The websites of the North Caucasus insurgency reported the resignation of the Caucasus Emirate leader, emir Dokku Umarov on August 1, where Umarov in a short video announced his decision to step down and that he would be replaced by emir Aslambek Vadalov. The following day, Umarov in another video, disowned his previous statement and stated it was impossible for him to resign. These two contradictory statements within only a few days raise questions regarding the causes of Umarov’s canceled resignation and the future of the insurgency.
BACKGROUND: On August 1, separatist websites reported the resignation of the Caucasus Emirate leader, emir Dokku Abu Usman (Dokku Umarov). In a short video, Umarov announced his decision to step down, asking the emirs of the North Caucasus vilayats to endorse and pledge loyalty to his designated successor, the 38-year old veteran emir Aslambek (Aslambek Vadalov) who had been appointed Umarov’s first deputy (naib) and hence de jure successor on July 24. However, on the very next day Umarov appeared in another video disavowing his previous statement as “totally fabricated” and assuring that he was “in good health”. Umarov also added that “due to the current situation in the Caucasus” he considered it “impossible to lay down [his] competence of the emir of the Caucasus Emirate”. The contradictory statements made public within such a short period raised concerns about the causes of Umarov’s canceled resignation and the overall situation in the resistance movement.
In the August 1 video, Umarov said that his decision to step down was made “unanimously” during a meeting of field commanders. As the motives of his resignation Umarov mentioned that he was “tired” and wanted to pave the way to a younger and more energetic fighter, yet he vowed to continue his jihad as an ordinary mujaheed by “word and deed”. In another video clip published simultaneously, three influential Chechnya-based field commanders, Chechens Tarkhan Gaziyev, the head of the security service Mukhabarata, Huseyn Gakayev, the leader of the Chechen front appointed simultaneously with Vadalov, and Abdullah Mukhannad, an Arab, noted Umarov’s poor health as the reason of the emir’s resignation. They all praised the moral and military qualities of Vadalov, a native of Chechnya’s Gudermes district and the leader of the East Chechnya front, known as an effective guerilla commander. In fact, Umarov’s poor health has been reported by independent sources quite regularly since at least 2005. The information that he was poisoned by the Russian secret services in November 2009 is likely true as well, as his health has been deteriorating dramatically during recent months.
However, additional and at least equally important reasons seemingly exist for Umarov’s canceled resignation. Due to the scarce information available regarding the internal workings of the insurgency leadership, explanations of these recent events vary greatly. The first set of explanations concern Dokku Umarov, who is believed to have proven rather ineffective as a military commander, as his caution and lack of initiative have contributed to the weakening of the insurgency’s Chechen wing. Another argument is supported by moderate Chechen figures such as Ahmad Zakayev, who has been unhappy with the Caucasus Emirate since its establishment in 2007. The ideological shift of the Chechen resistance from local ethno-separatism towards a territorially vague notion of Salafi Jihadism is considered a result of Moscow’s efforts to discredit the Chechen struggle for national independence. According to this view, many young Chechen fighters have been distracted by the dominant Jihadist ideology that leaves little space for the idea of independent Chechen statehood, a point backed by Alexei Malashenko among others. Since Vadalov who “isn’t a Wahhabi”, as Zakayev claims, has been regarded a moderate Chechen commander, Umarov was forced by his colleagues in arms to pass his power to him to “get rid of the control of Russian security services”. Similarly, increasingly lethal acts of terrorism carried out in Russia proper associated with Umarov are frown upon by part of the insurgents.
The second set of arguments, supported mostly by Russian commentators, claim that Vadalov’s candidature was refused by some high ranking field commanders throughout the North Caucasus as he lacks the reputation of a fierce Jihadist and a record of effective terrorist attacks, which would diminish the prospects of extracting funds from Islamist donors based abroad.
IMPLICATIONS: Yet, Vadalov’s main problem is arguably his circle’s uneasy relations with some of the resistance leaders. For instance, Vadalov, whose relationship with the neighboring Dagestani units have always been quite close, lacks sufficient support in the increasingly important Northwest Caucasus region where the Kabarda-Balkar-Karachay jamaat has recently carried out successful attacks in Kabardino-Balkaria, reviving this wing of the resistance. Interestingly, the August 1 video contained a reference to Kazbek Tashuyev (emir Kazbek) as the leader of the Kabarda-Balkaria-Karachay jamaat, even though Asker Jappuyev formally claims this position, which might indicate tension in the Northwest Caucasus front. In addition, a weakened ability to lead the insurgency due to health problems coupled with a rather controversial military record have all played a role in the failed attempt to replace Umarov with Vadalov.
It is evident that Umarov made his contradictory statement on the “fabricated” video report due to the negative reaction of some of his colleagues and possibly also in an effort to avoid a dangerous confrontation within the resistance movement. However, the split already seems to have materialized. On August 12, a video appeared at the less prominent Islamist website www.jama1at.com (intriguingly, the Jama1at.com directly mentions that other Caucasus Emirate-related Islamist websites refused to post it) in which Vadalov and his major supporters – the aforementioned Gaziyev, Gakayev and Mukhannad – announced the rescission of their oath of loyalty to Umarov, and the exit of the Chechen mujahedeen from Umarov’s command as the latter failed to respect them by his reversed decisions and must have changed his initial decision under someone’s “charge”. Moreover, Vadalov relinquished his position of naib. The speakers, however, emphasized their loyalty to the idea of the Caucasus Emirate and their commitment to continue their struggle for it with “brethren” across the North Caucasus. They also expressed a willingness to “go along further should a new emir be elected”.
In the meantime, Emir Adam, the insurgent leader of Ingushetia, posted an announcement on August 11 reaffirming his loyalty to Umarov as a ”tenacious fighter”, and was followed on the next day by the emir of Dagestan Magomed Vagapov (Seyfullah Gubdenskiy) who described Umarov as the “sole legitimate ruler of the Muslims of the Caucasus” and the “most reputable and experienced emir”. Likewise, part of the Chechen mujahideen had pledged loyalty to Umarov in an open letter published on the internet on August 6.
CONCLUSIONS: For the first time in the post-Soviet history of the North Caucasus insurgency, it seems to be facing a serious split within its ranks that has organizational, not ideological, background and may thus have direct impact on the battlefield. The days to come shall demonstrate the shape of the current split and the (in)ability of the insurgent leaders to come to some kind of face-saving compromise – perhaps by accepting a new and neutral candidate for the position of the emir of the Caucasus Emirate – that would help preserve the ranks of the resistance vis-à-vis a serious conflict endangering its very core. The bottom line is that the Chechen wing has been considerably weakened during recent years; Chechnya is an important geographical link bridging the key North Caucasus battlefields of today, Dagestan and Ingushetia. Breaking that link would bring about significant weakening of the insurgency as a whole, which would have long-standing effects. Nevertheless, regardless of who comes to formally lead the virtual entity of the Caucasus Emirate, its strategy is very likely to remain unaltered due to the relative weakness of the insurgents who lack enough resources to wage a full-scale guerilla war, as well as the highly autonomous structure of small insurgent groups which tend to act on their own. Interestingly, Umarov, as well as the majority of his predecessors, used to be moderate at the beginning of their carrier as insurgency leaders, but over time modified their strategy by attacking non-combatant targets in Russian proper.AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Emil Souleimanov is assistant professor at the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of “An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective“ (Peter Lang, 2007).