Every insurgency produces its share of legendary leaders; but not all such men are unconditionally respected and loved by their comrades-in-arms.
One who met those criteria was the Chechen commander and Islamic scholar Arbi Yovmirzayev (nom de guerre Sheikh Mansur), who died one year ago after treading on a land mine during a trek from one mountain base to another. He was 37. The fighter who sat by his head as he lay dying on a snow-covered hillside was openly weeping.
Yovmirzayev was born in 1972 in the village of Samashki, west of Grozny. After graduating from secondary school in 1988 he trained for two years as a boxer with a renowned trainer in Grozny, but then developed an overwhelming interest in religion.
He studied the Koran first in Tajikistan, then in 1992 travelled to Uzbekistan, but was expelled from that country the following year. He continued his studies first in Chechnya, then Daghestan, then, in 1994, he travelled to Saudi Arabia to study at Medina University.
Yovmirzayev’s studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the first Chechen war in December 1994. He returned home in 1995, and joined the armed resistance, participating in the audacious operation to retake Grozny from occupying Russian forces in early August 1996.
After the signing on August 31 of the Khasavyurt peace agreements formally ending hostilities, Yovmirzayev went back to Saudi Arabia to continue his studies, but again returned to Chechnya when hostilities resumed in 1999.
In 2002, he was named a unit commander, and then Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) President Aslan Maskhadov appointed him a member of the State Defense Committee. In 2006, on the basis of his knowledge of Islamic law, Yovmirzayev was named chairman of the Higher Shari’a Court.
London-based ChRI acting Prime Minister Akhmed Zakayev, who first met Yovmirzayev during the 1994-96 war, describes him as “without doubt one of the best fighters of the Chechen resistance. He was extremely devout. He had great authority, not just among the resistance fighters, but within Chechen society, because he was one of the most educated and the best informed about religion. Especially after [the death of Maskhadov’s successor as Chechen Republic Ichkeria president] Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev, there was no one to rival him in this regard within the armed formations, and in Chechnya as a whole.
“He could find a common language with anyone, his comprehension of the situation in Chechnya was unerringly accurate. He was also extremely knowledgeable about international politics and what was going on in the world. In short, he was a uniquely talented individual, mature beyond his years, and rose to the occasion to discharge the enormous responsibilities placed upon him.”
Split With Umarov
In late 2007, however, Yovmirzayev, like Zakayev, openly denounced the decision by Sadullayev’s successor as ChRI president, Doku Umarov, to abandon the cause of Chechen independence and proclaim a “Caucasian Emirate” with himself as its leader. Several other commanders, including Islamic jamaat commander Abubakar Elmuradov and Zaurbek Avdorkhanov, followed suit.
Avdorkhanov is now aligned with the Chechen commanders who split with Umarov last summer. He reportedly played a key role in the August 2010 attack on Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov’s home village of Tsentoroi.
Like Zakayev, Yovmirzayev protested that Umarov’s proclamation of a Caucasus emirate violated both Shari’a law and the ChRI Constitution.
Umarov responded to that criticism by tasking Tarhan Gaziyev, southwest front commander and emirate intelligence chief, to assassinate the dissenters. Tarhan duly sought out Yovmirzayev, but after talking to him was won over by the arguments he adduced. To his eternal credit, Tarhan reported back to Umarov that there were no grounds to level any accusations against Yovmirzayev.
It was that altercation between Umarov and Tarhan, according to Zakayev, that sowed the seeds of the split last summer within the Chechen ranks and the rescinding by Tarhan, Khusayn Gakayev, Aslambek Vadalov, and the Arab commander Muhannad of their bayat (oath of subservience) to Umarov. Umarov has publicly blamed the split on Muhannad.
In the spring of 2008, Yovmirzayev taped an extended video address to Zakayev (see Part 1, 2, 3, 4) detailing the impact within the resistance ranks of Umarov’s proclamation of the Caucasus Emirate. Specifically, he told Zakayev that Umarov had sidelined him and cut him out of the supply chain, and he was having problems securing supplies for the men under his command.
The numerous video clips featuring Yovmirzayev, posted on YouTube and on the website djama1at.com, testify to his physical courage, his total dedication to the cause of Chechen independence, and his unfailing cheerfulness.
He was wounded at least twice: in 2006 he sustained a serious chest wound, apparently from a shell fragment, and two years later he was wounded in the leg. (We see him here giving a running commentary as he cleans and dresses that wound himself.)
In footage filmed just a couple of days before his death, he is seen joking with two fellow fighters digging a new hideout. But even here he swiftly turns serious, warning: “We’re preparing for a fight. We are not the sort to talk big. We know we were created weak. But if the occupiers don’t leave us in peace, we’ll make them run screaming for their mothers.”
He was also totally unassuming. In the classic 2009 portrait gallery of 48 prominent insurgency commanders, some strike martial poses; others are shown smiling with one arm across a fellow fighter’s shoulders. Yovmirzayev is pictured in his house shoes by the stove at one of the better-equipped bases, displaying a freshly baked loaf of bread.
Both Umarov and Gakayev have stressed that the death of individual fighters, whatever their rank, has little impact on the effectiveness of the insurgency, as others will step forward to take their place. But Yovmirzayev’s untimely death has left the moderate wing of the Chechen insurgency without an Islamic scholar at a time when its leaders are seeking to craft some kind of synthesis between Shari’a and a more egalitarian military democracy that recalls the Greek city state of Sparta in the fifth-fourth centuries B.C.