By Kevin Daniel Leahy (03/21/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The so-called “Emir of the Caucasus Emirate,” Doku Umarov, issued a video statement in early February in which he ordered those under his command to desist from carrying out attacks that might injure or kill Russian civilians. This statement was remarkable given that in the past number of years Umarov has associated himself with several high-profile rebel attacks on civilian targets in the Russian heartland. Some observers have taken the content of Umarov’s statement literally and interpreted his policy shift in the context of ongoing anti-government protests in Moscow and other Russian cities. But is this interpretation entirely accurate?

BACKGROUND: Umarov rationalised his decision to proscribe future attacks against civilian targets by arguing that the protests staged in a number of Russian cities over the past several months demonstrate that Russia’s citizenry are opposed to Vladimir Putin’s rule and that, ergo, they are opposed to his policies in the North Caucasus. “Today’s events show us that the population of Russia does not support Putin and that they, too, are exploited by these perverts … they are hostages to this Chekist regime also,” Umarov explains. Some observers chose to take Umarov’s statement at face value, seeing in it an attempt by the Emir to somehow influence Russia’s presidential elections. Yet one might argue that by forbidding his followers from mounting attacks against civilian targets in Russia, Umarov was in fact surrendering the only means by which he might significantly have altered the outcome of these elections.

In reality, Umarov’s statement has less to do with the political situation in Moscow than it does with the political dynamic obtaining within the Caucasus Emirate organisation. Umarov’s position as Emir has been tenuous since a number of senior rebel leaders in Chechnya openly questioned his leadership in late 2010. While rebel organisations based in Dagestan and Ingushetia hastened to reaffirm their obedience to him, a majority of Umarov’s countrymen in Chechnya openly opposed his leadership until an unlikely public reconciliation was affected between the two parties at a meeting of Chechnya’s Sharia Court in July 2011.

The main charge levelled by the Chechen dissidents against Umarov concerned his alleged autocratic tendencies, particularly his failure to consult with them on matters of major strategic import. By Umarov’s account, the dissidents were also uneasy with his policy of conducting large-scale attacks against civilian installations in Russia, specifically the bombing of Moscow’s metro system in March 2010. Umarov was included by the U.S. government on a list of international terrorists soon after this attack and it would seem that the Chechen dissidents regarded this as a needless concession of ground in the media-propaganda dimension of the conflict. The leader of the rebel organisation in Ingushetia, one “Emir Adam,” a supporter of Umarov’s position at the time of the split, stated that he personally was “not panicking because the [Americans] placed us on the terrorist black list” – a pronouncement which implied that some of his colleagues were less than pleased about this development.

Umarov nevertheless continued to sanction such attacks following the outbreak of this dispute; he claimed responsibility for the January 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, for example, promising that more such attacks would be carried out in the future. Umarov has yet to make good on this promise. Therefore, at some point in the twelve months between February 2011 and February 2012, Umarov arrived at the conclusion that attacking civilian targets in Russia was no longer a prudent course of action to follow. It seems highly unlikely that the recent civil protests in Moscow and other cities featured prominently in the Emir’s decision making calculus.

IMPLICATIONS: When Umarov was publicly reconciled with the dissident Chechen field commanders last summer, he emerged from the proceedings in a position of apparent strength. While all parties admitted to making unspecified “mistakes,” the dissidents swore allegiance to Umarov in a public forum without, it seemed at the time, getting very much in return for their felicitations. With this strained political dynamic in mind, it is possible to construe Umarov’s recent edict as a concession to the Chechen dissidents in a field of political-military strategy that appears to concern them.

Of course, the Emir is by no means in total control of the Emirate network and it is far from certain whether every single rebel cell scattered throughout Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and indeed Chechnya, will obey his edict. In this context, it should be mentioned that Aslan Byutukayev, the leader of the so-called “Riyad us-Saliheen Martyrs Battalion,” who has been one of Umarov’s closest collaborators in recent years, does not appear in the Emir’s most recent videotaped proclamation. Byutukayev, known as “Emir Khamzat,” reportedly trained the suicide-bomber responsible for the aforementioned attack on the Domodedovo airport in 2011.

While attempting to build bridges with his opponents in Chechnya, Umarov continues to rebuild his own political foundations, appointing supporters to important posts while highlighting his relationships with influential powerbrokers within the Emirate organisation. Under the terms of the reconciliation agreed with the dissidents, for example, Byutukayev was given overall charge of Chechnya’s “Western Front.” Meanwhile, Umarov has sought to emphasise his relationship with Berg-Haj Musayev (like Byutukayev, known within the rebel fraternity as “Emir Khamzat”), an alleged financier of the rebel organisation who is based in Turkey. Musayev is a well-known personality in Istanbul’s Chechen community and his presence alongside Umarov in an internet video released last November was a significant public relations coup for the Emir, particularly as Musayev had reportedly been assassinated earlier in the year. Also, in his most recent video statement, Umarov is flanked on his right-hand-side by an individual known within the rebel ranks as “Emir Assad.” Although his real name is unknown, Assad is responsible for a zone of operations centred on the village of Makhety, in Chechnya’s southern Vedeno district. Assad is a young, well-regarded field commander, and by publicly associating with personalities like Assad and Musayev, Umarov is attempting to discredit any portrayal of him as an isolated, embattled and unpopular leader.

Umarov will have another public relations opportunity in the appointment of a new leader of the rebel organisation in Dagestan following the death of its leader, “Emir Saleh” (Ibragim-khalil Daudov). To the extent that Umarov will have any involvement in the process whereby Daudov’s successor is to be chosen it is likely to be figurative; a replacement will be selected by an exclusive group of senior insurgent leaders in Dagestan. Nevertheless, as “Emir of the Caucasus Emirate” Umarov will be expected to issue an official decree confirming the installation of this candidate. Regardless of its symbolic value, by issuing such a decree Umarov will be able to present himself as the leader of a pan-ethnic Emirate organisation, unified under his supreme leadership.  

CONCLUSIONS: In the wake of the Domodedovo attack, Doku Umarov promised that 2011 would be a year of “blood and tears” for Russia. Instead, there were no further large-scale attacks on civilian targets in 2011, and the Emir has begun 2012 by announcing that indeed there will be no further such attacks for the foreseeable future. This message will be well received by the Russian public, naturally, but it will also impress Umarov’s opponents in Chechnya, who have been unhappy with the policy of carrying out large-scale attacks in Russian cities for some time. By dispensing with this policy, Umarov is likely fulfilling one of the secret terms of his July 2011 reconciliation with field commanders Hussein Gakayev and Aslanbek Vadalov. The full terms of this agreement may not become clear for some time yet and the possibility that a timetable has already been agreed for Umarov’s resignation from his post as “Emir of the Caucasus Emirate” should not be dismissed easily. In the meantime, however, by portraying his decision to abstain from attacking civilians as a response to the emergence of a more agreeable political climate in Russia, Umarov is skilfully concealing the fact that this decision has been taken largely because of the difficult political position the Emir presently finds himself in within his own organisation in Chechnya.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Kevin Daniel Leahy holds a postgraduate degree from University College Cork, Ireland.