Wednesday, 03 September 2014

Caucasus Emirate Suffers Higher Casualties Under New Leadership

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By Huseyn Aliyev (09/03/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The recent change of leadership in the North Caucasus’ Islamist insurgency – the Caucasus Emirate – after Doku Umarov’s death appears to have weakened the insurgents’ ability to launch an effective spring/summer offensive on the ground. Recent reports on the number of conflict-related deaths in the region suggest that since the end of Umarov’s leadership, the Caucasus Emirate is more fragmented and militarily weaker than ever. Amidst the failures of the insurgents to successfully target government forces and the controversial claims by the new leader of the Caucasus Emirate to refrain from suicide bombings and attacks on civilians, local jama’ats (insurgent groups) began re-grouping and posing a challenge to the Emirate’s central leadership.

BACKGROUND: The end of the harsh winter months across the North Caucasus traditionally signals the start of a spring/summer offensive, marked by an increase in the number of insurgent attacks on government installations and personnel across the region.

Peaks in the number of incidents and casualties as a result of the armed insurgency usually occur from the beginning of spring and continue until late summer. Ever since the end of large-scale military operations in the Second Chechen War and the spread of a low-level Islamist insurgency – under the command of the Caucasus Emirate from 2007 – across the North Caucasus, the region saw the highest levels of recorded insurgency-related violence in the late spring and summer months (from May to September).

The melting of snow in the mountain passes and the appearance of foliage provide cover for insurgents in the mountains. But warmer weather also produce other advantages of, such as better logistics. For years, these conditions have allowed for a doubling of insurgent attacks across Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya and the rest of the region, as well as occasionally in other parts of the Russian Federation. However, the spring and summer of 2014 show a complete reversal of this trend.

The death of the Caucasus Emirate’s founder and a self-proclaimed leader Umarov in late 2013 resulted in the selection on March 18 of the Emirate’s new amir (head): the Dagestani militant leader Ali-Askhab Kebekov (aka Abu Muhammad).

In a bid to legitimize his authority among the militants and to improve the image of the organization among the local population, Kebekov denounced violence against civilians and recommended militants to focus their efforts entirely on targeting government and federal law enforcement and military personnel. The video message was circulated on Jihadist websites and posted on YouTube in June. He also officially forbade the use of female suicide bombers and the employment of females in military operations. This was Kebekov’s only public appearance since he assumed leadership of the Emirate.

IMPLICATIONS: The beginning of spring season in the North Caucasus, which roughly coincided with the announcement of Kebekov as the new leader of the Caucasus Emirate, however, did not result in the traditional spring/summer offensive. According to the reports compiled by the independent news agency Caucasus Knot, 146 (96 dead and 50 injured) people became victims to the armed conflict in the North Caucasus from April 1 to the end of July 2014, compared to 296 (118 dead and 178 injured) casualties in 2013. Among 96 deaths, 71 (59 in 2013) were members of militant groups, 13 (34 in 2013) members of law enforcement agencies and 12 (25 in 2013) civilians. This data shows that not only has the Caucasus Emirate suffered significantly higher losses these spring-summer months than during the same period last year, but the militants were also able to cause fairly limited casualties to the counterinsurgent forces.

The increase in numbers of militant casualties follows a reduction in civilian casualties – promised by the leader of the Caucasus Emirate – as compared to previous periods. However, the record-low numbers of conflict-related causalities in the North Caucasus region demonstrate the militants’ failure to launch the traditional spring/summer offensive against their favorite targets – members of local law enforcement agencies, local police and federal troops. In fact, this data on conflict-related casualties during the spring-summer of 2014 is not significantly different from the data on conflict-related victims during the winter months (February to March), when the level of fighting is usually low. In 2014, only 84 people were killed and 49 sustained injuries.

It is noteworthy that the highest number of deaths among the militants (39 people) and civilians (11 people) occurred in Dagestan – Kebekov’s native republic – where only five law enforcement personnel were killed during the spring and summer months of 2014. In that republic, despite the militants’ desperate attempts, the majority of insurgent attacks on government personnel and facilities resulted in fiasco. For instance, a bold militant attack on the Center for Combating Extremism on August 1, involving militants firing rocket-propelled grenades at the building, resulted in no casualties among the Center’s employees.       

While the militant activities remained fairly low in Ingushetia, causing few casualties among both militants and counterinsurgents, Kabardino-Balkaria’s militants lost 18 of their members this spring and summer while managing to kill only one member of the security forces. The activity of Chechen militants was similarly low, causing only 14 casualties to law enforcement agencies as compared to the spring/summer of 2013, when 27 members of the security forces were killed or injured.

The failure of the spring/summer offensive coincided with a meeting of the Chechen militant commanders in July, which was the first of its kind since 2011. The formal pretext for the meeting was to pledge their allegiance to the Caucasus Emirate’s new leader, which many of those present at the meeting had already done. Nevertheless, it appears that Amir Tarkhan, one of the most influential of the few high-ranking Chechen militant commanders still alive, used the meeting to strengthen his position within the Chechen militant ranks.

The very occurrence of the meeting, attended by the majority of existing Chechen commanders on Chechen territory, is unique owing to the high level of counterinsurgency activity in that republic, posing extreme security risks to the participants. While the support granted by Chechen jama’ats to the Caucasus Emirate’s central command under the Dagestani native Kebekov appears to be unshaken, the meeting demonstrates the tendency among Chechen commanders to seek stronger leadership among ethnic Chechens, as provided by Amir Tarkhan. 

CONCLUSIONS: For the first time since its creation, the Caucasus Emirate appears to be in decline militarily. The militants’ failure to launch a spring/summer offensive as in previous years reflects not only the weakening of the organization’s central command but also signals the decline of local militant jama’ats. Moreover, the local level networking and regrouping, as seen during the meeting of Chechen militant commanders this July, are the first signs of de-centralization of the Emirate’s leadership. The appearance of local centers of power, which may pose a challenge to the integrity of the Emirate. The data on conflict-related casualties presented in this article suggests that even in Dagestan, the long-time hotbed of the North Caucasus insurgency and the power base of its current leader, militants have for the first time in many years begun to lose ground. Provided that the militants, particularly in Dagestan, fail to reverse the tide before the start of winter season (early October), a further weakening and ensuing de-centralization of the Caucasus Emirate are likely to follow.     

AUTHORS’ BIO: Huseyn Aliyev has recently completed his Ph.D. in Politics at the University of Otago, New Zealand. His recent articles appeared in the Journal of Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, Demokratizatsiya and Ethnopolitics Papers

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