In a move that self-styled Caucasus Emirate head and insurgency commander Doku Umarov has hailed as marking “a new page” in the ongoing jihad against the Russian presence in the North Caucasus, several of the senior Chechen commanders who one year ago split with Umarov have reaffirmed their allegiance to him. Their reasons for doing so remain unclear, however, as does the position of several of their most respected fellow commanders.
The catalyst for the split in the ranks of the Chechen insurgents was Umarov’s retraction last August, just days after it was posted to the Internet, of an announcement that he was stepping down as emir, and proposing as his successor veteran commander Aslanbek Vadalov. Vadalov, together with fellow commanders Khusayn Gakayev and Tarkhan Gaziyev and the Arab fighter Mohannad, formally withdrew his oath of allegiance to Umarov. The four men accused Umarov of acting autocratically, without ever consulting his subordinates.
At the same time, they stressed their commitment to the Caucasus Emirate, the virtual independent Muslim state that Umarov proclaimed three years earlier. The U.S. State Department designated the Caucasus Emirate a terrorist organization two months ago.
Dozens of other Chechen commanders likewise disassociated themselves from Umarov and elected Gakayev their new emir. And in early October, shortly before the spectacular attack by three of Gakayev’s fighters on the Chechen parliament building, Gakayev, Vadalov, and Gaziyev issued a joint appeal for support to all Chechens who unequivocally espouse their vision of a free Chechnya under Islamic law.
Umarov retaliated by stripping the renegades of their respective commands and military ranks and demanding that they appear before the Shari’a court to answer for their insubordination, which he claimed constituted a crime under Islamic law. He further accused Mohannad of fomenting dissent within the insurgency ranks in tandem with Gaziyev.
Gakayev and Vadalov, but apparently not Gaziyev, have now again joined forces with Umarov and pledged allegiance to him. Mohannad was killed in a shoot-out in April.
‘No More Strife’
The Caucasus Emirate’s main website, Kavkazcenter.com, reported on July 23 that the reconciliation took place as a result of a session of the Caucasus Emirate’s Shari’a court that ended several days earlier. The Shari’a court judge ruled that while what happened was correct in political terms, their defiance of Umarov was “incorrect” in terms of Islamic law.
Umarov and Gakayev both made lengthy statements admitting in the most general terms to unspecified “mistakes,” which they vowed not to repeat, and pledging future unity. Umarov declared that the “fitna” (strife) is at an end; that by Allah’s will Shari’a law has prevailed; and that the reconciliation marks “a new page” in the North Caucasus jihad.
At the same time, Umarov stressed that “the path of Allah” the insurgency has chosen is the continuation of that espoused by Dzhokhar Dudayev, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, Aslan Maskhadov, Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev, and Shamil Basayev. Dudayev, Yandarbiyev, Maskhadov, and Sadullayev were Umarov’s predecessors as president of the independent Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) suppressed by the Russian military intervention in the fall of 1999.
The ChRI leadership in exile headed by Akhmed Zakayev categorically condemned Umarov’s declaration of the Caucasus Emirate in 2007 as a betrayal of the fight for Chechen independence. Umarov’s reference to the men who epitomize that struggle is clearly an attempt (not the first) to bestow legitimacy on his earlier decision.
Umarov further appealed to “all mujaheds in the North Caucasus and Chechnya…to put behind [you] all the disagreements that existed between us and direct all your strength, all your will toward elevating the word of Allah and [against] our enemy the unbelievers.”
That formulation implies that some Chechen fighters, possibly including Gaziyev and the men he commands, still refuse to acknowledge Umarov as their supreme commander. Gaziyev defied Umarov in 2008 by not carrying out his orders to assassinate respected Chechen commander and Islamic scholar Arbi Yovmirzayev (Emir Mansur), who had publicly condemned Umarov’s pronouncement of the Caucasus Emirate. Gaziyev is reportedly held in great respect by his fellow fighters both for his courage and military skills and for the depth of his faith.
Gaziyev is not visible among the several dozen stony-faced fighters, most of them in their 20s, who witness the recent reconciliation. In video footage apparently shot on two separate occasions, Umarov is seen embracing first Vadalov and Gakayev’s sole surviving brother and right-hand man, Muslim, and then Gakayev and Vadalov.
Similarly conspicuous by their absence are senior commanders Zaurbek Avdorkhanov and “Emir Makhran,” both in their 40s. Those two played a key role in the attack by Gakayev’s fighters last August on Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov’s home village of Khosi-Yurt.
It remains unclear on whose initiative, and on what precise terms, the reconciliation took place. Umarov has, according to a separate announcement on Kavkazcenter, named Gakayev as one of his naibs (deputies), a position that has been vacant since Umarov’s longtime comrade-in-arms and second-in-command, Supyan Abdullayev, was killed in a Russian air strike on a base in Ingushetia in late March.
Gakayev will be responsible for the eastern sector, which includes his home base of Vedeno in the extreme southeast of Chechnya. Dozens of pro-Moscow Chechen security personnel have reportedly been killed and injured in heavy fighting in Vedeno in recent weeks.
Umarov simultaneously named as his second naib and as commander of the western sector Emir Khamzat (Aslan Byutukayev), the soft-spoken commander of the Riyadus Salikhiin suicide battalion. It was Byutukayev who trained and dispatched to his death the young Ingush man who blew himself up at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in January. The western sector subsumes the southwestern front Gaziyev headed from September 2006 until Umarov dismissed him from that post last fall.
Gakayev for his part may have concluded he had no choice but to renegotiate a tactical alliance with Umarov if Arab financial support for the insurgency dried up after Mohannad’s death, and/or if the joint appeal last fall to fellow Chechens for moral and financial support went unheeded. Gakayev may also have calculated that he stands a far greater chance than Byutukayev of asserting himself as supreme commander, at least in Chechnya, in the event of Umarov’s death.
In the video footage of the reconciliation, however, both Gakayev and Vadalov look tense and ill at ease, even despondent.
Whatever the rationale for the realignment, it is a stab in the back for the ChRI leadership in exile, which has twice affirmed its support for Gakayev as the legitimate successor to Maskhadov.
Zakayev has repeatedly claimed that the Caucasus Emirate was from the outset conceived by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) as a way to demolish international support for the cause of Chechen independence.