Published on Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Analyst (http://old.cacianalyst.org)


By Cerwyn Moore (05/02/2007 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The reaction to the death of key figures including field commanders and leaders of the Chechen separatist movement such as Ruslan (Khamzat) Gelayev, Aslan Maskhadov, Abdul Khalim Sadullayev and Shamil Basayev, has led to a further re-organization within the resistance movement, which is in part shaped by inter-generational change and an attempt to integrate regional affiliates into its control and command. In the long term, this means that the threat posed by groups in the region will become even more difficult to counter, while the strategies they now deploy may led to the outbreak of violent confrontations in other parts of the North Caucasus.

BACKGROUND: Throughout much of the nineteenth century, there was a protracted guerrilla campaign led by Imam Shamil in the Northeastern Caucasus, and anti-Russian groups successfully received support from the Ottoman Empire. More recently, throughout the latter part of the first Chechen conflict of 1994-96, a number of press releases by Russian officials pointed towards the role not of radical Islamists, but of small numbers of mercenaries, fighting alongside the Chechen separatists. Although such groups played an insignificant military role in the first war, the integration of groups based in the region itself, such as the Ingush and Dagestani jamaats, has enabled the movement to remain a significant threat.

Among other, three particular features remain largely neglected in studies of the Chechen separatist movement. First, since 2004, Russian attempts to combat terrorism stemming from Chechnya have focused on a series of ‘special operations’ targeting key figures in the existing separatist movement, resulting in the killing of a number of significant figures. However, this has also impacted on the war-fighting strategy of the separatists. Throughout the last three years, what are labeled as mobile Mujahideen units have been deployed to harass pro-Kremlin Chechen units loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, Sulim Yamadayev, and Said Magomed Kakiev. The use of ambushes, mine-laying and sabotage have become commonplace, as has the use of targeted assassinations by pro-separatist groups.

Second, a set of connections, particularly resulting from Sufi networks and the Diaspora community, has done much to influence the capacity of the Chechen separatists to maintain a military threat. More specifically, the Chechen Diaspora community in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Jordan and Kazakhstan have been principle players in the two conflicts. The Diaspora community and Sufi networks have tied into the existing social and ethnic traditions in Chechnya. As such, the history of armed resistance and martial traditions has, at least in part, shaped the military capacity of the separatist movement.

At present, however, recent press releases have indicated that mobile detachments aligned to a new generation of pro-separatist fighters are now coming to the fore in Chechnya. While it is reported that Amir Aslambek has taken over the reins of control of the Eastern Front, following the death of Suleiman Imurzayev, it is also reported that a number of younger fighters such as Amir Ramzan have set up mobile subdivisions drawing on younger leaders, such as Tarhan, who do not have the same combat experience as the first generation of fighters, and who may well be of Turkish origin. It is reported that such groups draw upon connections with the Chechen Diaspora community in Turkey.

Finally, the separatist movement has done much to develop a localized command and control structure, with Chechen commanders developing innovative measures to counter Russian attacks. Since the rise to power of Akhmed Kadyrov, the use of asymmetrical war-fighting tactics have become commonplace, but in more recent years, these tactics have been replaced by a more flexible mixture of terrorism and military attacks designed to maintain the monopoly of fear, and exacerbate regional tensions.

In recent years, elements in the separatist movement, particularly as a result of Shamil Basayev, sought to set up military jamaats, small village-based groups of supporters and fighters, and integrate groups from outside of Chechnya proper. At the same time, small numbers of volunteers and mercenaries appear to have been trained by groups linked to Abu Hafs al-Urdani, the Jordanian-born former Amir of the Arab fighters in Chechnya, in and around the Pankisi Gorge in northern Georgia in late 2001, and perhaps in 2002. Even though links between foreign terror organizations remain unsubstantiated, Abu Hafs did help to organize a group of Turkish fighters, who became part of a unit loyal to Ruslan (Khamzat) Gelayev.

IMPLICATIONS: Since the deaths of the rebellion’s official leaders, Aslan Maskhadov and Abdul Khalim Sadullayev, questions have been raised about the coherence and effectiveness of the remaining pro-separatist Chechen groups. Indeed, some press reports have suggested that Doku Umarov, who succeeded Sadullayev as rebel leader, lacks the military or political skills needed to co-ordinate a guerrilla campaign across the North Caucasus. Following the death of Basayev, others have noted that the establishment of military jamaats has proved unsuccessful, indicating that the attack on Nal’chik, the capital of Karbadino-Balkaria, was a military failure. Russian forces appear to have been forewarned about the attack on Nal’chik, and rebel groups suffered losses, including key members of the Ingush jamaat. Nonetheless, through a recent decree, formalized in September 2006, a number of field commanders have been promoted in an attempt to re-organize anti-Russian groups across the region, pointing towards inter-generational changes in the movement. These include three promotions to the rank of Brigadier General. The first was for Suleiman Imurzayev, known as Hayrulla, and formerly Basayev’s second in command. The second promotion was for Rabbani Khalilov, the head of the Dagestani jamaat. And the final promotion was for Akmed Yevloyev, known as Magas, the head of the Kavkaz Front, which operates in and around Chechnya and the North West Caucasus.

Over recent years, the leadership of the Chechen separatist movement has done much to integrate other groups, and the promotion of Khalilov, a Dagestani, provides further evidence of an attempt to broaden the reach of the movement. Although he has already been killed, the promotion of others such as Tahir Batayev before his death in March 2007, is also of interest. Batayev was an ethnic Kumyk, and the head of the Nogai Battalion. Not only does the full integration of the Nogai Battalion illustrate a further attempt to strengthen the regional capacity of the movement, it also highlights the inter-generational change that is occurring throughout the movement itself. Former Nogai Battalion commanders such as Adam Khamsatkhanov and Yulubi Yelgushiev, who were killed in 2001 and 2004 respectively, were known to the Russian authorities as proficient fighters.

The rise of Batayev, who became the Naib (Deputy Commander) of Emir Kamal, commander of the Northern Front, who was killed in January 2006, provides evidence that an inter-generational change is occurring, as younger fighters take the reins of command in the separatist movement. Although Batayev was killed in March 2007, his rise to power in the Chechen separatist movement, the rise of others such as Muhannad, the Emir of the Arab fighters in Chechnya, and Rabbani Khalilov indicates that a younger generation of combatants, who gained experience in the second Russo-Chechen War, have now become key figures in the separatist movement. As this new generation of fighters become integrated, new regional ideas are beginning to shape the tactics and ideology of the movement as a whole.

In Ingushetia, the Sharia jamaat played an important role planning and orchestrating attacks and bombings, before helping to co-ordinate the raid on Nazran in June 2004. The leader of the jamaat, Ilyas Gorchkhanov was killed in the subsequent attack on Nal’chik in October 2005. Some commentators have suggested that the Nal’chik attack may well have been part of a larger coordinated attack in Dagestan. However, the targeted killing of figures in the Dagestani jamaat, and the successful control of Chechnya itself by pro-Kremlin forces, alongside intelligence-led counter-measures to undermine the capacity of the rebel movement, has largely prevented coordinated attacks. Moreover, while the role of Salafi ideology plays an unsubstantiated role in shaping the emergence of this network, the financial support fed to the movement through Basayev may well have played a crucial role in facilitating the movement of key peoples through the region. It appears that the death of Basayev has had an impact on the financing of the movement, and the links to supporters in the Middle East are now, perhaps, being controlled by his former deputies and those linked to Commander Muhannad.

CONCLUSIONS: As Ramzan Kadyrov was sworn in as the new President of Chechnya, having had to wait until he had reached the age of thirty because of the constitution, it was reported that Suleiman Imurzayev had been killed by pro-Kremlin forces. The death of another seasoned Chechen separatist field commander is a blow to the resistance. However, the inter-generational change of guard in the pro-Kremlin Chechen authorities, resulting from the death of Akhmed Kadyrov, is also mirrored in an inter-generational change of guard in the separatist movement. The reorganization of the Chechen separatist movement, now under the control of Doku Umarov, also illustrates a further push to promote younger fighters as field commanders. In addition, over the last three years, the movement has sought to integrate affiliated groups including the Nogai battalion; the Islamic Front of Ingushetia or Ingush jamaat; Yarmuk, the local jamaat based in Kabardino-Balkaria; and the Dagestani jamaats, in an attempt to establish a pan-Caucasian movement. Together, these two themes – the integration of regional groups and inter-generational change in the separatist movement – has led to a more decentralized threat. In the long term, this means that the threat posed by groups in the region will become even more difficult to counter, while the strategies they now deploy may led to the outbreak of violent confrontations in other parts of the North Caucasus.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Cerwyn Moore is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Nottingham Trent University.

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