Kadyrov places photo proof of Umarov’s death in social network

Caucasian Knot | 19 July 2014

The head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov has posted a photo of Doku Umarov’s body, who was killed, according to various versions of power agents, in a special operation in the period from late 2013 – early 2014, in his profile on the Instagram social network.

The "Caucasian Knot" has reported that on December 18, 2013, Kadyrov said that Doku Umarov, the leader of "Imarat Kavkaz" "had been long dead"; and on January 16, 2014, he specified that Umarov was killed "during one of the operations." The Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on January 22 that intelligence services should consider Umarov alive as long as the evidence of his death was presented. On April 8 this year, the FSB boss Alexander Bortnikov stated that "the activities of Umarov, the leader of the terrorist organization ‘Imarat Kavkaz’, had been neutralized in the first quarter of 2014."

Earlier, on February 18, the Israeli analyst Avrom Shmulevich wrote on his page on the "LiveJournal" that Doku Umarov had been poisoned. According to his version, Umarov was poisoned when inspecting one of the winter bases of illegal armed formations (IAFs) in Chechnya, while four militants, accused of poisoning him, had already been shot dead.

Let us note here that North-Caucasian militants confirmed the preliminary information on Umarov’s death on January 16, 2014, and finally – on March 18. Abu Mukhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov) became a new leader of "Imarat Kavkaz".




Insurgency Commanders Divulge Details Of Umarov’s Death
RFE/RL Caucasus Report | July 23, 2014

An 11-minute video clip was posted on YouTube last week showing the burial of self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate head Doku Umarov. Two senior Chechen insurgency commanders, Khamzat (Aslan Byutukayev) and  Makhran (Saidov), describe (in Chechen) how Umarov was poisoned in early August 2013 when sharing food with younger fighters, and died one month later. A Russian translation of their statements was posted 24 hours later on the insurgency website Kavkazcenter.com. Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov promptly posted a screen grab from the footage on his Instagram account as definitive proof that Umarov is dead.

Byutukayev explained that Umarov consumed a small amount of food that younger fighters had obtained from an Ingush on the highway leading to Djeyrakh (in southern Ingushetia, bordering on the south-westernmost part of Chechnya. Four other fighters died of poisoning; Umarov survived for a month before succumbing, at dawn on September 7.

Makhran dismissed the possibility that the poisoning was the result of a deliberate attempt by either Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov to kill Umarov. He said that, on the contrary, Umarov’s death was purely fortuitous. Makhran disclosed that Umarov had summoned his senior commanders, and Makhran himself had arrived the evening before Umarov’s death.

The video clip shows six fighters helping to place Umarov’s body in the grave prepared for him and cover it over. The two other most senior commanders, Aslambek Vadalov and Tarkhan Gaziyev, are apparently not present. It was in the summer of 2013 that Gaziyev appealed to the Chechen Republic Ichkeria Shari’a Court in exile to rule on whether Umarov’s proclamation in late 2007 of the Caucasus Emirate was justified under Shari’a law.

The first, unsubstantiated reports of Umarov’s death had surfaced  in January when an audio tape was posted on YouTube in which a speaker tentatively identified as Caucasus Emirate qadi (supreme religious authority) Abu Mukhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov) related how he had learned of Umarov’s death and that he had been proposed as his successor. The audio tape did not give any details of when or how Umarov died.

Kebekov formally confirmed in mid-March that Umarov was dead and he had been chosen to succeed him. But he did not divulge the date or circumstances of Umarov’s death.

The revelation that Umarov died in early September means that his last video address, which was superscribed Autumn 2013, must have been filmed in August or the first few days of September. In that clip, Umarov, apparently in good health, pays homage to the Gakayev brothers, who were killed in January 2013, and to Jamaleyl Mutaliyev (aka Amir Adam), a commander of the Ingushetia insurgency wing who was killed in May 2013.  The clip was uploaded to the web on December 19, just hours after Kadyrov announced (not for the first time) that Umarov had been killed in a counter-terror operation, but his body had not been recovered.

The reason for the delay between Kebekov’s confirmation in mid-March that Umarov was indeed dead and the posting of the video clip showing his burial can only be guessed at.

— Liz Fuller




North-Caucasian militants released video evidence of Umarov’s death
Caucasian Knot | 21 July 2014

A video record of the burial of Doku Umarov, who was killed, according to various versions of power agents, during a special operation in late 2013 – early 2014, was posted on July 19 on the websites, which support the militants of Northern Caucasus.

The "Caucasian Knot" has reported that on April 8 the FSB boss Alexander Bortnikov said that "the activities of Doku Umarov, the leader of the terrorist organization ‘Imarat Kavkaz’, were stopped in the first quarter of the year." Earlier, on December 18, 2013, and January 16, 2014, Umarov’s murder was reported by the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov.

According to the video, released by militants, Umarov was buried in summer or early autumn, as green leaves and grass are clearly seen at the background.

The video shows a man, specified in the captions as "Amir Khamzat", who reports that the leader of "Imarat Kavkaz" Doku Umarov died in the morning on September 7, 2013, as a result of poisoning. According to "Emir Khamzat", Umarov got poisoned on August 6, 2013, by eating foodstuffs received by members of the armed underground from an Ingush resident.



Kebekov trying to improve image of "Imarat Kavkaz" among public, experts say

Caucasian Knot | 02 July 2014

The Kebekov’s statement about the unacceptability of terror acts against the civilian population may indicate his desire to improve the image of the "Imarat Kavkaz" in the eyes of the general population. However, it is too early to speak about any change of militants’ tactics, the experts interviewed by the "Caucasian Knot" believe.

The statement of the militants’ leader may cause serious changes in the ongoing processes in Northern Caucasus, said Enver Kisriev, the head of the Sector of the Caucasus Centre for Civilization and Regional Studies of the Institute of Africa of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). In general, he said, it is "good news."

"On the one hand, it can be viewed as a split within the ‘Imarat Kavkaz’; on the other – as an attempt of the relatively moderate (although it is difficult to talk about moderation here) to somehow strengthen their positions," said Alexei Malashenko, an Islamic scholar and a Senior Researcher for the Institute of Oriental Studies of the RAS, in his comment on Kebekov’a statement.

He believes that the reaction of Russian authorities to this appeal will also be indicative.

The call for moderation may respond to some situational goals of the underground movement; but militants’ attacks on civilians will not stop regardless of the appeals of their leadership, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst and a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights.

Author: Magomed Tuaev; Source: CK correspondent


A Chechen al-Qaeda?

Caucasian Groups Further Internationalise the Syrian Struggle
Guido Steinberg
SWP Comments 2014/C 31, June 2014


In April 2014 government forces defeated a rebel offensive in the north of the Syrian province of Latakia. Although they initially reached the coast, the insurgents were unable to hold their positions there. The rebel forces included many Chechens and other Caucasians, had who previously been seen fighting exclusively in the Caucasus. Their strong presence in Syria is a completely new turn in international jihadism, and a warning to be taken seriously, as many arrive from the Georgian, Turkish and European diasporas rather from their original home republics. While their goal remains to “liberate” the Caucasus from Russian rule, they are now struggling to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and there is a risk that they will continue terrorist activity after returning to Turkey and Europe. The arrival of the Chechens in Syria makes a joint anti-terrorism strategy with Turkey even more urgent, and forces Western states to cooperate with Russian security agencies.

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Islamist Rebel Leader Renounces Female Suicide Terrorism

By Nabi Abdullaev
The Moscow Times | Jun. 30 2014

Female suicide bombings have become a trademark war tactic of the North Caucasus Islamist insurgents, with sensationalist media quickly dubbing the female attackers “black widows.” Sergei Porter / Vedomosti

In an unexpected departure from one of the most dreaded terrorist strategies, a leader of the North Caucasus Islamist rebels has called on his followers to put an end to female suicide bombings that have claimed hundreds of civilian lives, including in Moscow.

"We categorically ban our sisters from doing this," Aliaskhab Kebekov, known under the alias of Ali Abu Muhammad, emir of the Caucasus Emirate group, said in a lengthy interview with the rebel website Kavkaz Center posted on YouTube on Saturday.

"We monitor how jihad is practiced in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Mali, and there was not a single case [of a female suicide bombing] there. Women there are not allowed to do this," he said. "My order to brothers is not to use sisters for this."

Female suicide bombings have become a trademark war tactic of the North Caucasus Islamist insurgents, with sensationalist media quickly dubbing the female attackers "black widows."

Since June 2000, when the first such bombing happened in Chechnya, women have been involved in 24 more terrorist attacks, both alone and as part of groups. According to The Moscow Times’ count, these attacks have claimed a total of 847 lives, averaging 61 deaths a year.

Eight of those attacks took place in Moscow, including the 2002 Dubrovka theater hostage-taking in which 19 female suicide bombers from Chechnya took part, and more recently, the 2010 twin metro bombings by two women from Dagestan.

There has been a visible shift in the origin of these attacks over the years. In the vast majority of cases from 2000 to September 2004, when two female suicide bombers took part in the attack on a packed school in the town of Beslan, they hailed from Chechnya, which has fought two separatist wars with Moscow. Following a lull in attacks after Beslan, from 2010 to the latest female suicide bombing of a bus in Volgograd in October 2013, most of the bombers came from the neighboring Russian Muslim-populated province of Dagestan where Islamist radicals have been waging a low-intensity deadly campaign against local security and law enforcement officials for nearly two decades.

Kebekov, 42, also a native of Dagestan, assumed his role as rebel leader in March after his notorious predecessors, the ethnic Chechens Shamil Basayev and Doku Umarov, were killed by Russian security forces. His group, the Caucasus Emirate, has been designated a terrorist organization by both Russia and the United States.

"Only in Dagestan is this [female suicide bombings] practiced," he said in the hour-long video interview.

Female suicide attacks have been used occasionally by Palestinian terrorists, Tamil Tigers rebels in Sri Lanka and by the Kurdish Workers’ Party. But while those groups resorted to using women after security services became suspicious of men, the North Caucasus rebels starting using female attackers for bombings before it ever used men.

Kebekov cited practical reasons as the rationale behind ending the practice of female suicide bombings.

"It does not have any effect on infidels," he said. "It will be better if these women stay alive and raise their children in the spirit of jihad."

He added that there are dozens of women willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of jihad in the North Caucasus.

Contrary to Kebekov’s arguments, female suicide bombings have been effective, as demonstrated by the death toll above and the factors of shock and fear that have helped terrorists to get their messages across. Two deadly suicide bombings in Volgograd late last year — one of which was blamed on a female terrorist — led to an international discussion over whether the Russian government would be able to provide adequate security for February’s Sochi Olympic Games.


New North Caucasus Insurgency Leader Warns Of ‘Crushing Blows’

RFE/RL Caucasus Report
May 25, 2014


Ali Abu-Mukhammad, the Avar theologian who was chosen early this year to succeed Doku Umarov as Caucasus Emirate head, has released a 40-minute video clip (which appeared on YouTube before that video-sharing site removed it as "a violation of YouTube’s policy on violence") in which he warns that the insurgents are preparing to inflict “crushing blows” on the enemy.

The video footage is dated Radjab 1435 (May 2014). Abu-Mukhammad resorts to the question-and-answer format previously favored by Umarov to convey the insurgency’s position on specific questions concerning what he variously refers to as “a jihad” and “a partisan war.” (He is the first insurgency commander to use the latter formulation.) The questions are posed by a speaker off-camera.

The first question is the approximate number of insurgent fighters, to which Abu-Mukhammad declines to give a straight answer. He replies instead that “we are not a regular army, that we have to have a specific minimum strength, but we can state with certainty that the number of fighters is steadily increasing, even in those locations where the unbelievers do not expect them.” There are, Abu-Mukhammad says, “as many fighters as are needed.”

Umarov similarly used to stress that there was little point in maintaining large numbers of fighting men due to the logistical problems involved in securing supplies, and because the greater the number of fighters concentrated in a given region, the easier it is for Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen forces to locate them.

Abu-Mukhammad  did not mention the high casualty rate sustained by the Daghestan insurgency wing over the past 18 months: 171 fighters killed in 2013, 58 in the first quarter of 2014, and a further 20 in April. He did, however, say it is of paramount importance to maintain a nucleus of experienced fighters.

As to whether there should be a single Daghestan front under one commander, Abu-Mukhammad explains that the division into sectors was for reasons of security, and so that fighters could move freely and each individual fighter should know his place.

At the same time, the fighters are subordinate to a single leadership. That structure does not, however, preclude joint action by the fighters of the various sectors: “If the need arises for us to come together to prepare for a large-scale operation we have the possibility and the means to do so, inshallah. At present we are working out a tactic of inflicting crushing blows on the unbelievers. This is not something from the realm of fantasy.”  He did not elaborate.

Responding to other questions, Abu-Mukhammad enumerates those categories of persons whom the insurgency regards as legitimate targets, including those North Caucasus natives who voluntarily serve in the police and security forces, and specifically those who participate in reprisals against women and children, especially the families of dead insurgents. He also warns that his men will target those who engage in promoting depravity and vice, such as owners of liquor stores, saunas, and bordellos who, he recalls, have been warned countless times to close their businesses.

Asked about his contacts with other insurgency commanders, Abu-Mukhammad says he has met with some of them, but does not mention names. Nor is it clear whether he is referring only to commanders based in Daghestan, or how many of the meetings in question took place since he was chosen as insurgency leader. Two senior commanders, Astemir Berkhamov (Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai insurgency wing, successor to Tengiz Guketlov who was killed in March) and Artur Gatagazhev (Ingushetia) have been reported killed in counterterror operations over the past three days. Responding to a further question, Abu-Mukhammad admits that due to the numerical superiority of the pro-Moscow forces deployed against the insurgency, the situation is daily becoming more difficult. At the same time, he says the enemy too faces difficulties, and that “Allah tests a man depending on the strength of his faith…. We see on a daily basis how if he limits our possibilities in one area, in another he opens up possibilities that we never even anticipated.”

Abu-Mukhammad discusses at some length whether Muslims from the North Caucasus are justified in traveling to Syria to join the anti-Assad forces there, or whether they should instead join the “jihad” under way in the Caucasus. He quotes passages from the Koran in support of both approaches, adding that the Council of Muslim scholars has not yet handed down a definitive ruling on the issue. He acknowledges that waging jihad in the Caucasus is more difficult in terms of access to arms and supplies, and points out that the head of Al-Qaeda has not yet ordered his fighters to Syria en masse. On balance, Abu-Mukhammad concludes, it is better for Muslims from the Caucasus to remain and fight at home, where they have parents and other dependents.

In similar vein, Abu-Mukhammad rails against those devout believers from the North Caucasus who send “hundreds of millions” in aid to their co-religionists in Africa but draw the line at providing for dead fighters’ widows and children.

— Liz Fuller



The Caucasus Emirate: From Anti-Colonialist Roots to Salafi-Jihad

Derek Henry Flood
CTC Sentinel 7:3 (March 2014)

On October 21, 2013, a lone suicide bomber from Dagestan boarded a bus in Volgograd, Russia, and detonated an explosive device that killed six people.[1] Media outlets quickly noted that the attack occurred both outside the restive North Caucasus and before the Winter Olympic Games in February 2014. Less than two months later, on December 29, 2013, a suicide bomber entered Volgograd’s principal railway terminal and blew himself up, and the following day another suicide bomber in Volgograd detonated explosives on a trolleybus. The consecutive bombings killed a total of 34 people and created further apprehension regarding security in not just Sochi, but across southern Russia.[2]

Notably, none of the suspected attackers were ethnic Chechens.[3] On January 18, 2014, Vilayet Dagestan, a constituent militant group of the Salafist-oriented Caucasus Emirate,[4] released a 49-minute video claiming responsibility for December’s double bombings in Volgograd.[5] The statement by Vilayat Dagestan,[6] which was believed to have been nominally under the control of Doku Umarov at the time of its release, concerned itself with global jihadist grievances rather than narrower local issues traditionally emphasized by Islamic militant groups in the North Caucasus. Dagestan today is arguably much more of a hotbed of insurgency than Chechnya itself, and the ascendency of Dagestani Salafist fighters may indicate a play for primacy within the Caucasus rebel umbrella faction.

On July 2, 2013, Doku Umarov, the Caucasus Emirate’s late amir, issued a video statement threatening the Sochi Olympics, adding that he approved of attacks on civilians.[7] Although the 2014 Winter Olympic Games came and went without incident, they were under threat throughout their duration. Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged that the most expensive Olympics the world had ever seen—taking place on the fringe of a war zone—would be thoroughly protected by an impenetrable “ring of steel” comprised of Sochi’s inherent physical geography combined with an estimated 60,000-man security force and majority Orthodox Christian populace.[8]

This article examines the causal factors that led to the rise of the Caucasus Emirate, how the fight for an independent, post-Soviet Chechnya morphed into a much wider struggle for an Islamic emirate governed by Shari`a across the North Caucasus, and how the conflict in the Caucasus has awkwardly intersected with the ongoing internecine jihadist battles in Syria in ways that its original leadership never intended. The article finds that while for many years militancy in the North Caucasus was centered on an anti-colonial rebellion rejecting Russian rule with varying degrees of Islamist characteristics, Caucasian Salafism has supplanted any one particular brand of ethnic nationalism as the chief ideological current among fighters. With Caucasian fighters from Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa-al-Ansar displaying the Caucasus Emirate logo in Syria,[9] geography no longer entirely defines pan-Caucasian Salafi-jihadism, nor are those of Chechen origin necessarily driving this movement.

How Separatism Turned to Emirate Building
The Caucasus Emirate is an ideologically Salafist outfit inhabiting what has been historically a haven of Sufi orders in the North Caucasus.[10] It emerged from the failed insurrections that Chechens launched against Russian federal forces in two distinct conflicts beginning in late 1994.

Chechen separatism gained momentum in the immediate aftermath of the chaotic Soviet collapse. In March 1992, the Republic of Chechnya refused to sign the proposed federative treaty put forth by then-President Boris Yeltsin.[11] Chechen rebel leaders subsequently declared independence from Moscow—the only one of Russia’s 89 republics and regions to make a genuine attempt at formal secession.

The Chechen forces during the first Russo-Chechen war in 1994 were led by former Soviet Air Force General Dzhokhar Dudayev, who was initially a secular nationalist. The second war in 1999 was principally helmed by President Aslan Maskhadov, a moderate Sufi who fought under a primarily ethno-nationalist hue somewhat reluctantly imbued with localized Islamism as a way to frame Chechen separatism in part to satisfy his Islamist peers.[12] Maskhadov had to contend with the very real ascendancy of Salafism (often referred to as “Wahhabism”) because the schism between nationalists and Salafists had grown ever wider in the wake of Russia’s killing of Dudayev on April 21, 1996.[13]

As Russian forces successively eliminated these original nationalist leaders, the insurgency began to take on a distinctly Salafist tone embodied by increasingly erratic men like Shamil Basaev. Basaev was much more apt to work alongside transnational Arab jihadists like the notorious Saudi commander Umar ibn al-Khattab who led foreign fighters in Chechnya in ambushes against Russian military columns and their local proxies.[14]

As hopes for a separate Chechen state began to fade, the nationalist movement wilted away in all but name with many of its most prominent surviving members fleeing for the safety of the West and swapping fatigues for suits and ties.[15]

Although the conflict was relatively obscure to Western audiences in the 1990s, Chechnya was a key node of global jihad in the pre-9/11 era. Before eventually ending up in Afghanistan, several of the 9/11 hijackers and plotters were drawn into the operational side of violent global jihad in hopes of joining the battle for Chechnya, which was portrayed as a righteous fight between oppressed Muslim believers and infidel Russian troops.[16] Vitriolic audio sermons and video propaganda tailored for Arabic-speaking audiences portraying the war against Russian forces in Chechnya as analogous to the 1980s jihad in Afghanistan circulated in the Persian Gulf region in late 1999 and the early 2000s.[17] As early as mid-1996, Usama bin Ladin cited the war in Chechnya three times in a list of grievances of the global Islamic community. Although the first war was largely nationalist in tone, it began to attract roving Arab Salafist fighters such as Ibn al-Khattab. Al-Khattab’s infamy gained from fighting Russian troops in Chechnya helped to establish links between the jihad in the North Caucasus and Saudi Arabia. As Russian forces killed both nationalist and Islamist rebel actors throughout the early 2000s, the Islamists—who were far less likely than the nationalists to negotiate with the Kremlin—would come to helm the rebellion and eventually steer it away from Chechen nationalism and toward Islamism.[18]

When Doku Umarov—a nationalist who later cloaked himself in Salafism—took control of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI) in June 2006, the fight for Chechnya was gradually subsumed into a broader struggle. Umarov began reaching out to militant groups in other parts of the North Caucasus. In October 2007, he declared the establishment of the Caucasus Emirate[19] comprised of six “vilayats” (provinces) which were subdivided into “jama`ats” (communities) representing insurgents from the republics spanning across the bulk of what is now the North Caucasus Federal District[20] from the shores of the Caspian Sea in coastal Dagestan to Sochi on the Black Sea. Umarov was an adept survivor, transforming himself from a member of the nationalist camp to a longstanding amir of the Islamist one.

During the evolution of the Caucasus Emirate, the locus of jihad, however, moved from Chechnya to Dagestan[21] and somewhat lesser so to the republics of Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. During the second war in Chechnya, Moscow escalated its “Chechenization” policy by co-opting former Chechen nationalist rebels—chief among them Akhmad Kadyrov, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s late father—which exploited fissures within the insurgency in an effort to regain control of Chechnya through local clients, in lieu of directly negotiating with rebel leaders.[22] The Putin government later infused large sums of capital to help rebuild Grozny, which was shattered by well over a decade of war.[23] Chechnya, under the repressive grip of the Kremlin-appointed President Kadyrov, has undergone a significant transformation in recent years, particularly evident in the once Stalingrad-like republican capital of Grozny, which now maintains the architectural air of a nouveau riche oil center. As Ramzan Kadyrov consolidated his rule over Grozny and its environs, and as Salafism spread on the Chechen republic’s eastern and western flanks, militancy in the North Caucasus became far less concentrated, with a host of different militant actors asserting their credentials.

Moreover, the struggle for the North Caucasus long predates the largely nationalist-hued Chechen wars of the 1990s. Chechens, Avars, Circassians and other ethno-linguistic groups firmly resisted Russian expansionism during the czarist period until at least 1864 when the Russians declared victory in the Caucasian wars.[24] Led most notably by Imam Shamil, a dynamic Avar from the village of Gimry in present-day central Dagestan,[25] North Caucasian Sufis waged a 25-year-long holy war against Russian forces that is still invoked to the present day.[26] In the 19th century rebellion against the Russian conquest of the Caucasus, the perception of religious difference between invading Orthodox Russians and indigenous Muslim Caucasian groups was a rallying cry among different ethnic groups who shared Islam as a binding factor across mountains and valleys. Today, the symbolically significant Gimry is an area of Salafist influence in Dagestan located at a strategic crossroads between Makhachkala and the mountainous border with Chechnya where Russian federal forces began a crackdown in the lead up to the Olympics.[27]

Non-Chechens, such as Vilayat Dagestan, have had the most dire effect on Russian security as of late. By executing the Volgograd bombings, Dagestani jihadists threatened events in Sochi asymmetrically by attacking civilian targets outside their historical areas of operation. The bulk of North Caucasian militants’ attacks in recent history have occurred in the republics adjacent to Chechnya or the occasional mass casualty attack on symbolic locales in Moscow.

Part of what the Volgograd incidents indicate is that although a Chechen had remained at least the titular head of this increasingly decentralized insurgency, militants from other disenfranchised republics and regions are increasingly the ones carrying out attacks. The 2010 Moscow metro attacks were carried out by a pair of Dagestani women,[28] and the Domodedovo attack was executed by a young Ingush man.[29] Chechens are no longer necessarily the key players in a conflict that arose from the ashes of their own national liberation struggle. The October 21, 2013, attack in Volgograd was allegedly carried out by Naida Asiyalova from Gunib, Dagestan, whose husband was an ethnic Russian convert to Islam,[30] while the December 29 and 30 attacks were launched by a pair of young Dagestani men named Asker Samedov and Suleiman Magomedov.[31] Moreover, after acknowledging Umarov’s death on March 18, 2014,[32] the Caucasus Emirate announced his successor as Aliaskhab Kebekov (also known as Ali Abu Muhammad), an ethnic Avar from Dagestan.[33] Kebekov became the first non-Chechen rebel to lead the widening insurgency in the North Caucasus.

From Chechnya to Dagestan and Beyond
While the Caucasus Emirate has steeped itself in the language of transnational Salafi-jihadism for several years, the appearance of the “Imarat Kavkaz”—as the endonym of the Caucasus Emirate is known among jihadists—brand in Syria may mean that rhetoric has become reality among the freelance diaspora militants. The presence of ethnic Chechen fighters and commanders along with other Caucasian militants in Syria was probably not the result of a top-down hierarchical decision-making process made in the mountains of southern Chechnya or western Dagestan, but of jihadists who went to Syria partly out of its free-for-all opportunistic jihadist environment.[34]

For the first time in the post-9/11 period, there is incontrovertible evidence that Chechens and other Caucasian ethnicities are joining and even heading foreign fighter contingents in a non-contiguous war theater far from their contested homeland.[35] Until recently, Chechen violence was focused almost exclusively on symbols of the Russian state and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Russian civilians. Despite Umarov’s infusion of boilerplate jihadist rhetoric into some of his public statements since the formation of the Caucasus Emirate in 2007, the liberation of Chechnya remained one of his central aims, rather than fighting conflicts outside the region. Yet Syria has been a sea change for the Caucasus Emirate, which has belatedly endorsed freelance participation of fighters in the war.[36]

Several prominent “Chechen” Salafi-jihadis fighting in northern Syria—most notably Omar al-Shishani,[37] a military leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) northern sector—are in fact Georgian nationals known as Kists. Georgia’s small community of Kists migrated south from Chechnya and Ingushetia and settled along the Alazani River in northeastern Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge beginning in the 1830s.[38] Starting in late 1999, the Kists began to host Chechen refugees fleeing the war in southern Chechnya’s Itum-Kale district.

Indeed, the presence of Chechen and other Caucasian fighters in Syria has been ideologically problematic for their peers in the North Caucasus and led to division among emigrant jihadists on the ground in Syria. Omar al-Shishani pledged bay`a (loyalty) to the ISIL, which is led by the Iraqi jihadist commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in November 2013.[39] Another Georgian Kist jihadist leader named Salah al-Din al-Shishani disagreed with Omar al-Shishani. Salah al-Din had pledged bay`a to the Caucasus Emirate under the leadership of Umarov in order to keep the Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa-al-Ansar faction operating financially and politically independent within Syria, while also trying to avoid fitna (sedition).[40] Omar al-Shishani has taken up a highly visible role that has won him adulation within the ISIL while it has been battling both regime forces and comparatively less extreme Salafist and other rebel groups in northern Syria.[41]

Although a minute figure in absolute numbers estimated to be in the hundreds, Chechens and other Caucasians from across the diaspora as well as the Russian Federation continue to trickle into Syria via the porous borderlands of Turkey’s southern provinces.[42] Chechen and other Caucasian participation in the Syrian jihad represents a major shift in the Islamist currents in the North Caucasus itself. Chechens from outside the North Caucasus can opportunistically slip across the Turkish-Syrian border to wage jihad and gain valuable battlefield experience. Russia has tightened its grip on Chechnya, and the Kadyrov regime has consolidated its rule on Grozny and its environs, making Syria an attractive destination for now.[43]

Doku Umarov wavered on his position vis-à-vis Syria, which created space for an influx of fighters into the northern Levant. Perhaps out of sheer pragmatism, Umarov came around to endorsing Chechen fighters flowing into Syria in a bid to remain relevant among his followers.[44] Although Umarov and his aides never altogether abandoned their evolved form of Chechen nationalism now branded in Salafist speak, as militancy has ramped up in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria the localized jihad in the North Caucasus is far less Chechen-centric and increasingly globalized Islamist in tone, although this is not evident in terms of operational capacity thus far.

The Russian president has publicly raised his concern about the possibility of veteran jihadists returning to the southern tier of the Russian Federation from Syria’s front lines, stating: “they will not vanish into thin air.”[45] The Syria effect is one that worries a host of governments aside from just Moscow. The scenario of fighters returning from the Syrian battlefield is a concern not only for the Russian Federation, but also for the South Caucasus region and EU states that host Chechen refugee diasporas with direct connections to the 1990s anti-Russian insurgency. Georgia in particular has a two-fold problem—its own Kist population has had a few commanders depart its territory to wage jihad in Syria while it still hosts refugees who trekked to Georgia in late 1999 and who may be vulnerable to radicalization.[46]

In addition, a small number of Sunni Azeris from Azerbaijan have also been traveling to northern Syria via Georgia and Turkey—both of which have visa-free regimes for Azerbaijani nationals.[47] On a recent visit to Azerbaijan, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated that Ankara is struggling to control its 566-mile border with Syria and will not be monitoring Azeris unless intelligence on specific suspects is provided in advance by the Azeri government.[48]

Although Russian and local authorities have made gains in securing Chechnya after years of all out war, religio-political violence has not only continued unabated in neighboring republics, but has in fact escalated in recent years. Russian counterinsurgency strategy lacks a significant hearts-and-minds component aimed at deradicalization. The Russian leadership relies instead on relentless hard power kinetics paired with some economic incentives parceled out to local power brokers. This has made Grozny relatively safe but has done nothing to resolve the longstanding question of who or what power should rightfully rule the North Caucasus in the minds of its diverse, indigenous peoples.

While militants from the Caucasus Emirate did not manage to breach the heavy security detail surrounding the Sochi Olympic Games, that does not mean that the threat to overall Russian security is diminished, as evinced by the attacks in Volgograd. The cycle of violence emanating from the North Caucasus is likely to continue as Salafism rises in popularity coupled with the heavy-handed tactics of the Kremlin’s security apparatus. The Caucasus as a whole, along with the wider Russian Federation, will still have to contend with the likelihood of jihadists returning from Syria and perhaps Iraq.

Unexpectedly, Umarov’s initial hesitance notwithstanding, the Caucasus Emirate is currently officially present in Syria at least in terms of a visual brand, although its fighters are more so functionally under the banner of Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa-al-Ansar. In his final years as the amir of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov was increasingly viewed as a figurehead,[49] devoid of much charisma, or a spokesman, rather than a genuinely effective operational leader. The vilayets that comprise the Caucasus Emirate appear to be increasingly autonomous in nature. In this context, it is conceivable that the fight for the violence-plagued republics of the North Caucasus will no longer necessarily be dominated by Chechen leadership nor Chechen aims.

Umarov had proclaimed that the Caucasus Emirate is but one part of a larger worldwide jihadist realm. At present, the center of gravity for many aspiring Caucasian jihadists has shifted to northern Syria. Within the North Caucasus, the epicenter of jihad has long since shifted away from war-weary Chechnya, with more aggressive Dagestani jama`ats now taking the lead. The appointment of Aliaskhab Kebekov as the new amir of the Caucasus jihad—to replace the late Umarov—demonstrates the final transition from a once Chechen-centered rebellion to genuine Salafi-jihad in the North Caucasus.

Derek Henry Flood is an independent security analyst with an emphasis on MENA, Central Asia and South Asia. Mr. Flood is a contributor to IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst and guest commentator for BBC Arabic, His past work has appeared online with CNN, the Christian Science Monitor and numerous other publications.

[1] “At Least 6 Killed in Attack by Female Suicide Bomber in Russia – Official,” RIA Novosti, October 21, 2013.

[2] “Islamist Group Claims Volgograd Attack, Threatens Sochi Olympics,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 20, 2014.

[3] Post-Soviet militancy in the North Caucasus began with the Chechen war for secession from the Russian Federation starting in December 1994. For many years, the war in the North Caucasus was focused almost solely on Chechnya and ethnic Chechens. As the ideology of political violence in the region shifted from ethno-nationalist to religio-political, the conflict gradually metastasized to envelop many of the neighboring republics and their attendant myriad ethnic groups.

[4] The self-declared Caucasus Emirate is referred to alternately by its endonym “Imarat Kavkaz” when transliterated into Latin script. It was led by Doku Umarov until his death, which was announced on March 18, 2014, although the date of when he died is not known.

[5] “Islamic Group Claims Volgograd Attacks and Threatens Sochi Visitors,” Associated Press, January 19, 2014.

[6] Vilayat Dagestan is a “province” of the Caucasus Emirate which is then subdivided among communal militant groupings known as jama`ats. The larger jama`ats are then further divided in small cells who carry out particular attacks. See Mairbek Vatchagaev, “Formation of Khasavyurt Jammat Reflects Influx of New Funds and Recruits,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, January 17, 2014.

[7] “Caucasus Emirate Leader Calls On Insurgents To Thwart Sochi Winter Olympics,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 3, 2013.

[8] James Brooke, “Can Terrorists Penetrate Ring of Steel Around Sochi Olympics?” Voice of America, January 31, 2014.

[9] For an example of branding in Syria, in a Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa-al-Ansar video of Salah al-Din al-Shishani posted on the Shaminfo.tv channel on YouTube, al-Shishani can be clearly seen wearing an “Imarat Kavkaz” shirt beginning at 0:33. See “Appeal to the Muslims of Syria [from the] Mujahideen of the Caucasus Emirate,” July 30, 2013, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hoZDxCw5bvk.

[10] John Russell, Russia and Islam: State, Society and Radicalism (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), pp. 176-177.

[11] Chechnya was initially joined by Tatarstan in refusing to sign the federative treaty, but the quietist Muslim Tatars did not wage war over the idea and reached a compromise with Moscow. See Matthew Evangelista, The Chechen Wars: Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union? (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2002), p. 96.

[12] John Russell, Russia and Islam: State, Society and Radicalism (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 180-181.

[13] Lawrence Scott Sheets, Eight Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse (New York: Random House, 2011), p. 172.

[14] Brian Glynn Williams, Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 163-166.

[15] For example, Akhmed Zakayev, who served as President Maskhadov’s prime minister, sought exile in London. See Sam Jones, “MI5 Warns of Plot to Assassinate Chechen Refugee in UK,” Guardian, April 1, 2012. Ilyas Akhmadov, Maskhadov’s foreign minister, sought exile in Washington, D.C. See Matthew Brzezinski, “Surrealpolik,” Washington Post Magazine, March 20, 2005.

[16] The 9/11 Commission Report (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004).

[17] Personal observation, Saburtalo district, Tbilisi, Georgia, August 18, 2002.

[18] Umar ibn al-Khattab was killed on March 20, 2002. See “Obituary: Chechen Rebel Khattab,” BBC, April 26, 2002. Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was killed in Doha, Qatar, on February 13, 2004. See “Russia ‘Behind Chechen Murder,’” BBC, June 30, 2004. Ruslan “Hamzat” Gelayev was killed in Dagestan on February 28, 2004. See “Chechen Rebel Field Commander Ruslan Gelayev Killed in Dagestan Mountains,” RIA Novosti, March 1, 2004. Aslan Maskhadov was killed in Tolstoy-Yurt, Chechnya, on March 8, 2005. See Musa Muradov and Sergey Mashkin, “Aslan Maskhadov Killed,” Kommersant, March 9, 2005. Shamil Basaev was killed in Ingushetia on July 10, 2006. See “Mastermind of Russian School Siege Killed,” CNN, July 11, 2006.

[19] “The Official Version of Amir Dokka’s Statement of Declaration of the Caucasian Emirate,” Kavkaz Center, November 22, 2007.

[20] “Medvedev Creates New North Caucasus Federal District,” Free Radio Europe/Radio Liberty, January 20, 2010.

[21] Zakir Magomedov, “Dagestan: Russia’s Hottest Spot,” Open Democracy, March 8, 2014.

[22] James Hughes, Chechnya: From Past to Future (London: Anthem Press, 2005), pp. 283-284.

[23] Maria Golovnina, “Tsarnaev Homeland Chechnya: Rebuilt from War, Ruled by Fear,” Reuters, May 1, 2013.

[24] Russia’s victory in the 19th century Caucasian wars can be said to have begun with the capture of Imam Shamil by czarist forces in 1859. See Robert D. Crews, For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 12, 74. The conflict was largely concluded five years later with the surrender and expulsion of the Circassians to the Ottoman Empire in May 1864. See Walter Richmond, The Circassian Genocide (London: Routledge, 2013), p. 87.

[25] Imam Shamil’s birthplace, then part of the Avar Khanate—then a tributary to the Ottoman suzerain in Istanbul—was subsumed into the Russian Empire in the Caucasian wars of the mid-19th century.

[26] Maria Antonova, “Top Russian Islamist Calls for Attacks on Sochi Games,” Agence France-Press, July 3, 2013; Henry Ridgwell, “150 Years After Defeat, Sochi Olympics Divide Native Circassians,” Voice of America, February 19, 2014.

[27] Emil Souleimanov, “Mopping up Gimry, ‘Zachistkas’ Reach Dagestan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, April 16, 2013.

[28] “Three Moscow Metro Bombing ‘Organisers’ Killed,” BBC, May 13, 2010.

[29] “Russia Jails Four Over 2011 Domodedovo Airport Bombing,” BBC, November 13, 2013.

[30] “Russians Hunt for Husband of Suicide Bomber,” Associated Press, October 22, 2013.

[31] “Suicide Bombers in Southern Russia’s Volgograd Terrorist Attacks Identified,” Itar-Tass, January 30, 2014.

[32] “Caucasus Emirate’s Emir Dokku Abu Usman Martyred, Insha’Allah. Obituary,” Kavkaz Center, March 18, 2014.

[33] “Ali Abu-Muhammad (Kebekov Aliaskhab Alibulatovich),” Kavkaz-Uzel, March 18, 2014.

[34] Mairbek Vatchagaev, “Chechen Insurgency Leader Doku Umarov Tells Chechens Not to Fight in Syria,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, March 29, 2013.

[35] Personal interviews, wounded foreign fighters, Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, November 2001; personal observations, North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan, March 2007; Sebastian Smith, Allah’s Mountains: The Battle for Chechnya (London: I.B. Tauris and Co LTD, 2006), p. XXXIV; Murad Batal al-Shishani, “Chechens Fighting in Syria Complicate a Complex Conflict,” The National, May 3, 2013.

[36] Vatchagaev, “Chechen Insurgency Leader Doku Umarov Tells Chechens Not to Fight in Syria”; Vatchagaev, “Caucasus Emirate Leader Discusses Chechens in Syria in New Video.”

[37] Personal interview, Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs analyst, Tbilisi, Georgia, October 30, 2013; Murad Batal al-Shishani, “Syria Crisis: Omar Shishani, Chechen Jihadist Leader,” BBC, December 3, 2013.

[38] Personal observations, Birkiani, Georgia, October 30, 2009; George Sanikidze, Empire, Islam, and Politics in Central Eurasia (Sapporo: Hokkaido University, 2007), pp. 264-266.

[39] A Russian-language website promoting foreign fighters in Syria claimed Omar al-Shishani pledged an oath to al-Baghdadi based on the latter’s religious legitimacy as an ascribed descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. See “Omar al-Shishani Swears [allegiance to] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” Fisyria.com, November 21, 2013.

[40] Somewhat similarly to Omar al-Shishani, Salah al-Din al-Shishani said his decision was based not out of a clash of personalities but rather on the grounds of Salafist ethics and that he and his fighters will pledge a new bay`a only when there is a sole amir for all of Syria once jihadist groups are united under a single banner. See “Amir Salahuddin Shishani’s Appeal Following the Meeting of Commanders of the Mujahideen Jaish al-Muhajireen wa’Ansar,” Shamtv.info, December 25, 2013.

[41] “Joy at the Arrival of the Brothers Sheikh Omaral-Shishani,” Abu Ubayda al-Tunisi YouTube channel, February 16, 2014.

[42] “7 Chechens Detained on Turkey’s Syria Border,” Today’s Zaman, February 18, 2014.

[43] Personal interviews, Duisi and Tbilisi, Georgia, October 27, 2013 and October 30, 2013.

[44] Vatchagaev, “Chechen Insurgency Leader Doku Umarov Tells Chechens Not to Fight in Syria”; Mairbek Vatchagaev, “Caucasus Emirate Leader Discusses Chechens in Syria in New Video,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, August 15, 2013.

[45] Alissa de Carbonnel, “Russia Fears Return of Fighters Waging Jihad in Syria,” Reuters, September 23, 2013.

[46] Personal interview, Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs analyst, Tbilisi, Georgia, October 30, 2013.

[47] “Davudoglu Suriyaya geden azerbaycanlılardan danısdı,” Azerbaijan News Service Press, February 19, 2014.

[48] Abu Yahya al-Azeri, a well-known Azeri amir who was a confidant of Omar al-Shishani’s in Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa-al-Ansar, was killed fighting in Hama on September 13, 2013. See “Azerbaijani Citizen aka Abu Yahya Killed While Fighting Against Government Forces in Syria,” Azerbaijan Press Agency, September 16, 2013.

[49] “Deaths, Blast in Russia’s South Trigger Terrorism Sweep,” RIA Novosti, January 9, 2014.