessor organization. The Caucasus Emirate was established on the premise of replacing the goal of independence sought by its predecessor, the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, with building an Islamic state across the North Caucasus (Kavkazcenter.com, December 10, 2007). Now, the Caucasus Emirate, like its predecessor, is being forced to survive by any means. As multiple middle- and top-level commanders quit the Caucasus Emirate, this process has had a strong impact on the situation in the region. Two other well-known Caucasus Emirate emirs joined those who have pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (see EDM, January 8, 2015)—Emir Abdulla of the Babayurt jamaat (YouTube, December 29, 2014) and Emir Abu Ibragim of the Khasavyurt jamaat (YouTube, January 1, 2015). Thus all of the commanders of the Caucasus Emirate’s Western Sector of Dagestan, which borders Chechnya, have defected from Caucasus Emirate leader Abu Muhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov) in order to join Islamic State.

Most experts failed to predict that the Islamic State organization would arrive in Russia in this manner. The assumption was that after successfully battling their foes in Syria and Iraq, militants would return to the North Caucasus and cause problems for Russia. However, the problems were not imported from the Middle East: local jamaats in the North Caucasus started to sign on as Islamic State militants, meaning Moscow suddenly had to deal with entire units of the caliphate on Russian territory. The Caucasus Emirate was hardly a democratic institution, but even its leader, Emir Abu Muhammad, called on his followers to refrain from attacking civilians and warned against female suicide bomber attacks targeting the civilian population (Golosislama June 29, 2014). It is unlikely that we will hear similar calls from the people who propose to eliminate not only those who disagree with them on religious grounds, but also those who disagree with them over the administration of the Islamic State. In other words, a radical terrorist organization (the Caucasus Emirate) is being replaced by an even more radical, less predictable group (the Islamic State).

A recent attack on Dagestan’s Shia minority, designed to stifle the religious sentiments of Shiites in the city of Derbent, was carried out by individuals who are illustrative of the type of people who separated from the Caucasus Emirate. On the night of January 8, unidentified individuals destroyed the tomb of Seid Mir-Gafar-aga. The attack prompted ethnic Azerbaijanis that reside in Derbent to stage public protests (Kavkazsky Uzel, January 9, 2015; see EDM, January 13, 2015). It is hardly a coincidence that all the commanders of the Derbent sector of the Caucasus Emirate recently switched their allegiances to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And it is symbolic that their first assault was directed against the Shia minority, the same minority that Islamic State is persecuting in Syria and Iraq.

The recent suicide bombing on Sultanahmet Square in the historical center of Istanbul was also not a coincidence. The area is well known among tourists for its historical sites, including the famous Blue Mosque. A Dagestani woman, Diana Ramazanova, blew herself up on the square (Kavkazsky Uzel, January 9, 2015). Ramazanova arrived in Istanbul from Dagestan seven months prior to the attack and was in her fourth month of pregnancy. For the entire period of the existence of the Caucasus Emirate, none of its members considered attacking Turkey, since all the institutions of the Caucasus Emirate, such as its media, finance and representative offices, are all located on Turkish soil. IS members, however, are likely to strike at Turkey, and to portray the attacks as having been carried out by the Caucasus Emirate.

The Istanbul suicide attack by the Islamic State was a warning to Turkish authorities, who are blocking IS efforts to collect funds in local mosques and recruit young militants to fight in Syria. The main aim of the attack, however, was to displace the people who are working for the Caucasus Emirate in Turkey. The IS strikes everywhere it can, and the geographical scope of its attacks will only expand in the next couple of years. The IS, however, marks the peak of radical Islam in the North Caucasus. There will be no groups more radical than the IS in the future: on the contrary, when the North Caucasian militant groups see that the top IS leaders disregard them, they will likely begin to soften their positions, with some groups of militants returning to the initial ideology of former Ichkeria—the idea of seceding from Russia and establishing a nation-state, not an Islamic state. The ideology of Ichkeria will thereby be in demand again and will be supported by the thousands of emigres from Chechnya who fled the two recent Russian-Chechen wars, obtained asylum and now reside in Western Europe.