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Moderate Leader's Death Accelerated Transformation Of Chechen Resistance

  • Liz Fuller

Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev

Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev

The death three years ago today of Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) President and resistance commander Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev was a milestone in the evolution of what emerged in 1994 as an almost exclusively Chechen fight for independence into a pan-Caucasian, multinational Islamic resistance movement.

Although he occupied the post of president for just 15 months, Sadullayev succeeded in formalizing the organizational and logistical framework to expand the war into other North Caucasus republics, while at the same time banning hostage takings and terrorist attacks on civilian targets. But whether wittingly or under pressure from more radical and pragmatic figures within the resistance, he also dismissed the predominantly secular ChRI government and parliament in exile, and established in January 2006 an advisory Council of Alims (Muslim scholars) of Peoples of the Caucasus.

Those moves strengthened the radicals, including veteran ideologue Movladi Udugov, who even at that time rejected the concept of an independent Chechen state in favor of an Islamic state encompassing the entire North Caucasus, and who argued that resistance fighters should not be constrained by the norms of international law.

Rejected Terrorism

Sadullayev was born in 1966 in Argun and studied philology in the early 1990s at Grozny State University. In the interwar period (late 1996-99), he had a regular program on Chechen state television devoted to Islam, and in 1999, then-ChRI President Aslan Maskhadov appointed him to head a commission for constitutional Shari'a reform. Maskhadov also offered Sadullayev the post of head of the Supreme Shari’a Court, an offer that the quintessentially modest and gentle Sadullayev rejected on the grounds that he did not have sufficient clerical knowledge to pass judgment on others.

Sadullayev took up arms following the resumption of hostilities in October 1999, and was approved as Maskhadov's successor days after the latter was killed in early March 2005.

Chechens seek to build a free, Islamic state that has good relations with all its neighbors, including Russia, based on mutual trust and respect for each other.
In an extensive interview in June 2005 with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Sadullayev said that even though individual Chechen field commanders had in the past engaged in mass hostage-takings -- in Moscow in October 2002 and Beslan, North Ossetia, in September 2004 -- such actions were "not coordinated with the policy of the Chechen state and the State Defense Committee," which consistently rejected terrorism as a tactic.

"The government of the ChRI considered and considers it to be inadmissible, including for [radical field commander Shamil] Basayev, to make peaceful citizens of Russia, especially women and children, the object of attacks," he said.

He said that "terrorism is not the path that the ChRI government follows," and that "we have always wished to see the Russo-Chechen war end in peace talks."

Sadullayev went on to speak with undisguised contempt of those Chechens who collaborate with Moscow. He affirmed that "the Chechen people will be never be subdued by foreigners… I repeat once again: Chechens never will be slaves of the Russians."

Instead, Sadullayev said, Chechens want to build a free Muslim state.

"Chechens seek to build a free, Islamic state that has good relations with all its neighbors, including Russia, based on mutual trust and respect for each other," he said.

Sadullayev added that Islam has become, and will always remain, an integral component of Chechen culture, national character, and daily life.

Maskhadov had consistently argued against extending resistance activities beyond the borders of Chechnya. In a rejection of that strategy, Sadullayev issued a series of decrees in May 2005 designating the North Caucasus regions of Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Adygeya, Stavropol, and Krasnodar as sectors of the so-called Caucasus Front.

'Russian Yoke'

In his interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, he explained why resistance groups elsewhere in the North Caucasus pledged their allegiance to him. He said those groups are composed of free people "who united to liberate their republics from the Russian yoke," following the example of the Chechen people and with their total support.

In June 2005, Sadullayev named as his vice president and eventual successor veteran field commander Doku Umarov, who concurred with the decision to extend the struggle against Russian hegemony to other North Caucasus republics. Umarov in turn formally assumed the presidency days after Sadullayev was killed in a counterterrorism "sweep" in Argun in June 2006.

Initially, Umarov, too, rejected the use of terrorism as a tactic. He told RFE/RL's Russian Service in a May 2005 interview that "if we resort to such methods, I do not think any of us will be able to retain his human face." And since the death in July 2006 of Basayev, the resistance has not launched a single large-scale assault comparable to those on Nazran, Ingushetia, in June 2004, and Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, in October 2005.

In a statement on August 1, 2007, Umarov said that apparent lull should not be attributed to military weakness, but to long-term strategy. He affirmed that "a huge amount of preparatory work has been done, and that work is continuing. The fighters are undergoing intensive training," Umarov continued, but did not specify what for, adding only that "we are not in any hurry."

In late 2007, apparently under pressure from Udugov, Umarov proclaimed himself amir of the North Caucasus and as such "the sole legal authority on all the territories where mujahedin have sworn their loyalty to me as leader of the jihad." That proclamation was construed by the Russian leadership as final and definitive proof that the North Caucasus resistance is aligned with, and receives funding from, Al-Qaeda. The ChRI leadership in exile branded it a betrayal of the cause of Chechen independence to which Maskhadov remained committed until his death, and formally stripped Umarov of the post of ChRI president.

In video footage posted on Udugov's website in late April, Umarov announced that Basayev's notorious Riyadus Salikhiin death squad has been revived, and that this year "will be one of offensives."

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