The North Caucasus insurgency has confirmed that one of the insurgents killed during a counterterror operation on April 19 on the outskirts of the Daghestani town of Buinaksk was Aliaskhab Kebekov, aka Amir Ali Abu-Muhammad, the Avar theologian who was chosen in early 2014 to succeed Doku Umarov as leader of the Caucasus Emirate that Umarov had proclaimed in 2007.
According to the National Antiterrorism Committee, a total of five militants were killed when security personnel stormed the house in which they were holed up. One was Shamil Gasanov (Balakhansky), seen here swearing allegiance to Said Arakansky, commander of the Daghestan wing of the insurgency. Earlier reports suggest two of those killed were women.
Kebekov, who was 43, was born in Daghestan's central Shamil district, and studied Arabic and Islamic theology first with local clerics and later in Syria. He returned to Daghestan in 2005 and taught for a while in a madrasah (religious school) in Tarki before joining the insurgency in 2010.
Erudite, articulate, and occasionally sarcastic, Kebekov was the first non-Chechen to head the insurgency, and, as he himself readily admitted, the first with no combat experience. He construed 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."
He explained that "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."
In line with that vision of a predominantly political and ideological struggle, Kebekov sought to dissuade the fighters under his command, and especially women, from undertaking suicide bombings. Whether or not as a direct consequence of Kebekov's exhortations, the number of police and security personnel killed and wounded in Daghestan last year fell dramatically to 21 and 70 respectively, compared with 88 killed and 163 wounded in 2013. The number of insurgents killed declined only slightly, however, from 171 in 2013 to 163 in 2014.
Initially, lower-level commanders across the North Caucasus pledged loyalty to Kebekov. But late last year, two senior Daghestani commanders publicly affirmed their allegiance to Islamic State (IS) leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi; veteran Chechen commander Makhran Saidov and his deputy Usam followed suit soon after. A recent analysis posted on VDagestan.com, the website of the Daghestani insurgency wing, acknowledged that "a good half" of Daghestan's insurgents had switched their allegiance to the IS group.
Even before Kebekov was killed, the defection of dozens if not hundreds of its fighters to IS raised the question whether the Caucasus Emirate remains viable as either an ideology or as a fighting force. Counterterror operations such as the one in which Kebekov and Balakhansky died are reported regularly both in Daghestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, where a fighter with a Ukrainian surname and his Muslim common-law wife were killed last week.
The obvious candidate to succeed Kebekov as Caucasus Emirate head is veteran Chechen field commander Aslambek Vadalov, of whom a fellow fighter observed that "he never loses his cool, even when you're in the forest, surrounded by the enemy, and you think there's no escape."
Vadalov, who joined the Islamist wing of the Chechen resistance during the 1994-96 war, was one of the masterminds behind the August 2010 attack on Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's home village of Tsentoroi.
That the Chechen insurgency wing is the only one with the capacity to launch a coordinated military operation is clear from its two-pronged attack on Grozny in December 2014, in which at least 14 police and security personnel were killed and a further 36 wounded.
-- Liz Fuller