Russian media have reported the death late last night of Israpil Velijanov (nom de guerre Emir Khasan), who succeeded Magomed Vagapov in late August 2010 as head of the Daghestan wing of the North Caucasus insurgency. Russia’s National Counterterror Committee has confirmed Velijanov’s death. The insurgency websites kavkazcenter.com and jamaatshariat.com have reported the Russian claims, but not yet confirmed them.
Velijanov and three fellow fighters apparently fell victim to the increasingly favored tactic of intensified monitoring by Daghestan Federal Security Service (FSB) and Interior Ministry personnel of nighttime traffic and flagging down suspect vehicles. The four men were killed in an exchange of fire after the two cars they were travelling in refused to halt.
Velijanov, who was born in 1968, is at least the fourth senior Daghestan commander to be killed in the past sixth months. Sakhratula Najjmudinov (aka Pushtun), commander of the Jundulla group, was killed in a shoot-out with security forces in November. Veteran fighter Akhmed Abdulkerimov (“Adam,” emir of the Mountain Sector), was shot dead in his own home in December. Velijanov’s second-in-command, Adam Guseinov (nom de guerre Khasan), commander of the Northern Sector, was killed together with his wife in their home in Khasavyurt in January.
In addition, Russian officials have identified six more slain militants as regional commanders: Murad Shchashchayev (Kaspiisk), killed in early November; Magomed Sheikhov (Makhachkala), killed in late December; Ruslan Makavov (Khasavyurt), killed in early January; Pakhrudin Gajayev (Kizlyar), killed in late January; Yakhya Aslanov (Karabudakhkent), killed in early April; and Suleiman Magomedov (Tsunta), killed on April 11.
According to Russian media reports, the insurgency in Daghestan lost 80-90 fighters between September and December 2010 and a further 39 so far this year. Observers caution, however, that local officials routinely overstate the number of “militants” killed in any given special operation.
Despite those reported losses, during the first three months of this year Daghestan notched up the most terrorist attacks of any North Caucasus republic (30), the most exchanges of fire (28), and the most fatalities (83). Just last week, militants in the extreme west of Daghestan shot dead five police officers and wounded seven more in an ambush.
In evaluating all such comparative statistics, however, one should bear in mind that Daghestan is twice as large as Chechnya and has a population of 3 million, compared with Chechnya’s 1.27 million and 860,000 in Kabardino-Balkaria, where the corresponding figures were nine, 20, and 31, respectively.
How Velijanov’s death will impact on the operational capabilities of the Daghestan fighters is difficult to predict. True, he was a veteran with at least 10 years’ battle experience, having trained during the interwar period at the legendary camp in Serzhen-Yurt, southeast of Grozny, established by the Saudi fighter Khattab. But it is unclear whether and to what extent Velijanov coordinated the day-to-day operations of the various regional groups of fighters, especially given the perils of using mobile phones to communicate with them.
Assuming still unconfirmed reports of the death in September of Ibragim Gajidadayev are true (Velijanov did not name him among the emirs who failed for whatever reason to attend a meeting of senior commanders in October), the senior surviving regional commander in Daghestan is probably Salikh, emir of the Central Sector. Salikh, who appears to be in his 50s, was present at that meeting.
Will April Meeting Be Held?
Since the Daghestan insurgents, and Velijanov personally, reaffirmed their loyalty to North Caucasus Emirate head Doku Umarov last summer following the acrimonious split within the Chechen insurgents’ ranks, it is incumbent on Umarov to name Velijanov’s successor. The time lag between Vagapov’s death on August 21 and the announcement that Umarov had selected Velijanov to succeed him was just nine days.
The logical venue for Umarov to name Velijanov’s successor would be at the traditional April gathering at which senior commanders discuss strategy and plans for the coming year. But it is by no means certain whether Umarov can and will convene such a meeting this year. First, attendance would make it graphically clear how many Chechen commanders have withdrawn their oath of loyalty to him and sided with Khusayn Gakayev, now identified as leader of the military forces and parliament of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria.
Second, Umarov’s closest associate and second-in-command, Supyan Abdullayev, was one of those killed in the March 28 air attack on a training camp in western Ingushetia. Umarov’s top priority is therefore to designate a successor to Abdullayev who would assume overall command in the event of Umarov’s own death.
And third, the Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai insurgency wing went into deep cover five weeks ago after three of its men were betrayed and killed, and several of its support personnel have reportedly been apprehended since then. Its leaders are presumably incommunicado and dare not venture out of their current hiding place.