The sudden reappearance of the suicide attack as a tactic of choice for insurgents in the North Caucasus has caused panic among security forces in the region. In attempting to account for this unwelcome trend, Chechnya’s president, Ramzan Kadyrov, has blamed the machinations of Western security agencies, as well as the advent of mind-altering psychotropic drugs for misleading young men into carrying out such attacks. Moreover, he has identified Sheikh Said Buryatsky as one of those chiefly responsible for the recent rash of suicide attacks in Chechnya and Ingushetia. Who exactly is this Buryatsky, and what is the true nature of his role within the rebel movement?
BACKGROUND: On August 26, hunafa.com, a website affiliated with insurgents based in Ingushetia, reported that Sheikh Said Buryatsky had personally carried out a devastating suicide attack on a police barracks in Nazran a week earlier. An accompanying video depicted Buryatsky in the rear compartment of a ‘GAZelle’ truck, perched alongside an enormous explosive device that would later be used to kill at least twenty people and injure over one hundred. Since arriving in the North Caucasus last summer to fight on behalf of Doku Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate, Buryatsky, a ‘well-known’ Islamic preacher according to certain sources, has been a regular contributor to various rebel websites. Favoring a somewhat quixotic style of prose, Buryatsky has set about chronicling the deeds of ordinary rebels fighting on behalf of the Emirate. Buryatsky has written a great deal about the lives of individual ‘martyrs’, with a particular emphasis on suicide bombers, and this is perhaps why Kadyrov has sought to associate him so intimately with the recruitment and training of such operatives.
Speaking in July, the Chechen president accused Buryatsky of recruiting and training Rustam Mukhadiyev, who on July 26 blew himself up on Grozny’s Teatralnaya square, killing six people. ‘Buryatsky and terrorists like him made a suicide bomber out of a normal man, a young athlete, by drugging and brainwashing him,’ Kadyrov declared. A campaign to discredit Buryatsky has been in operation for some time now. Chechen officials have accused Buryatsky of unilaterally issuing a fatwa – a binding judgment on a particular subject decreed by a religious dignitary based on this person’s interpretation of Islamic law – that would make it incumbent on all Chechen males to participate in the war against Russia. Buryatsky has strongly denied issuing any such fatwa. Meanwhile, Kadyrov has recently made a series of calculated references to Buryatsky’s ethnic heritage. In July, the Chechen president delightedly informed reporters that Buryatsky’s father was a Buddhist and his mother a Christian. ‘In a short period of time he has changed his religion three times. What does he know about Islam?’ Kadyrov insisted.
When referring to his own role within the ranks of the Caucasus Emirate, Buryatsky has been unfailingly depreciative: ‘I am neither an advisor to Doku Umarov nor the Emir of a group, only a simple mujahid…’ It is partly this lack of pretension that makes it so difficult to conceive of Buryatsky as a political-military figure of any sort, let alone the intelligence director of a mass conspiracy of suicide bombers. The news of Buryatsky’s ‘martyrdom’ seemed to confirm that Ramzan Kadyrov was exaggerating the extent of Buryatsky’s political-military influence within the insurgency: had Buryatsky been a key political thinker, military strategist or intelligence agent, then his life would hardly have been sacrificed on an errant such as this one. But on September 5, ten days after the truck bomb attack in Nazran, a message accredited to the supposedly ‘martyred’ Buryatsky was posted on hunafa.com. Stating that reports of his demise had been greatly exaggerated, Buryatsky blamed an editorial faux pas on the part of the operators of the hunafa website for the confusion.
IMPLICATIONS: Reading pieces attributed to Buryatsky posted on various rebel websites, one is struck by the fact that his writings focus almost exclusively on the lives of ordinary rebels. In general, Buryatsky, who goes by the nom de guerre, Abu Saad, prefers to avoid subjects of a demonstrably political nature. On matters of substantive political importance, such as the ongoing fraternisation between Akhmed Zakayev and Ramzan Kadyrov, Buryatsky is glad to yield to the editorial agenda outlined by the likes of Movladi Udugov, editor of kavkazcenter.com. Buryatsky, like any worthwhile preacher, is a ‘people person’ and he can be observed on numerous internet videos chatting easily with other young rebels. Ironically, in the course of writing about the lives of individual ‘martyrs’, such as Beslan Chagiyev who died in a suicide attack in Grozny in May, Buryatsky invokes the finer qualities of the deceased to extol the virtues of ‘martyrdom.’
According to Buryatsky’s account, Chagiyev, 31, was an accomplished wrestler who returned to the North Caucasus from abroad to fight on behalf of the Caucasus Emirate. Buryatsky focuses on Chagiyev’s human qualities, depicting him as a boon companion, selfless and highly motivated, even describing a good-natured wrestling match between Chagiyev and an enthusiastic young comrade. According to Buryatsky, Chagiyev decided to become a ‘martyr,’ or Shakhid, when he ‘learned about the reward for this act and the merit of martyrdom.’ Chagiyev’s story is representative of a recurring theme in Buryatsky’s writings and statements: he is habitually keen to communicate the message that the rebels in the North Caucasus are ordinary young men drawn from different communities across the region. To be sure, the rebels are marked out by their religious devoutness, says Buryatsky, but this does not make them joyless automatons devoid of any joie de vivre. The colourful story of Chagiyev and his impromptu wrestling match with a fellow rebel is designed to challenge any such perception. Buryatsky also consistently challenges the conviction, widely held among Russia’s Muslims, that the conflagration in the North Caucasus is under the directorship of Russia’s secret services, even admitting that he once wondered himself whether Doku Umarov was an FSB agent provocateur. One of Buryatsky’s central messages is that, fundamentally, Muslims fighting under Umarov’s banner are in no way different to Muslims eking out an everyday living in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities. It is unlikely that Ramzan Kadyrov truly believes that Buryatsky is directly responsible for the ongoing campaign of suicide attacks in the North Caucasus. He is, however, genuinely concerned by the activities of Buryatsky, whom he has correctly identified as an effective operator in the relentless information-propaganda war involving his government and the rebel forces at large in the region.
CONCLUSIONS: Kadyrov’s preoccupation with Buryatsky stems from the formers’ suspicion that the recent spike in suicide attacks in the North Caucasus is at least partially attributable to Buryatsky’s efforts, via electronic media, to glorify the act of ‘martyrdom.’ Buryatsky’s value to the leadership of the Caucasus Emirate arises not from the quality of his soldiering or from any military-strategic insight he might provide; rather it stems from his skill as a communicator which, in concert with his youthfulness and charisma, makes him an asset for Movladi Udugov and other doyens of the rebels’ information war against the Russian government and its agents in the North Caucasus. For those among the leaders of the Caucasus Emirate who favour the use of suicide bombers as a tactic of expedience in their war against Russia and her allies, Buryatsky has proved a valuable agent: his writings and public pronouncements have undoubtedly helped enable the emergence of a cult of the suicide bomber among young people in Chechnya and Ingushetia.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Kevin Daniel Leahy holds a postgraduate degree from University College Cork, Ireland.