There has been a significant increase in militant activities by Chechen forces in recent months, at a time when both the Kremlin and Ramzan Kadyrov, its pawn in Chechnya, insist that the situation has been “normalised”, the war is over and that the rebel forces have been “fully defeated”. In an online press conference as far back as January 31, Kadyrov declared that no more than 60 to 70 “shaitaans” were still “running around the mountains with their guns” (Echo Moskvy, January 31). Such a boast is quite usual: it has become a frequent mantra, uttered with incredible confidence by Kadyrov and others. In November 2006 Kadyrov stated that there were no more than a hundred local rebel fighters in Chechnya (Lenta.ru, November 26, 2006). He issued an almost identical pronouncement in August 2007, assuring his Russian masters that the fighters would be gone before the end of 2007: “I am giving you my word that the problem of illegal armed forces will be fully resolved before the end of the year. There will not be a single fighter, or shaitan, as we call them, left in Chechnya” (Interfax, August 3, 2007).
This rise in resistance activity is occurring despite divisions that have developed among the Chechens since the announcement of the Caucasian Emirate by Dokka Umarov in October 2007. This was followed by the creation of a separate government in exile under the leadership of Akhmad Zakaev, and observers expected that military activities would decline as the two factions tried to consolidate their power and authority. It was assumed that Umarov would lose public support because of his alliances with Wahhabi elements and because of his declaration of war on any country which was at war with Muslims. Counter-allegations against Zakaev that he is out of touch with reality and that he is conspiring with Kadyrov also give the impression that any fighting inspired by Zakaev was coming to an end. In fact, the reality on the ground suggests a far brighter picture.
In June, Chechen fighters carried out a series of operations targeting Russian and pro-Moscow Kadyrovsky forces. The Associated Press reported that on June 17 Chechen fighters destroyed a Russian armed vehicle in the town of Bamut. A day earlier, three border guards with the Chechen branch of the Federal Security Service were killed and five wounded when fighters ambushed an FSB automobile column in the village of Chishki in Groznensky district. Kavkaz-Center, the website operated by the Chechen resistance, claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it a “final examination” for “young mujahideen.”
On June 13 the website also quoted a source “in the command of the Eastern Front of the armed forces of the Caucasus Emirate (commander – Amir Aslanbek)” as saying that a large force of mujahideen had killed eleven “Kadyrovites” and wounded at least seventeen in a raid on Benoi-Vedeno in Chechnya’s Nozhai-Yurt district. The website claimed that thirteen “murtads” (apostates), including “both armed puppets and functionaries of the occupation administration,” were seized in the raid, and that the fighters attacked as many as 20 “objects” in the village, burning at least ten homes of “murtads and accomplices of the Russian kaffirs [infidels].” The Kavkaz-Center report claimed that the fighters had also seized a large quantity of weapons and ammunition.
On June 8, three unidentified gunmen fired on servicemen on the outskirts of the town of Vedeno. No one was hurt in the attack. On June 6 a car carrying the head of the Sunzha district police department was blown up, wounding him and two of his bodyguard. On June 5 a group of people dressed in camouflage fired on an automobile in which four local inhabitants were travelling on the outskirts of the Urus-Martin district village of Goi-Chu, killing one and seriously wounding two others. On June 2, a MI-8 helicopter ferrying a reconnaissance group was fired on by unknown attackers using automatic weapons as it was landing several kilometres from the Vedeno district village of Oktyabrskoye. One of the twelve contract soldiers on board the helicopter was seriously wounded; the attackers escaped.
High-profile attacks have also been launched in recent weeks against government facilities in the villages of Alkhazurovo (village administration building), Bamut (administration building burned down), Roshni-Chu (shootout with an intelligence gathering group), Dai (interior ministry department/police building), Shali (military commander’s office shot up), Grozny (a military column bombed) and other units of the pro-Moscow government. If there are indeed only 60 or 70 resistance fighters left, as Kadyrov boasts, one cannot but be impressed by the achievements of such a small band.
Support for the insurgency increases daily, particularly among the youth. More and more young Chechens are leaving for the mountains to join the resistance. On April 10, General Arkady Yedelev, the commander of the anti-terrorist forces in the North Caucasus, said at a meeting in Grozny, the Chechen capital, that there were 500 rebel squads in the Caucasus and that their ranks were growing (Kavkazky Uzel, April 11).
Major General Nikolai Sivak, the commander of the Combined Group of Forces in the North Caucasus, said in an interview with BBC Radio on May 20 that although the militants are currently facing shortages of arms and ammunition, “at the same time, unfortunately, we cannot say that the militants have completely stopped their activities” and “there is still an outflow of young people into the militants’ ranks.” He added: “Many of the militants we catch in the mountains are 20 years old at the most. This means that certain young lads fall victim to Wahhabi propaganda and, unfortunately, leave for the mountains.” Sivak went on to suggest that one of the obstacles in the way of defeating the fighters was the support of the local population, who “either support the militant groups or remain neutral; they do not oppose them or give them up to the federal forces”.
In an effort to contain this trend, the government has launched a campaign of bullying and intimidation of friends and families of these young men. They are frequently interrogated by various government agencies, including the Federal Security Service, the interior ministry, Yug [South] Special Forces Unit and other pro-Moscow government groups, and forced to comply with government demands. For example, Chechnya Weekly reported that on May 22 the evening news of the local TV channel Grozny featured footage of a group of mothers who were placed in front of the cameras and forced to appeal to their children to return home or be cursed for the rest of their lives.
In addition to more and more fighters joining Umarov, Zakaev has also taken steps to set up an armed resistance in Chechnya, fighting under the flag of Ichkeria, that will not be subordinate to Umarov’s commanders. On March 3, Zakaev told the Chechen-Online website that “the parliament of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and the new government will do everything necessary to continue organised armed resistance against the occupiers. The ministers of the security bloc of the government are in Chechnya now and they are establishing coordination and links between fighters of different fronts.”
Zakaev’s stand was supported by some resistance commanders in Chechnya, including Abubakar Yelmuradov, leader of a group called “the Islamic Jamaat of Chechnya,” Amir Khamza, head of the “Islamic Brigade of Chechnya,” and Amir Surkho, commander of Staraya Sunzha Sabotage Group. In reality, however, even collectively, these groups pose no threat to Umarov, who has also obtained the allegiance of the rebel groups in other Caucasian regions, such as Kabardino-Balkaria, Dagestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia.
On the ground, both factions continue to attack the common enemy, Russia, and have not yet fallen into the pitfall of carrying out military attacks against one other. If this were to occur, the only victors will be the enemies of Islam. If the Chechens succeed in maintaining some semblance of unity, despite the disagreements and divergences of opinion that are inevitable where large numbers of human beings are involved, it will be a significant achievement and stepping-stone towards their eventual victory against their enemies.