September 7 marks the first anniversary of the death from poisoning of Doku Umarov, the Chechen field commander who abandoned the cause of an independent Chechen Republic Ichkeria in 2007 and instead proclaimed a Caucasus Emirate (IK) encompassing the entire North Caucasus.
While Umarov’s death has had only minimal impact on the military capabilities of the Islamic insurgency, it nonetheless ushered in a new stage in the ongoing evolution of the Chechen-dominated resistance of the late 1990s and early 2000s into a supranational force. Reflecting the shift over the past five to seven years of the center of military activity from Chechnya to Ingushetia (in 2007-09), to Kabardino-Balkaria (2010-11), to Daghestan, the new IK head, Aliaskhab Kebekov (Amir Ali Abu-Mukhammad) is an Avar, not a Chechen. As Kebekov himself acknowledges, is a theologian and ideologue, rather than an experienced general and military strategist.
That does not necessarily mean, however, that there were no other qualified candidates for that post. Veteran Chechen field commander Makhran Saidov affirmed in video footage released last month that “any one of the Vilayet Nokhchiicho [Chechnya] fighters could have become amir in Doku’s place. Don’t think that we chose a brother from Daghestan for lack of a worthy candidate here or because we are weakened…. We wanted to see at the head of the Caucasus Emirate a man who is knowledgeable and God-fearing…. It’s not necessary that he should be a strategist or an experienced warrior.”
Even before Umarov died, the incidence and effectiveness of the insurgents’ military activity was on the decline. The insurgency has not carried out a single major operation anywhere in the North Caucasus since the two audacious attacks perpetrated in August and October 2010 by Chechen fighters on the native village of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov and the Chechen parliament. What is more, it failed to deliver on Umarov’s instructions to take “any measures permitted by God” to prevent the successful staging of the Winter Olympic games in Sochi in February 2014. Suicide bombers perpetrated two attacks in Volgograd in late December, killing a total of 34 people, but the actual Games passed off without the terrorist attack that the Russian security forces (and some Western observers) had feared.
That failure is unlikely to have been the direct consequence of Umarov’s demise, given his total lack of skill and imagination as either a strategist or a tactician. In that respect, the deaths in January 2013 of the brothers Khuseyn and Muslim Gakayev and their elite band of fighters constituted a far more serious loss. As a veteran of Russia’s elite Alfa antiterrorism force observed apropos of the 10th anniversary of the Beslan hostage taking, the limited military capability of the insurgency today is primarily the result of the killing in 2006 of Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, the wily strategist behind both the seizure of the Beslan school and the multiple attacks a few months earlier on police and security forces in Ingushetia.
By the same token, the human rights watchdog Memorial attributes the marked decline in casualty figures it registered during the winter of 2013-14 to the exodus of insurgents from the North Caucasus to fight in Syria.
How many fighters remain in the North Caucasus is, as always, virtually impossible to assess with any accuracy. Lieutenant General Andrei Konin, who at that time headed the Daghestan administration of the Federal Security Service (FSB), estimated the number of insurgents in Daghestan last fall at 150, divided into 12 groups.
By contrast, in Chechnya, the population of which is less than half that of Daghestan, the figure may be in excess of 500. Saidov, who played a key role in the August 2010 attack of Kadyrov’s home village of Khosi-Yurt, recently divulged that there are at least 70-80 fighters in the Achkhoi-Martan sector alone, and that some 10 new recruits had joined them over the previous month. (Most Chechen fighters seen in videos recently uploaded to YouTube appear to be in their late teens or 20s.)
Saidov claimed that “if we wanted, we could increase the number of our ranks, but at present there is no need to do so. We are preparing for a specific day, and if Allah wills, that day will come.” He acknowledged nonetheless that the current strength is inadequate to retake Grozny. Whether the “specific day” means the return from Syria of fighters who are currently honing their tactical skills there can only be guessed at.
Kebekov too has said that the insurgency command is “working out a tactic of inflicting crushing blows on the unbelievers.” He did not elaborate. It appears unlikely, however, that such attacks will take the form of suicide-bombings on the lines of those in Volgograd, or at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in January 2011 and on the Moscow subway in March 2010: Kebekov made clear his reluctance to condone such attacks, especially on the part of women. What alternative military options he and his fellow commanders are mulling remains a matter for conjecture.