In the early hours of December 4, 2014, a group of militants staged a brazen attack in the heart of Grozny, the Chechen capital. They stormed a government media building and a significant part of the edifice was engulfed in flames. Clashes lasted for some 12 hours before the authorities regained complete control of the area. The December incident belied the hard-won image that Chechnya had largely been pacified. The Grozny attack made headlines in part because Chechnya had largely dropped out of the news because the number of attacks within the republic had declined even as the violence seeped into other areas to the east and west.
The timing and location of the attack was significant for several reasons. Targeting a government building in the region’s capital and the death of state security forces demonstrated conclusively that this long-running conflict has not been resolved, despite the message implied in the policies of Ramzan Kadyrov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked leader in Chechnya. He has gone to great lengths to suppress religious and political violence and has greatly reduced terrorism and insurgent activity in the area under his direct control. His tactics though have also led to the diffusion of radicalism into the neighboring republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria in particular which have made of up the core of the Caucasus Emirate, known locally as Imarat Kavkaz.
The December attack took place the same day Putin was to give his State of the Nation address to Russian parliament and also occurred a week before the December 11 anniversary of the start of the first Russo-Chechen war that began in 1994. The attack did little though to force a reassessment of the insurgency in the Caucasus. A more glamorous battle in the Levant continues to attract fighters away from Russia and at the same time is weakening the indigenous fight for autonomy, which is slowly adopting additional radical Islamist characteristics.
With the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, there has been an ongoing tug-of-war among the jihadi fighters in the North Caucasus about whether to remain autonomous, affiliate themselves with al-Qa`ida’s core leadership, or follow the Islamic State. By June 21, 2015, it appears that the Islamic State had won the day. An audio recording was posted to YouTube stating that the mujahideen of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria have sided with Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Baghdadi’s spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani subsequently released an audio recording on June 23 proclaiming the Islamic State’s acceptance of bay`a of North Caucasian militant leaders. The Caucasus Emirate has now been subsumed into the Islamic State’s sphere as a province that would be known as Vilayat Kavkaz or Wilayat Qawqaz in Arabic. The Islamic State’s chosen leader in the North Caucasus is Rustam Aselderov (aka Abu Mukhammad Kadarsky), the former emir of the Caucasus Emirate’s Vilayat Dagestan sector and notably also a non-Chechen. He could be in conflict with Magomed Suleymanov, the yet-to-be confirmed leader of the rump Caucaus Emirate, leaving the future of the Caucasus Emirate in question.
Leadership Decapitation as Strategy
Putin ascended to power largely based on his resolve to end the war in Chechnya by any means at the disposal of the Russian state. The management of the Chechen conflict under his predecessor, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, can be considered the nadir of post-Soviet Russian power, particularly the Khasavyurt Accord. General Alexander Lebed and then Chechen rebel President Aslan Maskhadov signed that deal in August 1996 to end the first Russo-Chechen war, but it also resulted in Chechnya becoming de facto independent and referring to itself as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Much of Putin’s, and by extension Kadyrov’s, policy is based on rectifying the military and diplomatic blunders of the early post-Soviet period.
There is one consistent thread throughout the Russian Federation’s fight for control of the North Caucasus that began in late 1994, and that is the successive elimination of rebel leaders. The killing of Emir Aliskhab Kebekov in Buinaksk district, Dagestan on April 19, 2015 is the latest in a series of assassinations that accompanied the conflict’s steady evolution from a Chechen-centric ethno-nationalist insurgency to the present radical jihadi war that affects a cluster of forlorn countries stretching from the Caspian to Black Sea. In 2014, Kebekov, a qadi (sharia judge), had reluctantly succeeded the late Doku Umarov as emir of the Caucasian Emirate. While Moscow may trumpet his death as yet another decisive step in the now decades-long counterinsurgency, there is no indication that yet another leadership decapitation will bring the anti-Russian resistance to its knees.
Despite a long-running series of targeted killings, Russian authorities and their proxies in southern Muslim-majority republics have remained unable to extinguish the smoldering discontent. Russians or their agents have killed Dzokhar Dudaev in 1996, Zelimkhan Yaderbiyev in 1997, Aslan Maskhadov in Tolstoy-Yurt in 2005, Abdul-Halim Sadulayev in Argun in 2006, and Doku Umarov in 2013. Each blow to the rebel leadership has demonstrably led to increased radicalization among the militants. Early nationalist leaders such as Dudaev and Maskhadov were willing to negotiate. Negotiations with today’s underground insurgent leaders would be unthinkable. It is arguable that Russia’s attempts to retain one tiny secessionist republic, with all the mass casualties that have ensued, have instead accelerated the radicalization of Islamists throughout the region. The further fighters were pushed into the mountains as the security cordon tightened in the North Caucasus, the more ideologically oriented they became as their isolation deepened. Now the Federal Security Service (FSB) and military must contend with a declared Islamic State wilayah on their soil.
The Radicalization of Grievances
The Caucasus was at the edge of historical Islamic expansion. Two schools of Sunni Islam, Shafi’i and Hanafi, were common in the region. Comparatively moderate by today’s standards, two principle Sufi orders, the Naqshabandiyya and the Qadiriyya, took hold during a period overlapping the Tsarist colonization and Caucasian wars of the mid-19th century. Though salafism in the North Caucasus, and Dagestan in particular, predates the Soviet collapse, it is now visibly resurgent, aided by broader trends in global Islam and the increased technological connectivity of what was once a remote backwater of the umma (Islamic community).
There are other problems emerging with Russian policy. Putin chose to strengthen the state security apparatus and elevate mid-level strongmen, most notably Ramzan Kadyrov. This is potentially problematic for Moscow. Kadyrov, in particular, has become so emboldened that he views his local administration as being beyond Russian federal constrictions. Much of Putin’s strategy to contain separatism in the North Caucasus depended on power being delegated to Kadyrov. Arguably, those efforts have failed.
As it spread through the region, the insurgency has become more radical and more a part of the militant transnational Islamist movement. The push for Chechen independence had originally been more anti-authoritarian in nature and was fed by the anger stirred up by the Stalinist-like deportations of 1994. Now, the young fighters in the Caucasus are more likely to pursue global jihad to its current locus in Syria and Iraq. Part of this trend is simply logistical and part is ideological. Once in Turkey, which is a fairly straightforward process for Georgians and Azerbaijanis, the porous Syrian border presents relatively few obstacles. In Syria or Iraq, jihadis are presented with the opportunity to contest the so-called near enemy, that is, the forces of the Assad regime, Kurdish militias, Iraqi federal forces, Iranian-sponsored Shia militias, and anyone else who stands in the way of controlling the Umayyad caliphate capital of Damascus or the Abbassid caliphate capital of Baghdad.
One near-term positive for the Russian authorities is that the battle for control against the near enemy in the Russian Federation’s southwestern tier has far less appeal with the decline of Sufi-inflected nationalism. But the insurgency has not simply evaporated.
The Post-Chechen Caucasus Emirate
Aliskhab Kebekov’s ascent to the top leadership role in the evolving insurgency waged by the Caucasus Emirate was notable because he was not a battle-hardened Chechen, but an ethnic Avar from Dagestan. The selection of another Avar, Magomed Suleymanov (aka Abu Usman Gimry), to replace Kebekov (according to Heydar Jemal, the chairman of the Islamic Committee of Russia) would be even more notable. If confirmed by insurgent sources, Suleymanov’s appointment would seem to indicate that the North Caucasus insurgency has shifted shape again. Avar control of insurgency is not unheard of. In the 30-year struggle to subdue Muslims in the same region during the 19th century, the rebellion’s two legendary leaders, Qazi Muhammed and Imam Shamil, were both Avars.
Control of the insurgency by non-Chechen Avars also highlights the move in its center of gravity to Dagestan, where radical Islamist thought is on the rise and violence is rife. Once the nationalist independence movement was irrevocably re-framed in Islamist tenets by Doku Umarov in October 2007, the course of the insurgency has continued to metastasize far beyond the Chechen republic. Goals have also changed. Rather than mere secession from the Russian Federation as early Chechen nationalists had envisioned, the primary aim has become the implementation of sharia.
As the situation in the Caucasus devolved from all-out war to a low-intensity conflict, global attention ebbed. Fatigue set in among ordinary Chechens themselves, even as the newly proclaimed emirate was divided into the six principle vilayats (provinces) of Dagestan, Nokhchiycho (Chechnya), Ghalghaycho (Ingushetia) United Vilayat of Kabardia, Balkaria, and Karachai, Nogai Steppe, and Cherkessia.
Kebekov’s tenure as emir was marked by growing fissures in the Caucasus Emirate. Though on the surface such internal schisms may appear to be the result of the “strong horse-weak horse” dynamic among radical jihadis, they are also symptomatic of inept leadership, ego-driven disputes among leaders at the jamaat level, and financial struggles, even as the jihad is not uniformly popular.
The cracks began to show in November 2014, when the leader of Aukhov jamaat, Suleiman Zaylanabidov, broke with the emirate to pledge bay`a to the Islamic State’s al-Baghdadi. Zaylanabidov was subsequently killed as he tried to pass through a police checkpoint on June 6, 2015. In the wake of Zaylanabidov’s death and the Caucasus Emirate’s expressed allegiance, Islamic State leaders likely perceive that they are in direct conflict with Russia. Russia has territory to secure while Islamic State has an expansionist caliphate to feed.
The Caucasus Emirate remained under increasing strain since Umarov’s death. The Islamic State’s jihad in Syria and Iraq has secured jihadi ideological preeminence in those countries and has pulled in recruits and resources that might otherwise have gone to the fight in the North Caucasus.
The Caucasus Emirate de facto involved itself in Syria by letting the most well known foreign fighter faction, Jaish al-Mujahireen wal-Ansar, anoint itself as the emirate’s official representative in the Syrian conflict. Until recently, Jaish al-Mujahireen wal-Ansar was led by Salakhuddin Shishani, a Georgian national like Umar al-Shishani. The two rival “Chechen” leaders in Syria are actually Kists—a distinct cultural group descended from 19th Century Chechen and Ingush migrants—from the Pankisi Gorge in northeastern Georgia’s Kakheti region. Salakhuddin Shishani was born Faisula Margoshvili in Duisi, Pankisi’s principle town, less than five kilometers from the village of Birkiani where his bitter rival Umar Shishani was raised. Salakhuddin Shishani is a veteran of the 2nd Russo-Chechen war, which may be why he has kept his movement in Syria aligned with the Caucasus Emirate’s leadership.
The vast international media attention focused on the Levant has made it difficult for jihadi leaders in the North Caucasus to recruit and retain the fighters needed to sustain their ongoing insurgency. Islamic State ideologues have taken advantage of the Caucasus Emirate’s weakened status to stress that their movement is ideologically superior to that of local insurgent leaders in the Caucasus.
As the security situation in Chechnya continued to harden under Kadyrov and in late 2012 and into 2013 the conflict in northern Syria became increasingly fragmented, the Caucasus Emirate struggled to stay relevant. One of Umarov’s key challenges in the latter period of his leadership was to keep his insurgency’s agenda focused on local issues in the face of the popularity of Syria as the preeminent destination for foreign fighters. Umarov vacillated on endorsing North Caucasians joining the jihad in Syria until it became unavoidable. The Caucasus Emirate is in essence now kept alive mostly on social networks and its fighters only clash occasionally with security forces, while the Islamic State controls territory and is intensifying its appeal as it attempts to form a new state.
The Islamic State, however, sought to expand during 2014 and disputes between the two movements escalated into diametric opposition. The Caucasus Emirate was forced to acknowledge it could not avoid some level of involvement in the Syrian conflict, particularly in light of the new generation of younger commanders that had quickly risen to prominence in the Levant, such as Salakhuddin Shishani, the now deposed emir of the Jabhat al-Nusra-aligned Jaish al-Mujahireen wal-Ansar, who pledged bay`a to the Caucasus Emirate. Salakhuddin Shishani has since been deposed for alleged transgressions that would stoke fitna (intra-Muslim discord) by an internal sharia court according to a Facebook account purportedly run by Jaish al-Mujahireen wal-Ansar but the movement still claims to fights on in Aleppo Governorate despite such intense discord.
Since the caliphate was declared in June 2014, Caucasians already assimilated into the Islamic State have seen their belief that they were participating in the sole, legitimate jihad justified while those fighting at home were seen as guilty of a form of ethno-linguistic nationalism, even though that fight was the Caucasus Emirate’s raison d’être. Even so, the continued allegiance of the Jaish al-Mujahireen wal-Ansar to the Caucasus Emirate dilutes the Islamic State’s triumphal absolutism, which seeks total submission rather than a web of alliances.
The head of the Chechen-led Vilayat Nokhchicho, Aslan Byutukayev (aka Emir Khamzat) pledged fealty to Baghdadi in mid-June. Byutukayev is a pivotal militant figure in Chechnya and was singled out by Kadyrov as the prime suspect in the December 2014 raid in Grozny. His defection was a severe blow to the group that may have sparked its current situation, especially as he was once widely mentioned as a natural successor to Umarov as the leader of the Caucasus Emirate.
For many years the Kremlin vociferously claimed to be fighting “Wahabis” in the Caucasus, and seemed unable to distinguish between Chechen nationalists and genuine Islamists. Now with the faded Chechen nationalist movement kinetically irrelevant on the ground, the Islamized intra-militant struggle for the North Caucasus is intricately interlinked to the war in Syria and Iraq. Until now, the Islamic State paid scant attention to ideological and theological schisms within the wider Caucasus, there can be no denying Baghdadi has found significant utility in the skilled Chechen, Kist, and other Caucasian fighters active in Syria and Iraq. The Caucasus Emirate, meanwhile, is barely hanging on in its home base. It is pressed hard by local and federal state actors in the Russian Federation while the Islamic State has been busy winning hearts and minds in the Dagestan vilayat and making inroads into other vulnerable regions. The latest transformation in the Caucasus Emirate’s plight, highlighted by its inability to confirm a new emir indicates that a purely anti-Russian resistance may be a thing of the past.
The future of the insurgency in the North Caucasus remains highly uncertain. The rump Caucasus Emirate can now only lay claim to its Nogai Steppe and Cherkessia vilayats, which were never key nodes in the insurgency. The current struggle for power and influence is being disproportionately influenced externally by actors on the Syrian battlefield, several of whom in fact originate from the South Caucasus. The movement of Caucasian jihadis to Syria and Iraq suits Moscow’s purposes in several distinct ways. It bolsters Russia’s policy of arming the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. The far more glamorized war there encourages local-regional fighters to wage jihad outside the Russian Federation or its so-called ‘near abroad,’ and the Putin government can claim that that it has been fighting international terrorism as it has professed for many years in its southern republics, rather than an indigenous insurgency motivated by local grievances. Now that the jihad in the North Caucasus has unequivocally been subsumed into the larger transnational jihad helmed by the Islamic State, Moscow will likely be forced to reappraise its current security calculus for the Russian Federation’s most violent region.
Derek Henry Flood is an independent security analyst focusing on MENA, the post-Soviet space and South Asia. He has been a guest commentator for BBC Arabic, BBC Newshour, France 24, and al-Arabiya.
1 Musa Sadulayev and Vladimir Isachenkov, “Islamic militants attack Chechen capital; 20 dead,” Associated Press, December 4, 2014.
2 Thomas de Waal, “20 Years On, Chechnya Still Traumatized by War,” The Moscow Times, December 10, 2014.
3 Maria Antonova, “Russia’s Caucasus Islamists ‘pledge allegiance’ to IS,” Agence France Presse, June 24, 2015.
4 “Russia’s Caucasus Islamists ‘Pledge Allegiance’ To IS,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 24, 2015.
5 “Islamic State moves in on al-Qaeda turf,” BBC Monitoring, June 25, 2015.
6 Anatol Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 142-144.
7 Dmitri Trenin, The End of Eurasia: Russia on the Border Between Geopolitics and Globalization, (Washington DC, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2002), pp. 61, 171.
8 “Russia says Islamist rebel leader Kebekov ‘neutralised,’” Agence France Presse, April 20, 2015.
9 Walter Richmond, The Northwest Caucasus: Past, Present, Future, (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 161.
10 Anna Zelkina, In Quest for God and Freedom: The Sufi Response to the Russian Advance in the North Caucasus, (New York: New York University Press, 2000), p. 229.
11 Roland Dannreuther and Luke March, Russia and Islam: State, Society and Radicalism, (New York: Routledge, 2010), p.138.
12 “Russian Interior Ministry Slams Kadyrov’s ‘Shoot-To-Kill’ Remark,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 23, 2015.
13 “Jamal: New Leader ‘Caucasus Emirate’ is Magomed Suleimanov,” Caucasian Knot, May 28, 2015.
14 The Ghalghaycho (Ingushetia) appears to include the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania which is a majority Orthodox Christian enclave in the otherwise Muslim-majority North Caucasus.
15 Jaamats are a subdivision of Vilayats.
16 “In Dagestan, one of the emirs of the Aukhov militants sworn to the leader of the ‘Islamic State,’” Caucasian Knot, November 27, 2014.
17 “Russia says militant adhering to ISIS killed in Dagestan,” Associated Press, June 6, 2015.
18 Author emails with former Middle East analyst at Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, June 7, 2015.
19 See Russian-language Facebook posts from the account “Jma Sham” dated June 8, June 10, and June 24, 2015.
20 Sylvia Westfall, “After Iraq gains, Qaeda offshoot claims Islamic “caliphate,” Reuters, June 30, 2014.
21 Liz Fuller, “North Caucasus Fighters in Syria Pledge Allegiance to Umarov’s Successor,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, March 31, 2014.
22 Chechnya: Oath to Emir Khamzat (Vilayat Nokhchicho) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, June 13, 2015, infochechen.com. The source audio recording purported to be Byutukayev has since been removed by You Tube administrators.
23 “Chechnya homes targeted after Grozny militant attack,” BBC News, December 10, 2014.
24 Jonathan Saul. “Russia steps up military lifeline to Syria’s Assad – sources,” Reuters, January 17, 2014.
25 Murad Batal al-Shishani, “Chechens drawn south to fight against Syria’s Assad,” BBC Arabic, November 20, 2013.
26 Fiona Hill, “Putin and Bush in Common Cause? Russia’s View of the Terrorist Threat After September 11,” Brookings Institution, Summer 2002.