Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia: Is North Caucasus Resistance Still Serious Threat?

Has Doku Umarov's declaration of a North Caucasus emirate split the resistance? (RFE/RL) November 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In the two years since the raids on police and security facilities in Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, the North Caucasus resistance has not launched a single major attack that has made world headlines.

At least seven prominent resistance commanders have been killed since June 2006, including Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev, Aslan Maskhadov's successor as president of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI), and radical field commander Shamil Basayev.

Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen politicians claim that those losses have broken the back of the resistance and reduced its total strength to a few hundred men who will be killed or apprehended within months. Resistance websites, however, paint a very different picture, chronicling almost daily strikes against Russian military and security personnel and alleging a continued steady influx of recruits to swell the resistance ranks.

In late September 2006, Doku Umarov, who succeeded Sadullayev as president and resistance commander in June 2006, divided the North Caucasus into six areas of responsibility, or "fronts," some further subdivided into sectors, and each headed by its own amir who reports to Umarov personally. The intensity and nature of resistance activity since then has differed from republic to republic.

In Chechnya, resistance websites have reported steady low-level fighting, primarily in the form of ambushes, generally between the resistance and the pro-Moscow Chechen Vostok (East) and Sever (North) battalions, which are subordinate respectively to the Russian Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry special forces (spetsnaz). Periodic press releases issued by the ChRI Information Ministry list dozens of small-scale military strikes that since April have killed between 200-300 of the enemy. The largest number of casualties the resistance claimed to have inflicted in a single engagement -- 70 -- was in fighting in early April near Gordali in Nozhai-Yurt Raion. Unconfirmed reports in July suggested that the resistance virtually controlled swathes of southern Chechnya.

In Ingushetia, the resistance has targeted for assassination individual government officials regarded as traitors to Islam, and has repeatedly fired on police and security facilities, albeit generally without inflicting major damage. And in Kabardino-Balkaria, there has been a series of localized bombings and shootings over the past three months after a protracted calm.

At the same time, four senior Chechen field commanders have been killed since September 2006: Sultan Khadisov (September 2006), Tahir Batayev (March 2007), Suleiman Imurzayev, aka Khayrulla (April 2007), and Amir Muslim (July 2007). Apparently acting on intelligence reports, police and security agencies have also launched several successful siege and storm operations against suspected militants. There have been seven such operations this year in Daghestan alone, two each in Makhachkala (January and September), Kizilyurt Raion (February and September), and Khasavyurt (May and October) and one in Kizlyar (February). The most prominent victim of those reprisals was veteran Lak fighter Rappani Khalilov, whom Umarov named last year to command the Daghestan front.

And in Stavropol Krai, security forces surrounded and stormed a building in the town of Neftekumsk on October 1, killing a militant subsequently identified as a member of the Nogai jamaat, which Russian officials claimed to have annihilated in a shoot-out in February 2006.

Resistance Recovers, Regroups

Those losses have, however, reportedly been at least partially offset by the continuing influx of young recruits into the resistance ranks. In a statement posted on the resistance website on March 5, Umarov said that "thousands of young people" seek to participate in the jihad against Russia, but that the resistance does not have the means to recruit and train them all. For that reason, he continued, "many young people both in Ichkeria [Chechnya] and other regions of the Caucasus, and also of Russia, are organizing themselves into military jamaats and operating autonomously. We understand and welcome that initiative."

Similarly, in a statement posted on August 1 on, Umarov said that during a recent inspection trip of the various fronts he was favorably impressed both by the influx of young recruits, which he said was far larger than expected, and by their religious zeal.

In that same August 1 statement, Umarov also implied that the failure to stage a major strike against Russian or pro-Moscow Chechen forces should not be attributed to military weakness, or to the death last year of master tactician Basayev, who was largely responsible for the planning of both the multiple attacks on Ingushetia in June 2004 and the Nalchik raids in October 2005, but to long-term strategy. He affirmed that "a huge amount of preparatory work has been done, and that work is continuing. The mujaheds are undergoing intensive training," Umarov continued, but did not specify what for, adding only that "we are not in any hurry."

That statement suggests that the low-level hostilities of the past summer in southern Chechnya may have served as valuable basic training for the new generation of recruits. The lack of adequate military training was one of the factors behind the failure, and the high militant death toll, in the Nalchik raids.

Umarov's strategy is now clear: on October 28, the website posted a statement in Umarov's name, but which was reportedly drafted by ChRI Information Minister Movladi Udugov and his half-brother Isa Umarov (no relation to Doku), in which Doku Umarov confirms that he has proclaimed himself amir of the North Caucasus and "the sole legal authority on all the territories where mujahedin have sworn the loyalty to me as leader of the jihad."

Umarov further affirms that he "declares illegal the ethnic and territorial-colonial zones" currently known as the North Caucasus and Transcaucasus republics -- a statement implying that he (or Udugov) envisages Azerbaijan, and possibly the Azerbaijani-populated southeastern districts of Georgia, as part of the planned emirate. He also rejects in advance the argument that the North Caucasus emirate is "an abstract, virtual state." RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on October 29 received a video of Umarov's statement.

FSB Behind 'North Caucasus Emirate'?

Umarov did not explain the motives for his dramatic decision. But in an October 22 statement, London-based ChRI Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev claimed to have information suggesting that the Russian authorities had suborned unnamed Chechens to persuade Umarov to proclaim himself amir of a North Caucasus emirate and to declare war on the entire world in the name of the region's Muslims. Zakayev suggested that the rationale behind those plans was to provide the Kremlin with a cast-iron pretext to deploy more forces to the North Caucasus under the pretext of fighting Al-Qaeda in order to deal the death blow to the independent ChRI and to continue its "genocide" of the region's peoples, "who are ever more actively defending their national and religious rights."

To that extent, Zakayev continued, Umarov's proclamation of a North Caucasus emirate would serve the same purpose as did the declaration in August 1999 of an independent Islamic state in Daghestan in triggering a new war in Chechnya. Zakayev further claimed that Moscow has allocated $500 million to implement "Operation Emirate," and that Russian intelligence operatives have met in an unnamed third country with Chechen representatives to secure their cooperation.

Zakayev did initially not name those Chechens he implicitly accused of collaborating with Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), but Alla Dudayeva, the widow of the late Chechen President Jokhar Dudayev, subsequently identified Udugov as the ideologue of the planned North Caucasus emirate and challenged him either to confirm or refute reports that Umarov has, or was about to, proclaim himself its leader. In early 2006, Udugov and Zakayev engaged in a heated polemic in which Zakayev argued for the creation of an independent Chechen state and Udugov for an Islamic state encompassing the entire North Caucasus. On October 27, posted what it claimed is Udugov's draft concept, dated February 2007, for the creation of an Islamic state. On October 30, Zakayev told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that Udugov was indeed the author, and that it was Isa Umarov who talked Doku Umarov into endorsing it.

If Zakayev's allegations that the FSB is behind Umarov's decision are indeed true, that would imply that Moscow does still view the North Caucasus resistance as a serious threat, whether military or ideological, and has hit upon a diabolical scheme to destroy it without incurring any criticism from the international community. But in that case it seems strange that the FSB has not yet publicly seized upon Umarov's statement to bolster its claims of operational links between the North Caucasus resistance and Al-Qaeda.

Certainly the possibility that the FSB may have infiltrated the North Caucasus resistance cannot be rejected out of hand. Some analysts believe that the ill-fated incursion by Basayev into Daghestan in August 1999 that served as the rationale for Moscow's second onslaught on Chechnya was masterminded through "cut-outs" by the FSB. And that it is possible to infiltrate the resistance ranks for nefarious purposes has been demonstrated by the deaths by poisoning of field commanders Khattab in 2002 and Sultan Khadisov in September 2006.

Is Radical Islam Splitting Resistance?

On the other hand, Umarov himself admitted in his August 2007 statement that some of the younger generation of fighters are so zealous that "our problem today is how to restrain the mujaheds who are impatient to engage battle." It is therefore conceivable that while Umarov did indeed cede to pressure from radical Islamists among the resistance ranks, those fighters are not, as Zakayev alleged, acting at Moscow's behest.

In other words, Zakayev's identification of Moscow as being behind an undertaking that could cause major suffering to the Chechen people and irrevocably destroy what little support the resistance can still count on among the international community may be simply an attempt at damage containment.

Whatever the circumstances leading to Umarov's decision, it risks splitting those Chechens who until now have unequivocally supported Umarov as the legitimate president of a legitimate ChRI. Two senior field commanders, Isa Munayev and Sultan Arsayev, have already issued statements publicly siding with Zakayev and condemning attempts "to sabotage Chechen statehood," thereby implicitly distancing themselves from Umarov. And on October 31, Zakayev issued a statement saying that the ChRI government is rescinding its support for Umarov in light of the latter's move to undermine the legitimacy of the ChRI. Zakayev told RFE/RL that he considers Umarov has relinquished his presidential powers. What repercussions Umarov's declaration will have elsewhere in the North Caucasus is unclear; none of the various republican jamaats has endorsed or rejected his statement to date.

If radical Islamists among the resistance ranks were indeed the motivating factor behind Umarov's decision, the question also arises: what has contributed to the Islamization of the resistance ranks? Is it a phenomenon that is confined to fighters of one ethnic group, or does it affect Chechens, Ingush, and Kabardians alike?

In an interview with RFE/RL journalist Andrei Babitsky in the early summer of 2005, Umarov denied that there are tensions within the resistance between so-called "Wahhabis" (meaning Salafis), and those Chechens who practice traditional Sunni Islam. It is not clear whether the radicalization that has apparently taken place since then is the result of indoctrination after recruits join the ranks of the resistance, or was inspired by the writings, posted on Udugov's website, of ideologists Musa Mukozhev and Anzor Astemirov (aka Amir Seyfullah). Those two men, both from Kabardino-Balkaria, issued treatises in September 2006 and March 2007, respectively, arguing that jihad against nonbelievers is the personal duty of every individual Muslim.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.