Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Dagestan’s Insurgents Split over Loyalties to Caucasus Emirate and IS

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By Emil Souleimanov (04/15/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Recent months have been hectic for Dagestani jihadists. Since mid-2014, this hotbed of the North Caucasian insurgency has witnessed a gradual split, with numerous Dagestan-based jihadist commanders pledging oath (bayat) to the leader of the Islamic State, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. In response, the Caucasus Emirate’s formal leader, Aliaskhab Kebekov, himself a Dagestani, criticized the disloyal commanders for splitting the ranks of the local insurgency. In mid-February, the newly appointed amir of the Dagestani Vilayat, Kamil Saidov, joined Kebekov in his condemnation of those submitting to Baghdadi’s authority. Given the North Caucasian and Dagestani jamaats' weakening capacity, the ongoing developments in Dagestan could break the unity in this last bastion of the regional insurgency. 

BACKGROUND: In 2014, insurgency-related violence decreased in Dagestan – after continuously rising since the mid-2000s. The capacity of the Chechen insurgency became debilitated particularly because kadyrovtsy deployed lethal violence against insurgents’ relatives and supporters (see the 02/06/2013 and 12/10/2014 issues of the CACI Analyst). Instead, Dagestan became the epicenter of the North Caucasian insurgency (see the 09/29/2009 issue of the CACI Analyst). Dagestani jamaats have been on the defense ever since the eve of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi (2014), due to increasingly intense counterinsurgency operations. Among other things, tens of thousands of Russian troops and police have been redeployed to the republic (see the 11/12/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst) and the increasingly frequent deployment of mop-up operations, known as zachistkas (see the 04/16/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst).

It is in this context that a number of Dagestani jihadist leaders, among them influential amirs, have since mid-2014 broken their oath to Kebekov, nom de guerre Sheikh Ali Abu-Muhammad, and instead pledged an oath to the leader of the Islamic State. Among them is, most importantly, the former amir of the Dagestan Vilayat Rustam Asilderov (in charge of Central Dagestan’s Kadar sector), followed by the amir of the Shamilkala sector Arsanali Kambulatov (in charge of the towns of Karabudakhkent and Gubden of Central-Eastern Dagestan), the amir of the Aukh jamaat Suleyman Zaynalabidov (in charge of Central-Western Dagestan), and some other South and Central Dagestani amirs. As yet, the amirs of the Mountainous (Central-Western Dagestani), Khasavyurt, and Buynaksk jamaats, alongside the chief sharia judge, qadi, of the Aukh jamaat, remain true to their initial bayat to Kebekov.

IMPLICATIONS: Kebekov and those loyal to his authority appear seriously concerned over the shifting loyalties of Dagestani jihadists. Several days after Asilderov’s public oath to al-Baghdadi, Kebekov released a video in which Asilderov was accused of treason and of instigating a dangerous split among North Caucasian mujahedeen. According to Kebekov, if someone wishes to fight for the Islamic State, he should leave for the Middle East and let the North Caucasians fight their war. Kebekov called on the “brethren” to remain loyal to the Caucasus Emirate and refrain from supporting the “defectors.” Aside from practical considerations, Kebekov also questioned al-Baghdadi’s perceived status as a caliph, pointing to the ongoing discord between al-Zawahiri, al-Baghdadi, Mullah Omar, and others. In addition, Kebekov referred to the negative stance taken by renowned Islamic scholars on al-Baghdadi’s authority as the leader of a self-proclaimed Islamic theocracy. Soon thereafter, the qadi of the Caucasus Emirate Magomed Suleymanov, nom de guerre Abu Usman and second in the virtual theocracy’s hierarchy, released his own video statement criticizing the decisions of Asilderov and others to switch allegiances on political and theological grounds, followed by a similar statement from Saidov.

Even before the massive defection of late 2014, a rift had emerged between North Caucasian jihadists deployed in their homeland and in Syria (see the 08/05/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst). For instance, as early as in 2012, the Caucasus Emirate’s previous leader Doku Umarov lamented that “no one provide[d] help to the jihad in the Caucasus,” urging his fellow Chechens and North Caucasians to “do the jihad” in their home region instead of traveling to Syria. Ultimately, Umarov ex post facto half-heartedly supported the mounting involvement of North Caucasians in the remote jihad – in simple recognition of the fact and in order not to contradict the mainstream view of jihad among his fellow fighters as a divine duty superior to ethnic, national, and racial divisions.

Since then and until Umarov’s death in early 2014, Dagestani and particularly Chechen jihadists engaged in the North Caucasus have frequently been accused of nationalism and non-Islamic particularism by North Caucasians participating in Syria. Umarov’s successor Kebekov was also unwilling to accept the trickle of fighters to Syria. While the North Caucasian insurgency has been on the defense, with jamaats in Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia virtually non-existent, Chechen jamaats confined to a few dozen, and Dagestani jamaats facing increasingly high casualties, around a thousand natives of the region are involved in a war thousands of kilometers away from their homeland. However, Kebekov’s appeals to North Caucasians involved in Syria have been met with ridicule. In 2014, soon after his “appointment,” Kebekov was advised by the Syria-based North Caucasian jihadists to “eat leaves” rather than comment on Umar al-Shishani, an influential Chechen commander of the Islamic State with rigorous combat experience and a reputation as a fierce fighter. This illustrates the depth of the chasm between jihadists based in the North Caucasus and Syria, and the superiority complex of the latter who have come to regard themselves as those “writing history” instead of hiding in the mountains. 

The declining capacity of the Dagestani insurgency and the weak position of the North Caucasian jihadists’ leadership in general, and of Kebekov in particular, have made the regional insurgency essentially inferior to the jihad waged by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In 2014, unlike previous years, the North Caucasian insurgency proved incapable of inflicting any serious blows to the enemy, in the region or in Russia’s interior, perhaps with the exception of the de facto suicide attack on Grozny in early December. In the North Caucasus, few currently believe that the insurgency will ever stem the tide of the local low-scale conflict, given the immense superiority of Russian authorities – and perhaps even more importantly, the local population’s ambiguous attitude to the jihadists’ cause, even in the region’s most Islamicized republic (see the 02/18/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst).

Simultaneously, the Islamic State has proven capable of taking over huge swathes of land and controlling it, running a de facto state with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars and being feared for its military capacity. For at least some jihadists, prestige appears to play a role; associating themselves with a successful organization feared worldwide may help raise their profile, either in terms of recruitment, financing, or self-esteem. In contrast, the North Caucasus insurgency – as a matter of fact, the Dagestan Vilayat – is a rather loose network of jamaats operating on their own rather than a unified military organization with hierarchical command. For the amirs of the jihadist groups on the ground, whether they submit to Kebekov’s authority or not is of little practical relevance as they rely upon themselves in terms of recruitment and financing.

CONCLUSIONS: In this context, pledging an oath to al-Baghdadi may help increase recruitment from among young frustrated Dagestanis, some of whom sympathize with the Islamic State as a strong and intransigent organization, while increasingly skeptical of the Caucasus Emirate. In addition, given the wealth of the Islamic State, this move may be explained by the “treacherous” commanders’ hope to attain financing from the Middle East, given the drying out of their local fundraising as local sources of money have increasingly been clenched by the authorities. It comes as no surprise then that relatively weaker – in terms of financing, profile, and recruitment – jamaats dominate the list of jihadist groups who have recently switched allegiances, while more established jamaats have remained loyal to the Caucasus Emirate.      

AUTHORS’ BIO: Emil Aslan Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists, co-authored with Huseyn Aliyev (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Peter Lang, 2007). 

Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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