Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Caucasus Report

The Shadowy Life Of Magomedali Vagabov

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Russia's National Counterterrorism Committee says security forces have killed Magomedali Vagabov, a top militant suspected of organizing the suicide bombings on the Moscow subway in March.

Vagabov was reportedly killed in Daghestan in his native village of Gubden, southeast of Makhachkala.

Following the rift earlier this month occasioned by self-styled Caucasus Emirate head Doku Umarov's retraction of his decision to hand over command of the insurgency to Chechen commander Aslambek Vadalov, Vagabov, hitherto little-known outside his native Daghestan, became the second-most-powerful figure within the insurgency hierarchy after Umarov.

In mid-July, Umarov had named Vagabov, whose nom de guerre was Seyfullakh Gubdensky, simultaneously commander of the Daghestan Front and qadi (supreme judge) of the Caucasus Emirate's Shari'at Court. The previous incumbents, Umalat Magomedov (Amir al-Bara) and Anzor Astemirov (aka Seyfullakh), had been killed in action in December 2009 and March 2010, respectively.

Vagabov took advantage of the split within the insurgency ranks to consolidate his new position(s). He issued a statement affirming that it was incumbent on all fighters to abide by their oath of loyalty to Umarov, whom he termed "the sole legitimate leader of the Muslims of the North Caucasus," thereby unequivocally aligning himself with a superior whose credibility has been badly damaged by his seeming inconsistency.

Vagabov also moved to impose control over the website jamaat.shariat.com that chronicles insurgency activities in Daghestan. But his ultimate loyalty and objectives remained open to question.

Jamaat.shariat.com posted on August 10 and August 13 a detailed two-part biography of Vagabov clearly intended to highlight his ideological, theological, and military credentials and his links with several prominent field commanders, all now dead. But a careful reading of that biography raises more questions than it answers, in particular with regard to his surrender to the authorities in 2001 and subsequent stay in Afghanistan, during which one of his fellow fighters was named leader of a fighting unit affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

The biography also conspicuously fails to clarify the relationship between Vagabov and Mariam Sharipova, one of the two women from Daghestan identified as the suicide bombers who blew themselves up in the Moscow subway on March 29. Russian security officials claim she was Vagabov's wife; her family deny this. According to the independent Daghestan weekly "Chernovik" in October 2008, Vagabov's wife and small children lived with his mother in his native village, Gubden. Sharipova lived with her parents in Balakhany, some 40 kilometers away.

Model Student

Vagabov was born on April 1, 1975. He was a model student at school, but in his free time studied Arabic and the fundamentals of Islam with his grandfather, and at the age of 15 participated in a public meeting to demand the right for Russian Muslims to perform the hajj.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, Vagabov spent several years continuing his studies with Arab teachers. In 1994 he travelled to Pakistan, where he entered a school for hafizes and learned the entire Koran by heart. He then moved to Karachi, where he studied Shari'a law and learned Urdu and Farsi.

In 1997 he returned to Daghestan and opened a mosque in his native village. But his staunch profession of monotheism brought him into conflict with the local authorities.

Also in 1997, Vagabov is said to have travelled to Chechnya to study at the training camp in Serzhen-Yurt for militant fighters run by the legendary Jordanian field commander Khattab. When the first jamaat (Islamic military unit) was established in Gubden, Vagabov was named military commander -- even though at that juncture he had no combat experience. His baptism of fire came only in the summer of 1998 during the armed clashes between the population of the Salafi village of Karamakhi and police and government troops.

Having lost out on the opportunity to fight in the first (1994-96) Chechen war because he was in Pakistan, Vagabov then missed out on the second. He reportedly wanted to join the fighting force led by Khattab that precipitated the war by its incursion into Daghestan's Botlikh district in August 1999, but was ordered to remain in Gubden. When pro-Moscow forces entered the village, Vagabov was one of only four of the jamaat's 17 members to survive.

The four men then spent the next two years trying without success to establish contact with the remnants of the Chechen resistance. Vagabov's family finally persuaded him in 2001 to turn himself in to the authorities and request to be amnestied. He did so, for which he has reportedly begged Allah's forgiveness.

Some six months later -- presumably in late 2001 -- Vagabov and a group of other fighters made their way to Afghanistan, where one of their number, Khabibullakh, reportedly became "emir of the Russian-language jamaat of Al-Qaeda." The other Daghestani fighters who were not on the federal wanted list returned to Daghestan: the date of their return is not specified. Nor is it clear whether Vagabov personally had any contact with Al-Qaeda.

On orders from the ethnic Lak field commander Rappani Khalilov, Vagabov and his group spent the winter of 2003-04 in Khasavyurt, on the border with Chechnya. 

He returned in the spring to Gubden to establish the infrastructure (hideouts and weapons caches) for a new fighting unit. In 2005, Vagabov and the fighters subordinate to him aligned themselves with Avar field commander Rasul Maksharipov, leader of the Makhachkala-based Shari'at jamaat, who was killed in July of that year, as were many other rank-and-file militants.

Biographical Discrepancies

At this stage, whoever edited the biography failed to iron out an internal discrepancy. We are told that at some point in 2005, Rappani Khalilov sent a fighter named Shuaib to head Vagabov's unit. Vagabov became Shuaib's naib (deputy) and succeeded him on his death in early 2006. At that juncture Vagabov's unit was down to three men. Vagabov then assumed the leadership, named as his deputy the young theologian of jihad, Yasin Rasulov, and sent Rasulov together with Gadji Melikov to Makhachkala to organize a new fighting unit there. Rasulov was killed in a shoot-out in Makhachkala in early April 2006.

In the next paragraph, however, we read that "from the end of December 2005 until August 2006 [Vagabov] wandered alone in the forests," until he formed a new fighting unit.

The biography implies that Vagabov was behind the creation of several new jamaats between 2007 and mid-2009, but gives no details of his other activities during that time. Specifically, there is no mention of any further contacts with Khalilov (who was killed in September 2007), or of Vagabov's role in, or response to, the proclamation by Umarov of the Caucasus Emirate in October 2007.

What's more, none of the information about Vagabov's activities prior to 2008 can be corroborated by searching the archives of kavkazcenter.com, the main insurgency website. And the key figures who might have shed light on his activities in Daghestan -- Maksharipov, Khalilov, and Rasulov -- are all dead.

Statements by Vagabov last week shed light on two episodes, however. He says he has known Aslambek Vadalov since the fall of 2003, when Vadalov was emir in Ishkhoi-Yurt, just the other side of the Chechnya-Daghestan border from Khasavyurt where Vagabov was then based.

Vagabov also claims that in the summer of 2007, he wrote to Umarov urging him to abolish the presidency of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria "because there are thousands and thousands of us warriors of Allah from various Caucasian peoples who did not fight for Ichkeria, for presidents, for democracy, for parliament, and certainly not under the banner of the wolf," the Chechen national symbol.

Vagabov's name has never been mentioned before in connection with Umarov's disavowal of his status as president of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria and simultaneous proclamation of the Caucasus Emirate. It is generally believed that radical Chechen ideologue Movladi Udugov pressured Umarov into making that decision.

It is only in late 2008 that Vagabov's name began to figure regularly in reports in the Russian-language Daghestani weekly "Chernovik" of attacks on police and security officials by Vagabov's Gubden jamaat. By then he had apparently made up for his previous lack of experience as a military commander. In July 2009, an unnamed Federal Security Service (FSB) source told "Chernovik" that "Vagabov himself doesn't leave the forest even though he has a well-trained unit with professional weapons, including some mercenaries from abroad. He recruits young people, training them in the forest ideologically and in sabotage and subversion, then sends them into the city [Makhachkala]. When they're destroyed, he recruits new fighters from among the relatives and friends of those killed."

Vagabov also made periodic video clips lambasting senior Daghestani officials, including Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov in 2007 and President Magomedsalam Magomedov, whom Vagabov recently reportedly branded "an apostate who defends the laws of [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev, not the Koran and Sunnah."

In mid-August, in his capacity as qadi, Vagabov issued statements, replete with quotations from the Koran, setting out the legal and theological arguments that oblige fighters to abide by their oath of loyalty to their amir, even in the event that he is guilty of error. In a second statement, he appeals to the four renegade commanders in Chechnya, and to Vadalov personally, to renew their oath of loyalty to Umarov. In the event that they fail to do so, he threatens to summon the Arab commander Mukhannad, whom he clearly believes to be behind their rebellion against Umarov, to appear before the Shari'a Supreme Court.

It is not clear whether the special operation in which Vagabov was killed was the result of patient intelligence work, or whether he was betrayed either by Gubden residents or one of his subordinates, as was Ingush commander Emir Magas in June.

Certainly both Moscow and the Daghestani leadership will adduce Vagabov's death as a major victory in the ongoing struggle to contain the insurgency, the more so as it undercuts even further Umarov's crumbling support base. Of the various Daghestan commanders whom Umarov might name to replace him, arguably the best-qualified is Ibrahim Gadjidadayev, amir of Gimri.

Gadjidadayev claimed responsibility on behalf of his fighters for the killing by a sniper in Makhachkala in June 2009 of Daghestan's Interior Minister Magomedtagirov.

Tags: North Caucasus

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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.