BACKGROUND: On April 8, FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov officially announced that Umarov, whose death had been rumored since January, was indeed dead. Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov declared Umarov’s death publicly in mid-January. However, Kadyrov could not be considered a credible source of information since he has already “buried” Umarov several times only for it to emerge later that Abu Usman, as he is known by his jihadist name, was still alive. Nevertheless, when the North Caucasian Islamist insurgents themselves confirmed Umarov’s death, the information was considered to be credible. Bortnikov’s declaration, which came three months after the first reports and three weeks after the insurgents officially confirmed the death of their leader, renders the news almost certainly true, although Umarov’s body has not yet been discovered. The insurgents have also already chosen Ali Abu Muhammad – the jihadist name of Ali Askhab (Aliaskhab) Kebekov, an ethnic Avar from Dagestan – as Umarov’s successor.
Umarov’s death marks an indisputable turning point in the history of the Caucasus Emirate and the overall North Caucasian armed resistance against the federal center. On the other hand, any truly strategic “shift” in the insurgency corresponding to the one taking place during Umarov’s era, or more precisely his early period as the leader of the North Caucasian underground, should not be expected in the foreseeable future. Umarov was a veteran of the Chechen resistance, which was long characterized by an ethnocentric orientation towards the Chechen national element. A strong Islamist tendency was always present, however, which grew stronger after the First Chechen War primarily through radical and even extremist Salafi Islam. While in charge of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Umarov took the decisive step to turn from Chechen ethnonationalism towards supraethnic Salafism when he announced the end of Ichkeria and the formation of the Caucasus Emirate, which is intended to become an Islamic state encompassing the entire North Caucasus.
Umarov was no theologian, however, and his religious education was very poor. He was, on the contrary, a relatively seasoned fighter, and his decision was motivated primarily by an effort to make it easier for ravaged Chechnya to spread the resistance to other Muslim republics in the North Caucasus, as well as by the realization that only a supraethnic idea could raise the collective resistance of Muslim nations more or less frustrated by the politics of the federal center and its local representatives.
IMPLICATIONS: Kebekov will not change this orientation if only because he, unlike Umarov, is a theologian and an ideologue of the North Caucasian resistance. Based on his origins and due to Kadyrov’s brutal and unscrupulous counterinsurgency policies, it is possible that the insurgency will “Dagestanize,” and that the process of shifting the center of the rebellion away from Chechnya will be completed. In a certain sense, the insurgency will come full circle, as Dagestan was the original gateway of Salafi ideals to the North Caucasus, although the First Chechen War and the ensuing chaos fundamentally contributed to their popularization and diffusion, which were completed with the outbreak of the Second Chechen War.
According to local sources, Kebekov is also known to be an opponent of terrorist suicide attacks; and a change in tactical-operational approaches may therefore be expected. Although Kebekov himself does not have field command experience, it can be assumed that he will revert to tactics typically associated with classical insurgency and partisan warfare, meaning primarily acts of sabotage on military targets, checkpoints, bases, convoys, and machinery. The first such attack took place on April 3 in the Achkoy-Martan district of Chechnya near the border with Ingushetia, where a detonation destroyed an armored personnel carrier, killing four soldiers. This attack also highlights the fact that, although the center of the resistance has shifted to Dagestan, Chechnya will certainly not cease to be an arena for armed attacks against the state’s power – regardless of Kadyrov’s despotism and the state terror asserted over Chechen society.
According to reports from Chechen observers and humanitarian workers, it has been possible since Umarov’s death to trace a paradoxical growth of insurgent activity, including the strengthening of personnel in the form of Chechen youth departing “for the forest.” This is an important fact because, through his terror against the population, Kadyrov has nearly managed to deprive the fighters of their social base. Chechnya thus features a relatively ambiguous situation, whose further development hangs in the balance.
The situation in Dagestan, however, is currently more favorable to the insurgency. The type of vertical power exercised by Kadyrov is not possible there, as Dagestani society is highly polyethnic compared to the nearly monoethnic Chechnya. There is also greater freedom of speech in Dagestan, which allows considerable opportunities for propaganda. Indeed, this is the only strategy possible in Dagestan, which has a historically stronger tradition of Islamic institutions and scholars. Religious ideology has therefore been utilized more extensively in Dagestan as it has not been possible to draw upon human resources from a war-torn and revenge-seeking society as has been done in Chechnya.
Considerable changes to the North Caucasian underground can still be anticipated, though they will be more of a tactical and operational character. The basic strategy of using Salafi Islam as an umbrella ideology in the fight for an independent region in the Russian Federation will continue.
CONCLUSIONS: Current events in the North Caucasus overlap in the long term with developments in Ukraine. However, this should not divert attention away from the changes taking place there. Indeed, Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine are rather risky given the fact that Moscow is using a rhetoric legitimizing separatism similar to that which it has long refused to acknowledge in the context of the North Caucasus. As a result, Russia has not hesitated to kill more than 100,000 people in both Chechen wars and the subsequent low-intensity counterinsurgency war. The right to national self-determination, which Moscow is now supporting in Ukraine, is in fact precisely what Chechens demanded at the beginning of the 1990s, which started the process that has not been resolved to date.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Tomas Šmíd is assistant professor at Masaryk University. He was a Fulbright Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in 2010-2011.
(Image Attribution: Angelliuel7)