Sunday, April 20, 2014


North Caucasus Fighters in Syria Pledge Allegiance to Umarov's Successor

Estimates of the number of Chechens and other North Caucasians fighting in Syria vary hugely, ranging from hundreds to thousands. (file photo)

The North Caucasus insurgency website Kavkazcenter has posted a statement in the name of militants from the North Caucasus fighting in Syria pledging support for Aliaskhab Kebekov (aka Ali Abu-Mukhammad), who recently succeeded Doku Umarov as head of the North Caucasus Emirate that Umarov proclaimed in 2007.
That statement is signed by Abdul-Khalim Ash-Shishani, a member of the Shariat Committee of, and a spokesman for, the Djeish Mukhadjirin va Ansar (Brigade of Migrants and Ansars ) group that is comprised of foreign fighters, primarily from Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus.
Ash-Shishani expresses regret at Umarov's death, but adds that the news that Kebekov, the "elder brother and mentor of the [Caucasus] Emirate's Muslim youth," had been chosen to succeed him was "healing balsam to Muslims' bleeding hearts." In the name of his fighters, Ash-Shishani pledges allegiance to Kebekov for as long as he abides by the teachings of the Koran.
Addressing Kebekov, Ash-Shishani further affirms the readiness of his men to return to the North Caucasus to fight under Kebekov's command. He declares "Know, Oh Sheikh, that you have fighters on the territory of the North Caucasus and Sham [Syria], on the territory of other countries, and they are all ready to return home at the first opportunity and fight under your leadership."
Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has publicly expressed concern at the possibility that Chechens and other North Caucasians currently fighting in Syria might return to Russia to wage jihad there. He claimed that there are "thousands" of militants in Syria who post video footage on a daily basis declaring their readiness to move on to the North Caucasus once the fighting in Syria ends.
Estimates of the number of Chechens and other North Caucasians fighting in Syria vary hugely. Riad Haddad, the Syrian ambassador in Moscow, said in December 2013 that there were 1,700 fighters from Chechnya alone. Russian journalist Orkhan Djemal gives a far lower figure of 200-400 from the entire Russian Federation, including those from Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.
By his own admission, it was in Syria that Kebekov studied Islamic theology. According to Djemal, Kebekov studied there in the early 2000s under his own nephew,  Murtuzali Magomedov. It was, Djemal writes, Magomedov's unresolved killing in 2009 that impelled Kebekov to join the insurgency.

One of Kebekov's first public statements in his capacity as Caucasus Emirate head was addressed to militants from the North Caucasus fighting against government forces in Syria. He recalled that he had warned them before their departure for Syria that "we do not want you to form a detachment named 'Imarat Kavkaz,'" but instead  to join the foremost group fighting under the banner of monotheism, subordinate themselves to its commander, and not allow themselves to be drawn in to any dispute among the various anti-Assad forces.

Addressing all militants in Chechnya, especially those from the Caucasus, Kebekov appeals to them "do not on any account take part" in the fighting between Al-Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Shams (ISIS) and more moderate groups. Djeish Mukhadjirin va Ansar commander Salakhuddin Shishani said in a January interview that his men maintain strict neutrality in that conflict, although they have provided medical care to wounded ISIS fighters.
In the two weeks since the insurgency publicly confirmed that Umarov had indeed been killed and Kebekov chosen by his peers as his successor, four more formal pledges of allegiance to him have been posted on insurgency websites. They were issued in the name of the group of fighters in the Daghestani capital, Makhachkala; the insurgency wings in Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria; and "fighters of the Chechnya Vilayet."  There is no way of knowing whether the latter category includes the small group of Chechen fighters who maintain that Umarov's proclamation of the Caucasus Emirate was not justified under Shari'a law.

-- Liz Fuller

Colleague Says Former Georgian President Ready To Testify In Court

Journalists film a protest in Tbilisi in October that targeted former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Mikheil Saakashvili has effectively called the bluff of the Georgian Prosecutor-General’s Office, which summoned him a week ago to report for questioning by March 27 as a witness in 10 ongoing high-profile investigations, by offering to testify by Skype if and when those cases come to trial.

Saakashvili, who left Georgia late last year, after his second presidential term expired, to take up a teaching post at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, had rejected the prosecutor’s summons as a “dirty intrigue” resulting from a clandestine agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Georgian businessman and philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream coalition defeated Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM) in the October 2012 Georgian parliamentary ballot. He suggested Putin was out to take revenge for his unequivocal support for the new Ukrainian leadership.
Speaking in Kyiv on March 25, Saakashvili again said he would not return to Tbilisi to undergo what he termed “politically motivated” questioning. He suggested that he risked arrest if he did so. The prosecutor’s office responded with a statement stressing that Saakashvili was to be interrogated as a witness, and there was no question of his arrest.

When Saakashvili nonetheless proved true to his word and failed to report for questioning by the March 27 deadline, the prosecutor’s office proposed questioning him via Skype. (Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili had suggested earlier that day that Saakashvili could be questioned via video-link.)

But Saakashvili rejected that option too. Speaking in Kyiv, he told the Georgian TV channel Rustavi-2 that “the process lacks legitimacy” and that he has no time to waste on “nonsense."

Both Gharibashvili and Saakashvili’s successor as president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, have made clear their disapproval of that refusal. Gharibashvili said it only serves to “fuel the suspicions” harbored by the Georgian authorities and the international community; Margvelashvili termed it “an insult to state institutions.”

Saakashvili is, however, willing, according to his close associate, former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, to testify as a witness if/when any of the cases comes to trial. Ugulava reportedly told the Georgian TV station Rustavi-2 that he has spoken by telephone to Saakashvili, who “does not wish to place himself above the law."

Ugulava said that if a specific case comes to trial, the prosecutor is entitled to summon as a witness any citizen, including individuals who were not interrogated during the pretrial investigation. If the court considers it necessary to question Saakashvili in order to establish the truth, Saakashvili is prepared to testify via Skype, Ugulava continued.

With the exception of senior ENM members who have unanimously denounced the summons as politically motivated, reactions to the Prosecutor’s summons both at home and abroad have been cautiously phrased. Acknowledging that “no one is above the law,” the U.S. State Department and European Union Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele expressed concern at the prosecutor’s decision to summon Saakashvili.

Both Prime Minister Gharibashvili and Georgian parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili chose to construe the U.S. statement as “friendly advice.” Gharibashvili adduced the examples of former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and French Prime Ministers Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy in support of his assertion that the summons is “an absolutely normal procedure.”
In Tbilisi, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), Transparency International Georgia, the Georgian Democracy Initiative, and the Civil Development Agency (CiDA) released a joint statement stressing the need for the maximum transparency and openness “to rule out any suspicion of politically motivated prosecution.” To that end, the four groups urged the prosecutor’s office to “provide more information to the public about why it became necessary to question Mikheil Saakashvili particularly now and how it happened that his questioning became needed simultaneously on multiple cases."
It is not clear whether there is any connection between the prosecutor’s summons and recent developments surrounding the death in February 2005 of then-Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. Mikheil Dzadzamia, who was in charge of Zhvania’s bodyguards on the night of his death, and the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on him were arrested last week on charges of dereliction of duty, shortly after photos of Zhvania’s body were posted on the Internet that reportedly show head injuries that call into question the official verdict of carbon monoxide poisoning from a defective gas heater. Zhvania’s widow has since given formal permission for his body to be exhumed.
In October 2012, Zhvania’s brother Giorgi accused former Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, former Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze, and former Prosecutor General Zurab Adeishvili of having removed Zurab’s body at Saakashvili’s behest from the location where he was allegedly killed to the apartment where he was subsequently found. Giorgi Zhvania stressed, however, that he is “not saying that it was these persons who killed my brother.”

Merabishvili was sentenced last month to 4 1/2 years in jail for exceeding his authority in ordering police to use violence to quash an opposition protest in Tbilisi in May 2011. He has recently been questioned about the circumstances of Zhvania’s death.

Adeishvili left Georgia in late 2012. He has been charged in absentia with seeking to bankrupt Ivanishvili’s Cartu Bank in the run-up to the October 2012 parliamentary elections.

Chechnya Sizes Up Iranian Auto Market

Ramzan Kadyrov (center) attends the opening ceremony for the Lada Priora assembly line in Chechnya in January 2012.

It has long been no secret that Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's influence extends far beyond the North Caucasus. The most recent proof of that is that he has co-opted a Circassian automobile magnate and the president of one of Russia's 30 largest banks to invest $500 million in building a new automobile plant in Chechnya that will manufacture small trucks, primarily for export to Iran.
What is more, the Chechen government has persuaded the Russian authorities to give the green light for the creation of a special economic zone straddling the three federation subjects (Chechnya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Stavropol Krai) in which components for those vehicles will be manufactured and assembled.
That "special economic zone of an industrial-production type" is, as Republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia Industry and Energy Minister Valery Ksalov has pointed out, the first of its kind in the Russian Federation. What specific economic privileges and tax breaks it entails, and how the net profits will be split between the three federation subjects and the federal center, is, as yet, unclear.
When plans for the post-conflict reconstruction of Chechnya's industrial base were first drawn up, it was decided to prioritize the manufacture and assembly of automobile components, given that that branch of industry had played a key role in China, Japan, and South Korea's emergence from economic stagnation, according to Chechen Republic Deputy Minister for Industry and Energy Sultan Rakhmayev. A former machine-building plant in Argun, Chechnya's third-largest town, was accordingly retooled and converted into the Chechenavto assembly plant.
For a combination of reasons, Chechenavto failed, however, to become the desired locomotive for economic growth. True, the first vehicles rolled off the assembly line in 2009, but the plant was closed the following year for modernization, and production resumed only in early 2011. At that time, its projected initial annual output was given as 4,000, rising to 50,000 by 2016.
Initially, Chechenavto primarily produced the Lada Priora. A second assembly line was planned to produce small Daewoo trucks, at which point, according to Chechenavto General Director Aynadi Kuzumov, the workforce would increase from 150 to 400.
As of mid-2012, however, the plant was working way below capacity: in the first six months of 2012 it produced only 538 Lada Prioras. Said-Khuseyn Taymaskhanov, who had replaced Kuzumov as director, explained in July 2012 that the shortfall was due to problems with deliveries of components from the AvtoVAZ "parent" plant in Tolyatti, which required payment in advance. That was not always possible, Taymaskhanov said, because the dealers who purchase approximately 70 percent of the vehicles produced did not always pay for them promptly. As a result, the plant had amassed debts of 20 million rubles.
Production fell even further in 2013, to just 791 Lada Prioras for the whole year. Current output is between 120-160 vehicles per month.
Moreover, even though the Lada Priora is reportedly popular in Chechnya, some Chechens have serious reservations about the quality of the vehicles Chechenavto produces, and prefer to buy cars assembled elsewhere.
The agreement on creating a separate company, Yugavto, that will build a new plant in Argun to manufacture small  (1 1/2 -2 ton) trucks, was reached in January following talks in Grozny between Kadyrov, Cherkess industrialist Hadji-Murat Derev, who owns the Derways automobile company, and Moscow Industrial Bank President Abubakar Arsamakov, who is a Chechen. The Chechen side initially asked Derev to expand the Chechenavto plant, but he objected that it made no sense to do so. He proposed instead building "a new enterprise that would meet all standards in the sphere of automobile building and be provided with the most modern equipment."
The new plant will reportedly produce 200,000 vehicles a year and create 10,000 new jobs. How many of those employees will be locals is not clear, however. Kadyrov has announced that he hopes to recruit an unspecified number of skilled personnel from among the 5,000 members of the workforce at AvtoVAZ's Tolyatti plant who are to be laid off by the end of this year.
The plans to export the lion's share of the trucks produced by Yugavto to Iran were announced by Industry and Energy Minister Galas Taymaskhanov at a Chechen government session earlier this month.

-- Liz Fuller

Putin Tasks Trusted Lieutenant With Economic Development Of Crimea

Vladimir Putin (right) speaks with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak during preparations for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi.

Russian President Vladimir Putin named Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, his long-time trusted lieutenant and trouble-shooter, on March 21 to oversee the economic development of the Republic of Crimea.

Crimea and the city of Sevastopol were formally incorporated into the Russian Federation as individual federation subjects on March 17. Putin then designated the two regions as a separate Crimean Federal District, and named Oleg Belaventsev, a graduate of the Sevastopol Higher Military-Naval Engineering College and long-time associate of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu, to head it. 
A native of the Ukrainian SSR, Kozak worked closely with Putin during the mid-2000s as head of the volatile and economically moribund Southern Federal District. On succeeding Putin as president in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev appointed Kozak a deputy prime minister with the sole responsibility of overseeing and coordinating the construction of the infrastructure for the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

Kozak is expected to unveil proposals for designating Crimea and Sevastopol a special economic zone at a government session on March 24. According to a study by Institute for National Strategy president Mikhail Remizov summarized by “Nezavisimaya gazeta” on March 21, before the decision to designate the two new federation subjects a separate federal district was made public, the Kremlin is seeking extra-budgetary funds to finance the development of Crimea, either by dipping into financial reserves or by persuading Russian investors to fund specific projects as they funded much of the Sochi infrastructure.
Remizov believes that approach may antagonize local businessmen. He also points out that the two regions are very different in terms of mentality, the structure of their administration, and the composition of their respective elites.
It is as yet unclear how Belaventsev will coordinate his duties with Kozak, who as a deputy prime minister is superior to him in rank.

Nor is it clear whether the designation of Crimea and Sevastopol as a separate federal district is a permanent measure, or whether the two regions may at some future date be subsumed into the North Caucasus Federal District. The future of that federal district is currently in doubt following a media campaign last month directed against Aleksandr Khloponin, who has been its head since it was first created four years ago.

Khloponin’s detractors make the point that he cannot claim the credit for the overall decline in recent years in the level of activity of the North Caucasus insurgency, and that he has failed dismally to improve socio-economic conditions.

Prosecutor Summons Former Georgian President For Questioning

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

On March 22, the Georgian Prosecutor General 's office summoned former Presdent Mikheil Saakashvili for questioning on March 27 in connection with 10 ongoing criminal investigations, including the pardoning of Interior Ministry officials jailed for the 2005 murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani; the suppression of a purported mutiny at a military base in May 2009; and the circumstances of the death in February 2005 of then Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. On March 20, photos of Zhvania's body were posted on the Internet that reportedly show head injuries that call into question the coroner's verdict that Zhvania and his companion Raul Yusupov died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a defective gas heater.

Saakashvili, who left Georgia late last year after his second term expired, swiftly rejected the summons point-blank, attributing it to a clandestine deal between Georgian businessman and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream coalition defeated Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM) in the October 2012 parliamentary election, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Saakashvili said pressure on him has intensified in recent weeks as a result of his unequivocal public support for the new Ukrainian leadership in its efforts to withstand Moscow. Saakashvili opined that because of those efforts, he has become "a bone lodged in Putin's throat."

Other prominent members of Saakashvili's ENM have advanced similar arguments. Former Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava, who has been charged with money-laundering and abuse of his official position, said the prosecutor's office has become "a blind political weapon" in the hands of Ivanishvili and his successor and political protege Irakli Gharibashvili. Ugulava said that if Saakashvili were to accede to the prosecutor's demand, his return to Tbilisi could trigger "civil confrontation."

Former National Security Council head Giga Bokeria, for his part, said that all the criminal cases in which Saakashvili has been summoned for questioning were "fabricated" with the explicit intention of undermining the former president.

ENM parliamentarians Giorgi Vashadze and Giorgi Kandelaki drew parallels with developments in Ukraine. Bokeria  described the prosecutor's summons as "a direct attempt to make Europe say no to our EU and NATO integration," while Kandelaki characterized it as a bid to "sabotage" Georgia's aspirations to European integration.

Those arguments could be deemed spurious for at least three reasons. First, Georgian Dream unequivocally supports and has pledged to continue the drive for NATO and European Union membership that constituted the primary tenet of the ENM's foreign policy since its advent to power in November 2003. (Georgian Dream's parallel efforts to establish a basis for dialogue with Russia reflect the new leadership's pragmatism and realism rather than any overt geo-political preference.)

As recently as March 21, Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze hailed the EU's stated intention of strengthening its political association and economic integration with Georgia.

Second, Georgian Dream is on the same side of the barricades as the ENM with regard to Russia's encroachment in Ukraine. Giorgi Margvelashvili, Saakashvili's successor as president, has rejected as illegal the March 17 referendum in which the population of Crimea voted for the region's unification with the Russian Federation.  Like Saakashvili, Margvelashvili has publicly argued that it was the international community's failure to "stand up to" Russia's intervention in South Ossetia August 2008 that convinced the Russian leadership it could annex Crimea with impunity.

And third, the likelihood of a civil confrontation in Georgia between supporters of Georgian Dream and the ENM seems to be remote, if not non-existent, in light of the most recent opinion poll conducted on behalf of the National Democratic Institute, according to which just 9 percent of respondents characterized the ENM as the political party with which they felt the closest affinity, compared with 61 percent for Georgian Dream.

Possible Explanations

If one discounts ENM members' less than convincing attempts to write off the prosecutor's office summons as dictated by the Kremlin, then it appears that three possible explanations remain. First, Prosecutor General Giorgi Badashvili has bowed to pressure from a faction within the Georgian leadership that still considers Saakashvili and the ENM a threat and wants them discredited and neutralized at all cost, despite the probable backlash.

Second, due to lack of experience, Badashvili, 33, has misconstrued whatever circumstantial evidence may be available linking Saakashvili with the investigations in question. Badashvili has held that office for just two months. He replaced Otar Partskhaladze, who was constrained to step down in December 2013 after it became known that he had a criminal conviction in Germany.

Or third, the prosecutor general's office does in fact have sufficient evidence against Saakashvili to forestall the international outcry that the summons is likely to provoke. As analyst Zaal Anajaparidze told the website, the crimes in which the prosecutor's office suspects Saakashvili's involvement are such that in any democratic law-based state a current or former leader would be required to answer for them before the law. But for that reason, the prosecutor's evidence must be absolutely watertight and "leave no question marks either at home or abroad."

That need is all the more imperative insofar as, ever since the ENM's election defeat, its members have systematically branded successive arrests of former high-ranking government officials politically motivated persecution. Those allegations impelled some representatives of the international community to warn Ivanishvili against "selective justice," 

Ivanishvili for his part said in late 2012 that he was against any attempt to impeach Saakashvili, as doing so "would look like political revenge." More recently, Georgian Dream parliamentarian Levan Berdzenishvili was quoted as opposing Saakashvili's arrest on the grounds that "the West's reaction would be extremely negative" and "it would hinder our European integration."

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, however, has affirmed that, if Saakashvili (who does not enjoy immunity from prosecution) fails to present himself for questioning, the prosecutor's office will launch a search for him "in accordance with the law."

Gharibashvili was quoted as telling the newspaper "Kviris palitra" that "no one is above the law" and that his team "is not out to build a state in which some people are privileged and unassailable."

-- Liz Fuller

Two Prominent Azerbaijani Oppositionists Sentenced On Fabricated Charges

Ilqar Mammadov (left), head of the Republican Alternative movement, received seven years in prison, and Tofiq Yaqublu, deputy head of the Musavat (Equality) Party, got five years.

An Azerbaijani regional court handed down prison terms on March 17 to two prominent opposition politicians for having simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ilqar Mammadov, leader of the opposition group ReAl (Republican Alternative), was sentenced to seven years and Musavat Party Deputy Chairman Tofiq Yaqublu to five years in prison on charges of "having organized or participated in mass disorders entailing arson and pogroms" and resorting to violence endangering the life of police officers" for which the prosecution failed to provide any convincing evidence.

The European Union has expressed concern at the sentences, noting "serious misgivings on the part of the international community over the fairness" of the trial.

The charges against Mammadov and Yaqublu related to unrest and protests on January 23-24, 2013, in the provincial town of Ismayilli, 200 kilometers west of Baku. Some 2,000 outraged residents took to the streets late on January 23 and set fire to a motel/bordello and vehicles belonging to Vugar Alekperov, the nephew of local governor Natiq Alekperov, after an inebriated motel employee drove his car into a parked vehicle and then assaulted its owner.

Mammadov and Yaqublu traveled to Ismayilli on January 24, together with Nicat Melikov, a journalist from the independent daily "Zerkalo," and ReAl  Executive Secretary Natiq Cafarli,  to assess the situation there, arriving in the late afternoon.  At that juncture, the town was quiet.  (The website, which is believed to belong to a member of the presidential administration, had reported at midday on January 24 that the confrontations between police and residents were over.)  Mammadov and Yaqublu departed after about one hour, before some 100-200 residents took to the streets again to demand Natiq Alekperov's resignation, and clashed with local police. 

On January 29, Azerbaijan's Prosecutor-General's Office and Interior Ministry released a joint statement accusing Mammadov and Yaqublu of having incited Ismayilli residents to resist the police. They were formally arrested and remanded in pretrial detention on February 4. Natiq Alekperov was dismissed as Ismayilli governor 10 days later. 

The trial of Mammadov and Yaqublu, and of a further 16 Ismayilli residents similarly charged with participating in the unrest, opened on November 30. Lawyers for the accused say the prosecution's case was based on the testimony of just a couple of witnesses who claimed to have seen Mammadov and Yaqublu inciting protesters; other witnesses withdrew testimony they had given in the course of the investigation, saying they testified under pressure. The judge rejected as irrelevant video footage of the violence in which both men were conspicuous by their absence. None of their 16 co-defendants recognized them as having been present during the clashes. 

Yaqublu's lawyer Nemat Kerimli made the point that the indictments were identical, implying the two men had acted as a team the entire time they had been in the town, which had not been the case. Mammadov's lawyer Halid Baqirov for his part characterized the proceedings as "a mockery of the law." Both said their clients planned to appeal their sentences.

Of the remaining 16 defendants, eight were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 2 1/2 to eight years; the others were given suspended sentences.

From the outset, political commentators and fellow oppositionists construed the arrest of Mammadov and Yaqublu as a preemptive strike against the opposition in the run-up to the October presidential election. Mammadov's ReAl designated him its presidential candidate in February and the Central Election Commission approved his registration application in late August, but then declined to register him as a candidate on the grounds that 4,982 of the 41,247 signatures he presented in his support were invalid, thereby reducing the total to below the minimum 40,000 required.

Having now been convicted, Mammadov is no longer eligible to participate in national elections even after serving his prison term. ReAl  nonetheless announced in January that it plans to evolve by May 2015 from a movement with some 1,200 members into a political party in order to campaign for Azerbaijan's transformation from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, and to participate in the parliamentary elections due in the fall of that year and the presidential election in 2018.

Erkin Gadirli, the chairman of ReAl's governing council, was quoted as saying ReAl has no intention of joining forces with any of the established opposition parties, which he criticized as ineffective and engrossed in mutual recriminations.

Avar Theologian Named To Succeed Umarov As Insurgency Leader

Caucasus Emirate qadi Ali Abu-Mukhammad says he has been named to lead the North Caucasus insurgency after Doku Umarov's death.

Aliasaskhab Kebekov (aka Ali Abu-Mukhammad), the "qadi" (supreme religious authority) of the Caucasus Emirate proclaimed in 2007 by then-Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Doku Umarov, says he has been chosen to succeed Umarov as Caucasus Emirate leader. In a 12-minute video clip posted on March 18, Kebekov confirms the earlier reports of Umarov's death. He further explains that a six-man "shura" (council) appointed by Umarov has selected him as Umarov's successor.

Kebekov, 42, was born in Daghestan's Shamil district, southwest of Makhachkala. He is an Avar. No details of his early life and career are known, but from his fluency in Arabic and the sophistication of his theological arguments it is logical to assume that he studied theology somewhere outside Russia. He served initially as qadi of the "Mountain Sector" of the "Vilayet of Daghestan," he was identified as qadi of the entire emirate in July 2011. It is not clear when Umarov named him to that position.

In his capacity as qadi, Kebekov made a series of video clips on topics including the political situation in Daghestan; why Muslims should not vote in Russian elections; and appealing to Chechen police and security personnel to turn their backs on what he terms Moscow's "genocide of Muslims." He is generally filmed sitting in front of his laptop, dressed in combat fatigues, and with his Kalashnikov within arm's reach.

Daghestani  security officials have identified Kebekov as having initiated the killing in August 2012 by a female suicide bomber of venerated Sufi Sheikh Said-Afandi Chirkeisky.

In his March address, Kebekov confirms that the news of Umarov's death was prematurely "leaked," and affirms that those responsible for that "negligence" will be punished. In a 16-minute audio clip posted in mid-January, the unidentified speaker, whose voice and pronounced accent inclined analysts to identify him as Kebekov, acknowledged receipt of the news of Umarov's death. He also divulged that he had been proposed as Umarov's successor.

Kebekov initially said he did not consider himself qualified for that position as he has no military experience, "and has never served as an emir [military commander], but became a qadi immediately after I joined the jihad." But by his own admission, Kebekov acceded to pressure from the emirs of the four military sectors (Daghestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachai: the latter commander, Tengiz Guketlov (aka Emir Khamza), was one of six fighters killed in a counterterror operation in Nalchik last week) whom Umarov included in his six-man shura.

Citing the example of Abu Bakr, who became the first Muslim caliph after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Kebekov denied emphatically that he considers himself in any way superior to other possible candidates to succeed Umarov. At the same time, he appealed to the sector commanders to induce their fighters to pledge loyalty to him. In one of his video addresses, Kebekov stressed that fighters should obey their emir "as long as he complies with shariat, even if he is not an ideal leader, even if he restricts the rights of some brothers, even if he purloins the lion's share of what they take from unbelievers (but in that case we should tell him that what he did is wrong)."

Whether the Chechen fighters will unanimously accept Kebekov is by no means certain, however. In the January audio clip, Kebekov refers to the Chechens' "nationalism" and "nationalist spirit" -- meaning the continued importance some of them still attach to the concept of an independent Chechen state -- as unacceptable.

Kebekov is the first non-Chechen to head the North Caucasus insurgency. In that respect, his elevation to that post constitutes the logical next stage in the transformation of what started two decades ago as the defense of Chechen independence into a campaign to establish an independent Shari'a-based state encompassing the entire North Caucasus (and possibly also Georgia and Azerbaijan).

Kebekov expounded what he considers the theological justification for jihad in a recent address posted on the insurgency website But in that same address, he also stresses that jihad does not necessarily mean "heading for the forest" and taking up arms, but also remaining at home and promoting the cause of jihad within the local community of believers, "in such a way as not to arouse suspicion."

"We must construct our system to counter the unbelievers' system in all respects: political, economic, information, and all other spheres, and we should have specialists in all these spheres," he wrote. That line of argument suggests that he, and possibly also Daghestan Emir Rustam Aselderov, have reached the conclusion that the heavy losses sustained by the insurgency in Daghestan in recent years (231 killed in 2012, 171 killed in 2013) are not the most effective long-term use of human resources.

Tags:umarov, Chechnya, Avar

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.