Published: April 7, 2014 (Issue # 1804)
Columnists should make predictions about the future. The fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11 caught us by surprise because of failures of imagination. But besides publicly exercising imagination, columnists should also examine their own failed predictions in hopes of salvaging something from the fiasco.
That’s the case with me and the Sochi Winter Olympics. Doku Umarov, the Chechen leader of the Islamist insurgents, had called for attacks on the Games. As the focus of the world’s attention, they seemed the perfect target. Moreover, the closing ceremonies would be held on Feb. 23, the 70th anniversary of Stalin’s violent exile of the entire Chechen and Ingush nations.
As everyone knows, the Games and the closing ceremony passed without incident. I asked myself, “Why?” Have President Vladimir Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov so smashed the Islamists that all they can do is issue grandiloquent videos proclaiming a caliphate across the Caucasus or blow up the occasional bus?
The reason was far simpler: Umarov did not strike because he was dead. That death had been long rumored, and in Russia rumor remains a source of information worth taking into account. Thus far, there has been no information about the place, date or cause of death. More important now is the person replacing Umarov and the movement’s probable direction under his tutelage.
The new leader is Aliasaskhab Kebekov, 42, who had been the spiritual leader and supreme Sharia judge of the Caucasus region. The first non-Chechen to lead the insurgency, he is an ethnic Avar from Dagestan, as was the iconic leader Shamil who combined strategic and spiritual gifts to lead a decades-long rebellion against the Russians in the mid-19th century.
Dagestan itself is less ethnically homogeneous that Chechnya and thus more difficult for Moscow to impose a leader like Kadyrov. “Dagestanis are much more Islamist, they are better integrated into global jihad, and they are more super-national,” says Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, North Caucasus director for the International Crisis Group.