BACKGROUND: If low numbers of conflict-related casualties across the North Caucasus this year (14 deaths in comparison to 71 in 2014) can easily be attributed to limited military activity typical for harsh winter months, the decrease in conflict-associated violence in the region throughout 2014 is more difficult to explain. As reported by the Caucasus Knot, the number of people killed or injured as a result of the Caucasus Emirate-led Islamist insurgency in the region decreased from 986 in 2013 to 525 in 2014. Following this 46,9 percent reduction in conflict-related casualties, only 53 civilians (37 killed and 16 injured) were reported to have been affected by the violence in 2014, compared to 249 in 2013 (104 dead and 145 injured). Casualties among security personnel have also dropped significantly: in contrast to 424 siloviki killed or injured in 2013, only 221 causalities were reported last year. Amid the overall decrease in both conflict-related incidents and casualties among civilians and security forces, the death toll among members of Caucasus Emirate, despite a slight reduction, remained relatively high. For example, in comparison to 298 militants killed in 2013, 248 died in 2014. The number of bombings organized by the Caucasus Emirate’s members decreased from over 100 in 2013 to less than 25 in 2014. In sum, the year 2014 had been particularly unsuccessful for the North Caucasus’s Islamist insurgency.
IMPLICATIONS: Aside from its military setbacks, the Caucasus Emirate has also suffered from internal strife among supporters of IS and followers of the head of the Caucasus Emirate, Ali-Askhab Kebekov, appointed in 2014. The internal split within the Emirate entered a new phase when the head of its Dagestan front, Amir Abu-Muhammad, announced his willingness to pledge loyalty to IS. A number of less prominent field commanders of the Emirate’s Dagestani units followed his example.
The split among the Dagestani militants will likely deal a heavy blow to Kebekov’s reputation as the head of the Emirate. Having inherited the leadership from the Emirate’s deceased founder Doku Umarov in early 2014, Kebekov had limited time and resources to strengthen his position within the group. Bearing in mind that Dagestan’s military jama’ats were the most active elements of the Islamist insurgency, traditionally accounting for the largest number of attacks on security forces in the region, the loss of Dagestani units may signal the beginning of the Emirate’s organizational decomposition. Yet, while the notable decline in the Emirate’s performance became obvious as early as in spring 2014, when the militants failed to launch their traditional spring offensive, disagreements within the Emirate only emerged in late 2014. Prior to the rise of IS after its military victories in Iraq in summer and early fall 2014, the North Caucasus militants knew very little about IS.
Observers have suggested another explanation for the decline in the Emirate’s military effectiveness, emphasizing the deaths of a number of prominent military commanders of the North Caucasus militant underground. The Gakayev brothers and the former head of the Emirate Umarov, killed in 2013, were the heaviest losses sustained by the Emirate’s leadership in several years. However, the Gakayev brothers and Umarov were (most of the time) based in Chechnya. Rather than further weakening the Chechen wing of the insurgency, which was already in a state of steady decline, these losses of insurgent leaders were instead followed by increased militant activity in that republic. For example, in contrast to 39 conflict-related casualties in Chechnya in 2013, 117 people were killed and injured in 2014. The large-scale militant attack on Grozny in December 2014 was additional evidence of rising militant activity in Chechnya.
Instead, the outflow of Islamist volunteers from the North Caucasus to Syria, and less frequently to Iraq, has been cited as the most likely explanation for the dramatic decline in militant activity in the region. In the absence of reliable statistics, the exact number of North Caucasians fighting in Syria and Iraq is unknown. Approximate estimates offered by experts place the number of North Caucasians among IS ranks somewhere between 1,000 to 1,500 men. According to Syria’s ambassador to Russia, Riad Khaddad, over 1,700 Chechens are currently fighting against Syrian government forces. According to the FSB chief in Kabardino-Balkaria, some 200 residents of that republic joined IS in 2014. The number of Dagestani volunteers likely exceeds several thousand men.
Despite this relatively high outflow of Islamist volunteers from the region, in accordance with reports about deceased militants of North Caucasian origin and information about Syrian war veterans who have thus far returned to the North Caucasus, the majority were not members of the Caucasus Emirate. Furthermore, it appears that the majority of North Caucasian volunteers who left for the Middle East had no association with the Islamist underground in their home republics.
As a result, instead of swelling the ranks of the Emirate and employing their “deadly skills” in the fight against security forces at home as predicted by some analysts, the bulk of ex-IS combatants have tried to re-join their families and return to civilian lives upon their return to the North Caucasus. Over a dozen former IS members who returned to the North Caucasus and were immediately arrested and charged, seemingly had no connections with the Emirate, nor had they planned to join the militant underground in their home republics.
CONCLUSIONS: Although the outflow of North Caucasian youth to the Middle East will likely drain the pool of the Caucasus Emirate’s recruits, thus far it only had a limited effect on the organization’s military performance. It is worth noting that the Caucasus Emirate over the past several years, partly due to the lack of resources and partly guided by strategic considerations, avoided recruiting large numbers of volunteers. It instead relies on smaller, well-trained and highly motivated units of experienced fighters. All of the above detailed causes can be expected to contribute to further organizational decline of the Caucasus Emirate. More vulnerable than ever, the Emirate is now precipitously close to falling apart or becoming an offshoot of IS. Yet, the current trend of conflict de-escalation and the decrease in the Emirate’s activity started years ago. From 1,710 conflict-related casualties in 2010 to 1,378 in 2011 and 986 in 2013, the Emirate’s military decline has been ongoing over the past several years, well before the rise of IS.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Huseyn Aliyev is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Research Center for East European Studies of the University of Bremen, Germany. He is author of the monographs “Post-Communist Civil Society and the Soviet Legacy” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and “The Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists,” co-authored with Emil Souleimanov (Palgrave Pivot, 2014).
Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons