Self-styled North Caucasus emirate leader Doku Umarov telephoned RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service today to lay to rest persistent rumors that he was one of the militants killed in a Russian air strike on March 28 on a base near Verkhny Alkun in the west of Ingushetia. The conversation lasted only a few minutes before the connection was cut.
Umarov laughed off Russian media speculation that he was terminally ill (possibly with diabetes), saying he was “absolutely healthy.” He acknowledged that “several” fighters were killed in the air strike on Verkhny Alkun, and added that the Russian authorities “won’t receive any respite from me. I’m preparing my answer to them. They should expect news from me soon.”
Asked his rationale for the January 24 suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport that killed over 30 people, Umarov said that Russian airports were “not civilian targets.”
Ingushetian officials initially said they did not rule out the possibility that Umarov was among the fighters killed at Verkhny Alkun (their number was originally given as 19, then revised downward to 12). But on March 29, when Federal Security Service (FSB) deputy head Sergei Smirnov reported on the air raid to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, he did not mention Umarov by name.
Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov stressed on March 31, and again on April 4, that not all the slain fighters have been identified, and it is thus premature to speculate that Umarov was one of them.
Supyan Abdullayev (courtesy of kavkazcenter.com)The speculation about Umarov’s death derived primarily from the fact that his second-in-command, Supyan Abdullayev, was one of those killed. But for elementary security reasons, the two men are unlikely to have spent the winter at the same base, and Abdullayev was not pictured with Umarov in video clips Umarov made early this year commenting on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and claiming responsibility for the January 24 suicide bombing at Domodedovo.
Russian media have also speculated that Aslan Byutukayev, commander of the Riyadus Salikhiin suicide brigade and the man who mentored the Domodedovo suicide bomber, may have been killed in the Verkhny Alkun air strike. Umarov did not mention Byutukayev during his phone call to RFE/RL.
But in the video clip commenting on the Domodedovo bombing, Umarov noted that the Riyadus Salikhiin training camp (where Byutukayev is presumably permanently based) was “a long journey” away, which suggests that it is not in either Chechnya or Ingushetia.
Even though Umarov is still alive, his network of fighting units has been badly weakened, primarily by the loss of Abdullayev. One of the oldest and most experienced commanders, fluent in Arabic and a respected authority on Islam, Abdullayev was, according to North Caucasus emirate ideologist Movladi Udugov, a father figure and teacher to hundreds of younger fighters. He is seen here instructing recent recruits in the rudiments of survival in the forest.
In a further setback, the Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachai insurgency wing that has pledged allegiance to Umarov but acts independently has suspended operations following the betrayal of three of its fighters in early March. On April 1, for the first time since last summer, that fighting unit failed to post on its website, islamdin.com, a press release listing the operations it conducted during the previous month. Over the past few days police have apprehended two of its facilitators who may be in a position to betray the whereabouts of its leader, Asker Jappuyev, and of Ratmir Shameyev (aka Emir Zakaria), commander of the southwest (Chegem) sector.