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When 'Runners' Turn Snitch: FSB Targets North Caucasus Insurgency Support Personnel

It is a truism frequently overlooked that an insurgency, like a regular army, cannot function without support personnel. However well trained, experienced, and motivated an insurgent group may be, and however tactically brilliant its military planners, it is dependent on a steady supply of cash from its financial backers to provide weaponry, food, and medical care; on an intelligence network to keep it informed of enemy movements and plans; and on a band of trusted volunteers who serve as messengers, delivery boys, and drivers and provide shelter -- the equivalent of John le Carre's Acton-based "lamplighters," responsible for transport and "safe houses."

It is that latter category of auxiliary personnel that constitutes the Achilles' heel of the North Caucasus insurgency. For that reason, they are being relentlessly hunted down and apprehended by the Federal Security Service (FSB) and almost certainly subjected to threats and/or torture to extract information about the whereabouts of senior insurgency commanders.

That tactic has proven consistently successful over the past couple of years, especially in Daghestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, less so in Chechnya where the insurgents have an extensive network of hidden bases and foxholes in the southern mountains. Reading between the lines of Russian media reports, it would seem that 12 of the 14 senior North Caucasus insurgency figures killed or captured since March 1, 2010, were betrayed to the security forces (either by support personnel or possibly by informers infiltrated into the insurgency ranks) and targeted in a special operation, rather then randomly killed in the course of hostilities.

The two whose deaths appear to have been fortuitous were veteran Chechen fighter Supyan Abdullayev, who died in late March in a Russian air attack on a training base in Verkhnii Alkun in Ingushetia, and the Arab Mohannad, killed on April 22 when pro-Moscow police and security forces launched a major offensive against a group of fighters spotted in Vedeno district. The militants promptly split up into groups of two in a bid to evade capture: all managed to do so except for Muhannad and his companion.

The sole death of a senior commander in Chechnya over that time period that can be attributed to FSB penetration was that of the Sudanese Yassir al-Sudani, who together with the men under his command unwittingly consumed food supplies that had been deliberately poisoned.

In Ingushetia, the FSB launched two major operations against senior commanders last year. Said Buryatsky was killed in March after a two-day siege of a private home in Ekazhevo, his presence there having been presumably betrayed to the FSB, possibly by apprehensive neighbors. And Amir Magas (Ali Taziyev) was captured unarmed in Malgobek in June, allegedly by the same team of Moscow-based FSB personnel who killed Shamil Basayev four years earlier., the website of the Ingush insurgency wing, posted a statement on July 7 announcing that the "traitor" who betrayed Magas to the FSB was killed during an attempt to capture him alive on June 21. The man's name was given as "Timur Arselgov," which does not sound Ingush. He was said to have been infiltrated two years before into one of the North Caucasus fighting units and to have won the respect and trust of his fellow fighters thanks to his prowess as a sniper. He reportedly betrayed several other fighters before Magas. How many, if any, other "sleepers" remain within the insurgency ranks can only be guessed at.

Of the four top Daghestani commanders killed in the past year, Magomed Vagapov ("Seyfullakh Gubdensky") died in August when Interior Ministry and security personnel backed by APCs surrounded the house in Gunib where he was staying in a predawn maneuver, and opened fire when he refused to surrender. It is not clear how the FSB located Vagapov. The only arrest in the preceding weeks of a suspected auxiliary who might conceivably have been aware of his movements was in Khasavyurt, 60 km to the north. The man in question was believed to have provided food, medication, and accommodation, and to have acted as a driver for two fighters killed in 2009, one of them apparently in the same operation as Vagapov's predecessor Umalat Magomedov ("Amir Al-Bara").

Israpil Velijanov, Vagapov's successor as commander of the Daghestan wing of the North Caucasus insurgency, was killed in a shootout last month when the car in which he was traveling refused to halt at a police check point. The independent Daghestan weekly "Novoye delo" characterized Velijanov as cautious and highly security conscious, to the point that he rarely ventured beyond his home base in southern Daghestan. The operation to monitor traffic on the Tashkapur-Levashi highway where his car was intercepted was undertaken on the basis of "operational information," meaning information provided by an informer either voluntarily or under duress.

Velijanov's second-in-command, Adam Guseinov (nom de guerre Khasan), commander of the Northern Sector, was killed together with his wife in their home in Khasavyurt in January. Veteran fighter Akhmed Abdulkerimov ("Adam," amir of the Mountain Sector) was similarly shot dead in his own home in December.
Kabardino-Balkaria, however, is where the FSB has had the greatest success in locating and killing insurgency leaders, partly by means of apprehending support personnel, and partly due to shockingly lax operational security.

In March 2010, FSB operatives recognized outside a café in Nalchik Valery Etezov, a close associate of Anzor Astemirov, at that time commander of the Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachai wing of the North Caucasus insurgency. They killed Etezov in a shootout, and reportedly found on him information about Astemirov's probable movements that enabled them to ambush and kill Astemirov days later.

Astemirov's successor Asker Jappuyev ("Abdullakh"), together with his deputy Kazbek Tashuyev ("Abdul-Djabbar"), Ratmir Shameyev ("Zakaria"),and nine other fighters and support personnel was killed on April 29 after being betrayed to the FSB, possibly by one of the six support personnel arrested three weeks earlier in Nalchik, Chegem and the village of Zaragizh. One of the six was identified as having acted as a driver for Jappuyev's fighters and carried messages between them.

Two more men apprehended in Nalchik on April 27 were similarly suspected of providing the militants with accommodation, food, and information about police personnel.

Kabardino-Balkaria Republic head Arsen Kanokov subsequently confirmed that it was not a neighbor who betrayed Jappuyev's group. In a video address last week appealing to the population to demonstrate greater vigilance in the face of the threat posed by the insurgency, Kanokov divulged that local residents had been astounded when Interior Ministry and security forces began bombarding the abandoned school the fighters were using as a base, as "they did not notice anything suspicious about these young people."

Bloggers who posted comments on, the website of the KBK branch of the North Caucasus insurgency assumed that someone had cold-bloodedly betrayed the group to the security organs, questioning why Jappuyev, Tashuyev, and Shameyev violated elementary security precautions by staying overnight in the same hideout. One confessed that "I can't get my head around the fact that three such senior and experienced fighters were together in one place."

Only once before have so many prominent commanders died simultaneously in circumstances where their deaths might have been avoided. That was during the infamous retreat from Grozny during the night of January 31-February 1, 2000 in which Chechen field commanders Lechi Dudayev, Khunkar-Pasha Israpilov, and Big and Little Aslanbek (Abdulkhadjiyev and Ismailov, respectively) perished picking their way through a minefield, Basayev having decreed that the senior commanders should go first.

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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