Over the past two years, the Caucasus Emirate (IK) proclaimed in late 2007 by then Chechen insurgency commander Doku Umarov has lost much of its manpower. In addition to the 410 militants reported killed in 2014-15, many sector commanders and rank-and-file fighters alike are said to have pledged loyalty to the rival extremist group Islamic State (IS), and hundreds of them have left Russia for Syria.
A video clip uploaded in June 2015 claimed that all IK fighters in Chechnya, Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria had pledged allegiance to IS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But at least in the case of Kabardino-Balkaria, that proved not to be the case. In that republic, Zalim Shebzukhov, who had apparently succeeded Astemir Berkhamov as commander of the Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai IK wing in 2014 and was formally identified as such in a video clip early in 2015, remained loyal to the IK cause, while Robert Zankishiyev, the leader of a rival group of fighters, formally pledged allegiance to IS in a video clip uploaded in August 2015. Zankishiyev was killed in a shoot-out in Nalchik in November.
In a video clip uploaded in late December, Shebzukhov deplored the split in the insurgency ranks and appealed to those fighters who had aligned with IS to rejoin IK. Kabardino-Balkaria Republic head Yury Kokov, himself a former head of the federal Interior Ministry’s Main Administration for Countering Extremism, said last month that 125-150 militants from Kabardino-Balkaria are currently fighting in Syria. (The republic’s total population is approximately 857,000.)
Shebzukhov, 30, was one of four fighters from Kabardino-Balkaria killed last week when security personnel stormed an apartment in a high-rise block in St. Petersburg. Several analysts raised the question whether his presence so far from the North Caucasus indicated plans for a new series of terrorist attacks. Under Umarov’s leadership, the IK perpetrated suicide attacks in the Moscow subway in March 2010 and Domodedovo airport in January 2011, and also claimed responsibility for a blast that inflicted serious damage on the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station in Siberia seven years ago.
Republic head Kokov said on August 24 that “an entire arsenal” was found at the St. Petersburg apartment where the four men were killed. He said they had planned to stage terrorist attacks in Russia and then flee the country.
It is not clear who is best placed to succeed Shebzukhov as leader of the IK’s Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai wing. As of August 2015, there were still three fighters on the federal wanted list whose military careers date back as far as the October 2005 multiple attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik, in which 140 people died, including 35 security officers and more than 90 mostly inexperienced militants. A handful of other veteran fighters in their late 30s were reportedly in Syria.
The insurgency in Kabardino-Balkaria lost 45 men in 2015, of whom eight were identified as sector commanders. How many were loyal to the IK and IS respectively is difficult to say: An IK website rejected as untrue the National Antiterrorism Committee’s assertion that 11 men killed in counterterror operations in Nalchik in late November were adherents of IS.
Similarly unclear is whether there was any direct connection between Shebzukhov and other fighters still loyal to the IK, and a group of nine men about to go on trial at the North Caucasus Military District Court in Rostov-on-Don on charges of planning to attack and seize a government building and then proclaim an Islamic caliphate. That case dates back to 2013, before the exodus of North Caucasus fighters to Syria got under way.
Ruslan Miskhozhev is said to have recruited eight other men, all residents of Nalchik identified only by their surnames and all allegedly IK adherents, at the behest of a 10th man, Zalimkhan Tkhamokov, who died during the pretrial investigation. All nine reportedly pled not guilty at a preliminary hearing to the charges against them of plotting to seize power, membership of an illegal armed group, and illegal possession of arms. They have also reportedly retracted their initial testimony.