Over the past five years, the North Caucasus insurgency has become adept at using the Internet as a powerful publicity tool to showcase successful attacks on Russian and pro-Russian military and security personnel, to promulgate its message of jihad, and to recruit new fighters to its ranks.
The effectiveness of that outreach strategy can be gauged by the number of visitors to the various insurgency websites: at any given time, there are generally at least 500 visitors logged on to the Daghestani site jamaatshariat.com; sometimes the figure exceeds 1,000. Comments posted to those websites-- and to the vast number of video clips of the insurgents post on YouTube -- are overwhelmingly positive, reflecting the local civilian population's support for and admiration of the militants.
The various insurgency websites differ widely in their geographic focus, the variety of materials offered, the number of languages used (Russian being the lingua franca), and the frequency with which they are updated. Some solicit comments, others do not.
Kavkazcenter.com, islamdin.com, and jamaatshariat.com declare their affiliation with the Caucasus Emirate proclaimed in late 2007 by North Caucasus insurgency commander Doku Umarov. Guraba.com, by contrast, which has pages in Russian and Avar, bills itself simply as an independent Daghestani source of information and analysis. The two Azerbaijani sites, milleti-ibrahim.com and azerijihadmedia.com, describe themselves simply as independent sources of news.
Some websites, such as kavkazcenter.com, cover not only the North Caucasus, but also Russia, Afghanistan, and the entire Muslim world. Others, such as guraba.com, hunafa.com, and islamdin.com, focus on a specific region (Daghestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachai, respectively). But even those websites cross-post key reports from other regions.
The materials posted to the various websites are an eclectic mix of information, theology, and polemic. The information component comprises primarily reports of military operations or of meetings of field commanders to discuss strategy; Umarov's decrees, mostly personnel appointments; and policy statements, such as those by the various regional fighting units pledging support for Umarov, or warnings by the fighting units to the civilian population to avoid facilities such as police stations that could be subject to attack at any time.
The ideological component includes sermons by respected Muslim theologians and homilies and analysis by individual insurgency commanders (Musa Mukozhev, Anzor Astemirov, Said Buryatsky, Yasin Rasulov) arguing such issues as the nature of jihad (which they argue constitutes the sixth pillar of Islam) and why it is incumbent on all good Muslims to join it. The quality of argumentation varies widely, from primitive to sophisticated.
The interactive websites that solicit comment serve as a clearinghouse for discussing and exchanging information on issues ranging from the ethnicity of individual field commanders to the identity of the fighters killed during the 12-hour gun battle in Nalchik on August 27. The 59 comments posted regarding that operation were overwhelmingly positive, on the lines of "How glad I am for these brothers. To fight in this holy month, to kill the enemies of Allah and be killed -- that is the happiness that I spend most of my times asking Allah for. I hope that Allah will have mercy on me and on many of us who dream of this."
All the websites mentioned above regularly post video clips, many, but not all, made by production companies aligned with the website in question. Most of these clips fall into the informational category: statements or appeals by Umarov or other commanders, such as the young Circassian emirs Zakaria and Abdul Djabbar; or meetings of field commanders. In one recent posting, a fighter, who has since been killed, explained in considerable technical detail, and with the self-assurance of a TV celebrity chef, how to prepare explosives for a suicide bombing.
A far greater variety of video clips is available on YouTube. They range from combat footage, including attacks on Russian military facilities in Chechnya and the assassination by a sniper in June 2009 of Daghestan's Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov, to more mundane scenes of everyday life: fighters at target practice; trekking from one base to another, in summer, carrying one of their wounded comrades in a litter, and in winter; preparing a meal; and fishing for trout in a mountain river.
Footage of the fighters reflects a spirit of cheerful camaraderie light years removed from the attitude that pervades the Russian armed forces military hierarchy, and the uniquely Chechen egalitarianism whose origins Anatol Lieven analyzed in his stellar "Chechnya. Tombstone of Russian Power."
Other clips can be loosely categorized as either hagiographic or counterpropaganda. The first generally comprise a series of still shots of field commanders, living or dead, whether individually or in groups, with musical backing. Prime examples are here and here.
The first, dated 2009, comprises portraits of 48 emirs, some of which capture the essence of the man with an eloquence that recalls Cecil Beaton. The second focuses on the military commanders who rose to prominence during the first (1994-96) war and the period to 2006, and includes the iconic picture of Chechen President Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev taken just after he was killed, with the name of Allah in Arabic script -- the Muslim equivalent of the stigmata -- clearly visible on his hand. The musical backing by the legendary Chechen folk singer Imam Alimsultanov, with the refrain "Allahu akbar," is particularly stirring.
There are also compilations dedicated to a single dead commander, including Khattab, Shamil Basayev, and President Aslan Maskhadov.
A particularly felicitous example of the counterpropaganda genre was the video clip shot in Ingushetia in the summer of 2009 with the clear intention of giving the lie to Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's allegation that the insurgents are starving to death for lack of food supplies. A group of six fighters sit down in the forest to an open-air feast comprising chicken, sausage, smoked fish, hard-boiled eggs, bread, tomatoes, fruit, bottled mineral water and tetra-packs of fruit juice.
One could argue that in terms of the information they provide, the insurgency websites now play a role comparable to samizdat in the pre-perestroika Soviet Union during the 1970s and early 1980s, the key difference being that the Internet is infinitely more easily and universally accessible, at far less personal risk. Most video clips posted to insurgency websites are in the format easiest to download to a mobile phone. A recent survey by ingushetia.org found that 42 percent of respondents (presumably including some under-occupied civil servants) access the Internet from a desktop computer and 33 percent from their mobile phone.
It is of course impossible even to guess what role the Internet glorification of the insurgency plays in mobilizing young men and women to "head for the forest" and join the fighters' ranks. But to judge from the Chechen authorities' determination to create equally attractive counterpropaganda sites, that role certainly is not negligible.