The Kabardino-Balkaria directorate of the Federal Security Service (FSB) has lifted the counterterror restrictions in force in the republic’s mountainous Elbrus and Baksan districts, declaring that the Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai wing of the North Caucasus insurgency has been weakened to the point that it no longer poses a threat.
That assumption may well prove spurious, however.
In recent video clips posted on the websites islamdin.tv and islamdin.biz, insurgency leaders in Kabardino-Balkaria affirm that despite the death this year of many of their comrades in arms, there is no shortage of new volunteers, and they remain wholeheartedly committed to the jihad.
The counterterror restrictions were imposed in February following the high-profile murder of three Russian tourists during a weekend of blood-letting by fighters commanded by Asker Jappuyev (Emir Abdullakh), then-commander of the Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachai insurgency wing, and the flamboyant young firebrand Ratmir Shameyev (Emir Zakaria). The restrictions were extended one week later, following further attacks, to parts of Nalchik and of the Chegem and Cherek districts to the southwest.
Jappuyev and Shameyev were among 10 district commanders and support personnel killed during an early morning attack on their headquarters in late April. They were reportedly betrayed to the FSB by Shameyev’s wife, presumably under threat or torture.
Several other prominent militants were killed in the months that followed, and the incidence of militant attacks dropped dramatically. But in late May, and again in late July, Kabardino-Balkaria Republic Interior Minister Sergei Vasilyev argued that it would be premature to lift the restrictions, as doing so could endanger the lives of “foreign tourists.” He added that it was up to the National Counterterror Committee to decide on the optimum time frame for doing so.
To what extent the restrictions contributed to the temporary suspension of attacks by the decimated and leaderless insurgency is questionable. Insofar as the restrictions included declaring the district off-limits to tourists, however, they had a devastating effect on the predominantly Balkar local population for whom catering to tourists was the most important, if not the sole source, of income.
It was the second time in as many years that the counterterror restrictions had been imposed in Elbrus at the height of the tourist season. Some Balkars construed the counterterror regime as part of a broader ongoing policy of oppression of the republic’s Balkar minority by the Kabardian majority.
Ismail Sabanchiyev, chairman of the unofficial Council of Elders of the Balkar People, termed the counterterror restrictions “a painstakingly planned provocation directed against the Balkar people.” Republic head Arsen Kanokov categorically denied any such intent.
If the rationale for not lifting the counterterror restrictions in mid-summer when the insurgency was still inactive and licking its wounds is not clear, it is even more incomprehensible that the restrictions should have been lifted now the militants are back in business with a vengeance. In September-October, they launched 11 attacks, killing a total of nine people, including two senior police officers.
That resurgence of militant activity followed the naming by Doku Umarov, self-styled Caucasus Emirate head, of Alim Zankishev (nom de guerre Ubaydullakh) to succeed Jappuyev as regional commander. Like Jappuyev, Zankishev, 29, is a Balkar. He came to prominence during the summer of 2010, and together with Jappuyev, Shameyev, and Zalim Tutov (now emir of the Baksan sector) featured on a list of 40 wanted militants circulated in October 2010.
In a video address on the occasion of Kurban Bayram, Zankishev denied that the insurgency in Kabardino-Balkaria has been weakened by the losses it has incurred this year. On the contrary, he said, “more fighters have joined the jihad than we have lost as shahids.”
Whether numerical strength can compensate for lack of battle experience is a different question, however. True, Zankishev says the new recruits have undergone military training at mountain bases. But none of the five regional commanders Zankishev identified at a council of war last month looks older than 30; some look barely 20, meaning that they were not from the generation of fighters who received albeit rudimentary training from the Chechen renegade military strategist Shamil Basayev prior to the abortive attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik in October 2005.
Zankishev’s men may be mostly young and inexperienced, but they are also resolute and ruthless. Addressing the republic’s pro-Moscow authorities, Zankishev warns that “we shall continue to pray that Allah will kill you with our hands…. We shall liquidate the lot of you one by one. We ask Allah to help us accomplish this…. As long as we mujaheds are here and continue fighting, none of you will be able to feel safe.”
And, crucially, they are less discriminating in their choice of targets than Jappuyev was. Khamzat, one of the five new commanders, pledged in one recent video address that “we shall fight against you exactly as you fight against us, without sparing your families.” Jappuyev, by contrast, repeatedly ordered the men under his command not to target the families of police and security personnel and expressed genuine regret and contrition on the rare occasions that a member of the civilian population was killed in crossfire or by accident.
In a second recent video clip, Khamzat explained that the militants shot dead last month a married couple employed at the astrophysics laboratory in Neytrino because of their “anti-Islamic” activities.