The U.S. State Department’s May 26 designation of the Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz, IK) proclaimed by then-Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Doku Umarov in late 2007 as a terrorist organization was unexpected. Whether Moscow’s offer, announced on May 27, to mediate with embattled Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to persuade him to step down was the quid pro quo is not clear at this juncture.
Until last week, the State Department had tacitly acknowledged that the various territorially based groups of militants in the North Caucasus fighting under the banner of the IK constitute not a terrorist organization, but a classic insurgency.
True, some of that insurgency’s most prominent members, including Umarov and Magomed Vagapov, the Daghestani fighter killed in a counterterror operation last summer, have advocated, and sought to rationalize, the use of terrorism as a tactic to achieve their goal. Vagapov, who is believed to have recruited the two women suicide bombers who blew themselves up in the Moscow subway in March 2010, argued in an address he sent to Umarov shortly before his death that “we’ll never get anywhere simply by fighting here [in the Caucasus.]”
The State Department specifically mentioned the Moscow subway bombings, for which Umarov belatedly claimed responsibility when it designated him a terrorist last summer. Last week, it offered a reward of $5 million for information leading to Umarov’s capture.
Other prominent North Caucasus insurgency leaders, however, such as Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachai jamaat head Asker Jappuyev (Emir Abdullakh), unequivocally rejected the recourse to indiscriminate terror attacks.
Jappuyev enjoined his fighters to make every effort to avoid any civilian casualties. He issued repeated warnings to the republic’s population to avoid locations such as police stations and patrol posts that could be attacked at any time, and he assured police officers that they would no longer risk being subject to reprisals if they quit the police force and publicly announced they had done so.
It is conceivable that one of the factors that induced the State Department to designate the IK a terrorist organization was the Russian presidential election due in March 2012. Assuming the West would prefer to see incumbent Dmitry Medvedev serve a second term, rather than the return to power of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, acceding to Moscow’s long-standing demand to brand the North Caucasus insurgents terrorists (which Putin never managed to persuade Washington to do) is likely to enhance Medvedev’s standing with Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, who for years has repeatedly expressed his admiration, boundless respect, and devotion to Putin.
After all, whichever of the two is elected Russian president next March will have to decide what to do with Kadyrov when his second and last term as Chechen Republic head expires in the spring of 2015.
Still ‘National Liberation Movement’?
The wording of the May 26 State Department statement does not explicitly differentiate between the IK and what it described in 2010 as the “national separatist” wing of the insurgency. The status of the senior Chechen commanders who revoked their oath of allegiance to Umarov last summer and criticized his proclamation of the IK as a strategic blunder that was “not pleasing to Allah” and led to the withdrawal of His grace therefore remains unclear.
Khusayn Gakayev, whom those commanders elected as their leader, has since been identified (in English) on video footage posted to YouTube as “leader of the military forces and parliament of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria” (ChRI). Gakayev has not issued a formal statement claiming to be the legitimate head of the short-lived independent Chechen state.
But Akhmed Zakayev, the London-based head of the ChRI government in exile, told RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service in June 2010 that the designation of Umarov under Presidential Executive Order 13224, which targets terrorists and those providing support to terrorists or acts of terrorism, “has nothing to do with the national liberation movement in Chechnya.”
Emirate’s Declaration Disputed
Umarov has not responded explicitly to the May 26 State Department designation of the IK. But the independent website Kavkazinform.com posted on May 28 a long missive by Umarov dated February 12, 2011, in which he claimed that the decision to proclaim the IK at some future point was made in 2002, with then-ChRI President Aslan Maskhadov’s reluctant consent, by Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev (who succeeded Maskhadov in 2005) and renegade field commander Shamil Basayev.
Umarov further claimed that following Basayev’s death (in 2006, by which time Umarov had succeeded Sadullayev as ChRI president), the Egyptian commander Seif-Islam sent him a message warning that “if you do not proclaim the emirate, I shall be forced to do so myself and to call on the brothers fighting in the Caucasus to swear an oath of loyalty to me.”
“It was the mujaheds who proclaimed the Caucasus Emirate, and I take pride in that,” Umarov concluded. But Gakayev cited as one of their reasons why he and his fellow commanders withdrew their support for Umarov the latter’s failure “to consult with all the mujahedin” before doing so.
How effective the State Department ruling will be in cutting off funding and logistical support for the IK remains to be seen. On May 23, Chechen customs officials at Grozny airport intercepted a Turkish citizen trying to bring illegally into Russia over $1 million in cash.