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Latest Report Of Umarov's Death Leaves Details Unclear

A screen grab of Chechen insurgent Doku Umarov from a video posted on You Tube in December, just hours after Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov told journalists in Moscow that the Islamist rebel was dead.
The website Kavkazcenter has reported the death of self-styled Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov, but failed to say when and how he died. Specifically, the brief report fails to mention, let alone clarify, the claim circulated last month by Israeli scholar Avrom Shmulevich that Umarov was poisoned last fall while visiting an insurgency winter base in Chechnya.

The last video clip of Umarov is dated autumn 2013, and was uploaded to the web on December 19, hours after Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov told journalists in Moscow Umarov had been killed in a counterterror operation. In mid-January, Kadyrov claimed evidence of Umarov's death had surfaced.

The same day, an audio clip was posted on YouTube in which the speaker -- whose voice is very similar to that of Aliaskhab Kebekov (aka Abu Mukhammad), the "qadi" (senior religious authority) of the Caucasus Emirate. The speaker acknowledges receipt from his "brother" Abdul-Aziz of a USB memory stick bearing the news of Umarov's death, and rejects a proposal that he should succeed him.

Umarov was born in April 1964 in the village of Kharsenoi in the Shatoi district of southern Chechnya, into a family he described as belonging to the intelligentsia. He graduated from the construction faculty of the Oil Institute in Grozny.

Umarov told RFE/RL's Russian Service in 2005 that he was in Moscow when the first Russian-Chechen war broke out in 1994, and as a patriot considered it his duty to return to Chechnya to fight.

Umarov was an active participant in both the 1994-96 and 1999-2000 wars, and gained a reputation as a skilled, experienced, intelligent, and courageous commander. He was injured on several occasions, and underwent extensive plastic surgery to repair damage to his face and jaw. In the spring of 2005, he was walking with a limp after having stepped on a landmine; he was reportedly injured again in the fall of 2006.

Following the Khasavyurt accord that ended the first Chechen war in 1996 and the election of former Soviet Army Colonel Aslan Maskhadov as Chechen president in January 1997, Umarov was named by Maskhadov to head the Security Council. In that capacity he intervened in July 1998 to quash an armed clash between moderates and Islamic radicals within Maskhadov's entourage.

During the second war, Umarov commanded the southwestern front. After Maskhadov's death in March 2005, his successor, Abdul-Khakim Sadullayev, named Umarov vice president and thus his designated successor.

Umarov thus took over as president and resistance commander after Sadullayev too was killed in June 2006. At that time, Maskhadov's son Anzor described Umarov as "bold, brave, and courageous.... Everyone, including fighters in neighboring republics, will give their oath to serve him."

In early 2005, Umarov's father, brother, wife, and infant son were apprehended by the Chechen authorities. He told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in April 2006 that his wife and child were subsequently released. His father's death, allegedly at Kadyrov's hands, was reported in 2007.

In the fall of 2006, Umarov expanded the network of insurgency fronts to create two operating outside the North Caucasus, in the Volga region and the Urals.

One year later, in late 2007, Umarov broke with the ideology of Chechen independence and proclaimed himself, reportedly under pressure from the radical Islamist wing of the insurgency, the leader of an Islamic state encompassing the entire North Caucasus. Just two months earlier, he had issued a statement commemorating the anniversary of the declaration in September 1991 of the secession of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria from the rapidly disintegrating U.S.S.R.

Umarov's ditching of the cause of Chechen independence caused a rift among the Chechen wing of the insurgency that still has not been bridged. In August 2013, a group of Chechen fighters appealed to the Chechen Republic Ichkeria Shari'a Court in exile to rule on whether Umarov's proclamation of the Caucasus Emirate was justified under Shari'a law.

Moreover, within three years of proclaiming the emirate, Umarov had managed to alienate four of his most experienced commanders. In June 2010, he first announced that he intended to step down as leader and proposed Aslambek Vadalov as his successor, then distanced himself from that pronouncement. Vadalov in turn, together with Khusayn Gakayev, Tarkhan Gaziyev, and the Arab fighter Mukhannad, withdrew their allegiance to Umarov, accusing him of authoritarian tendencies and lack of respect. Most mid-level commanders in Chechnya followed suit, although fighters in Daghestan reaffirmed their loyalty to Umarov. Gakayev and Vadalov were reconciled with Umarov a year later under circumstances that were never explained.

At least until Maskhadov's death, Umarov, like Maskhadov, belonged to the more moderate wing of the resistance that eschewed terrorism against civilians. In his 2005 interview with RFE/RL, he categorically rejected the use of terrorism as a tactic: "If we resort to such methods, I do not think any of us will be able to retain his human face." He specifically condemned the Beslan school hostage taking of September 2004.

But more recently, Umarov has condoned not only sabotage attacks on civilian targets outside the North Caucasus, but also suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism targeting civilians. In July 2013, he appealed to his supporters to resort to any means Allah permits to thwart the holding of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

Despite all his defiant rhetoric, Umarov failed totally to justify the trust and hopes placed in him, both politically and militarily. By abandoning the cause of an independent Chechen state and condoning acts of terrorism against Russian civilians, he discredited the cause of Chechen independence in the eyes of the international community and thus become a liability. It was Umarov's claim of responsibility for the twin suicide bombings in the Moscow subway in March 2010 that led the U.S. State Department to add him to its list of most wanted terrorists and offer a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. One year later, Washington similarly designated the Caucasus Emirate a terrorist organization.

As a military commander too, Umarov proved a disaster, especially when compared with Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev, both world-class military strategists. Umarov cannot claim personal credit for a single major operation in Chechnya over the past eight years.

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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