BACKGROUND: Despite some contacts with Al-Qaeda and Arab volunteers fighting in the ranks of the North Caucasian militants, the Caucasus emirate has remained a local movement with loose links to the global jihad. Prior to the rise of ISIS, its independence was endangered only once, when three Naibs; Aslambek Vadalov, Khusein Gakaev and Tarkhan Gaziev, renounced their oaths of allegiance to Doku Umarov in 2010. The Commander of Arab mujahedeen and the al-Qaeda emissary Yusuf Muhammad al-Emirati (Muhannad) played a key role in the rebellion inside the Caucasus emirate, seeking to extend Al-Qaeda’s influence over rebels in the North Caucasus. Muhannad’s death in April 2011 paved the way for reconciliation in the Caucasus emirate and marked the end of a brief attempt to involve a Caucasian insurgent movement deeper into the global jihad.
Besides its isolation, the North Caucasian insurgency differs from IS with regard to its character and methods. Local insurgents are heavily dependent on the support of local inhabitants and therefore seek not to alienate them. Because brutal attacks on the civilian population, such as suicide bombers and even selective assassinations of brothel and alcohol store owners, damage the movement’s reputation among local residents, the Caucasus emirate has avoided (despite several brutal attacks) direct terror against civilians on a large scale. Kebedov also proclaimed female suicide attacks as alien to Caucasian traditions. The practice of the Caucasus emirate, despite its many tragic attacks, therefore stands in contrast to the terror unleashed by ISIS.
In late 2014, a new split hit the Caucasus emirate following a series of defections of influential commanders (most notably the amir of Vilayat Dagestan Rustam Asilderov), pledging allegiance to the leader of ISIS, al-Baghdadi. As a result, the Caucasus emirate found itself on the brink of collapse and ISIS appeared to have established its presence in the region. However, it was not Caucasian natives returning from Syria who brought ISIS to the region, despite many expectations to this effect. Instead, the organization’s foothold in the region consists of discontent rebels from within the Caucasus emirate, who were never in direct contact with ISIS and its ideology.
IMPLICATIONS: Several facts indicate that the pro-ISIS group led by Asilderov did not come about as an effect of sincere inspiration from ISIS’s ideology, but rather a result of internal struggles within the Caucasus emirate. In the ongoing split, significant numbers of Dagestani and Chechen militants joined the pro-ISIS group, while the Kabardino-Balkarian jamaat remained adamant in its support for Kebedov. This resembles the earlier split over succession, when the group around Asilderov objected to Kebedov’s nomination, supported on the opposite side by the Kabardino-Balkarian jamaat. Soon thereafter, Asilderov criticized Kebedov for his dependence on foreign Chechen émigrés, who have become a significant force and monopolized the organization’s external sources of funding. The infighting has been combined with more effective counter insurgency tactics on the part of federal forces and the insurgency, replete with moles, has been unable to deliver any visible blow to the Kremlin in over a year. Under such circumstances, the proclaimed association with ISIS primarily represents a tool for discontent commanders of the Caucasus emirate to challenge Kebedov’s leadership and his supporters.
Several possible scenarios exist for the ISIS establishment in the North Caucasus. A first is the triumph of ISIS in the region. Such a scenario could possibly materialize if Al-Baghdadi would take the oaths of allegiance from North Caucasian insurgents seriously and provide the pro-ISIS group with tangible support. Such a development would not just significantly increase the resources of the pro-ISIS group but also attract more local youngsters into its ranks. This scenario would, however, probably lead to a shift of practices from the still quite moderate methods of the local insurgency to the more radical and aggressive methods of ISIS. By adapting to ISIS practices, local insurgents would increase their external support, which is often crucial for the victory of insurgencies against central governments, but would paradoxically also simultaneously weaken their support base in the local population, who generally despise such methods. And in most cases, support from the local population is crucial in the day-to-day survival of insurgencies. There are so far no signs that ISIS is willing to fund its self-proclaimed subordinates in the North Caucasus, despite the fact that many of its high-ranking commanders are themselves Caucasians.
In a second scenario, the pro-ISIS group could prevail even without tangible support from ISIS as a result of a collapse or marginalization of the Caucasus emirate. Under such circumstances, there would be no pressure on the pro-ISIS group to practically subordinate itself to ISIS and adopt its policies. North Caucasian insurgents could still use the ISIS name for propaganda and recruitment, but their movement would probably stay local with no real influence of ISIS in the region.
The third possibility is a re-unification of the Caucasus emirate. Although Kebedov’s death weakened it, a window of opportunity can open for a diplomatic solution under the new emir Magomed Suleymanov, nom de guerre Abu Usman Gimrinsky. As relations between the two groups remain tense, many high-ranking commanders of the Caucasus emirate declared their readiness to prevent the penetration of pro-ISIS cells into territories under their control. On the other hand, new leader of Vilayat Dagestan and the rising star of the Caucasus emirate, Kamil Saidov, has proclaimed that he is ready to welcome his brothers who left the Caucasus emirate back as soon as they will decide to return. A possible re-unification of the Caucasus emirate will depend on the personality and skills of the new emir. However it should take place before the first blood is spilled between the two groups, and a blood feud emerges among vengeance-ready mountaineers.
CONCLUSIONS: The triumph of ISIS in the North Caucasus is still far from inevitable and in fact remains rather unlikely. Its emergence in the region is the result of struggles within the Caucasus emirate in combination with a series of setbacks, drying sources of external funding and internal recruitment, rather than its ideological influence. Even if al-Baghdadi would be willing to support his self-proclaimed subordinates in the Caucasus, the methods used by ISIS could lead to a loss of support from the wider local population. Four main factors will influence developments in the foreseeable future and should be closely observed. First, the new emir of the Caucasus emirate, his character, abilities and relations with Asilderov. Second, the amount of tangible support, if any, provided by ISIS to the pro-ISIS group in the Caucasus. Third, the returning militants from Syria, backing both ISIS and al-Qaeda. And of course, much will be decided by the future actions of Russian security forces. With a decreasing number of recruits willing to join the North Caucasian insurgents, preferring instead the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, the recruiting system of local Vilayats may once again become more selective and careful. As a result, the Kremlin’s ability to plant moles into jamaats and destroy them through selective operations, rather than during brutal zachistkas, could become significantly limited.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Tomáš Baranec is a graduate of Charles University in Prague. His research interests include nationalism and factors of ethnic conflicts and separatism in the Caucasus. He works at the Institute of Security and Defence Studies (Armed Forces Academy) in Bratislava.
Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons & Boris Ajeganov