BACKGROUND: The Gakayev brothers, Muslim and his elderly brother Huseyn, belonged to the most reputable commanders of the East Chechnya front of the North Caucasus insurgency, being in charge of Chechnya’s Southeastern sector. They are said to have enjoyed close ties with some West Dagestani jamaats, as well as with Europe-based Chechen diaspora inclined toward the notion of a separate Chechen nation-state rather than a regional theocracy.
Along with Aslambek Vadalov, Tarkhan Gaziyev, and emir Muhannad, an Arab commander in the ranks of the Chechnya insurgency, Huseyn Gakayev was one of the key figures of the 2010 mutiny against the authority of Doku Umarov, the formal leader of the Caucasus Emirate. In August 2010, following Umarov’s resignation in favor of Vadalov and his quick retraction of his own decision three days later, Huseyn Gakayev alongside Vadalov, Gaziyev, and Muhannad renounced their oath of loyalty to Umarov, pulling out of obedience to Umarov’s forces a group of their supporters that according to some estimates numbers up to 80 people. In fact, Umarov had been criticized by the rebels for his authoritarian leadership and his use of indiscriminate violence that inflicted high casualties among non-combatants in Russia (for instance, the January 2010 bombing in the Domodedovo airport in Moscow for which Umarov claimed responsibility), antagonizing world opinion as well as many ordinary Chechens against the case of Chechen independence.
In addition, the rebels had nurtured a long-term disaffection for Umarov’s abandonment of the cause of an independent Chechen state in favor of a North Caucasus theocracy that Umarov proclaimed unilaterally as early as in 2007. The rift in the ranks of the Chechen insurgency then caused serious concerns about their ability to survive the increasingly fierce and focused counterinsurgent campaign carried out by the forces of the Chechen Ministry of Interior. The overwhelming part of the Chechnya-based insurgents still considered Umarov the legitimate leader of the virtual emirate, blaming Gaziyev, Vadalov, Gakayev and Muhannad for the dangerous split (see the 08/19/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst). Yet in July 2011, Umarov and the rebel commanders – with the exception of Muhannad who was killed in April 2011 and Gaziyev who apparently refused to accept Umarov as leader – managed to achieve some sort of reconciliation, reaffirming their allegiance to Umarov as the legitimate leader of the North Caucasus insurgency, and tying their cause back to that of a transnational Islamic theocracy embracing the entire region.
IMPLICATIONS: The majority of commentators agree that while Umarov, an aging commander with increasingly deteriorating health and limited control over developments on the ground, has served as some sort of symbol of the North Caucasus resistance with limited capacities to wage an effective insurgent war, the Gakayev brothers ranked highest in the hierarchy of the Chechnya-based insurgency leaders.
Respected even among many ordinary Chechens for their selection of military and state-related targets, they proved their abilities as successful guerilla leaders during a range of audacious attacks carried out both in Chechnya’s southeast and the rest of the republic, including the capital city of Grozny. Insurgents in their groups belonged to the militarily strongest, most experienced, and best equipped units of the Chechnya-based insurgency. The Gakayev brothers were key personal foes of Ramzan Kadyrov not least because of their unprecedented attack on the Tsentoroy village in August 2010, the native and heavily fortified area of the Kadyrov family, and due to their no less impudent assault on administrative buildings in downtown Grozny in October the same year, claiming the lives of dozens of people.
Testimonies from local sources assert that it was the Gakayev brothers who Kadyrov feared most among the insurgent leaders, since they represented a serious threat to him, his closest associates, and his family. Moreover, eliminating the Gakayevs had become a matter of honor for Kadyrov. Accordingly, in the course of the last two years, Kadyrov made a concentrated effort to track the brothers down. For that purpose, he obtained a number of SU-34 aircraft as well as drones to continuously screen the wooded mountains and gorges of the country's southeast, particularly in the winter months.
Importantly, the majority of suicide attacks that took place in Chechnya recently are believed to be have been mastered by the Gakayev brothers, who were in command of a group of shahids. This, in turn, raised concerns not only in Grozny, but according to some sources even in Moscow since the possible employment of effective terrorist tactics by insurgents has been much feared by the federal authorities on the eve of the upcoming Sochi Olympics (2014). In this regard, it is obvious that Moscow has had a solid intention to provide significant backing for the kadyrovtsy in recent years to liquidate the feared commanders.
The killing of the Gakayev brothers can be considered a serious blow to the Chechnya-based insurgency that is likely to further deteriorate its overall situation. The Chechen insurgency has in recent years failed to generate field commanders enjoying indisputable support across the movement that could substitute for the loss of the Gakayev brothers and a number of other military leaders of their scope. Owing to the relatively successful, yet highly controversial counterinsurgency campaign led by Kadyrov, the Chechen insurgency has found itself in a defensive position without the ability to carry out attacks that would resemble their successes in the not very distant past. This further illustrates that fighting a guerilla war in the environment of contemporary Chechnya requires much larger sources and capacities than are currently available to the Chechen insurgents, while carrying out terrorist attacks in Russia proper might be more feasible.
CONCLUSIONS: Given the harsh reprisals at the hands of the kadyrovtsy units against those who might even consider providing any kind of material support to the insurgency, as well as their increasing control of particular villages in the peripheral areas of the republic coupled with quality intelligence from the ground, the material base of the insurgents has shrunk significantly. The most effective guerilla units still operational in Chechnya are believed to be concentrated on the borders with Dagestan and Ingushetia, from where they obtain the majority of their supplies. However, waging an effective insurgency in the severe circumstances of the mountainous terrain is technically impossible without a continuous inflow of food, medicine, and clothing, aside from new recruits. An insurgency stands and falls with popular support which has been seriously limited in the case of Chechnya where, as many of the republic’s inhabitants allege, even breathing does not go unnoticed by the kadyrovtsy. This is one of the causes for the ongoing transformation of the North Caucasus insurgency from a rural guerilla to an urban-style guerilla, a fact that explains the reduction of the Chechen sector favor of the Dagestan-based insurgency that has gained momentum in recent years (see the 09/29/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst).
Accordingly, it is quite likely that many of the Chechen insurgents still remaining in the republic will follow the established trend of finding temporary shelter in either Dagestan or Ingushetia. In this regard, the ability of the Dagestani or Ingush law enforcement agencies, aided by federal army and police units, to effectively control the border passes in the mountains, as well as the roads from the western part of Chechnya to its center and east appears to be of crucial importance.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Emil Souleimanov is assistant professor at the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming in 2013) and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007).