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Is Doku Umarov Really Dead? Assessing The Circumstantial Evidence

Doku Umarov pictured in a screen grab of a video aired in July 2013

Doku Umarov pictured in a screen grab of a video aired in July 2013

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, who over the past four years has repeatedly declared that self-styled Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov has “probably,” or even “with 99 percent certainty” been killed, announced on January 16 that evidence has surfaced to corroborate that claim.

Writing on his Instagram account, Kadyrov said Chechen security forces intercepted an exchange between the leaders of the insurgency wings in Kabardino-Balkaria and Daghestan in which the two men exchange expressions of regret at Umarov’s demise and discuss who should succeed him as Caucasus Emirate head. The Kabardian, Kadyrov said, proposed “the Daghestani commander,” presumably meaning Rustam Aselderov (nom de guerre Abu Mukhammad), while the Daghestani argued that the new leader should be a Chechen, Aslambek Vadalov.

On January 16, a 16-minute undated audio clip was posted on You Tube in which the speaker, who identifies himself as Abu Mukhammad, the qadi (senior religious authority) of Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate, acknowledges receipt from his “brother” Abdul-Aziz of a USB memory stick bearing the news of Umarov’s death. The speaker’s voice is similar to the qadi’s; both men speak ungrammatical Russian with a pronounced accent.

The speaker categorically rejects the proposal by amirs Khamza and Abdullah that he should succeed Umarov. He thanks them for their trust in him and for “voting for him,” but points out that he has absolutely no military experience, has never served as a commander, and that his only expertise lies in elucidating points of Shari'a law.

The speaker further informs “Abdul-Aziz” that on receipt of the news of Umarov’s death he immediately “went down the same night to Abu Mukhammad,” presumably meaning Aselderov, to consult with him.

The qadi rejects Abdul-Aziz’s proposal that Khamza should succeed Umarov, explaining that while they have no reason to doubt he is decent and God-fearing, they do not know him personally, only by hearsay.

The speaker says he and Abu Mukhammad have chosen instead as their proposed candidate to succeed Umarov Vadalov who, he says, joined the “jihad” from Day One, fought alongside Umarov and under the Jordanian-born commander Khattab, has “vast experience,” and spent almost two years (when is not clear) with the insurgents in Daghestan. He notes that Umarov had been on the verge of naming Vadalov as his successor (in 2010). The speaker asks Khamza and Abdullah to support Vadalov’s candidacy.

The only detail that casts doubt on the authenticity of the audio clip is the fact that the speaker expresses regret that Umarov did not designate a naib (deputy) who would automatically succeed him in the event of his death. If he had done so, the speaker says, we would all have pledged our allegiance to him, as Umarov knew all the fighters better than we do.

But Umarov did in fact name two naibs in the summer of 2011, and it is extremely unlikely that the Caucasus Emirate qadi should have been unaware of that. The two are Vadalov and Aslan Byutukayev (aka Amir Khamzat), whose primary claim to fame is that he acted as mentor to the young Ingush man who perpetrated the suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in January 2011. Byutukayev is seen here seated on Umarov’s left in a video address dated June 2013.

The audio clip diverges from Kadyrov’s description of the exchange between the various commanders in one key respect: the qadi does not mention Kabardino-Balkaria. It is, however, conceivable that the security officer who assessed it mistakenly identified “Abdullah” as Asker Djappuyev, the Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachai insurgency commander killed in April 2011, who used that nom de guerre. It seems more likely that the Abdullah referred to in the audio clip is Artur Gatagazhev, leader of the Ingushetia insurgency wing.

“Khamza” was the nom de guerre of Timur Tatchayev, a Kabardino-Balkaria sector commander killed in June 2012. But it is conceivable that the speaker meant Khamzat (Byutukayev).

Neither the audio clip nor Kadyrov’s summary of the exchange between the commanders sheds any light on the circumstances or timing of Umarov’s death. The most recent video clip featuring Umarov is dated autumn 2013, and was uploaded to YouTube on December 19, hours after Kadyrov told journalists in Moscow Umarov was dead.

According to Kadyrov, Umarov was killed in a counterterror operation. One such operation was reported in October near the Ingush village of Galashki, close to the border with Chechnya, and a second in late November in the southeastern district of Vedeno.

The website Caucasus Knot quoted an unnamed Chechen security official as saying that a cassette with a missive from Qadi Abu Mukhammad informing Umarov’s representative in Turkey of his death was discovered last month on the body of a Daghestani fighter killed in Syria. The same source made the point that Umarov had suffered serious health problems in recent years that may have ultimately proved fatal, but that unless and until his body is found, it would be premature to conclude with absolute certainty that he is dead.

Sergei Goncharov, president of an organization uniting former members of the crack Alpha antiterror unit, was even more skeptical. He told Caucasus Knot that if Umarov’s death had been confirmed, “numerous” security agencies would have gone public with the news.

-- Liz Fuller

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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