The death last week in a counterterror operation in central Daghestan of Caucasus Emirate (IK) leader Magomed Suleymanov (aka Abu Usman Gimrinsky) has been widely construed as the coup de grace for an organization already weakened over the past nine months by the large-scale defection of its fighters to the terrorist organization Islamic State (IS).
Yet to affirm, as does Russian analyst Yana Amelina, that the IK is now "clinically dead" is premature.
True, Suleymanov was the third IK leader to die in less than two years. The Chechen Doku Umarov, who first proclaimed the IK in late 2007, died of food poisoning in September 2013; his successor, Aliaskhab Kebekov (an Avar, and the first non-Chechen to be chosen IK head) was killed in a counterterror operation on the outskirts of Buynaksk in April 2015.
But over the past decade, the North Caucasus insurgency has survived the loss of numerous talented commanders and fighters, including Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Aslan Maskhadov (March 2005); field commander Shamil Basayev (July 2006); ideologist Said Buryatsky (March 2010); the group of fighters led by Asker Djappuyev who perpetrated a string of murders in late 2010-early 2011 in Kabardino-Balkaria; and the Chechen brothers Khusayn and Muslim Gakayev (January 2013).
Official casualty figures indicate a decline in the number of major attacks launched over the past two years and a concomitant dramatic fall in casualty figures. But those trends are at least partly the result of more a effective counterterror strategy on the part of the federal security bodies that have systematically rounded up insurgency support personnel, thereby depriving fighters of food and medical supplies and weaponry, and making it more difficult for them to travel between clandestine military bases. That intensified surveillance has also made it even more difficult for the various IK wings to communicate among themselves.
That is not to suggest that the formal transfer by several prominent commanders in Daghestan and Chechnya of their allegiance from the IK to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi has had no impact on the IK's effectiveness as a fighting force. But there is no way of estimating what proportion of those who have split with the IK has indeed left the Caucasus to swell the ranks of IS's fighters in Syria.
Similarly unclear is how many were motivated by an unquestioning espousal of IS's ideology and brutal tactics, rather than by pragmatic acceptance that in present conditions it makes more sense to leave for Syria and hone one's military skills there with a view to returning to the North Caucasus to launch a full-scale jihad in a few years' time.
It appears that even though Aslan Byutukayev (Amir Khamzat), the head of the IK wing in Chechnya, has pledged allegiance to Baghdadi in the name of all Chechnya's insurgents, some remain loyal to the IK. Those fighters are reported to have held a series of councils of war in June and early July to discuss the situation and elect a successor to Byutukayev. His identity has not been disclosed. Islamic Committee of Russia head Geydar Djemal suggests that the security forces are systematically targeting IK leaders because they hope IS will take advantage of the insurgency's weakened state to expand operations into the Caucasus. This, according to Djemal, would enhance the importance of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and facilitate the resumption of cooperation between Russian and Western security services that collapsed in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea.
At the same time, in a seeming contradiction, Djemal acknowledges that if the remnants of the IK are completely subsumed into IS, the FSB "moles" that have infiltrated the IK will no longer be able to transmit information about upcoming operations to their handlers so easily.
Assuming that the IK continues to maintain an independent presence in the North Caucasus, it may still be months before the identity of Suleymanov's successor as IK head becomes known. Akhmet Yarlykapov of the Center for Ethno-Political Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology predicts that the new leader will be a military commander rather than a religious authority like Kebekov and his fellow Avar Suleymanov. Both Yarlykapov and Russian scholar Mikhail Roshchin regard veteran Chechen commander Aslambek Vadalov as the most likely candidate.
Gadji Abdullayev (aka Abu Dudjana Gimrinsky), who recently returned to Daghestan after a decade studying and then fighting in Syria, might have stood a chance had he not been killed in a counterterror operation on August 16. Alternatively, Chechen historian Ruslan Martagov makes the point that the new leader could be "someone whom we have never heard of," possibly even "a new Said Buryatsky" from outside the North Caucasus.