The October 19, 2010 attack on the parliament building in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital city, underscores the ferocity and tenacity of the North Caucasus insurgency. Timed to correspond with a visit by Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev, the assault killed four and injured 17. The perpetrators took no hostages, issued no statements, and made no demands. Each died by his own hand, detonating explosive vests during the initial attack and following the ensuing firefight with Interior Ministry (MDV) forces.
This short-lived siege followed a series of similar attacks across the Russian Federation. On March 29, two Dagestani shahidki attacked the Lubyanka and Park Kultury metro stations in Moscow, killing 40 commuters and wounding more than 100. On March 31, a double suicide bombing in the Dagestani city of Kizlyar killed 12 and injured 23. On May 26, a suicide attack on a concert hall in Stavropol killed seven and injured another 40. Finally, on September 9, a suicide attack by Ingush militants on a market in Vladikavkaz killed 16 and injured 140.
The frequency and intensity of these attacks illuminate a persistent, low-level insurrection. According to Russian Interior Minister Nurgaliev, insurgent attacks in Dagestan have killed 89 police officers and wounded 264 in the last year alone. Similar trends are evident in Ingushetia, where more than 400 police officers and 3,000 civilians were killed during the last five years. Even Kabardino-Balkaria has succumbed to insurgent violence, with a May 1 bombing in the capital Nalchik killing one victim and wounding another 29.
Until recently, Chechnya was the exception to this rule. Backed by the Kremlin, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov ruthlessly yet effectively suppressed the secessionist insurgency through a mixture of aggressive counterterrorism tactics and repressive state surveillance. Amnesties and patronage reinforced Kadyrov’s authority, with some rebels abandoning the insurrection and others joining pro-Kremlin militias. As recently as February 2009, the 34-year-old Chechen strongman appealed to exiled militants to return home. Kadyrov even appropriated religion, implementing a state-sponsored Islamization campaign in an effort to undermine Islamist and Salafist activism. From prohibiting alcohol and promoting polygamy, to mandating Islamic attire and religious education in Chechen schools, the result has been an uncertain mixture of superficial Shari`a and secular autocracy.
The Chechen parliament siege raises serious questions about Kadyrov’s stabilization strategy. Despite Chechnya’s relative autonomy and substantial federal support, secessionist impulses still persist. It also reveals important new developments within the insurgency itself. Coming just two months after the August 29 assault on Tsentoroi, Kadyrov’s home village, the attack on Chechnya’s parliament marks a shift from the diffuse bombing and ambushes witnessed in recent years to a more focused strategy targeting the Chechen regime. That focus, in turn, reflects ethnic and operational fragmentation within the Caucasian Front. With prominent field commanders challenging separatist leader Doku Umarov’s authority, the North Caucasus insurgency may be assuming a more localized, compartmentalized character.
This article examines that fragmentation in three stages. First, it describes the formation and limitations of the Caucasus Emirate and its military wing, the Caucasian Front. Second, it discusses the growing tensions between Umarov and three of the Front’s leading field commanders. Third, it examines the operations undertaken by this breakaway faction, as well as the implications this schism could have for Islamic militancy in the wider region. The article concludes by evaluating the role of local agendas and national identities in limiting collaboration between militants, including those with a common ideology and adversary.
The Virtual Emirate
Protracted armed conflict has had a pernicious radicalizing effect across the North Caucasus. Launched in 1992 as an anti-colonial movement, the Chechen rebellion swiftly splintered into nationalist and Islamist factions with competing agendas and irreconcilable ideologies. By 1996, the quasi-autonomous Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI) found itself mired in an internecine battle between these two groups, with nationalists advocating a constitutional republic within the boundaries of Chechnya’s recognized borders, and Islamists imagining a regional emirate that would unify the North Caucasian Muslims under a system of Islamic law. Renewed hostilities with Russia gradually empowered the latter faction, with atrocities on both sides reinforcing notions of a perpetual, existential conflict between Muslims and non-believers.
This radicalization coincided with the decline of traditional Sufi orders, the diminution of the ChRI’s military capacity, and the diffusion of insurgent violence to neighboring Muslim-majority republics. It also undermined the moderate ChRI leadership, with regional field commanders such as Umarov abandoning their ethno-nationalist agenda in favor of a more globalized Salafist outlook. By the time Umarov assumed command of the ChRI in June 2006, the insurgency had devolved into a series of loosely-coordinated jama`ats operating in Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria, and even in the Orthodox Christian enclave of North Ossetia.
These conditions set the stage for Umarov’s repudiation of the ChRI in October 2007 and subsequent declaration of a multiethnic Caucasus Emirate dedicated to “establishing Shari`a in its land and expelling the kuffar.” This decision de-nationalized the Chechen rebellion, reducing Chechnya to a mere province, or vilayat, within the newly-established Emirate. Prompting swift and unequivocal condemnation from ChRI officials in the West, it drew an indelible line between the insurgency’s Islamist and nationalist wings.
Umarov’s declaration also challenged Chechen parochialism. Eager to attract foreign support and volunteers, the self-styled amir expressed solidarity with Muslims “fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Palestine” while denouncing the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, “and all those waging war against Islam and Muslims” as his enemies. The result was a shift from localized forms of Islamist resistance to a delocalized Salafist ideology that framed jihad in pan-Islamic and increasingly millenarian terms.
This shift produced limited results. Despite endorsements from prominent Salafist ideologues including Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Basir al-Tartusi, the number of foreign fighters participating in the Caucasian Front continued to decline. Furthermore, Umarov’s appeals to pan-Islamic solidarity failed to establish clear lines of command and control. Rather than augmenting the Chechen struggle, Ingush, Dagestani and other militants pursued their own local agendas under a nominal Chechen figurehead.
Diffusion and Fragmentation
Limited capacity perpetuates these problems. As a virtual state, the Caucasus Emirate lacks the defined territory or fiscal-military apparatus associated with robust, self-sustaining insurgencies. This explains the overreliance on ambushes, suicide attacks, and other provocative operations. Unable to impose and enforce their will, local jama`ats resort to theatrical violence aimed a provoking authorities and educating the masses. The result is an erratic pattern of insurrection, rather than a coordinated insurgency.
Equally important, however, is the Emirate’s failure to galvanize indigenous aspirations and identities. On one level, Umarov’s homogenized Salafist tropes create common cause among like-minded militants. They also open new avenues for self-radicalizing volunteers, including Muslims from other post-Soviet societies. Yet they have not produced the patterns of sustained social and political mobilization necessary to field an effective fighting force. United by a common ideology but divided into discrete ethnic and geographic entities, Umarov’s imagined community lacks meaningful cohesion.
These deficiencies inform the fragmentation now evident in the Caucasian Front. Starting in late spring 2010, Chechen field commanders Aslambek Vadalov and Hussein Gakayev challenged Umarov’s leadership, arguing that major decisions should be made by a war council, or majlis, rather than by decree. Joined by Ingush commander Tarkhan Gaziev, Vadalov and Gakayev sought greater autonomy, including the appointment of an independent Chechen amir.
These challenges precipitated a leadership crisis. On July 24, Umarov resigned and appointed Vadalov as his successor. Citing health concerns, he explained that “the jihad should be led by younger and more energetic commanders.” This announcement was a watershed, illuminating operational and perhaps even generational differences long obscured by triumphant jihadist rhetoric. Yet within days, the Emirate’s Kavkaz Center information agency reported that Vadalov’s appointment was merely a proposal. On August 4, Umarov repudiated his resignation, calling it “completely fabricated” and arguing that it was “not possible to step down” given conditions in the North Caucasus.
The ensuing struggle drew clear lines between two increasingly irreconcilable factions. Led by Vadalov, Gakayev and Gaziev renounced their allegiance to Umarov. Umarov subsequently issued orders dismissing this newly-formed troika from their offices within the Emirate. The Emirate’s supreme qadi also intervened, with Seyfullah Gubdensky issuing a statement confirming Umarov as the insurgency’s sole legitimate leader. “[A] single province of the Caucasus Emirate has no right, according to Shari`a, to appoint or remove the amir,” Seyfullah argued, “and if they try to do so, they become bugats and sinners.” Yet by August the damage was already done, with more than 20 local commanders flocking to the troika’s banner.
At first blush, the troika’s repudiation of the Caucasus Emirate suggests a resurgent Chechen nationalism. Exiled ChRI officials initially welcomed the split, with the London-based Akhmed Zakayev describing Vadalov as a fellow patriot who rejected Umarov’s strategy of targeting civilians. Some Russian analysts adopted a similar view, noting that collaboration between Zakayev’s ChRI and Vadalov’s faction could open the way for a revitalized Chechen secessionist movement.
Such speculation remains premature. Although Vadalov, Gakayev, and Gaziev repudiated Umarov and abandoned the Emirate, they still espouse a radical Islamist agenda. Moreover, their close and continuing collaboration with the foreign Arab fighter Khaled Yusef Muhammad al-Emitat (also known as Muhannad) indicates a strong Salafist outlook. These facts indicate fragmentation, not transformation. Rather than reverting to secular nationalism, the troika is merely pursuing a more parochial agenda.
This agenda involves a simplified target set. Unlike Umarov, who speaks of liberating Astrakhan and the Volga region, the troika emphasizes Chechnya and the Kremlin-backed Chechen regime. On September 3, for example, Vadalov and Muhannad released a video confirming their role in the August 29 Tsentoroi operation. On October 20, the MVD implicated Gakayev’s forces in the attack on the Chechen Parliament. Combined with propaganda reviving ethnocentric terms such as “Ichkerii” and “Nokhchii,” these operations suggest a re-animation of the same intra-Chechen struggles that once dominated the North Caucasus insurgency.
The re-localization of Chechen resistance carries serious consequences for the Caucasus Emirate. On one level, the troika’s withdrawal exposes the weaknesses in Umarov’s multiethnic coalition. Although neither faction has come to blows, their rhetoric and mutual recrimination suggests little room for meaningful collaboration. The move also isolates smaller insurgent groups such as Yarmouk in Kabardino-Balkaria and Kataib al-Khoul in North Ossetia from Jama`at Shari`at in Dagestan. These conditions invite new alignments. With Umarov increasingly dependent on Gubdensky and other Jama`at Shari`at commanders, Dagestan could become the locus for future Emirate operations.
These observations focus greater attention on indigenous factors—on the aspirations that inform Islamic militancy and the resentments that fuel it. The fact that senior Chechen commanders would repudiate the Caucasus Emirate reveals an ethnic parochialism at odds with cosmopolitan notions of jihad. Far from subordinating themselves to a pan-Islamic enterprise, the troika appears to be selectively adapting globalized ideologies to their own highly localized agenda.
The net result is a change in policy and strategy, rather than a reversion to ethno-nationalist ideology. Yet the outcome may ultimately prove much the same. By distinguishing themselves as an essentially Chechen endeavor, the troika elicits support from a discrete, concrete community with a long history of grievances. By targeting Kadyrov, they give those grievances a tangible, immediate outlet. Informed by nearly two decades of chronic, persistent conflict, the troika’s parochialism may succeed where Umarov’s pan-Islamism failed.
Christopher Swift is Fellow at the University of Virginia Law School’s Center for National Security Law. His forthcoming book examines the role of local insurgencies in al-Qa`ida’s global jihad.
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