Reports two weeks ago that the Federal Security Service (FSB) had thwarted a planned attempt to assassinate charismatic Salafi preacher Khamzat Chumakov and arrested three of the four would-be perpetrators risk exacerbating the long-standing conflict in Ingushetia between the adherents of traditional Sufi Islam, on the one hand, and of moderate Salafi Islam on the other.
The four men reportedly planned to detonate a Hyundai automobile crammed with explosives outside the mosque in the village of Nasyr-Kort where Chumakov preaches. The attack was timed for Chumakov’s departure from the mosque after Friday Prayers, which are regularly attended by upwards of 5,000 worshippers. A search of the homes of the three men detained reportedly yielded quantities of explosives, but the Hyundai has not yet been traced.
Although the three suspects have not been publicly identified, Chumakov’s relatives told the news portal Caucasian Knot they suspect the involvement of the Belkhoroyev extended family, whose ancestor Batal-hadji founded the eponymous Sufi vird (brotherhood). Chumakov, who lost a leg when a bomb exploded in his car seven years ago, was more circumspect, attributing the purported plot to unnamed “destructive forces operating in Ingushetia” and “clans operating under the protection of external forces.”
The enmity between Chumakov’s followers and the Belkhoroyevs is perhaps understandable. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Ingush official explained to Caucasian Knot on October 12 that Chumakov has repeatedly criticized the Batal-hadji vird harshly on doctrinal grounds, while senior members of the brotherhood resent the fact that “many” of its younger members have transferred their allegiance to Chumakov.
Sheikh Batal-hadji Belkhoroyev was a contemporary and follower of the 19th-century Chechen Sufi sheikh Kunta-hadji Kisriyev, whom Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has elevated in recent years to cult status. Tens of thousands of believers in Chechnya reportedly participate in the memorial ceremonies to mark the anniversaries of his birth and his deportation in 1864 by the tsarist authorities.
Based in the village of Surkhakhi, southeast of Nazran, the Batal-hadji Sufi brotherhood is said to be one of the most secretive in Ingushetia and is regarded with suspicion and mistrust by much of the local population. Its members wield considerable financial influence; their assets include a large market in Nazran and a string of gas stations, according to Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, who is the former director of the International Crisis Group's (ICG) Russia and North Caucasus Project.
In light of Batal-hadji’s ties to Kunta-hadji, the Batal-hadji vird enjoys the support of both the Chechen muftiate and the republic’s leadership. Representatives of the Chechen muftiate attended the funeral in Surkhakhi a week ago of Sultan Belkhoroyev, the informal head of the brotherhood. As for the Chechen leadership, Sokiryanskaya says it makes use of some of the brotherhood’s members to promote its agenda in Ingushetia. That agenda appears to be directed primarily against Chumakov and his fellow imam Issa Tsechoyev, who also professes the moderate Salafi Islam that is anathema to Kadyrov. Speaking at a conference in Grozny in February 2016, Kadyrov warned publicly that if those two clerics ever try to proselytize in Chechnya, “heads will roll.”
Consequently, Kadyrov came under suspicion when a car bomb exploded outside the Nasyr-Kort mosque just a few weeks later. Chumakov sustained only cuts and bruises in the blast but four other believers were injured, one of them seriously.
Ingushetia’s mufti Isa-hadji Khamkhoyev, who like Kadyrov is a member of the Qadiriyya Sufi order, has also criticized Chumakov for years, demanding that the republic’s leadership ban him from preaching. Indeed, Khamkhoyev’s apparent refusal to seek common ground with the Salafi minority was one of the reasons that impelled Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov to try to engineer his removal from the post of mufti and replace the muftiate with a Council of Alims ostensibly more amenable to promoting peaceful coexistence between the two strains of Islam.
But Ingush human rights activist Tamirlan Akiyev rejects the possibility that Khamkhoyev could have been behind the thwarted attempt on Chumakov’s life. He pointed out that in recent months Khamkhoyev has not publicly criticized Chumakov. A relative of Chumakov’s similarly opined that the muftiate would be incapable of organizing such an attack.
Furthermore, Khamkhoyev’s position has recently been strengthened by an agreement reached between the muftiate and the republic’s Justice Ministry, which at Yevkurov’s behest had launched legal proceedings to have the muftiate abolished -- even though as a public organization it was not subordinate to the republic’s authorities. Instead, the muftiate has agreed to amend at the next Congress of Muslims of Ingushetia (scheduled in 2019) those chapters of its statutes that the ministry claims violate the law.
The website onkavkaz.com attributes that agreement to the Kremlin’s reluctance to allow Yevkurov to set a precedent that would weaken the federal center’s control over the Muslim community in his republic. It also claims the presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District, Oleg Belaventsev, supports Khamkhoyev. Onkavkaz further suggests that the fact that Yevkurov’s second term as republic head expires in 2018 may have served as an incentive to him not to try to force the issue.
Meanwhile, the Belkhoroyev family is apparently under pressure from Republic of Ingushetia authorities. In mid-September, Sultan Belkhoroyev wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin complaining of what he termed “organized persecution in the form of constant illegal measures directed at persons who belong to our vird.” According to Caucasian Knot, Belkhoroyev said that on August 19-20, some 40 searches were carried out at the homes of various members of the brotherhood, during which the police planted weapons. He attributed that pressure to “members of extremist organizations” who, he claimed, have infiltrated the law enforcement agencies over the past six years and who engage in intimidation and the fabrication of criminal cases against members of the Batal-hadji brotherhood. That pressure has become so great, Belkhoroyev continued, that members of the brotherhood are seriously considering emigrating en masse.
It is not known whether Belkhoroyev received a response from Putin before he died. Assuming his allegations of pressure and intimidation are true, such harassment would seemingly have had to have been instigated by Yevkurov personally -- possibly as a way of hitting back at Kadyrov, who has sought for years to undermine Yevkurov, including by encouraging his minions to lobby for the redrawing of the border between the two republics to transfer to Chechen jurisdiction districts currently part of Ingushetia.