Chechen and Russian security personnel have launched the largest sweep operations in a decade in an attempt to round up suspected members of a group of fighters said to be planning large-scale terrorist attacks at the behest of the extremist group Islamic State (IS).
Details of how many men have been apprehended or killed, and what their precise intentions were, remain unclear, however. Some Russian analysts have expressed skepticism over official statements by Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov.
Since January 10, at least four, and possibly as many as 10, men have been killed and up to 100 apprehended in eight towns and villages southeast of Grozny. And, in an indication that opposition to Kadyrov could permeate even his closest entourage, one of his personal bodyguards was reportedly executed on January 15 for abetting the group.
One day earlier, a man identified by security personnel as the group leader was apprehended and is said to have confessed that they planned to assassinate government officials and members of the Muslim clergy. According to Kadyrov, the group had received "orders from abroad" to seize tanks with the aim of attacking the military base at Khankala on the eastern outskirts of the capital, Grozny.
As is frequently the case with such police operations in Chechnya, details of what happened are sketchy and unclear. On January 10, Kadyrov convened a meeting of local officials in Kurchaloy in which he fired the local district head and appointed a successor. That evening, Kadyrov disclosed in an Instagram post that a group of young men (he did not say how many) had "recently" been apprehended in the village of Tsotsin-Yurt, near Kurchaloy, including a relative of Chechen field commander Isa Muskiyev, who was killed in an ambush in Tsotsin-Yurt in September 2006.
The men detained, according to Kadyrov, were planning "serious crimes," in preparation for which they had stockpiled arms, ammunition, and explosives.
Two explanations were subsequently given for how the group was discovered. The first is that they were betrayed by the young men captured during the attacks on police in Grozny on December 17-18, who informed their interrogators of the existence of a network of fighters in Shali and Kurchaloy districts. The second was that security personnel intercepted messages between them sent via WhatsApp.
On the night of January 10-11, Tsotsin-Yurt was completely surrounded. Police and security personnel then conducted house-to-house searches on January 11 and apprehended 21 men, all of whom were subsequently released bar one, whose surname was given as Madayev.
Some 35 young men were similarly detained in Geldagan, a couple of kilometers southeast of Tsotsin-Yurt, and others in the villages of Mayrtup and Bachi-Yurt. On January 12, Novaya Gazeta published a list of 22 detainees from Tsotsin-Yurt, including Makhna Muskiyev, who was subsequently identified as a distant relative of Isa. RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service calculated the total number of detainees, most of them men under the age of 25, at around 100. Interfax on January 16 quoted security officials as saying some 60 men had been detained.
Artillery fire was reported between Geldagan and Kurchaloy on January 11. Kadyrov announced late that evening that four militants and a police officer had been killed during a "special operation." Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov subsequently identified the four as Umar Ozdiyev; Raybek Idrisov; Alikhan Kupchiyev; and Uzum-hadji Madayev, 36, who had reportedly been jailed for 12 years in 2004 for membership in the insurgency.
It is not clear whether Uzum-hadji Madayev was the same Madayev who had been detained earlier that day. If he is, suspicion arises about the circumstances of his death.
Kadyrov added that one militant escaped under cover of darkness, but the area where he was believed to be hiding had been cordoned off. An Interior Ministry source told the Russian daily Kommersant on January 12, however, that the man, identified as Imran and said to be the group leader, had escaped and headed for the mountains.
On January 14, Kadyrov announced that the man who had escaped, whom he identified as Imran Datsayev, had been detained at a street market in Grozny after hurling a hand grenade at police as they sought to apprehend him.
Kadyrov further claimed that Datsayev, whom Interior Ministry officials subsequently identified as the leader of the group, killed police officer Ayub Dautmerzayev last fall on orders he received from Islamic State. The website Caucasian Knot noted in that connection that only one police officer, whose name was not made public, was reported killed in Chechnya between September-November 2016.
Three more members of Datsayev's group, which reportedly numbered "several dozen," were detained on January 16.
It was only on January 12, two days after Kadyrov first announced the detention of the group, that Kadyrov and Alkhanov alleged its connection with Islamic State. The website KavkazCenter quoted Kadyrov as saying a total of 10 local residents had been killed in Kurchaloy district, all of them recruiters for IS.
That claim should be treated with skepticism, however. The brutality, corruption, and total disregard for basic rights and freedoms that characterize Kadyrov and his henchmen has alienated many, to the point that some young Chechens appear to sympathize with IS. Two years ago, slogans openly expressing support for IS were daubed on buildings in Khosi-Yurt district. In the wake of last month's attacks in Grozny, video footage surfaced showing the attackers pledging allegiance, albeit in broken Arabic, to IS.
But at the same time, many Chechnya watchers are inclined to discount the possibility of the kind of systematic recruitment drive by IS that Kadyrov has alleged, or even formal contacts.
Moscow-based observers similarly dismiss Kadyrov's claim that the men apprehended in Tsotsin-Yurt were planning an attack on Khankala on instructions from IS. They point out that if that were indeed the case, they would surely have been provided with adequate quantities of weaponry to carry out those orders.
According to KavkazCenter, however, the confiscated weapons shown on local TV amounted to just a few rusty guns that had clearly been recently unearthed from where they had been buried.
In a curious postscript, in the wake of the Tsotsin-Yurt detentions, Kadyrov appointed as head of his personal secretariat Vakhit Usmayev, who had served most recently as district head in Gudermes.
That appointment makes Usmayev one of the most powerful men in Chechnya after Kadyrov and parliament speaker Magomed Daudov. As commander of the Akhmed Kadyrov special police (spetsnaz) regiment, Usmayev played a key role in the killing of Isa Muskiyev 10 years ago.