FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov announced on June 9 that the Ingush field commander known as Amir Magas (whose true identity remains unclear) was apprehended during a special operation earlier that day in Malgobek. The website
of the Ingushetian chapter of the North Caucasus insurgency, hunafa.com, confirmed Magas's capture early on June 10.
Bortnikov described Magas as "one of the leaders" of the North Caucasus insurgency, while a profile of him
posted on June 11 on one of the insurgency websites dubbed him "a legend" and claimed that "his courage and daring were an inspiration to even the very best mujaheds."
But a close look at Magas's role over the past decade suggests that both sides may be exaggerating the significance of his capture.
FSB officials claim Magas was apprehended without a struggle in a private house in Malgobek where he had been staying for several days. The operation had been planned for two months and was carried out by the same team of Moscow-based FSB operatives who killed renegade Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev in July 2006. Only a handful of officials
in the North Caucasus were informed about it in advance.
Those circumstances suggest that Magas was betrayed to the FSB by someone he trusted, and that he must have been drugged, poisoned, or otherwise incapacitated to prevent him resisting capture. Two other prominent field commanders have died of poison -- Jordanian-born Khattab in 2002 and Sultan Khadisov in 2006.
The confusion about Magas's true identity dates back to 2004. Magas is said to have joined the armed insurgency in 2003 and quickly become one of Basayev's lieutenants. On June 29, 2004, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted Major General Ilya Shabalkin, then spokesman for the Russian counterterrorism headquarters in the North Caucasus, as saying that Magas, aka Magomed Evloev, who played a key role in the multiple attacks on police and security facilities in Ingushetia one week earlier, had been killed the previous day
in a shootout in the village of Dalakovo. But the website ingushetiya.ru claimed that the militant killed was a different Magomed Evloyev, not Magas. (The name is very common in Ingushetia.)
Two months later, during the Beslan school hostage-taking, "Gazeta" on September 2, 2004, quoted an unnamed Russian military official as identifying the commander of the hostage-takers as Magomed Evloyev/Magas, one of Basayev's lieutenants. But on September 4, ingushetiya.ru claimed that Magas is not, in fact, Magomed Evloev but former Ingush police officer Ali Taziev. (That was the name by which Bortnikov identified Magas when announcing his capture on June 9.) On September 5, 2004, after the storm of the Beslan school building, the same website reported
that none of the 29 dead hostage-takers bore any resemblance to Taziyev.
Born in the village of Nasyrkort in Ingushetia's Nazran Raion, Taziyev was an Ingushetian Interior Ministry employee who disappeared in October 1998 following the abduction in Nazran of the wife of a Russian official whom he and a colleague had been detailed to escort. All three were taken to Grozny. The woman was released in February 2000; Taziyev's colleague was found dead; and Taziyev himself disappeared.
Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who launched her own investigation of the abduction, was told by Taziyev's family that they were certain he is no longer alive. When Politkovskaya showed them a photo of Basayev with a second fighter whom the authorities had identified as Taziyev, they said the man in the photo
was definitely not Taziyev.
The website Caucasus Knot last week posted a biography
of Magas/Yevloyev that differs fundamentally from that of Taziyev. Yevloyev is said to have been born in Grozny in 1974. He embraced salafism in 1996 and joined one of the Chechen resistance groups subordinate to the Akhmadov brothers. By early 1999 he had aligned himself with Basayev, then leader of the radical camp within the Chechen leadership opposed to more moderate Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Aslan Maskhadov. Basayev named him commander of a group of some 30-40 men.
Magas reportedly participated in the September 1999 incursion into Daghestan led by Basayev and Khattab, and during the 1999-2000 war fought at various times under Basayev and the Saudi-born fighter Abu Al-Walid, and as commander of an independent group of fighters from Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Kalmykia. He was with Basayev during the retreat from Grozny in late January 2000 to Chechnya's southeastern Vedeno district, where he was given command of a group of fighters in the village of Dargo. Basayev reportedly named him commander of the Ingush Front in 2004.
Then Chechen Republic Ichkeria President and resistance commander Doku Umarov named him commander of the entire Caucasus Front in September 2006; but the decree announcing that appointment
gives Magas's first name as Akhmed, not Magomed Yevloyev.
In an interview with daymohk.info
several weeks later, Magas said that "in recent years" he focused his efforts in molding the various disparate Ingush fighting units into a single fighting force under one commander. Magas also mentioned in that interview the effort put into creating so-called Special Operative Groups comprised of "the most experienced fighters," that engaged primarily in killing police and other officials suspected of having engaged in reprisals against Muslims. Magas said such groups had engaged in successful operations in Ingushetia in 2006, but he did not explain what role, if any, he played personally in training them.
Magas went on to affirm that the world was on the verge of a great war between Muslims and unbelievers and warned his fellow Ingush that they had to choose which side he was on, quoting from the Koran to add weight to his words.
Magas similarly quoted from the Koran in a December 2008 statement
to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid. By that time, Umarov had promoted him to the post, formerly held by Basayev, of military amir.
Russian official comments on Magas's capture identify him as one of the most experienced commanders of the North Caucasus insurgency. They also claim he was the mastermind behind the June 2009 suicide car bombing that narrowly failed to kill Ingushetian President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. Magas was identified as the organizer
of that attack 10 days after it took place.
But even assuming that Magas does indeed have over a decade of experience beginning in the late 1990s, and despite his rank as military amir, he cannot compare as a strategist with either Maskhadov or Basayev, and he does not enjoy the same respect as younger commanders such as Aslambek or fellow Ingush Tarkhan. In video footage of war council meetings convened by Umarov, it is those two -- Arab commander Mukhannad and veteran commander Supyan Abdullayev -- who invariably stand (or sit) closest to Umarov.
Federation Council First Deputy speaker Aleksandr Torshin, who is a member of the National Antiterrorism Committee and headed a public investigation into the Beslan hostage-taking, predicted to journalists
on June 9 that the capture of Magas would negatively impact the entire North Caucasus insurgency. That is, however, unlikely. True, Magas may know the numerical strength of, and the location of hideouts used by, fighters in Chechnya and Ingushetia. But his familiarity with the various other regional jamaats (of which currently the most active are Shariat in Daghestan and the Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai jamaat in Kabardino-Balkaria) is likely to be minimal, given that they operate virtually autonomously due to the logistical dangers of maintaining contact.
It is in all likelihood because of such security considerations that this year, for the first time, Umarov is not reported to have convened a major meeting of field commanders from across the North Caucasus at the start of the fighting season. Daghestan's Shariat jamaat, however, convened on May 30
its own council of the amirs of 10 jamaats from Daghestan's "central sector" plus the Azerbaijan jamaat.
Magas's capture was the first following by a recent directive
to police and security forces to capture military commanders alive for trial. In that respect it marks a strategic U-turn, compared with the killing in special operations in March 2005 and June 2006 of Maskhadov and his successor, Abdul-Khalim Saidullayev.
Ingushetian President Yevkurov, himself a former military intelligence officer, told journalists on June 10 that he hopes Magas will tell his interrogators at the very least "who sheltered and fed him." That information could facilitate winding down the insurgency's support base in Ingushetia which, in turn, might lead to fewer fatalities among the civilian population and a badly needed boost for Yevkurov himself, who according to a recent poll conducted by the website ingushetia.org enjoys the trust of just 36 percent of the republic's population.
Yevkurov also anticipates that Magas will shed light on persistent rumors
that the insurgency has for the past six years extorted money from local businessmen and even some government officials.
If Magas survives interrogation, he would be the first prominent captured field commander to stand trial since the infamous Salman Raduyev. Raduyev was apprehended in March 2000 and sentenced in December 2001 to life imprisonment; he died in jail, reportedly of natural causes, one year later.