Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Caucasus Emirate Faces Further Decline after the Death of Its Leader

Published in Analytical Articles

By Emil Aslan Souleimanov (04/29/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On April 19, 2015, the Caucasus Emirate’s leader Aliaskhab Kebekov, nom de guerre Ali Abu Mukhammad, was killed in a special operation carried out by Russian elite forces in Dagestan’s Buynaksk district. His death came at a time of profound decline of the North Caucasian jihadists, coupled with the ongoing split in their ranks as an increasing number of fighters and insurgent leaders turn to the Islamic State (IS). Upcoming months will show whether the North Caucasus insurgency, and particularly its Dagestani branch, will become dominated by IS sympathizers and ink up with the global jihad, or remain a largely local endeavor. 

BACKGROUND: Kebekov, a 43-year-old theologian, was in many regards distinct from his predecessors. An ethnic Avar from Dagestan, he was the first non-Chechen leader of the Caucasus Emirate. In March 2014, many were surprised by his appointment (see the 08/05/2014 and 05/07/2014 issues of the CACI Analyst), which signaled the dramatic weakening of Chechen insurgent groups. In the previous years, Chechen jihadists had suffered from the split in their ranks, the loss of important insurgent leaders, the formal reign of Doku Umarov – a debilitated and diseased leader with little control on the ground, and from the massive deployment of brutal counterinsurgent tactics by kadyrovtsy, targeting the relatives of local insurgents and their supporters (see the 08/19/2010, 02/06/2013, 02/06/2013, and 12/10/2014 issues of the CACI Analyst).

Importantly, Kebekov was the first insurgent leader lacking combat experience. A former qadi (supreme religious authority) of the Caucasus Emirate, Kebekov lacked the reputation of a gifted military commander. This made it difficult for some of his formal subordinates, insurgent leaders based in Dagestan and beyond, to take him seriously. In 2014, his authority was further undermined by the increasing scarcity of experienced insurgent leaders in Dagestan, following the liquidation of Magomed Vagabov (2010), Israpil Velijanov (2011), Ibragimkhalil Daudov (2012), Ibragim Gajidadayev (2013), and others. Since the emergence of highly reputed jihadist leaders of North Caucasian origin in Syria, particularly Umar ash-Shishani and his associates in ISIS, and the ensuing competition for the allegiance of North Caucasian jihadists both in their native region and in Syria, Kebekov’s lack of reputation curbed his ability to appeal to fellow jihadists (see the 08/05/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst).

Lasting slightly over a year, Kebekov’s formal reign was the shortest in the history of the virtual theocracy. This is a further indication of the increasingly effective counterinsurgency tactics deployed by Russian and local forces against jihadist groups across the North Caucasus – particularly in the easternmost republic of Dagestan, which has since the late 2000s constituted the hotbed of regional insurgency (see the 09/29/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst).

IMPLICATIONS: The Caucasus Emirate is currently undergoing the most serious crisis in its history. First, insurgent groups in the Northwest Caucasus, particularly in Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and Chechnya, have taken substantial losses. On the eve of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russian security services redoubled their efforts to break the backbone of local jihadist groups to ensure a smooth execution of the international event.

In Kabardino-Balkaria, and to an extent also in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, where popular support to insurgents has traditionally been half-hearted, the authorities succeeded in infiltrating and decapitating locally based insurgent groups. Consisting of an average of 6 to 12 people and largely confined to urban areas, the liquidation of these groups was a relatively easy but also urgent task for Russian authorities, given the security risk they posed and their geographical proximity to the Sochi Olympics site.

In Ingushetia, a tiny mountainous republic of around 4,000 square kilometers, local authorities have carried out increasingly selective attacks against members of insurgent groups, abandoning previous tactics of indiscriminate targeting, imprisonment, and torture of hundreds of suspects. Over time, this has significantly reduced the number of prospective avengers, which previously constituted a reliable source of recruits for insurgent groups.

In Chechnya, the kadyrovtsy’s overwhelming control over Chechnya’s territory and populace, coupled with the consistent deployment since the early 2000s of lethal violence against the relatives of insurgents and their supporters, has increased the cost of insurgent activity and pro-insurgency support. Therefore, many Chechens have come to either postpone or renounce retaliation in order to save their relatives’ lives.

Against this backdrop, Dagestan has constituted an anomalous case. In the relatively unrestricted republic, particularly compared to Chechnya, many young Dagestanis have since the 2000s joined local insurgent groups in order to combat the corrupt authorities and retaliate against siloviki, members of local security forces infamous for their use of indiscriminate violence against real and alleged Salafis, without fear of their relatives becoming exposed to retributive violence. The episodic efforts of Dagestani authorities to impose collective guilt on local fighters’ relatives, drawing on the Chechen example, have largely failed. Yet the relatively large recruitment of Dagestanis to jihadist units has become a problem for Dagestani jihadists. According to local sources, this has enabled federal and local authorities to increasingly infiltrate insurgent ranks and destroy them from within, concentrating on insurgent leaders. Dagestani experts assert that Kebekov’s liquidation was made possible by intelligence gained from within the insurgency: the amir was killed in a house that seemingly served as a bunker and headquarter for the insurgents.

Importantly, the counterinsurgents have increasingly used zachistki, mop-up operations, in Dagestan (see the 04/17/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst). While these operations have frequently included destruction and theft of property, they have largely avoided civilian casualties. Unlike mop-up operations carried out in Chechnya in the early 2000s, where dozens were killed or “forcibly disappeared” as a result of indiscriminate zachistki, local inhabitants have usually been evacuated by siloviki from these besieged areas.

Although the deployment of zachistki may still produce a certain number of avengers, these operations have nevertheless neutralized a number of key pro-insurgent spots in Dagestan’s rural areas, particularly in Central and East-Central Dagestan. Several garrisons of elite Russian forces were installed in strategically important areas, particularly in the foothills and outskirts of urban centers on the Makhachkala-Khasavyurt highway. Aside from complicating local support to the insurgents, this has also severed communication between insurgents based in urban and rural areas, which has in many respects been crucial to their survival. The deployment of thousands of Russian troops in the republic, concentrated particularly on the roads connecting the eastern coastline and the East-West passage with mountainous areas, has further contributed to this isolation. Importantly, Moscow has increasingly deployed experienced local and federal units – Army and Ministry of Interior Special Forces – in locally fought insurgent operations, which has also increased the efficacy of counterinsurgent operations.

CONCLUSIONS: Somewhat paradoxically, the ascent of ISIS also seem to have benefited the counterinsurgency. A growing number of young North Caucasians, including Dagestanis, fascinated by the strength and fame of ISIS, have sought to travel to Syria in order to participate in the jihad there (see the 04/01/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst). According to Dagestani sources, local sympathizers have come to consider ISIS as a vital competitor to the Caucasus Emirate. The latter’s incapable leadership, constant internal disputes, and retreat in the face of counterinsurgency is contrasted against ISIS’s tangible control over territory, standing army, and significant financial resources. Currently, hundreds of North Caucasians are reportedly involved in the Syrian civil war (see the 08/21/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst). The departure of this significant number of young and frustrated North Caucasians, particularly Dagestanis, has made a difference in the ranks of local jihadist units, some of which are allegedly experiencing a hitherto unprecedented scarcity of new recruits. In the meantime, a number of Dagestani insurgent leaders have recently switched allegiances to the ISIS leader al-Baghdadi (see the 04/15/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst). While Kebekov managed to partially outbalance the “defectors,” mobilizing the support of the newly appointed amir of the Dagestani Vilayat Kamil Saidov, and Magomed Suleymanov, the second person in the virtual theocracy’s hierarchy, Kebekov’s death could seriously damage the standing of Caucasus Emirate loyalists in their conflict with the proponents of ISIS. However, even if the North Caucasus insurgency becomes dominated by ISIS loyalists, the implications on the ground will be limited by the structural problems facing regional jihadists. Unless ISIS provides North Caucasians with tangible support in terms of manpower, weapons, and financing – unlikely for a variety of reasons – the Caucasus Emirate will likely continue to decline.

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 & Scott Sutherland

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