Yarmuk Jammat Regroups after Death of Astemirov in Sign of new Militant Strategy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 89

Nalchik, the capital city of Kabardino-Balkaria in Russia’s North Caucasus, has been hit be a series of bombings. Explosives were detonated on May 1, during May Day festivities at the local hippodrome as the spectators, including members of the republican government, were about to view a horse race. The authorities in Moscow immediately called the incident a terrorist act (www.regnum.ru, May 1), thereby confirming that militants from the North Caucasus resistance movement had damaged the prestige of the Russian government, which has been trying to prove all along that it has managed to confine militant violence within the boundaries of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan.

The fact that the militants struck the city renowned for having the best resort in southern Russia would appear to have caused significant damage to the economy as well as the public consciousness in regions adjacent to Kabardino-Balkaria (www.krasnodar.kavkaz-uzel.ru, May 1). The explosion itself killed one man, 94 years old (or, as other sources claim, 104 years old) Saidli Shibzukhov, a Second World War veteran, and wounded 29 people. Among those wounded were Kabardino-Balkaria’s Minister of Culture, Ruslan Firov, and former Interior Minister, Khachim Shogenov, as well as a correspondent for a local newspaper, Albert Dyshekov and a local businessman, Vladimir Sekrekov (www.rupor.info, May 1). However, according to the Ingush opposition’s internet publication, the number of people killed in the blast actually totaled four, since three people later died in the hospital (www.ingushetia.org, May 1).

Journalists in Kabardino-Balkaria reported that other senior members of the government had been scheduled to attend the race, and had the explosive device gone off not at 12:35 p.m., local time, but a little later, a number of top officials might have become victims of the militant action.

Commenting on the terrorist act, Kabardino-Balkaria’s President, Arsen Kanokov, said the authorities “consider [it] a brazen assault on our society [and] an undeclared war against our people” (www.top.rbc.ru, May 1). Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, assured the local authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria that the federal interior ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB) would be involved in the investigation of the terrorist act and that public order would soon be enforced in Nalchik and across Kabardino-Balkaria. The local authorities offered three million rubles for information leading to solving the terrorist act. However, experience shows this kind of reward hardly helps the process of investigation of terrorist acts in Russia.

If this had been the first terrorist act in Kabardino-Balkaria this year, then there could have been various explanations for it. But since January, there have already been seven armed assaults on the police. The First Deputy Minister of Kabardino-Balkaria’s Interior Ministry, Naurbi Zhamborov, claims that “the total number of militants [in his republic] would not be more than fifty” (www.krasnodar.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 25). Arguably, his estimates only include the active young members of the Yarmuk Jamaat who have already gone into the forest. But in reality there are many more people who provide them with support, act as liaisons or facilitate their livelihoods. Additionally, there is a whole range of local youths, most frequently university students, who view the rebels as heroes and role models. Many young people consider the militants’ activities as a rebuff to Moscow’s policy in the region.

Against the background of growing anti-Sochi Olympics sentiments, terrorist activities similar to the one that occurred in Nalchik would hardly invoke condemnation from the general public, even when they take innocent lives. The Kabardins as well as their blood relatives, the Circassians and Adygs, look at Moscow’s desire to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi as an affront to their historical memory. Hundreds of thousands of their ancestors were killed in and around the Sochi region when the Russian Empire orchestrated mass deportations of indigenous peoples to the Ottoman Empire after completing the colonization of the North Caucasus in 1864 (http://peacetocaucasus.com/DesktopDefault.aspx?alias=peace-caucasus&tabid=3042).

When the leader of the Yarmuk Jamaat, Anzor Astemirov (the Emir Seifullah), was killed on March 24, 2010, the Kremlin and the local government in Nalchik announced that they had dealt a strong blow to the entire network of armed resistance in Kabardino-Balkaria. Apparently, the Russian authorities hoped that now that Astemirov and Musa Mukozhev –the other famous and popular rebel leader and one of the founders of Yarmuk Jamaat who had been killed on May 11, 200 –were dead (www.regnum.ru, March 25), the Yarmuk Jamaat would have the same fate as the Karachay Jamaat had in 2007.

In fact, the fate of the Karachay Jamaat has not yet been decided, while Yarmuk seems to have better chances to outlive the loss of its leader. Astemirov managed to forge a tightly-knit group of like-minded men who are now themselves capable of leading the movement that Astemirov and Mukozhev had created. This might explain a number of actions perpetrated against the Russian law enforcement (siloviki) in April. Two police officers were shot on the evening of April 7 and one police officer was wounded on April 24 when his house was attacked by unidentified armed men. On April 27, a cache of munitions and explosives was found in a forest location during a special operation in Kabardino-Balkaria’s Cherek district, near the village of Gerpegezh. And, finally, there was the explosion that shook the hippodrome in Nalchik during the May Day celebrations. This is clear evidence that the Yarmuk Jamaat has survived the death of its leader, and remains active and mature enough to sustain itself autonomously.

Moreover, Astemirov’s death could even make things worse for Russian authorities. True, he was one of the leaders of the North Caucasus armed resistance movement, and was at the very top of the rebel hierarchy, but, nonetheless, he was also an educated man who did not encourage terrorist activities against civilians. In fact, some experts think that the fact that there were no attacks in Nalchik was a sign that Astemirov was holding back the Jammat in an effort to avoid escalating the situation with Moscow whereby the Kremlin might deploy more Russian units to the republic, which would create further instability. However, the bomb attack during the horse race is a signal from the militants that they will no longer impose any limits on themselves in terms of the time, place or persons they target. This is strictly in line with the ideology of the militant leader in the North Caucasus, Doku Umarov. The Yarmuk Jamaat appears to be changing its tactics and may become even more active which could unravel an uneasy peace in Kabardino-Balkaria. Whatever the outcome, there is no easy road ahead for Russian authorities in the Northwest Caucasus.