Publicly acknowledged divisions by pro-independence forces in the North Caucasus may completely bury the last remaining traces of the movement once known as the Chechen resistance.
Publicly acknowledged divisions by pro-independence forces in the North Caucasus may completely bury the last remaining traces of the movement once known as the Chechen resistance. Last August, headlines out of the North Caucasus surrounded a series of declarations and counter declarations of various commanders leading the fight against Russian presence in the region.
On July 31, 2010, Doku Umarov, official leader of the movement known as the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus (IEC), made a video announcement in which he stated his resignation and that his duties would now be fulfilled by his deputy, Aslambek Vadalov. However, on August 2 Umarov retracted his resignation and stated: “in connection with the current situation in the Caucasus, I think it is not possible to step down from the position of the Emir of the Caucasus Emirate.” Umarov said, “Insha’Allah, the previous statement is canceled by my current statement. The previous statement was completely fabricated.”
On August 13, following Umarov’s retraction, three influential commanders of the IEC — Aslambek Vadalov, Hussein Gakaev, and an ethnically Arab commander known as Muhannad — announced that although they remain committed to the idea of the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, they will “no longer obey the orders of Doku Umarov who did not respect the decision of the shura.” They called on other fighters to follow suit.
After a series of declarations and counter declarations, several commanders of the Caucasian Emirate movement in Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Ingushetia announced that they would continue to obey orders given by Umarov. However, three weeks later, Seifullah Gubdensky, a key commander of the Caucasian Emirate movement in Dagestan and a backer of Umarov, was killed by Russian security forces.
One month after the last video recording, Doku Umarov issued a new video announcement during which he clarified the circumstances that led to his earlier announced resignation and why he subsequently retracted that decision. During the 11-minute clip published in September 2010, Umarov stated that at a meeting of Chechnya-based combatants and commanders, he was subjected by some fighters and the two Chechnya-based commanders to a barrage of criticism. Umarov said that he was criticized for having claimed responsibility for the most recent “special operation” in Russia, meaning the terror attack on Moscow subway in March 2010, even though those same commanders and fighters had criticized him one year earlier for not taking responsibility for such attacks in Russia. The fighters also accused him of not doing enough in improving their logistics.
Umarov then stated that in light of such criticism, he proposed to resign as the supreme commander of the IEC, provided that commanders of the other fighting units approved his decision. A video address announcing his decision to step down was then prepared for distribution to other commanders, and entrusted to Umarov’s newly appointed deputy, Aslambek Vadalov. However, Vadalov violated the oral agreement between them and prepared an additional video footage in which other commanders, including Khusein Gakayev and Muhannad, presented Umarov’s resignation as a resolved issue and expressed the approval of Umarov’s request to swear loyalty to Vadalov as his chosen successor.
In light of Vadalov’s publication of the video footage without his acquiring approval of other commanders for Umarov’s resignation, the latter decided not to resign his position as supreme commander and posted a video clip just days later in which he denounced his previous video as a fabrication.
This level of publicity that acknowledges divisions within the independence movement in the North Caucasus is unprecedented. Since the assassination of General Dzhokhar Dudayev, disagreements within the pro-independence movement in the North Caucasus have existed but they were kept discrete and within the private realm and never made public.
The current division reveals the role and perception of the Arab fighters in Chechnya. On August 19, the Kavkaz Center, an Internet-based news outlet of the IEC, published analysis of the Chechen leadership’s approach to the idea of negotiating with Russia. The author of the analysis states that “since Arab fighters arrived in Chechnya at the start of the first Chechen War (1994– 1996) the financial assistance coming through them would go to specific groups and not to the official leadership of the country. During the second Chechen War (1999–present) the same scheme repeated itself. The one who pays the piper plays the tune. However, Doku Umarov has broken with this tradition and changed the music… it came out that Russia, the West and the “Islamic Abroad” are the same type of forces with a different mask.” The Kavkaz Center follows a very rigid editorial policy. The fact that it allowed publication of a direct jab directed at Arab fighters shows that the rift has its roots in Riyadh whose “unofficial” palace “scholars” have been the main facilitators of Arab participation in the Chechen conflict.
Whatever the reasons behind the splintering of the IEC, one thing is clear: if the split is not an intelligence maneuver on their side, the forces leading the fight against Russia today will not be the ones who will bring independence to the North Caucasus. The current pro-independence movement in the North Caucasus is too exclusionist for it to attract the broader segments of the local population. Its current program does not provide political space for forces that do not completely share their vision of the region, even if those forces back their fight against Russia. They also lack a concrete framework of general political, economic, and social program of the post-Russia North Caucasus. Therefore, division will only add to their strategic deficiencies that serve only to hinder their ability to be the force that will eliminate Russian presence from the North Caucasus.
It is erroneous to conclude that Russia’s troubles in the region will now decline. Most armed groups in the region operate autonomously and central leadership is looked upon as a formality rather than an operational necessity. In fact, if the movement did actually split into various armed factions, it will only complicate the work of Russian security forces. Decentralized armed groups are harder to combat and control even if they are easily manipulated politically.
The August 29 attack in Tsentoroi, headquarters of the Russian appointed administrator of Chechnya, demonstrates that resistance against Russian presence in the region is still very much alive. It is not yet clear if the attack led by 60 fighters was ordered by Umarov or by the three renegade commanders. No matter who ordered the attack, the message it sent out is definitely a powerful one. Russia is still at war and has problems securing its borders. It showed that Putin’s policies in the North Caucasus are not sustainable and the region is still Russia’s weak spot. The US and Israel will definitely make use of this factor to advance their own agenda in the region through their friends, the palace clergy of the Sheikhs with connections to the renegades.
Khattab, a well-known renegade Arab commander in Chechnya, already once inflicted a heavy blow to the pro-independence movement in Chechnya. Khattab’s decision to start military operations in Dagestan in 1999 without the consent of Chechnya’s President Aslan Maskhadov destroyed the de-facto independence of Chechnya. The fallout from Khattab’s actions at the time secured the US’s long-term presence in the Caucasus by facilitating a geopolitical environment which made the Washington-proposed Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline bypassing Russia a reality. How will the US use Muhannad’s rebellion this time will only become evident with time.