The 12 fighters had reportedly been pursued for days by a contingent of several thousand Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen police and security forces who deployed combat helicopters and heavy artillery against them. They might have managed to escape, had their precise whereabouts not reportedly been betrayed, possibly under torture, by a member of the group who either surrendered or was captured.
The pro-insurgency website Chechenews.com reported receiving information on January 23 from a reliable source whom one of the group had telephoned with the news that they were surrounded and had no hope of surviving. Video footage shows Muslim Gakayev having a head wound bandaged; another fighter asks jokingly why the enemy can't fire more quietly.
Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov exultantly described the Gakayevs' demise as the most significant blow to the insurgency since the death in July 2006 of renegade field commander Shamil Basayev -- Kadyrov's erstwhile teenage idol. But like the killing of other senior commanders, including Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) President Aslan Maskhadov in March 2005, it does not necessarily herald the demise of the insurgency as a potent fighting force.
While not in Basayev's league, the two Gakayevs nonetheless played a key role in the ongoing low-level fighting in Chechnya over the past four to five years, since Doku Umarov forswore the cause of an independent Chechnya in the fall of 2007 and proclaimed himself the head of an Islamic emirate spanning the Russian North Caucasus. But they first took up arms in the fall of 1994 during the standoff between supporters of then-ChRI President Dzhokhar Dudayev and the pro-Moscow Chechen faction headed by Umar Avturkhanov and Bislan Gantamirov that culminated in the 1994-96 war in which their two eldest brothers, Dzhamalay and Said-Usman, were killed. Two more brothers, Khasan and Rizvan, were killed in 2001 and 2003, respectively.
In May 2007, Umarov named Khusein Gakayev deputy commander of the eastern front; Muslim was commander in their home village of Elistanzhi. More articulate and media-savvy than Khusein, Muslim -- dubbed "the lion of the mountains" and "the unassailable" -- selected and trained volunteers for military operations where the chances of returning alive were known in advance to be nonexistent.
Video clips dating from 2009 show Khusein and Muslim with a detachment of some 30-40 fighters. On the march, Muslim always headed the column, with Khusein bringing up the rear. Khusein is seen here praying, then sending groups of fighters on a mission, and here in a moment of levity watching comrades in arms engaging in a mock bullfight.
In the summer of 2008, Khusein had unequivocally endorsed Umarov's proclamation of the Caucasus emirate as justified and correct, and affirmed that "every last fighter" will support Umarov as long as he remains "on the right path." Two years later, however, Khusein Gakayev, together with three other senior commanders -- Aslanbek Vadalov, Tarkhan Gaziyev, and the Arab Mukhannad -- withdrew their oath of allegiance to Umarov, accusing him of authoritarian tendencies and lack of respect.
Most midlevel commanders in Chechnya followed suit. In August 2010, they elected Khusein Gakayev their leader. Over the next 10 months, the Chechen fighters loyal to Gakayev perpetrated two spectacular attacks on the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership, targeting first Kadyrov's home village of Khosi-Yurt and then the Chechen parliament building in Grozny. The ChRI parliament and government in exile twice affirmed their support for Gakayev.
In the spring of 2011, however, Gakayev was constrained to make peace with Umarov, who named Gakayev one of his two deputies. The reasons for that move have never been spelled out, but the most plausible explanation is that Umarov controlled the flow of funds. (Mukhannad, who is believed to have been the conduit for financing from Saudi Arabia, was killed in an ambush in April 2011.)
The Chechen insurgency wing was less active in 2011 and 2012 than in previous years, carrying out fewer attacks and incurring fewer losses than its counterparts in Daghestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. Whether that lull was the result of financial constraints or reflects a deliberate strategy is unclear. Certainly fighters in Daghestan and Kabardino-Balkaria enjoy greater freedom of maneuver that makes it possible for them to extract "zakyat" (the tax amounting to 10 percent of one's income that Muslims are supposed to pay to help the poor and needy) from local businessmen to finance their activities.
On the other hand, Umarov may have simply begun quietly redeploying men to Krasnodar Krai in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. (It is similarly unclear whether the use last year of lasers to blind pilots landing at airports in the North Caucasus were trial runs for such an attack during the Olympics.)
Lieutenant General Nikolai Simakov, who heads the Russian Interior Ministry directorate in the Southern Federal District, was quoted by Interfax last week as saying that Umarov's fighters are currently preparing in military bases in countries bordering Russia (Georgia? Azerbaijan?) to disrupt the Winter Olympics.
Alternatively, Umarov may wish to create the impression that he is conserving resources and manpower in preparation for an attack on Sochi in early 2014, while in fact he is planning attacks elsewhere to coincide with the Olympics. Either way, Umarov can still rely on at least three competent veteran commanders: military strategist Vadalov, Gaziyev, and Makhran, who helped coordinate the August 2010 attack on Khosi-Yurt.
The Gakayevs and their comrades in arms took it for granted that sooner or later they would die in battle. But equally, they believed that others would take their place. Speaking several years ago at the side of a young wounded fighter, Khusein Gakayev affirmed defiantly that "the campfires are still burning in Chechnya's mountains, and they will continue to burn, as long as such fighters remain alive. We may die, but others will take our place, and they will be more ruthless than we were."