In new video footage, North Caucasus insurgency leader Ali Abu-Mukhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov) discusses in detail to what extent suicide bombings and inflicting casualties on the civilian population constitute acceptable tactics in the ongoing jihad to replace Russia's hegemony over the region with an independent Islamic state.
The one-hour video clip follows the same format as the "Answers to questions" footage uploaded in May and removed almost immediately as a violation of YouTube's policy on violence. Kebekov, in battle dress as usual, is seen seated against the background of the black jihadist banner and answers questions posed by an interlocutor off-camera.
On this occasion, the first question -- which Kebekov calls a "very good" one -- focuses on the admissibility of suicide bombings in general, and specifically in light of the danger they may kill innocent civilians. Kebekov argues that such acts should be kept to a minimum, but he does so on tactical, rather than theological grounds.
He acknowledges that such self-sacrifice constitutes the "supreme manifestation of faith," and that however eloquently you argue, it is impossible to dissuade someone who is determined to carry out such an act because that person already has the scent of paradise in his nostrils. And there are some potential targets among the "unbelievers" whom it is impossible to get close enough to kill by any other means. At the same time, he continues, every fighter is an asset, and "if there is another way to rid ourselves of the unbelievers, there is no need for us to give our lives."
Therefore, Kebekov reasons, in each individual case we should weigh the benefit against the potential damage. In that context, he stresses that only men should be permitted to commit such acts of self-sacrifice. He "categorically forbids" women to do so, even though "there are some sisters who want to do this and keep pestering us" for permission, and asks his commanders not to use women for this purpose. He explains that if even a few women perpetrate such acts, the Russian authorities will retaliate by targeting for humiliation thousands of others who are practicing Muslims.
Kebekov's clear reluctance to condone suicide bombings is difficult to reconcile with his warning in the video footage filmed in May that the insurgency is preparing to inflict "crushing blows" on the enemy, although he mentions in passing the hypothetical possibility of blowing up a Russian military base.
Kebekov develops the theme of preventing the unnecessary death of women in responding to a follow-up question. He urges women who find themselves together with their insurgent husbands in a building surrounded by Interior Ministry forces to surrender, if offered the choice. This is all the more imperative, Kebekov says, if the couple have children whom the woman has an obligation to raise "in the spirit of Islam," rather than leave them to be brought up by parents who in all likelihood have no sympathy for the insurgency cause.
How long this will remain an option is questionable, however. Colonel General Sergei Chenchik, who heads the Russian Interior Ministry's Main Directorate for the North Caucasus Federal District, argues that it is imperative to organize the "adaptation" (read indoctrination) of the children of insurgents who have been killed or are serving prison terms.
Kebekov urges male fighters too to surrender in such circumstances rather than fight to the death, saying he hopes to be in a position within a few years to secure the release from prison of insurgents jailed after surrender or capture. But his assertion that "we know of no cases" in which either men or women who surrendered during counterterror operations were subsequently mistreated is at odds with data compiled by human rights watchdogs.
As for civilian casualties, Kebekov declares that Islam forbids the deliberate killing of women, children, and the elderly. But at the same time, he says that the insurgency cannot be held responsible if innocent civilians are killed by chance during an operation, especially as the civilian population has been repeatedly warned to avoid locations that the insurgents regard as legitimate targets.
Kebekov nonetheless expresses regret for such deaths. He says lower-level commanders have been told to do their best to avoid killing women and children, noting that Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of Al-Qaeda) has issued analogous instructions. He refers to Zawahiri as "our emir" or leader, a formulation that will doubtless be adduced to substantiate the tenuous claims of an institutional link between Al-Qaeda and the Caucasus Emirate declared in the fall of 2007 by Kebekov's predecessor, Doku Umarov.
Two further interrelated questions address the issues of recruits to the insurgency, and the expediency of creating so-called autonomous jamaats (fighting units) that are not formally subordinate to the insurgency commander. Kebekov admits that the insurgency cannot accept all the recruits who aspire to join its ranks, especially those who are not physically fit. At the same time, he says that it is possible to participate in the jihad simply on the basis of the strength of one's desire to do so, without taking up arms.
Kebekov expounded that argument in far greater detail in a landmark video address filmed while he was still "qadi" (senior religious authority), before his election early this year to succeed Umarov. In that address, Kebekov outlined a vision of jihad not as the low-level insurgency of the past 15 years, but as a clandestine ideological struggle within society as a whole in which "we must juxtapose our system to that of the infidels in all directions: political, economic, informational." For that reason, he continued, it is desirable that those with specialized knowledge, whether of politics, economics, or the media, espouse the cause of jihad, as "we can defeat the infidels only by a united struggle."
Kebekov pointed out that "the unbelievers themselves have long sought to drive the mujahedin deep into the forest and isolate them from society, and in some cases they have achieved that goal."
"For that reason, brothers," Kebekov continued, "when we call on you to join the jihad, that does not mean immediately taking up arms, on the contrary, it is a call to labor intelligently [грамотно,] on the path of Allah, together with the community, in subordination to one's commander, but in a way that does not arouse suspicion.... We don't need you to leave home and head for the forest, there is no need whatsoever for this, as jihad knocks at the door of every Muslim."
As for the phenomenon of autonomous jamaats, which is the subject of an impassioned debate on insurgency websites, Kebekov questions the excuse that their leaders are unable to make contact with and swear allegiance to the commander of the Daghestan insurgency wing. He dismisses such groups as being of little use in light of their lack of experience.
Kebekov is even more scathing in his dismissal of the form of Sufism, sometimes called muridism or tariqatism, that co-exists in Daghestan with canonical Sunni Islam as represented by the Shafii legal school. Tariqatism rejects expansionism and exhortations of jihad, and focuses on esoteric aspects of Islamic teaching.
Kebekov argues that the hallmarks of true Sufism are spiritual self-purification, asceticism, and seeking to achieve the maximum proximity to God. By those criteria, he reasons, Daghestan's official Muslim clergy are not Sufis but a bunch of Federal Security Service (FSB) stooges who work hand in glove with the authorities. He ridicules current mufti Akhmad–hadzhi Abdullayev for giving credence to tsarist accounts of how during the siege of Imam Shamil's stronghold of Akhulgo (in the summer of 1839), the Sufi defenders fought valiantly while holding prayer beads in both hands. (This is the first time in any of Kebekov's video homilies that he has ever shown any indication that he has a sense of humor.)
Turning serious again, Kebekov reasons that but for the official clergy's support for the authorities' crackdown on the insurgency, it would be transparently clear to the population at large that the authorities are engaged in a war against Islam. As it is, he continues, the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Daghestan seeks to portray the standoff as pitting Muslims against Muslims, with imams denouncing "Wahhabism" (meaning the Salafism espoused by the insurgency) in their weekly sermons to the exclusion of all other ills.
That line of argument is disingenuous in light of the number of Muslim clerics in Daghestan killed by the insurgency in recent years.
On the whole, however, Kebekov's statements serve to underscore yet again that he is not only more articulate (despite his ungrammatical Russian), but also intellectually more sophisticated than his predecessor Umarov, of whom former Chechen Republic Ichkeria Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov once observed that "he understands very little about politics." For that reason, he poses a much greater threat to the Russian authorities. His name did not figure, however, in the extensive (3,000-word) and detailed report of a counterterrorism forum in Makhachkala on July 2 chaired by presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District, Sergei Melikov. Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov was conspicuous by his absence from that event.
-- Liz Fuller