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Daghestan's Islamic Fighters Continue To Hone Military, PR Skills

Alleged Shariat Jamaat members on trial in Makhachkala in 2006
Alleged Shariat Jamaat members on trial in Makhachkala in 2006
Over the past two years, Ingushetia and Daghestan have eclipsed Chechnya as the most unstable North Caucasus republics. Both regions are plagued by almost daily low-level violence that pits police and security forces against committed Islamic armed militant groups and civilians suspected of sympathizing with or abetting those groups.

At least 34 Interior Ministry officials were killed in Daghestan in 2008 in 96 separate attacks. The most prominent victim was Russian General Valery Lipinsky, who was gunned down on the street in Makhachkala on December 29. The Islamic militant group Shariat Jamaat claimed responsibility for that killing, which it described in a January 5 press release as "a gift from our Amir Muaz to the infidel [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin."

Shariat Jamaat is the oldest Islamic resistance movement in Daghestan. Chechen oppositionists who were among the co-founders in the late 1980s of the Islamic Revival Party established an unarmed Islamic movement in Daghestan even before the collapse of the USSR. That movement coalesced as a military unit separate from, but aligned with, the radical wing of the Chechen resistance at the time of the incursion into Daghestan in the summer of 1999 by radical Chechen Islamists led by field commander Shamil Basayev.

Any detailed account of Shariat's evolution is problematic, given the secrecy under which the resistance operates throughout the North Caucasus and the difficulties inherent in trying to separate rumor, myth, and official Russian propaganda from fact. The moderate Chechen resistance website published on August 8, 2006, a list of 18 attacks perpetrated by militants in Daghestan between late December 2001 and the end of 2004. Those attacks included the killings of three senior Daghestan Interior Ministry officials in September 2002, March 2004, and December 2004, and of republican Nationalities Minister Magomedsalikh Gusayev in August 2003.

But in the first half of 2005, Shariat stepped up its activities under the leadership of Avar field commander Rasul Maksharipov, a veteran of the fighting in Chechnya, carrying out up to 55 terrorist attacks that killed more than 40 police officers in a wave of violence that led Moscow-based analyst Aleksei Malashenko in September 2005 to describe the situation to "The Guardian" as "close to civil war."

Initially, the preferred modus operandi for such assassinations was improvised explosive devices, either in the form of roadside bombs detonated by remote control when a police or military vehicle drove past, or attached to the car or placed near the entrance to the home of a specific victim. A spokesman for Shariat told RFE/RL in August 2008 that Shariat fighters are adept at assembling such devices. Alternatively, a group of Shariat fighters might open fire on their intended victim's automobile. "The Times" reported on July 19, 2005, that one militant apprehended several months earlier had a list of the addresses and telephone numbers of some 100 intended victims.

In an interview published in the Russian daily "Gazeta" on February 15, 2006, then-Russian Deputy Interior Minister Andrei Novikov said Shariat had recently started duplicating tactics used by militants in Iraq: an anonymous caller informs the police that a crime has been committed at a specific location; police officers are dispatched to investigate and walk straight into an ambush. Shariat used a variant on this tactic in two separate unsuccessful attempts, in August 2006 and February 2007, to assassinate Daghestan's Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov, who frequently travels personally to inspect the site of fatal attacks on senior officials.

Shariat commander Maksharipov was killed in a counterinsurgency operation in Makhachkala in early July 2005, but his demise resulted only in a very slight immediate decline in the frequency of militant attacks. There was, however, a more pronounced lull in 2006, with only 27 police officers killed during the first 10 months of that year, according to on October 27, 2006.

Gadji Melikov, who succeeded Maksharipov as Shariat's commander, was himself killed in July 2006, and Melikov's successor, Rappani Khalilov, in September 2007. But the deaths of successive commanders and of dozens of rank-and-file fighters have had only minimal impact on Shariat and the territorially based subunits subordinate to it (based in Buynaksk and Khasavyurt in the north, and Derbent in the south).

Over the past two years, Shariat has given two interviews to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service -- in March 2007 and summer 2008. It has never granted a formal interview to any other media outlet. In the earlier of those two interviews, a Shariat spokesman defined Shariat as a subdivision of the resistance Caucasus Front; its members have pledged allegiance to Doku Umarov in his capacity as amir of the North Caucasus. The spokesman summarized Shariat's twin objectives as expelling Russian nonbelievers and their local collaborators from the entire North Caucasus and establishing an Islamic state on that territory. To achieve that end, he said, Shariat considers it legitimate to target police and security officials, the pro-regime Muslim clergy, and clerics of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Asked why Shariat opted for military rather than political methods to achieve its aims, the spokesman dismissed the concept of "political struggle," whether in Chechnya, Russia, or the United States, as "a farce [staged by] unbelievers." He similarly dismissed as "pointless" any negotiations with Daghestan's "puppet authorities," and said the decision on whether to embark on talks with Moscow lies with Umarov and his advisers.

In the subsequent interview, the Shariat spokesman said that one of its two original objectives has indeed been accomplished -- meaning the declaration by Umarov in October 2007 of an Islamic state encompassing the entire North Caucasus. Umarov proclaimed himself amir of that Islamic state, and Shariat's fighters have formally acknowledged him as such. The spokesman added that Shariat's tactics have not changed, and that armed struggle "is the only appropriate response to the occupation of Muslims' lands."

The strategy selected for that struggle is "a partisan war that can last as long as you like and exhaust the enemy's resources and morale. In addition, such tactics enable us to avoid unjustifiably high military losses, which is extremely important" given the enemy's numerical superiority. At the same time, he repeated that peace talks with Russia are hypothetically possible, but only if and when Russia withdraws its troops from the territory of the North Caucasus Emirate and provides security guarantees as a precondition for peace talks.

Asked whether Shariat has ever regretted launching an attack, he said its members regret that complete innocents are sometimes killed by police in the course of so-called counterterrrorism operations against Shariat fighters. He warned the population to avoid whenever possible the vicinity of police stations and police officials, both of which could at any moment be targeted by Shariat. That warning has since been repeated, most recently in the January 5 press release claiming responsibility for Lipinsky's killing.

Understandably, the spokesman refused to give any estimate of Shariat's combined strength, other than to dismiss as risible official claims that it consists of between five and six small groups of fighters. Interior Minister Magomedtagirov told a counterterrorism conference in Makhachkala in November 2008 that there are seven "extremist groups" in Daghestan with no more than 15 members each, according to on December 14.

The Shariat spokesman did say, however, that most of Shariat's fighters are young, and that they come from diverse social groups and professional backgrounds, including students, teachers, doctors, former bureaucrats, and some religious figures. He said there is an uninterrupted stream of volunteers who wish to join the resistance, but that "we cannot take them all." He did not give any indication of the ethnic makeup of the resistance, but given that its former leaders include an Avar (Maksharipov), a Kumyk (Melikov), and a Lak (Khalilov), it is reasonable to infer that Shariat treats members of all Daghestan's ethnic groups as equals. The spokesman also admitted that some Shariat members come from outside Daghestan, and even outside Russia. In October 2006, Daghestan's Interior Ministry claimed to have apprehended a citizen of Georgia, identified as Akhmed Gamzatovich Gasanov (possibly a member of Georgia's fast-dwindling Avar minority), who had allegedly been a member of an "illegal armed formation" since 1999.

Asked to define Shariat's current military objectives, the spokesman said the resistance leadership has opted for a war of attrition in the form of a long-term partisan war in the North Caucasus that may be broadened to encompass the whole of the Russian Federation, including Moscow and St. Petersburg. He did not give any time frame for doing so.

Shariat has its own, Russian-language website,, which is described as an "independent Daghestani Internet information agency." Its regular press releases, whether giving details of successful operations or explaining its rationale for waging jihad, quote extensively from the Koran to support their arguments and are notable for their sophistication. The same cannot be said of some other Caucasus jamaats: the theological arguments adduced in 2006 by the Kabardino-Balkar jamaat amounted to little more than hurling slabs of doctrine at the heads of recalcitrant co-religionists unwilling to join the jihad.

Shariat's spokesman told RFE/RL last year that the group's propaganda campaign is proving successful, and that "many Muslims who do not risk their lives by participating directly in jihad do all they can to help [us]." He added that the plutocracy and corruption that pervade domestic politics, together with arbitrary reprisals by the police and security organs, incline ever more people to sympathize with the resistance. "Popular perceptions are changing," he said, and more people now believe that the Caucasus can survive without Russia.

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