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Is The Caucasus Emirate On The Rebound?

A screengrab of a video uploaded to YouTube last week, suggesting that that the Caucasus Emirate has named a new leader.

Since the start of this year, numerous Russian analysts have predicted that the growing influence and popularity of the extremist organization Islamic State (IS) among disaffected residents of the North Caucasus would ultimately render the Caucasus Emirate (IK) -- proclaimed eight years ago by then Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Doku Umarov -- both impotent and irrelevant.

Video footage uploaded to YouTube last week suggests, however, that the IK has named a new leader and has reestablished a presence in Chechnya, where its fighters intend to resume their "jihad" against the republic's Moscow-backed leadership.

The deaths of two successive IK leaders, Aliaskhab Kebekov (aka Amir Ali Abu-Muhammad) in April and Magomed Suleymanov (aka Ali Abu Usman) in August, have helped substantiate the belief that the IK is defunct. So too have as yet unconfirmed reports that Rustam Aselderov, a former leader of the IK wing in Daghestan, has been named the head of the IS presence in the North Caucasus.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for IS claimed in June that its leader, Amir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has accepted the oath of allegiance of militants from Chechnya, Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Aslan Byutukayev, whom Umarov named in 2011 to head the IK's Chechen wing, and veteran field commander Makhran Saipov have both transferred their allegiance to IS.

A third respected Chechen commander, Tarkhan Gaziyev, is one of three fighters from the North Caucasus whom the U.S. State Department added late last month to its list of persons and terrorist groups subject to U.S. sanctions. Gaziyev left Chechnya over a year ago, but told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in an interview in the summer of 2014 that he planned to return. He is said to be in Syria, heading a group of fighters known as the Tarkhan's Jamaat, which has links to IS.

Video Oddities

The 2½ minute video clip, which is dated September 2015 and entitled Address by the mudjjaheds of the Vilayat Nokhchiicho (the IK's designation for Chechnya), shows a group of masked, black-robed figures, two of them armed with handguns. The speaker, who identifies himself as Amir Muslim, explains that, with Allah's help, he and his comrades in arms "have returned home" (from where is not clear) and set about acquiring what they need and organizing themselves to continue waging "jihad."

He calls on "brothers" who for whatever reason have likewise left the Vilayat Nokhchiicho to return. He also appeals to all Muslims of the Caucasus to "awake from their slumber" and help the militants "against our common enemy."

Amir Muslim concludes by affirming that his group acknowledges Abu-Khamza Umarov as its leader and will continue to comply with his directives as long "as he observes the laws of the Koran and the Sunna." He also says that it was Abu-Khamza "who helped us return and find the people we need."

Abu-Khamza is the nom de guerre of Akhmed Umarov, Doku Umarov's elder brother and until now the IK's official representative abroad (he lives in Turkey) and supreme Islamic judge. Doku Umarov died of food poisoning in September 2013.

This is the first time that Akhmed Umarov has been identified as having succeeded Suleymanov as IK leader.

Several things about the video clip seem odd. As noted above, the group shown are masked and wearing black robes, in a departure from standard practice. By contrast, earlier video footage of Doku Umarov, Byutukayev and Makhran and other fighters shows them in battle fatigues, their faces clearly visible. This could, however, be a valid precaution intended to protect the men's families from Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's threat in the wake of the insurgency attack on Grozny in December 2014 to expel militants' families from Chechnya and destroy their homes .

Second, "Amir Muslim" does not mention IS, either as a potential ally or a rival force.

Third, he does not clarify from which country he and his men have returned to Chechnya. He does, however, explicitly mention that it was Umarov who helped them return "and find the people we need." This suggests that the "returnees" were not familiar with the situation in Chechnya and did not have their own contacts there, whether family or trusted supporters.

That in turn raises the question: are they Chechens from the generation who left as infants during the fighting of 1994-1996 and 1999-2000 and have grown up in Europe? Many of those young Chechens are reported to have flocked to Syria to join the forces opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, but not necessarily IS.

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.


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