Russia: The Changing Islamic Insurgency

With the Kremlin’s attention fixated on Ukraine, the Caucasus Emirate, a terrorist group fighting to establish an independent Islamic state in the North Caucasus, threatens to undermine Russian domestic security in new ways.

The death of the emirate’s veteran leader, Doku Umarov, sparked an internal power struggle last fall that resulted in a significant shift in the group’s organizational structure and strategy. Although not initially well-received by certain influential cells in the organization, Umarov’s successor is now consolidating his authority and seems poised to abandon outdated ideology and broaden the movement’s scope of operational capabilities. Most significantly, the Chechen influence over the organization appears to have diminished.

The major question at this point is how rapidly can Russian security officials adapt to the Caucasus Emirate’s changes? A Kremlin that is distracted by events in Ukraine could easily lose ground in its efforts to contain the morphing insurgency in the North Caucasus.

On March 18, Kavkaz Center, the primary news portal of the Caucasus Emirate, officially announced the “martyrdom” of the movement's seasoned chief, Doku Umarov. Widely recognized as a major military figure in the First and Second Chechen Wars, he rose to prominence in 2007, assuming command of the insurgency and proclaiming himself first emir of a newly formed Caucasus Emirate. Initially driven by national separatist aspirations, the group shifted toward the global jihadi movement and became an affiliate of al-Qaeda.

Umarov was closely linked to a spate of terrorist attacks in Russia over the past several years including the 2011 Moscow airport bombing, the 2010 suicide bombings on the city’s metro, and the 2009 bombing of a train from Moscow to St. Petersburg; each killed dozens of people and injured hundreds more. His last propaganda video called on Islamic militants to target the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Although instrumental in publicizing the Caucasus Emirate’s mission and in motivating its members, Umarov played a reduced role in recent years in operational planning. His departure from the scene, then, will not be a source of much disruption for the terrorist organization, some experts suggest. “The damage done to [the Caucasus Emirate] by the death of the leader is tangible, but will not be lasting," Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, wrote in an analysis published in March by the Moscow Times.

The circumstances surrounding Umarov’s death remain shrouded in mystery: speculation abounds, ranging from sickness to drone strike to even a coup. A lengthy delay in the confirmation of his death suggests his loss triggered an internal power struggle, likely among Dagestani and Kabardino-Balkarian jamaats (units) vying to claim the top spot from the long-in-charge Chechen leadership. After months of tense deliberation, a six-man council of provincial emirs selected Avar theologian Aliaskhab Kebekov, aka Ali Abu-Muhammad.

Umarov’s successor lacks the military pedigree of past commanders, but notably possesses theological training to push the Caucasus Emirate in a different strategic and operational direction. Based out of Dagestan, Kebekov is a former qadi (supreme religious authority) and the first non-Chechen to lead the North Caucasus insurgency. He ordered the killing of Sufi Sheikh Said-Afandi Chirkeisky by a female suicide bomber in 2012, according to Russian security officials.

In a January audio clip, Kebekov condemned the “nationalism” and “nationalist spirit” of the Chechens in the ranks of the Caucasus Emirate. Such rhetoric aims to further distance the group from the original Chechen nationalist movement of the 1990s and reinforce its global jihadi orientation and battle for an autonomous Sunni Islamic State in Russia governed by a strict interpretation of Sharia law.

In a continuing push away from Chechnya, he will likely strengthen operations in Dagestan, possibly pursuing a less aggressive form of jihad. Despite some opposition, the latest pledges of allegiance indicate some jamaats, including certain influential Chechens who manage key funding channels and media outlets for the Caucasus Emirate, are now accepting of Kebekov’s ascendancy to leadership.

The choice of Kebekov as successor also indicates that the Caucasus Emirate may extend its mission beyond the North Caucasus region. Recent operations provide sound evidence of this possible shift outward. Since 2011, hundreds of militants from Russia have ventured abroad to fight alongside the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front in the Syrian civil war. The organization also sought to undertake operations in the Volga-Ural region of Russia. In 2012, the Mujahedeen of Tatarstan, an extremist group with strong ties to the Caucasus Emirate, perpetrated a series of terrorist attacks against Muslim religious leaders in the Russian city of Kazan. More recently, suicide bombers from Dagestan killed dozens of people in separate strikes on a bus and a train station in Volgograd.

For now, Russian leaders seem intent on continuing a heavy-handed approach to counterinsurgency operations. On March 19, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev convened a government meeting in Chechnya to discuss ways to disrupt militant financing channels, as well as the threat of terrorist attacks outside of the North Caucasus. Meeting participants reportedly did not mull the implications of the emirate’s leadership shift.

Russian security forces have succeeded in killing key extremist leaders and hundreds of militants in the North Caucasus over the last few years, dealing serious blows to the organization. Even so, there is no shortage of new recruits for the Caucasus Emirate, due to the Russian government’s general disregard for basic rights, including religious freedom, socio-economic disparity and large-scale corruption.

Some observers suggest that under the present circumstances, the security threat posed by the Caucasus Emirate stands to rise. “The growing importance of the organization inside the Caucasus Emirate decisional structure represents an increased risk for terrorist attacks against touristic sites and transportation networks inside Russia,” wrote Jean-Francois Ratelle, a postdoctoral fellow at George Washington University, in a recent commentary.

Editor's note: 
Peter J. Marzalik is an independent analyst of Islamic affairs in the Russian Federation.