Accessibility links

News Profile: Who Is Doku Umarov?

  • Liz Fuller

A combo photo of Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov during his video statement claiming responsibility for the March 29 Moscow metro bombings

A combo photo of Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov during his video statement claiming responsibility for the March 29 Moscow metro bombings

Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov has claimed responsibility for the March 29 twin suicide bombings on the Moscow metro system that killed at least 39 people.

Umarov is one of just a couple of veteran rebel commanders who have fought since the very start of the first post-Soviet Chechen war in the fall of 1994.

Since then, Umarov has risen from a rank-and-file fighter to command a network of insurgent groups across the North Caucasus. He has jettisoned the cause of Chechen independence in favor of an independent Islamic state comprising swaths of the North Caucasus, southern Russia, and the Volga region. He has also abandoned his previous repudiation of terrorism, affirming in his most recent statements that it is a legitimate weapon in light of what he calls the Russian population's indifference to the systematic reprisals inflicted on the Chechen population by Russian military and security forces.

Umarov was born in April 1964 in the village of Kharsenoi in the Shatoi Raion of southern Chechnya, into a family he describes as belonging to the intelligentsia. Umarov graduated from the construction faculty of the Oil Institute in Grozny.

He told RFE/RL's Russian Service in 2005 that he was in Moscow when the first Russian-Chechen war broke out in 1994, and that as a patriot he said he considered it his duty to return to Chechnya to fight.

Rapid Rise

Umarov was an active participant in both the 1994-96 and 1999-2000 wars, and gained a reputation as a skilled and courageous commander. He was injured on several occasions, and underwent extensive plastic surgery to repair damage to his face and jaw. In the spring of 2005, he was walking with a limp after having stepped on a land mine. He was reportedly injured again in the fall of 2006.

Following the Khasavyurt accord that ended the first Chechen war in 1996 and the election of former Soviet Army Colonel Aslan Maskhadov as Chechen president in January 1997, Umarov was named by Maskhadov to head the Security Council. In that capacity, he intervened in July 1998 to quash an armed clash between moderates and Islamic radicals within Maskhadov's entourage.

During the second war, Umarov commanded the southwestern front. After Maskhadov's death in March 2005, his successor, Abdul-Khakim Sadullayev, named Umarov as vice president and thus his designated successor. Umarov took over as president and resistance commander after Sadullayev was killed in June 2006. At that time, Maskhadov's son Anzor said, "Everyone, including fighters in neighboring republics, will give their oath to serve him."

In early 2005, Umarov's father, brother, wife, and infant son were detained by the Chechen authorities. He told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in April 2006 that his wife and child were subsequently released. His father's death was reported in 2007 in unclear circumstances.

In the fall of 2006, Umarov expanded the network of resistance fronts to create two operating outside the North Caucasus, in the Volga region and the Urals.

Change Of Heart

One year later, in late 2007, Umarov broke with the ideology of Chechen independence and proclaimed himself, reportedly under pressure from the radical Islamist wing of the insurgency, the leader of an Islamic state encompassing the entire North Caucasus. Just two months earlier, he had issued a statement commemorating the anniversary of the declaration in September 1991 of the secession of the Chechen Republic-Ichkeria from the rapidly disintegrating USSR.

At least until Maskhadov's death, Umarov, like Maskhadov, was among the more moderate wing of the resistance that eschewed terrorism against civilians. In his 2005 interview with RFE/RL, he categorically rejected the use of terrorism as a tactic: "If we resort to such methods, I do not think any of us will be able to retain his human face." He specifically condemned the Beslan school hostage taking of September 2004.

But more recently Umarov has condoned not only sabotage attacks on civilian targets outside the North Caucasus, but also suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism targeting civilians.

Unlike Maskhadov, who just weeks before his death proclaimed a unilateral cease-fire in the hope of inducing Moscow to agree to talks on ending the war, Umarov ruled out the possibility of any formal talks with Russian leaders. In a series of video clips posted on militant websites, he has pledged to destroy the Russian presence in the North Caucasus.

In a video address summarizing a meeting of senior field commanders in April 2009, Umarov announced the revival of the Riyadus-Salikhiin suicide battalion originally formed by renegade field commander Shamil Basayev, which he said would conduct operations across Russia in what he warned would be "a year of offensives."

Increasing Targets

Umarov also warned that his fighters would target not just Russian police and security forces, but transport and infrastructure. Insurgent groups subordinate to Umarov duly claimed responsibility, first for the explosion in August 2009 that severely damaged the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant, and then for the bomb in late November that derailed the "Nevsky Express" train, killing 27 people. Umarov personally affirmed in early December that the "Nevsky Express" bomb "is only the beginning" of a series of attacks on targets in Russia. Moscow authorities have blamed the train bombing on Chechen extremists, but have dismissed terrorism in the dam explosion, attributing it to technical and infrastructure problems.

In February, Umarov vowed to "liberate" not only the North Caucasus and Krasnodar Krai but Astrakhan and the Volga region as well. In that video address, Umarov said there was every reason to estimate the strength of the insurgency at 10,000, 20,000, or even 30,000 men. At the same time, he admitted that he did not have the means to train and arm all volunteers who wish to join the jihad. The number of fighters currently under arms was, however, "perfectly adequate at this stage," he added.

In his most recent video address, dated March 29, Umarov said the two suicide bomb attacks in the Moscow metro earlier that day were undertaken on his orders and constituted "a legitimate act of revenge" for the killing in early February by police and security forces of a group of impoverished Chechen villagers gathering wild garlic in a wooded area on the Chechen-Ingushetian border. Russian human rights activists confirmed that the men had been shot not in a combat operation but at close range, and their bodies mutilated.

Umarov said he considered accusations that he engages in terrorism inappropriate, coming as they do from persons who he said have never blamed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for the killings of Chechen civilians. He did not mention Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

He has warned Russians that the Moscow attacks will not be his last.

Show comments