Popular Ingush preacher Sheikh Khamzat Chumakov, who lost a leg as a result of a still-unsolved car-bomb attack five years ago, escaped with cuts and bruises when a second car bomb exploded on March 11 as he was driving away from the mosque in Nasyr-Kort, of which he is imam. Four other people were injured by the blast, one of them seriously.
One of Chumakov’s close associates told the Russian daily Kommersant that in the light of threats Chumakov had received, for the past two months he has used an armored Mercedes provided by an unnamed wealthy Ingush businessman. It is not clear whether that vehicle was acquired before or after Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov declared at a conference in early February that Chumakov should be banned from preaching in Ingushetia, and warned that if he attempted to do so in Chechnya, “heads will roll.”
Chumakov professes Salafi Islam, rather than the Sufism traditionally espoused by both Chechens and Ingush, but has always rejected as artificial any differentiation between the two strains. He preaches to Ingush communities both in Russia and abroad, consistently criticizing official corruption and arbitrary reprisals by security personnel against young men suspected of links to the North Caucasus insurgency, but advising listeners at the same time not to take up arms against the government.
As a result, he has acquired an extensive following, especially among younger believers. In a blog post pegged to the March 11 car bomb explosion, Magomed Mutsolgov, who heads the human rights organization Mashr, noted that during the nine years that Chumakov has been preaching at Nasyr-Kort, attendance at his sermons had increased from a few hundred to several thousand.
Chumakov was nonetheless regarded for years with profound suspicion by the Republic of Ingushetia authorities, who pressured him on more than one occasion to desist from criticizing them.
Relations between Chumakov and Ingushetia’s official clergy were similarly strained. The republic’s Spiritual Center of Muslims (DTsM) is headed by mufti Issa-hadji Khamkhoyev, who like Kadyrov is a member of the Qadiriyya Sufi order. In June, Khamkhoyev mobilized his supporters who converged en masse on the Nasyr-Kort mosque on the outskirts of Nazran (the republic’s formal capital) during Friday Prayers. A violent confrontation between Chumakov’s followers and Khamkhoyev supporters ready to use force to remove Chumakov from his post was only narrowly averted.
In the wake of that incident, Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov has twice called on Khamkhoyev to step down as mufti, on the grounds that he can no longer cope with his official duties, and that the standoff with Chumakov last June “undermined the authority” of the official clergy. In contrast to Khamkhoyev, Yevkurov is actively promoting rapprochement between the republic’s Sufi and Salafi communities. He recently convened a meeting of senior clerics and scheduled for March 29 a vote of no confidence in Khamkhoyev.
Khamkhoyev categorically refused to resign and turned for backing to Kadyrov, who in early February convened a conference in Achkhoi-Martan west of Grozny reportedly attended by “many thousands” of representatives of the Qadiriyya and Naqshbandi Sufi brotherhoods in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Daghestan, including Khamkhoyev.
Addressing that conference, Kadyrov equated Salafism with terrorism and branded its representatives “shaytans,” or devils. Kadyrov further conflated the peaceful and nonviolent preachings of Chumakov with the militant and puritanical Salafism professed by the North Caucasus insurgency and the militant group Islamic State (IS). It was in that context that Kadyrov warned that “heads will roll” if Chumakov tries to preach on Chechen territory.
Police investigating the March 11 car bombing have reportedly established that the vehicle in which the 20-kilogram explosive device was concealed was registered in the name of someone from Daghestan currently resident in Stavropol Krai who had placed it at the disposal of a resident of Chechnya.
One of Chumakov’s supporters who witnessed the explosion told the news portal Caucasian Knot he thinks that one of Ingushetia’s Sufi brotherhoods may have been behind it. He noted that the son of the leader of that brotherhood was present at the February conference at which Kadyrov threatened Chumakov.
Assuming that either Khamkhoyev or one of Ingushetia’s Sufi brotherhoods seriously wanted to kill Chumakov, neither is likely to have done so without Kadyrov’s prior approval, given the extent of his influence.
In addition to his categorical rejection of Salafism, there is a second reason why Kadyrov might consider it advantageous to have Chumakov killed. For years, Kadyrov has been at odds with Yevkurov, initially over the undemarcated border between the two republics, and more recently because of the Ingushetian authorities’ mediocre track record with regard to stamping out the North Caucasus insurgency. Chumakov’s death, if it could be attributed to the insurgency, would reinforce Kadyrov’s criticisms of Yevkurov’s “soft” approach, and also the argument that only his own brutal methods can impose and preserve peace in the region.
Yevkurov was quick to condemn the attack on Chumakov as “a provocation” and an attempt to destabilize the situation in Ingushetia carried out by unspecified individuals who “decided to capitalize on the problems that have accumulated in the sphere of religion.”
Ismail Berdiyev, who heads the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus (KTsMSK), suggested the bombing may have been the result of Chumakov’s “disagreements with parishioners,” while Mufti Shafig Pshikhachev, the KTsMSK’s representative in Moscow, opined that it may have been the work of the same people who attacked a group of foreign journalists and Russian human rights activists on the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia two days earlier. Chumakov condemned that attack in his Friday sermon shortly before the car bomb explosion.