Editor's Note: This is the third installment in a three-part series on the origin and future of the Caucasus Emirate, a consolidation of anti-Russian rebels into a single, Pan-Muslim resistance in the region.
Grozny fell to the Russian army on Feb. 2, 2000, and Chechen separatists and Islamist fighters took to the hills and forests. Although the Russians had won on the battlefield, guerrilla die-hards continued their asymmetric resistance while Russian forces began a systematic hunt for Chechen commanders. A sustained guerrilla war and terror campaign would also continue inside and outside of the Caucasus, with 18 major terrorist attacks taking place between August 2000 and January 2011, including the spectacular Beslan school siege in September 2004.
Despite the wave of terrorist attacks, key militant leaders were being killed, including Aslan Maskhadov in March 2005 and Shamil Basayev in July 2006. Russian and Chechen government counterinsurgency operations also steadily reduced rebel ranks as Chechnya's militancy changed from being a mixed nationalist-Islamist movement to being an entirely jihadist cause.
As the Russians expanded their operations against them, the Islamists tried to change tactics one more time. The idea was to pool resources and consolidate the various anti-Russian rebels in the region into a singular, pan-Muslim, pan-Caucasus resistance that would centrally coordinate (when possible) its fight against Moscow. On Oct. 31, 2007, approximately a year after the death of Basayev and his Wahhabi successor, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, the formation of the Caucasus Emirate (CE) was officially announced by Doku Umarov (nom de guerre "Abu Usman"), the former president of the short-lived and unrecognized Chechnen Republic of Ichkeria.
The CE's goal was to create an Islamic emirate in the North Caucasus region, stretching over the Russian republics of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and beyond. This emirate would be completely autonomous and independent of Russia and ruled by Shariah. The group carried out several attacks in a very short time, including the Moscow Metro bombing in March 2010.
The CE is an umbrella group that oversees a number of smaller regional groups and local subsets. Its central leadership core consists of the emir, currently Doku Umarov, a deputy emir and subordinate commanders leading units organized along vilaiyat (provincial) and jamaat (assembly) lines. There are six designated vilaiyats in the CE, each with numerous jamaats of fighters assigned to specific zones in varying numbers and with assorted capabilities. The CE vilaiyats currently active are:
- Nokchicho Vilaiyat, Chechnya
- Independent Nokchicho Vilaiyat (INV), Chechnya
- Galgaiche Vilaiyat, Ingushetia
- Dagestan Vilaiyat, Dagestan
- United Vilaiyat of Kabardiya (OVKBK), Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia
- Vilaiyat Nogai Steppe, Krasnodar Krai and Stavropol Krai
This organizational structure soon gave way to internal squabbling. In a video posted Aug. 1, 2010, on the Kavkaz Center website, a report indicated that Doku Umarov had resigned, supposedly due to health reasons, and had appointed fellow Chechen Aslambek Vadalov as his successor. The next day, Umarov reneged on his resignation and appointment of Vadalov. Just after the release of the resignation video, some CE leaders renounced their loyalty oath to Umarov and swore loyalty to Vadalov, leading to considerable confusion, conflict and chaos in the ranks. However, Abu Supyan Abdullayev, Umarov's second in command and the religious leader of the movement, came out in support of Umarov. This crucial support from the revered Abdullayev enabled Umarov to regain most of his followers. A split remained, however. The vilaiyat of Nokchicho was divided, with one part going with the INV under Emir Hussein Gakayev.
Abdullayev's continued support for Umarov placed the majority of the vilaiyats and their respective jamaats on Umarov's side, with the INV swearing loyalty only to the CE and not Umarov personally. This shook the already fragile relationships among the various nationalities and ethnicities dispersed across the CE, people who had their own histories of militancy but who answered mainly to a Chechen central leadership. This continued to be managed, but it would soon become a problem for the CE.
Since the high-profile attack at Domodedovo airport in Moscow in January, pieces of the CE have continued their terror operations, including a symbolic attack in February at a ski resort on Mount Elbrus in Kabardino-Balkaria that killed three tourists. The CE was demonstrating that, despite its leadership losses and setbacks, some version of the group could still hit back. And if it could hit Elbrus, it might be able to hit Sochi, 200 kilometers (120 miles) away and the planned site for Russia's 2014 Winter Olympics.
Russia's swift and methodical response to the Moscow airport attack accelerated its campaign to take down the CE leadership structure. Among those killed so far in 2011 are Deputy Emir Abu Supyan Abdullayev, Riyadus Salikhin Martyrs' Brigade commander Aslan Byutukayev (nom de guerre "Khamzat"), Dagestan Vilaiyat commander Israpil Validzhanov ("Hassan"), foreign volunteer Khaled Youssef Mohammad al-Elitat ("Muhannad"), al Qaeda emissary Doger Sevdet ("Abdullah Kurd") and nearly the entire OVKBK leadership, including Emir Asker Dzhappuyev ("Abdullah").
In the first four months of 2011, according to a report by the Monterey Institute of International Studies, the CE carried out 230 attacks in the Caucasus and in Russia, killing 121 Russian government personnel and wounding 208 more and killing 41 civilians and wounding 180 more. In the process, 98 CE fighters were killed. The most active vilaiyat was Dagestan, followed by OVKBK, Galgaiche, Nokchicho and Nogai Steppe. On May 4, Kavkaz Center reported that between April 6 and May 3, CE members carried out a total of 68 attacks, with 30 "enemies of Allah" killed and 45 injured and 34 CE "martyrs." With a total of 583 CE attacks in 2010, the CE so far appears to be sustaining the same level of violence in 2011, which makes leadership setbacks certainly detrimental but not necessarily fatal for the CE.
The steady killing of CE leaders does not necessarily spell doom for the movement. Case in point was the death of Abdullayev on March 28, which was a test for the CE — to see just how committed its members were to continuing the fight under the leadership of Umarov, since Abdullayev was seen as the glue that kept the movement from fracturing altogether. The movement appears to have passed the test, as it continues its terror attacks without vilaiyats or their jamaats breaking away from Umarov. Only those that initially broke with Umarov in August 2010 continue to deny him their loyalty.
Clearly, the CE is still capable of killing. On May 9, Krasnodar Krai police released photographs of suspected suicide bombers planning to carry out attacks in the Krasnodar Krai region, where the city of Sochi will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. The suspects are 33-year-old Eldar Bitayev, 21-year-old Viktor Dvorakovsky, 20-year-old Ibragim Torshkhoev and 27-year-old Alexander Dudkin. This suggests that the once docile Nogai Steppe vilaiyat, silent for years, has been able to recruit suicide bombers where upcoming Olympic Games will be held. Then, on May 10, long-sought terrorist suspect Viktor Dvorakovsky, a Russian convert to Islam, was thought to have shown up in Makhachkala, Dagestan, detonating himself during an identification check and killing one police officer and injuring another as well as a number of passers-by. It turned out that the suicide bomber was not Dvorakovsky but a 32-year-old Dagestani and Makhachkala resident named Abakar Aitperov. That same day, in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, five militants were reportedly killed in a shootout with police. Also on May 10, Doku Umarov appointed a new emir of the Dagestan Vilaiyat and commander of the Dagestani Front, Ibragimkhalil Daudov ("Salikh"), after its emir, Israpil Validzhanov ("Hassan"), was killed by Russian forces on April 17. This means that the most active CE vilaiyat has a new emir to lead it in the jihad against Moscow and that Umarov still commands some authority.
STRATFOR believes that the CE will be able to continue its attacks but will not pose a strategic risk to Russia, nor will the CE evolve into an Islamist uprising across the Caucasus, as it hopes to become. Russia remains in full anti-terror mode, and its leadership decapitation campaign and divide-and-conquer approach appear to be working. The insurgency is sustained but it is not growing, and Russia's already high level of security will only increase as the Olympic Games in Sochi draw closer.
But Russia is a vast expanse, and the more security that is brought into Sochi, other major population centers and tourist points of entry, the less there will be in other locations. This means that out-of-the-way places, in addition to naturally soft targets such as shopping centers and public transportation, will inevitably be exposed to greater risk. STRATFOR believes that, in addition to the localized, small-scale attacks seen before and since Domodedovo, there will likely be more symbolic attacks such as the one against the Mount Elbrus ski resort in February. These attacks could occur before or after the winter games, depending on Russian countermeasures. Attacks outside the core security ring in Sochi similar to the Centennial Park bombing during the Atlanta Summer Olympics in July 1996 are possible and would achieve the desired effect — making the Russians look unsecure if not weak in front of a global audience.
Kavkaz Center released a statement from Doku Umarov on May 17 in which he portrayed the CE movement as having no shortage of volunteers. "Generations of the Mujahideen replace each other," he said. "New young men take [the] place of the deceased. More and more young men want to join the Mujahideen, but unfortunately we cannot accept all the newcomers." While exact numbers cannot be verified, the replenishment of the CE leadership and ranks shows that there are still those who are willing to die for the cause, despite the systematic killing of CE emirs. This means that Russia's struggle to fully subdue and dominate the Caucasus is far from over.