The Amnesty Offensive: Breaking Down Basayev’s Network

Andrew McGregor

July 27, 2006

Seven full years into the latest Russian/Chechen war, the death of the leading Chechen warlord, Shamyl Basayev, has created new conditions that the Kremlin is eager to exploit. This month’s Moscow-hosted G8 conference made it clear that the Western world has no interest in the fate of the Chechens, leaving Russian president Vladimir Putin free to pursue a military solution to the conflict. The spreading low-intensity guerrilla campaign against Russian rule in the North Caucasus is proving difficult to stamp out, however, leading to a new Russian tactic: “the Amnesty Offensive.”

Shamyl BasayevThe Late Shamyl Basayev

The Chechen Amnesty

On July 15, Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev announced a two-week amnesty for separatist fighters in Chechnya. It is the seventh amnesty since Chechnya broke away from the Federation and the third of the present conflict. It is the first federal amnesty since 2003, when nearly 200 fighters surrendered. The amnesty, which does not include foreign combatants, was not actually supported by any federal legislation and may have to wait until September to be passed by the State Duma.

The federal amnesty differs little from those offered before; it does not apply to those who have participated in “serious crimes,” such as attacking federal security forces. There are no guarantees, therefore, for any combatants who might choose to put their fate into state hands. Chechnya’s prosecutor has pointed to a more liberal interpretation of these conditions, as must happen if the amnesty offer is to have any response. The regional headquarters of the North Caucasus counter-terrorism effort maintains that those who lay down their arms will not be detained or arrested, but allowed to return home with a promise not to leave. Russia’s deputy interior minister, Arkady Yedelev, has promised that law enforcement agencies will soon end criminal prosecutions of surrendered fighters (RIA Novosti, July 18).

Although his brutal methods in eliminating the resistance and its sympathizers are well known in Chechnya, Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov has called on the guerrillas to come in from the forest. Kadyrov guaranteed “all constitutional rights and freedoms” to those who surrendered, adding that it would be “senseless to ignore the offer” (RIA Novosti, July 20). The amnesty campaign joins an existing attempt to disarm the population through offering financial rewards for all weapons turned in (Interfax-AVN, July 18). Chechen MP Magomed Khambiev, a defector himself who was the defense minister under President Aslan Maskhadov, is going abroad to convince leading Chechen exiles to return to Russia under the terms of the amnesty.

Hundreds of Chechen fighters, whether through a change of heart or an inability to support their families, have gone over to the pro-Russian administration in the last few years, creating serious problems for those still dedicated to the independence struggle. The defection of many resistance members to the pro-Russian militias of Ramzan Kadyrov has provided his government with intelligence assets that were never available to the Russian secret services, which lacked the local knowledge or linguistic abilities to penetrate resistance networks with any consistency.

The ‘Offensive’ Gathers Steam

The idea of an amnesty spread quickly through the rest of the volatile North Caucasus. Arsen Kanokov, the president of Kabardino-Balkaria, described his republic’s forthcoming amnesty as “a humane act of the Russian state (that) will serve to achieve public reconciliation in Kabardino-Balkaria.” The details have yet to be worked out, but every rebel is promised a hearing with free legal representation (Caucasus Times, July 21). The FSB office in neighboring Karachaevo-Cherkessia also issued an appeal for the republic’s insurgents to seize the chance to surrender and have their activities “examined objectively and impartially” (Caucasus Times, July 20).

In Dagestan, Interior Ministry Major-General Sergei Solodovnikov maintains that nearly all of the leadership of the Dagestan insurgents has been eliminated (with the notable exception of guerrilla leader Rappani Khalilov). The general suggests that those fighters who come in will be interrogated and “hopefully pardoned” (Kommersant, July 21). Dagestan claims to have had more success from involving the public and local elders in convincing fighters to surrender than from law-enforcement agencies.

Alu Alkhanov, president of the pro-Russian Chechen government, is urging the federal amnesty to be extended to January 1, 2007. The government claims that 7,000 fighters have gone over to the federal side in the last few years, with many of them now serving in the militias directed by Ramzan Kadyrov.

Ideological War in the Caucasus

The response of Chechnya’s rebel leader, President Dokku Umarov, to the amnesty offer and the nearly simultaneous “peace manifesto” issued by his London-based foreign minister (Akhmad Zakaev) was decisive. In reference to Zakaev’s suggestion that the status of Chechnya was in some way negotiable, the president’s office released a statement declaring, “Any actions casting a doubt on the state sovereignty of the ChRI [Chechen Republic of Ichkeria] or any attempts to discuss the ChRI’s sovereignty are a crime against the state.” Peace negotiations were rejected “until realistic conditions are ripe” and the creation of new fronts in the Urals and Volga regions was announced as a response to the unwanted amnesty (Daymokh, July 19). Kadyrov attempted to embarrass Umarov by claiming that thirteen militants under Umarov’s direct command were preparing to surrender, but so far, they have not materialized (Interfax-AVN, July 18).

Recently, Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that only 50 active fighters remain in the Chechen resistance, with possibly another 200-300 sympathizers. According to the prime minister, many of the remaining fighters in Chechnya originated in other parts of the North Caucasus, with the remainder composed of Azeris, Arabs and Turks (ITAR-TASS, July 18).

Of course, there is the question of what amnestied fighters will do after their surrender. The short-term answer has always been to absorb the fighters into local security forces, but in Chechnya the militias are already bloated and a drain on the local treasury. Massive unemployment is a major contributor to the crisis in the North Caucasus, and local administrations are finally promising to do something about it. Dagestani President Mukhu Aliev has promised 100,000 new jobs by 2010 (Respublika Dagestan, July 19). Ramzan Kadyrov sees a wholesale change in tactics in the war against “Wahhabism” (Islamist extremism) from the military to the economic: “Up until now we have fought Wahhabism with weapons, but now the republic’s leadership is changing its tactics and switching to a method of countering religious extremism by means of the word…We are shifting the emphasis to another war—the war on unemployment. If there are jobs, then people’s prosperity will rise and there will be less people willing to risk their lives for the sake of slogans” (RIA Novosti, July 17).

A War of Attrition

Every time resistance-sympathetic websites trumpet another “mujahideen victory” in which 12 Russians were killed at the loss of two mujahideen, they fail to recognize that this is in reality another defeat for Chechnya. The two mujahideen can only be replaced with great difficulty, if at all, while the supply of armed Russians is, by comparison, inexhaustible. Public resistance to the loss of Russian life has had almost no effect on the political scene. When the fighting in Chechnya turns fratricidal—between rebel forces and pro-Russian militias—the claims of “victory” by either side ring particularly hollow. While the rebel leadership has taken significant losses in the last two years, the ranks of the mid-level leadership and experienced mujahideen have been devastated by years of constant fighting. Teenagers are now often led on patrol by other teenagers, sometimes with disastrous results.

The amnesties (which in their current language appear to have the greatest possibility of applying to young men with little operational experience) are intended to remove this youngest generation of fighters from the conflict. The amnesties’ backers follow a similar script in addressing themselves to “those who were deceived by Basayev” (statement by the Karachaevo-Cherkessia FSB, quoted by the Caucasus Times, July 20), “those dragged into criminal activities” (Ramzan Kadyrov, quoted by Itar-Tass, July 18), “those who were tricked into going to the forest” (Arkady Yedelev, quoted by RIA Novosti, July 18) and “citizens of Russia deceived by gang leaders” (Nikolai Patrushev, quoted by Itar-Tass, July 18).

The Ural trucks, the APCs, all the Russian military equipment destroyed so spectacularly by IEDs and ambushes are easily replaced. Whereas the Federation once had difficulty financing its war in Chechnya, there is a new economic reality born from the soaring prices in the energy resource market, commodities with which Russia is especially blessed. The Russian armed forces now deploy only one division and one brigade within Chechnya, with lighter-armed Interior Ministry and pro-Russian Chechen militias handling most of the day-to-day military activity. Costs have been reduced, revenues have increased and control of Chechnya’s own petroleum resources has grown more important than ever.

This brings us back to the logic of Basayev: the need to create a single convulsive event that would break the will of the Russian population, whose support for the war was essential for the efforts of the Kremlin. Basayev understood the mathematics of a war of attrition, but learned the hard way (and at the expense of the resistance movement) that no terrorist act was shocking enough to deter the Putin regime from pursuing a military solution to the conflict. Maskhadov recognized the inevitable outcome of such trends when he authorized Basayev to link up the various groups of Muslim insurgents in the North Caucasus in a single command that would disperse the Russian military effort. Without Basayev’s presence, the network of North Caucasus militants he created is in danger of collapse. From this perspective, Dokku Umarov’s declaration of two new fronts in the war against Russia appears to be nothing more than bravado in a deteriorating situation.


Chechen authorities claim that 46 “rebels” have surrendered since the start of July, with not a single arrest made (Interfax, July 24). Nevertheless, promises of employment and eventual prosperity are made in defiance of the corruption so deeply entrenched in the political structures of the North Caucasus. Unless the kleptocratic tendencies of local administrations can be reformed, there is little chance of economic improvement in the region. Daily attacks by insurgents continue in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, creating an atmosphere of constant instability that amnesties alone cannot change. The Chechen resistance may be reaching the point of exhaustion, but in other parts of the North Caucasus, the fighting has only just begun, with or without the leadership of Shamyl Basayev.

This article first appeared in the July 27, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Chechnya Weekly

New Fronts, New Focus: Dokku Umarov’s War on Russia

Andrew McGregor

June 29, 2006

To the surprise of many, the independent government of Chechnya made an orderly transition of power after the killing of former President Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev earlier this month. Succeeding the charismatic Islamic scholar as president is a no-nonsense veteran of two wars against Russia, Dokku Umarov. Under Sadulayev, the resistance dreamed of liberating the entire North Caucasus under his leadership as the grand Imam and successor to the mantle of 19th century warrior Imam Shamyl. Dokku Umarov’s first statement as president marks a return to reality, as the new leader declared the dirty business of combating “national traitors” and collaborationists as his first priority.

Dokku Umarov 2Dokku Umarov

Battling the “Quislings”

The demands of the presidency will place taxing demands on Umarov’s traditional penchant for caution and his gift for concealment. In mid-May, Russian security forces discovered Umarov’s battle headquarters in a bunker in the centre of the village of Assinovskaya, only meters from the local police headquarters. (Kommersant, May 15). As president, Umarov will now have to regularly travel from his home turf in the Southwestern Front. Ironically, his greatest danger will be from fellow Chechens who may be willing to betray his presence to the security forces. Umarov recognizes that this danger is inevitable and is prepared to eliminate “collaborationists” who threaten the resistance movement, including those he describes as working “under cover of a civilian status, carrying out explosions and secret service operations against us” (Chechenpress, June 23).

In his first statement as president, Umarov declared his readiness to open “new fronts” in the struggle within the Russian Republic. While Umarov has stated that he will continue to follow Maskhadov/Sadulayev strategy of expanding the conflict through the North Caucasus, he is emphatic that his best fighters will give priority to the elimination of Chechens “in the service of the occupiers,” whether in a military or civil capacity. Even in the days before Sadulayev’s death, Chechen mujahideen repeatedly attacked the newly raised “South Battalion” of Chechen Interior Ministry troops (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 14). Targeting collaborators (munafiq-s, or “hypocrites” as they are known to Chechnya’s rebels) has always been a policy of the resistance, but one that has often made resistance leaders uneasy, as it violates the ancient proscription of “Chechen killing Chechen.” In the last few years, however, this tradition has been reduced to little more than a quaint fiction, with Umarov ready to elevate the elimination of fellow-Chechens to a core policy of his government. In a reference to the collaborationists and traitors of another war, Umarov reminded Chechens, “All nations had their ‘polizei’ and their ‘quislings.’ They always ended badly, their names voiced by the descendants with curses and contempt” (Chechenpress, June 23).

The work of Umarov’s new “special subdivision” will be to target “national traitors” from the pro-Russian Chechen militias and “war criminals” from the Russian occupation force after they have been identified and sentenced by the Sharia courts; “From now on, there will be no mercy and leniency for the executioners of the Chechen and other peoples of the North Caucasus, wherever they might be.” With their intimate knowledge of the landscape and the people, the security forces run by the Interior Ministry and the GRU (Russian military intelligence) represent a constant threat to resistance operations. These units far outnumber the forces Umarov can field, but they are often of questionable loyalty. Some recruits have joined simply as a means of making money in the absence of any other employment, and some units have had to be disbanded after allegations of cooperation with rebel forces. Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov (son of the late president, Akhmad Kadyrov, and present strongman of the Russian-supported regime) does not have the absolute loyalty of all his security forces, elements of which often have a greater allegiance to their local commanders, such as Sulim Yamadayev (leader of the East Battalion) and Said Magomed Kakiev (commander of the West Battalion).

Said Magomed KakievSaid Magomed Kakiev

Initially excluded from succeeding his father as president on account of his youth and immaturity, Ramzan Kadyrov moved to take control of the armed elements of the government and has taken measures to refine his public image while he waits to turn 30 this year, old enough to assume the presidency. Kadyrov’s efforts at self-reform are unlikely to prevent retaliation from the resistance or from the relatives of those Chechens who were abducted, tortured or murdered by his security forces.

Kadyrov now seeks to present himself as a religious leader like his father (who was once Mufti of Chechnya, before being deposed from that role by a council of elders). No doubt, Kadyrov’s sudden interest in Islam and posturing as a patron and revivalist of traditional Sufi forms of Islamic worship was largely a response to the resistance leadership of Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, a known Islamic scholar. Under pressure from Kadyrov’s religious initiatives, the current Russian-backed president of Chechnya, Alu Alkhanov, jumped on the Islamic bandwagon at talks with the Council of Europe in Paris, where he declared his preference for Sharia law in Chechnya. (AP, June 1)

Umarov Booby-Traps the Presidency

After Russian commentators finished declaring an imminent post-Sadulayev division between Umarov and Basayev, the new President surprised many by elevating Basayev to the vice-presidency only a week into his administration (Chechenpress, June 27). In doing so, Umarov consolidated the leadership of the resistance while positioning himself as Russia’s last hope for a peaceful settlement. Should Umarov meet the fate of his predecessors, Basayev will take control of the resistance without any of the moderating influences that have held him in check since the Beslan attack. Even Sadulayev hinted shortly before his death that he continued to have disagreements with Basayev over the conduct of the war. Umarov’s war aims are less ambitious than those of his new vice-president, who is prone to speak of the ultimate triumph of Chechnya and/or Islam over Russia. According to Umarov; “My vision of the end of the Russian-Chechen war consists of Russia leaving us in peace and recognizing our vested right to self-determination” (Chechenpress, June 23).

Basayev and Ramzan Kadyrov appear headed for a death-struggle after Basayev claimed responsibility for the assassination by bombing of the elder Kadyrov. Ramzan has declared that it is “his sacred duty as a Muslim and a citizen of the Russian Federation” to eliminate Basayev, while Basayev in turn has offered a reward of $25,000 for the death of Ramzan Kadyrov (RBC, June 16). The amount is only half of what was offered for his father’s death as, according to Basayev, “he isn’t worth more than that” (Kavkaz Center, June 15).


For now, the question of creating a caliphate in the North Caucasus has been set aside. There is little chance of Umarov being proclaimed Imam (a role Sadulayev was expected to fill). Umarov is a soldier and, to a lesser extent, a politician. The new president speaks of dismantling Russia’s “colonial empire,” rather than building a pan-Caucasian Islamic state. Umarov’s nationalist agenda is clear in his references to the “principles and standards of international law” and the independent legal status of Chechnya as a result of the 1997 treaty between the presidents of Russia and Chechnya.

Umarov will continue to implement his predecessor’s policy of avoiding civilian targets wherever possible (with the noted exception of collaborators). In the past, Umarov has abstained from the terrorist tactics of some of his colleagues, preferring to limit his attacks to military and police targets. Despite the efforts of radicals like Basayev to justify terrorist strikes as “tit-for-tat” reactions against Russian “state terrorism,” these tactics have proved to be strategic disasters for the international legitimacy of the resistance government. Perhaps in acceptance of Sadulayev’s religious authority, Basayev appeared to acknowledge the wisdom of refraining from terrorism during Sadulayev’s presidency. Remarks made shortly before his death, however, suggest that Sadulayev was losing his grip on the mercurial Basayev, who is too often driven by impatience and a desire for revenge (Politika, Bulgaria, June 9-15).

Basayev is likely to continue organizing rebellious elements in the Islamic North Caucasus while Umarov directs operations within Chechnya. Umarov’s intention of creating new fronts within Russia is a task that will no doubt be handed to Basayev. Both men are established veterans of guerrilla warfare, and an effective partnership between them may present new military challenges to the Russian Federation and its adherents in Chechnya.

This article first appeared in North Caucasus Analysis 7(26), December 31, 2006

Islam, Jamaats and Implications for the North Caucasus – Part Two

Andrew McGregor

June 15, 2006

Many of the military leaders of the North Caucasian jamaats were trained by warlord Ruslan Gelayev in the Pankisi Gorge before he led his guerrilla forces back into Ingushetia and Chechnya in the fall of 2002. Gelayev, like Shamil Basayev, was a graduate of the pan-Caucasian movement and commanded fighters from the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic (KBR) and the Karachai–Cherkessian Republic (KCR) in the 1999 raids on Dagestan. A young fighter named Muslim Atayev emerged as the leader of approximately 30 Kabardino-Balkarians in Gelayev’s command. Shortly after participating in the battle of Galashki in Ingushetia, Atayev was detailed to lead his men back into the KBR to set up a resistance group. Based in the mountains, this group evolved into the Yarmuk Jamaat. The name of the jamaat reflects its military intent, referring to the Yarmuk River near the Golan Heights where an outnumbered army of Muslims inflicted a decisive defeat on the forces of the Byzantine Empire in 636 AD.

Muslim AtayevYarmuk Jamaat Founder Muslim Atayev

The Yarmuk Jamaat armed itself through an attack on the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) headquarters in December 2004. Atayev justified the attack (in which four Kabardin policemen were killed) by accusing the Drug Control Service of being the main distributor for narcotics in the region (Kavkaz Center, December 15, 2004). Basayev visited Atayev in Baksan where future operations were planned. Atayev was eventually killed in a Nalchik gun battle in January 2005.

Shamil Basayev also has deep roots in the pan-Caucasian movement, particularly with his involvement in the military activities of the Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus in the early 1990s. His raids on Dagestan in 1999 also had a strong pan-Caucasian element, with many of the fighters under his command originating from North Caucasus republics other than Chechnya. It is these contacts that Basayev has exploited successfully in building a centralized command for the region’s disparate resistance groups. Aslan Maskhadov’s successor as president, Sheikh Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, appears to share Basayev’s sentiments, calling for the liberation and unification of the entire Caucasus. Recently, he went so far as to offer Chechnya’s complete support to Georgia’s struggle with what Sadulayev termed “Russia’s terrorist activity and imperial ambitions” (Chechenpress, May 15, 2005).

The Caucasian Jamaats in Action

Russian authorities still claim that the 1999 bombings of Moscow apartment blocks were carried out by a KCR jamaat under the direction of the late Arab mujahideen commander Ibn al-Khattab. In recent years, urban shootouts with members of the KCR’s Jamaat No. 3 have become common. The organization has been accused by security services of directing suicide bombers in Moscow.

In the last two years, the jamaats have engaged in urban warfare in cities across the Caucasus. This fighting is usually of two types, the first being planned actions by insurgents designed to eliminate selected targets and seize arms for further operations. The second arises when federal intelligence or police discover the presence of jamaat members in urban safe houses. In these cases, a crisis typically develops when the insurgents refuse to surrender. Long gun battles have followed in most cases that have exposed a tendency by state security forces to use maximum force, often with mixed results. The inevitable security sweeps and abductions that follow do little to reassure residents of the North Caucasus that Moscow can be called upon to protect the local population.

North Caucasus Map 2Jamaats are active elsewhere besides the KBR. In Ingushetia, the local Sharia Jamaat has been active in bombings and attacks on security forces as well as participating in the Basayev-led raid on the Ingushetian city of Nazran in June 2002. In Dagestan, another Sharia Jamaat is engaged in a violent struggle with the republic’s Interior Ministry forces that threatens to rival the conflict in Chechnya. According to Sadulayev, these jamaats, as well as others in the Adygea, Stavropol and Krasnodar regions, pledged their allegiance to him after the death of Aslan Maskhadov (Gazeta Wyborcza, September 9, 2005). Sadulayev himself was amir of the Argun military jamaat before the current Chechen war erupted.

The Raid on Nalchik

The Nalchik raid of October 2005 differed from the previous year’s raid in Nazran in that it was directed and carried out almost exclusively by local militants, rather than by Chechen fighters who needed to be transported to Nazran and back to safe bases in Chechnya. Even Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that there were no “outside gunmen” present at Nalchik (, October 16, 2005). The KBR’s minister of culture noted that the militants did not belong to any one ethnic group, suggesting that the attacks were not just an eruption of Balkar dissatisfaction. The raid demonstrated how independent jamaats could mobilize in the “Caucasus Front” envisioned by Aslan Maskhadov, and now pursued by his successor, Sadulayev. KBR President Arsen Kanokov noted that low income and unemployment had “created the soil for religious extremists and other destructive forces to conduct an ideological war against us” (AP, October 14, 2005).

Yet, while the militants were mostly local, their commanders were not. A look at the operational command demonstrates how the Chechen-style command structure works in action. Basayev carried out what he describes as “general operative management.” By accepted rules, the amir responsible for the sector in which the action is to take place assumes operational command (Kavkaz Center, October 15, 2005). In this case, it was Anzor Astemirov (also known as Amir Seifulla). The amirs of other sectors were each given responsibilities under Astemirov’s command. One of those killed in the assault on Nalchik’s FSB headquarters was Ilyas Gorchkhanov, the leader of the Ingush Jamaat. The amirs of Ossetia and Krasnodar regions were also wounded.

After the raid, Astemirov correctly pointed out that despite months of preparation, no one in the local population betrayed the militants. For his part, Russian Presidential Representative Dimitri Kozak was vocal in his criticism of the lack of intelligence available on the Yarmuk Jamaat. In fact, Russia’s advance knowledge of the raid came from the interrogation of a captured militant, Anzor Zhagurazov, who revealed plans for a large-scale attack on Nalchik five days before it happened. A cache of a half ton of explosives was discovered based on his information, and several hundred members of the Russian special forces were sent to Nalchik. Despite this, the militants carried out an assault on government and military targets that lasted several hours and reaped large quantities of captured weapons; at least 40 militants were killed. The attack on Nalchik appears to have been planned to coincide with a similar attack in Dagestan that was prevented by the death of several of its main planners in a Russian operation.

Battlel of UhudBattle of Uhud

Astemirov compared the raid to the Battle of Uhud, fought in 625 AD by the Muslims of Medina against the Meccans (Kavkaz Center, January 10). The Muslim army of Muhammad suffered a setback that day due to their overconfidence, but eventually regrouped to emerge triumphant. Astemirov also suggested that the anti-Russian jihad must be fought on the home ground of all the Muslims of the North Caucasus.

The militarization of the jamaat movement may yet provide Sadulayev with the power base he needs to assume the role of Imam of the Caucasus. The job of centralizing control will be difficult, and will ultimately expose members of the network. The Chechen leadership, however, realizes that the Kremlin has succeeded in closing Chechnya to the outside world. The conflict with Russia has settled into a war of attrition, which the Chechens cannot possibly win. Without spreading the conflict, their best hope is for a withdrawal of Russian forces, allowing for a civil war with the pro-Moscow forces of Ramzan Kadyrov. A full blown fratricidal struggle would reduce the fighting strength of Chechnya to insignificance, a solution to the “Chechen Problem” that might prove satisfactory in Moscow.

Recent political developments in the Caucasus have reminded many residents of the troubled history of the region’s relations with Russia. As memories surface of the Circassian exodus and Stalin’s deportations, the limited benefits of Russian rule threaten to be overwhelmed by history. Imam Shamyl’s 19th century rebellion is undergoing a revival in popularity. In current conditions, the attraction of a revived Imamate under the direction of Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev may be great enough to make young militants forget that Shamyl’s three decades of rebellion ended in the utter devastation of his followers in Dagestan and Chechnya (as Vladimir Putin has lately taken to reminding citizens of the North Caucasus).


While it is difficult to envision the jamaats as a military threat to the Russian Federation, it may prove impossible for the Kremlin to deal effectively with five insurgencies at once, or to address international questions as to why Russian rule in the region has spun out of control. Bombings and other attacks have spread right into the Stavropol and Krasnodar regions of the Russian Republic, indicating an ever-widening scope of operations for anti-Russian militants.

The Islamic combat jamaat in the North Caucasus is more than a religious phenomenon. Economic and territorial issues are also important factors in the recruitment of young fighters, who otherwise find themselves unemployed and disenfranchised. Last November, President Putin’s envoy, Dimitri Kozak, warned that the proliferation of what he describes as “Islamic Sharia enclaves” in remote areas of the Caucasus would soon immerse the entire region in conflict. This result was inevitable if military measures were taken without addressing state corruption and other social and economic problems. In these conditions, the revival of the dormant pan-Caucasus movement has found a rallying point in Salafist Islam, but one rooted in local tradition with local leaders. Russia’s pre-emptive counter-terrorism policy and repression of Islamic activities outside the realm of state-approved Islamic structures continues to feed the insurgency. The emergence of the “military jamaat” threatens to stretch Russian resources to the limit and turn the North Caucasus into a minefield of anti-Russian resistance.

This article first appeared in the June 15, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Islam, Jamaats and Implications for the North Caucasus – Part One

Andrew McGregor

June 2, 2006

In the last few years, Russian security forces have inflicted considerable damage on Chechen resistance forces, most notably with the elimination of Chechnya’s president, the late Aslan Maskhadov. Like hitting a pool of burning oil with a hammer, however, their military blows have sent the fires of insurgency across the North Caucasus. These flames are now nurtured by the evolution of a new resistance structure, the military jamaat.

North Caucasus Map 1The traditional jamaat is not a new social structure in the Caucasus. Its roots can be found in the early jamaats of Dagestan at the time of Islamization. The jamaats were tribal-based communal organizations with political and economic roles. In time, the jamaats also assumed a defensive military role and commonly merged into more powerful confederations when the external threat was severe.

Today, in its simplest terms, a jamaat is a local community of Muslims, organized at an often basic level to share spiritual pursuits. Jamaats may be found from Wisconsin to Wessex, and in general have little to do with radical Islam. There are others, however, like Egypt’s notorious Gama’a al-Islamiyya that have been responsible for acts of terrorism carried out in pursuit of an Islamic state. In the North Caucasus, the modern jamaat movement has been growing for nearly 20 years, producing both peaceful and militant varieties of the organization. In the last few years, however, there has been a tendency for North Caucasian jamaats to form the basis for military resistance to the administrative and security structures of the Russian Federation. Not all militants are members of a jamaat, but these organizations have taken the lead in the fighting against Russian federal forces outside of Chechnya.

Origins of the Caucasian Jamaats

In South Russia’s present cauldron of religious, political and ethnic conflict, many jamaats have developed an Islamist political agenda. Their concerns, like their origins, tend to be local in nature. Land claims, mosque closings, moral laxity, political corruption, police brutality and other local problems dominate their public statements. Rarely is there mention of other theaters of the war on terrorism, or references to the so-called “global jihad.”

The involvement of the jamaats in the fight against Moscow appears to have been part of a plan conceived by Aslan Maskhadov not long after the expulsion of his forces from Grozny in 2000. As a veteran Soviet officer, Maskhadov understood the strategic need to broaden military resistance beyond the confines of Chechnya. Shortly before his death in 2005, Maskhadov declared that, by his orders, “additional sectors were established [early in the conflict]: Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Dagestan, etc. Amirs of these fronts were appointed, and they are all subordinate to the military leadership of the Chechen resistance” (RFE/RL, March 7, 2005). Despite their many differences, the agent of Maskhadov’s efforts to expand the conflict was warlord Shamil Basayev.

Are the Jamaats Wahhabist?

Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, who is himself a Muslim, has described the entire North Caucasus as a “breeding ground for Wahhabism,” a very loaded term in Russian political discourse (Interfax, September 21, 2004). Can the jamaats actually be described as Wahhabist? Their adopted brand of Islam is Salafist in nature, drawing on the example of the model community established by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. In this way, they earn themselves the deprecating name of “Wahhabists” from Russian authorities (the term is borrowed from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist movement, the most severe example of Salafi beliefs).

The Wahhabis were, and are, a puritan-style Islamic revivalist movement started in 18th century Arabia to eliminate the religious innovations that had attached themselves to Islamic worship since the days of Muhammad. The Wahhabist movement has used their alliance with Saudi Arabia’s ruling family to spread their version of Islam internationally. Roaming Arab preachers made some inroads in the Caucasus in the early 1990s, but members of the generation that now provides the young membership of the jamaats are to a large degree discovering Salafi Islam on their own initiative.

The Salafists of the jamaats, like the Wahhabis of Arabia, reject the veneration of saints, requests for their intercession or pilgrimages to their tombs. These are all cornerstones of Sufi worship, which has until recently dominated Caucasian Islam. In some places, a war of words has erupted between the leaders of official state-sponsored Islam and the independent jamaats. Fairly typical is a recent condemnation of the official imams of Dagestan by the local Sharia Jamaat. The jamaat denounced official Islam as nothing more than “ancestor worship,” closer to Buddhism than Islam as it involves the veneration of “tombs, amulets and sacred monks.” These conflicts have impeded the growth of Salafism in Sufi religious communities, and the jamaats’ insistence on the rule of Sharia law alienates the still overwhelmingly secular population of the North Caucasus republics.

Of course, in Russia “Wahhabi” now refers to nearly all Muslims acting outside of official Islam, with the added association since 2001 of somehow being linked to al-Qaeda. It appears that none of the active jamaats have expressed any solidarity with Osama bin Laden’s group, though they do cooperate with the diminishing number of Arab mujahideen still active in the Caucasus. Since the September 11 attacks, when all “Chechen bandits” became “international terrorists,” Russian security services have maintained that the Chechen resistance is directed and funded by bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. The Chechen conflict, far from being directed by al-Qaeda, seems to have barely registered with bin Laden and his associates. Russian security forces have spent so long dealing with the elusive threat of al-Qaeda and the pursuit of terrorist non-entities like Achimez Gochiyayev that they have failed to notice the growth of a more concrete threat to the Federation’s stability. The jamaats enjoy a flexibility and insularity that have allowed their proliferation without much interference from the police.

Strategic Advantage of the Jamaat Organization

Islam in the Caucasus survived the long period of Soviet rule by decentralizing. Kremlin-directed official Islam sought to create rigid hierarchies and careful documentation of observant Muslims and their activities. Unofficial Islam went in the opposite direction. The Caucasus region’s leading order of Sufis, the Naqshbandi Brotherhood, continued to thrive by rejecting a traditional Sufi hierarchy of hereditary leadership. Naqshbandi spiritual leaders were chosen largely by consensus (with some exceptions), so that their arrest or demise did not threaten the continued existence of the lodge. Generally small in numbers (40 or less), their strong local base, reinforced by ethnic, clan and family ties, usually defied all Soviet attempts at infiltration. The other leading Sufi brotherhood, the Qadiris, maintained a hierarchal system that exposed their leaders to targeting by Soviet police.

It is important to recognize that the Soviet-era Naqshbandi Sufi lodges were not intended to wage any kind of military resistance. They do, however, provide a proven method of organizing locally while avoiding the attention of authorities. The jamaats are similar to the Sufi lodges in many ways, even if they represent conservative rather than popular forms of Islam. They rely almost exclusively on local membership and leaders. In most cases the jamaats are created spontaneously, fulfilling the spiritual needs of those returning to the Islamic fold. Official Islam, stained by corruption and pro-Kremlin subservience, has failed in its attempts to rein in the Islamic revival. It is the energy of the underground jamaats that Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev has devoted the last few years to harnessing.

Both Dagestan’s Sharia Jamaat and Kabardino-Balkaria’s Yarmuk Jamaat have made attempts to broaden their ethnic membership from the original core group. The Salafist interpretation of Islam practiced by the jamaats is open to a broader membership than the old Sufi lodges. The Yarmuk Jamaat made a statement explicitly rejecting any attempts to represent the jamaat as a “monoethnic organization” (, February 4, 2003). Russian converts to Islam have also joined the jamaats, and a few of these converts have been involved in combat actions. According to pro-Russian Chechen militia leader Sulim Yamadayev, these individuals have found their way to the jamaats from Krasnodar, Volgogrod, Stavropol and the Astrakhan Oblast.

This article first appeared in the June 2, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Dokku Umarov: The Next in Line

Andrew McGregor

January 6, 2006

While warlord Shamyl Basayev dominates the headlines of the Chechen conflict, a lesser-known guerrilla leader has worked his way into a crucial position in the Chechen leadership. Dokku Umarov was appointed vice-president in the new administration of President Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev in June 2005. A native of southwestern Chechnya, the 40-year-old Emir has already been entrusted with the command of several fronts beyond his original post in the southwestern sector. Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel noted as recently as last July that the northern district “is controlled by Umarov.”

Dokku UmarovDokku Umarov


A veteran of the 1994-96 war, Umarov served as security minister in Aslan Maskhadov’s postwar government. Umarov began the current war in 1999 as a field commander working closely with warlord Ruslan Gelayev. After the dual disasters of the evacuation of Grozny and the battle of Komsomolskoe in early 2000, Umarov and Gelayev crossed the mountains into the Pankisi Gorge of Georgia, where they rebuilt their commands. Georgian intelligence reported Umarov leading 130-150 fighters in the Gorge before his return to Chechnya in the summer of 2002 (Civil Georgia, January 20, 2003). Gelayev gave Umarov several Strela missiles, which Umarov’s forces used to good effect against Russian helicopters in the fighting around Shatoi in 2003 (Chechenpress, December 4, 2002).

Gelayev was killed in February 2004 after a disastrous attempt to lead a group of fighters over the mountains of Dagestan into Georgia. After Gelayev’s death, many of his men joined Umarov’s command. Russian security services created a scenario based on the alleged testimony of a prisoner (Baudi Khadzhiev) in which Umarov urged Gelayev to undertake an operation in Dagestan that he knew would be fatal in order to take over Gelayev’s command. The allegation was part of a long tradition of Russian reports about feuding commanders and dissension in the Chechen ranks. Gelayev’s family was quick to point out that their clan and the Umarov family are closely related (an important consideration in clan-conscious Chechnya).

In early February of this year, Russian security suggested that Umarov and Basayev were arranging a meeting of Chechen and Arab field commanders in Grozny to mark the one-year anniversary of Gelayev’s death (Vremya no. 16, February 2, 2005). Later in the month Maj.-Gen. Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for the Russian command in the North Caucasus, claimed that Russian special forces had destroyed three units of Umarov’s command on their way to Azerbaijan to wipe out Gelayev’s family at a ceremony marking the first anniversary of Gelayev’s death. The family’s alleged declaration of blood vengeance against Umarov provided the motive. The details of this unlikely plot came from the interrogation of a mortally wounded Chechen (RIA Novosti, February 25, 2005). Several Ingush clans have also been reported as having declared blood vengeance against Umarov as a result of deaths suffered in the Nazran operation of 2004.

Like most Chechen field commanders, Umarov has been declared dead on several occasions. In the last year Russian forces have intensified their efforts to eliminate him. In January 2005, he was reported killed in a gun battle with Russian commandos near the Georgian border. In March, Umarov was reported as having been seriously wounded by a spetsnaz assassination team. After stepping on a landmine sometime later, Umarov was reported to have lost a leg, but was only injured. In April, Russian Special Forces destroyed a small guerrilla unit in a seven–hour battle in Grozny after receiving intelligence that Umarov was with them, but he was not found among the dead.

Umarov struck back in an attack on Roshni-Chu in August, but in September the Russian Interior Ministry declared victory over Umarov’s fighters, finding Umarov’s “grave” in the process. In October, Umarov was again reported dead in the raid on Nalchik. In a new tactic designed to put pressure on resistance leaders, masked men in uniform abducted Umarov’s father, brother, wife and baby. Umarov believes those responsible are members of the “Oil Regiment,” a notorious loyalist unit better known for kidnappings than its nominal mission of guarding pipelines.

Relations with Basayev

Chechen Duma Deputy Ruslan Yamadaev suggests that Umarov is currently part of Basayev’s “terrorist wing” of the Chechen resistance, but Umarov distanced himself from Basayev after the latter claimed responsibility for the Beslan outrage (Interfax, March 9, 2005). Only a few months earlier, Umarov had played a leading role with Basayev in organizing the military assault on Nazran in Ingushetia (June 21-22, 2004). Umarov firmly refuted the value of terrorist attacks such as Beslan: “In the eyes of the resistance such operations have no legitimacy,” he said. “We ourselves were horrified by what they did in Beslan” (RFE/RL, July 28, 2005). During the crisis Umarov was repeatedly identified by security services as the leader of the Beslan hostage-takers, a claim that has never been substantiated in any fashion. Umarov emphasized the military nature of his own war: “Our targets—these are the Russian occupation forces, their bases, command HQ’s, and also their armed servicemen from the numbers of local collaborationists, who pursue and who kill peaceful Muslims. We will attack, where we think it’s necessary. Civil objects and innocent civilians are not our targets” (Kavkaz Centre, July 1, 2004).

In May 2005, Maj. Gen. Shabalkin accused Umarov of joining warlord Shamyl Basayev and President Sadulayev in planning a suicide truck-bombing in Grozny. The trio were also said to be planning large-scale civilian massacres in several towns of the North Caucasus by using cyanide “in highly populated areas, key installations and in reservoirs.” A Jordanian emissary of both al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood allegedly provided the cyanide. Proof of the plot was provided in the form of a photo of a Russian in a white lab-coat holding a vial of clear liquid, identified as cyanide. The strategic advantage the Chechen leadership might hope to gain through committing such outrageous atrocities remains unexplained. The allegations came at the same time Sadulayev was trying in his public statements to distance the resistance from terrorist methods.

Four days after Shabalkin made these allegations, Umarov responded by promising large-scale military activities within Russia before the end of the year. This promise seems to have been fulfilled by the October raid in Nalchik, in which Umarov played a leading role (Chechenpress, May 9, 2005).


Umarov is one of the last veteran commanders from the 1994-96 Chechen-Russian war still alive and active in the fighting. He bears the scars and limp of multiple wounds, but his commitment to the conflict remains inflexible. He regards death in battle as an inevitability, and has publicly expressed his hope that those Chechen men who have not fully participated in the war “will all burn in the fire of Hell!” Although Umarov admits he has grown much closer to Islam during the last decade of conflict, he is openly scornful of suggestions that he is a “Wahhabi” or radical Islamist: “I have a whole [military] front,” he said. “I go along that front and I don’t see people fighting to bring the world Wahhabism or terror” (RFE/RL, July 28, 2005). It is unlikely that Umarov’s new role as vice-president will interfere with his ongoing military operations. These days there is not a great deal of paperwork to do in the resistance government. Nevertheless, the appointment was hardly symbolic, considering the record of three successive violent deaths of Chechen presidents (four including the Russian-backed presidency of Akhmad Kadyrov). In the volatile and dangerous world of Chechen politics, Dokku Umarov now stands next in line for the leadership of the Chechen resistance, barring renewed aspirations for this role by Shamyl Basayev.

This article first appeared in North Caucasus Analysis 7(1), January 6, 2006

Upheaval in Nalchik: New Directions in the Chechen Insurgency

Andrew McGregor

November 3, 2005

When Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev succeeded the late Aslan Maskhadov as the leader of the Chechen resistance, he was initially described by Russian sources as an Arab and a representative of al-Qaeda. Even after it was shown that the new President was a Chechen, many observers suggested that the presidency of the Islamic scholar would function merely as a rubber-stamp for the terrorist ambitions of warlord Shamil Basayev, Arab fighter Abu Hafs and others. Contrary to these expectations, the young President has moved the Chechen resistance away from terrorism and any potential association with al-Qaeda. Military operations are the order of the day, and expansion of the conflict is the long-term strategy. While Maskhadov was never able to assert complete control over extremist factions in the resistance, the raid on Nalchik (capital of Kabardino-Balkaria) suggests that Sadulayev is ready to pursue a unified military solution to the Chechen conflict (unless Russia offers terms for peace). Recent events also demonstrate the growing influence of Chechen field commanders like Doku Umarov, who have respectable military records relatively untainted by charges of terrorism.

Nalchik 1Urban Combat during the Nalchik Raid

The Nalchik Raid

As Basayev admits, the Nalchik raid was, in some ways, a botched job. As early as October 8, a captured militant informed police that a large-scale attack was about to be launched on Nalchik [1]. On October 11, a large cache of explosives was discovered, followed by a party of militants being trapped in a Nalchik suburb on the morning of the 13th. According to Basayev, local fighters insisted on carrying out their plans despite Russian awareness that an attack could be imminent. When the raid began, parents worried about another Beslan massacre and rushed to evacuate the schools, but these did not figure in the militants’ list of targets.

Basayev reported that the mujahideen “stormed 15 military objects” [2] and British-based rebel spokesman Akhmad Zakayev used the phrase “legitimate military operation” to describe the raid [3]. The “military targets” of the rebels were carefully listed in their post-raid statements. Sadulayev cited strict orders to the fighters to avoid civilian casualties at all costs: “Our soldiers attacked military targets… where there were no civilian citizens… Such military operations by our troops will from now on become, God willing, the constant lot of the occupiers and their servants everywhere in the Caucasus” [4].

The attack was more effective than Russian spokespersons have admitted to, and the number of “Wahhabi” dead has almost certainly been inflated by adding the bodies of male civilians to their totals. Though their own casualties were high (with 41 out of 217 insurgents killed, according to Basayev), most of the raiders appear to have escaped with captured arms. It was a poor showing by Russian security forces who had several days advance notice of the raid and were reinforced by hundreds of Special
Forces members.

Most significantly, the Nalchik operation was almost exclusively carried out by fighters from the “Caucasian Front” established by Maskhadov. These Ingush, North Ossetians, Karachays, and Cherkess joined local Kabardians and Balkars in carrying out their missions with only minimal Chechen involvement in the operation. This constitutes a major difference from the Nazran raid of June 2004, when Ingush militants received substantial Chechen assistance.

New Leadership from the President

Relations between Maskhadov and Basayev were always influenced by their past, thus inhibiting cooperation between the two. Basayev needed Maskhadov to legitimize the resistance movement through his elected role as president, while Basayev was too valuable (and too powerful) for Maskhadov to eliminate. In Maskhadov’s last year the two continued to cooperate on military raids (like that on Nazran), while Basayev otherwise remained outside the official command structure as leader of his own battalion of suicide-fighters. Sadulayev’s presidency allows Basayev a chance to reintegrate with the Chechen command. Before Maskhadov’s death in March 2005, Basayev claimed to be preparing “more Beslans.” By June, Sadulayev was declaring that “the Chechen government does not plan any operations similar to the Beslan one” [5]. Of course, all this has been tried before. Maskhadov was in a perpetual struggle to harness Basayev’s energies in strictly military operations, but with limited success. (Basayev has noted that in his disagreements with Maskhadov, Sadulayev acted as “a counterbalance in my opposition… not allowing us to overstep the mark”). The Sadulayev/Basayev relationship is significantly different, and will eventually be put to the test by the mercurial Basayev.

Nalchik 2Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev

For the first time in the modern struggle, Chechens have a religious scholar at their fore, a more traditional type of leadership than the soldier-turned-politician model of Dudayev and Maskhadov. This thought was no doubt in the forefront in Maskhadov’s mind when he chose a successor. A native religious figure would allow for a unifying presence at the top and a chance to refute damaging (and popularly held) allegations that the Chechen armed forces are led and directed by Arab Islamists connected to al-Qaeda.

In a June 2005 Chechen-language video statement, Sadulayev addressed the Chechen people in terms very similar to those used in the manifestos of the Yarmuk Jama’at in Kabardino-Balkaria (an “assault subdivision” of Yarmuk took part in the Nalchik raid). The concerns are local rather than international: the evil of drug addiction, the inviolability of Chechen women, respect for elders and the loss of traditional values. These are basic appeals to the day-to-day reality of Chechen life; the strong social net having been ripped asunder by violence. Sadulayev calls for spiritual regeneration through dedication to the expulsion of the Russians. The president also dispensed with the epithet of “Wahhabism” as applied to the Chechen resistance by affirming that Chechens already knew how to pray in mosques and observe Islamic customs long before the word “Wahhabi” was heard in the North Caucasus [6].

The Search for Legitimacy

Sadulayev has repeated his view on terrorism at every opportunity: attacks must be limited to military and economic objectives, unarmed civilians are to be left alone, and any deviation from this represents an abandonment of Chechen values. Sadulayev is following Maskhadov’s lead in distancing the Chechen struggle from association with al-Qaeda or any other Arab jihadist struggle (in an interview just before his death, Maskhadov maintained that bin Laden “couldn’t find Chechnya on a map” [7]). In his statements there is an emphasis on the Caucasian struggle, and no mention of Iraq or other hot-spots of the war on terrorism. According to Sadulayev, the Chechen resistance “recognizes conventional international law and respects the democratic values established in the foundations of the state structures of many countries of the world; but on the other hand, these must not become a pretext for imposing laws on the Chechens that contradict our spiritual values” [8].

The assassination of Chechen ex-president Zelimkhan Yandarbaev (responsible for fund-raising in the Persian Gulf states) by Russian agents in Qatar and the attraction of the Iraq war for militant Islamists have combined to decrease Arab funding and influence in the Chechen conflict. Rather than “go it alone” with severely depleted resources, the Chechens have created another option—spreading the conflict to divert pressure from Chechnya while using the arms stockpiles of Russian security services as convenient armories.

Both Sadulayev and Basayev complain that the international media, which has an otherwise insatiable appetite for “terrorist” actions, routinely ignores Chechen military operations. The Chechen information war has ground to a near halt for lack of funding. It is an ongoing dilemma for the Chechen leadership, which desperately need to bring international attention to its cause. Basayev thought he had discovered the answer by turning the Russian methods of “state terrorism” against the Russians themselves in failed terrorist actions at Beslan and the Nord-Ost Theatre in Moscow. Although his arguments have a certain post-moral logic to them, his practical efforts in this vein have set the Chechen cause back rather than furthered it. Periodic city-scale assaults on military and political targets may provide a means of putting the North Caucasus on the front pages without risking the international approbation that follows mass hostage-takings.


The importance of having a native Islamic scholar leading the Chechen resistance cannot be overstated. Sadulayev himself draws upon the 18th and 19th century rebellions of Shaykh Mansur and Imam Shamil in calling for a pan-Caucasian uprising. If the Chechen command wishes to exploit the growing dissatisfaction with Russian rule in the North Caucasus, then they will need the cooperation of Basayev. A veteran of pan-Caucasian organizations since the early 1990s, it is Basayev who has traveled through the Northern Caucasus in the last few years, developing ties to militant groups. Many of his personal links, such as to Dagestan guerrilla leader Rappani Khalilov, date back to Basayev’s pan-Caucasian legion that carried out the ill-considered attacks on Dagestan in 1999.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to impose order in the Caucasus rather than create it, the Russian Duma passes more counter-terrorism bills designed to eliminate the mounting insurgency with a few strokes of the pen. For years Russian security forces in the North Caucasus have trumpeted their repeated destruction of a phantom “terrorist organization” led by Karachay fugitive Achimez Gochiyayev while a real uprising was brewing beneath their feet. Systematic corruption, arbitrary police brutality and needless provocations like closing most mosques (as in Kabardino-Balkaria) have severed the allegiance of many young men from the state. The Nalchik raid was in no way a general uprising, but was successful enough to aid in the ongoing recruitment of fighters.

Sadulayev is poised to become a force by proving that his talk of a “Caucasian Front” against Russia is not empty, but he will need to rein in the excesses of Commander Basayev and others. The now daily fighting between security forces and jama’at members in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria are the fall-out from Moscow’s decades-old mismanagement of the North Caucasus region, and provide fertile ground for Sadulayev’s leadership—if he survives assassins long enough.


  1. “Militants planning airport bomb attack detained in North Caucasus,” RIA Novosti, October 8, 2005.
  2. Statement from Military Amir Abdallah Shamil Abu-Idris (Shamil Basayev) on results of assault operation in Nalchik on 13 October, 2005, Kavkaz Center, October 17, 2005.
  3. Neil Buckley: “Chechen battle statement spurs Moscow anger with London,” Financial Times, October 15, 2005.
  4. Statement by President of the ChRI Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, October 18, 2005,
  5. “Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev: ‘We promise Russians war up to the victorious end’” Text of interview with Radio Marsho, June 30, 2005,
  6. “Statement of the President of the ChRI, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev to the Chechen People”, June 2, 2005,
  7. Liz Fuller: “Chechen leader gives exclusive interview to RFE/RL”, March 7, 2005,
  8. “Message from the President of the ChRI, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, to the Chechen nation”, March 14, 2005,

This article first appeared in the November 3, 2005 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

The Jamaat Movement in Kabardino-Balkaria

Andrew McGregor

April 6, 2005

Shortly before his death in March 2005, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov made some interesting remarks about the spreading political violence in the Russian republics of the Northwest Caucasus. Maskhadov described the necessity of “broadening the front of military resistance” after the Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1999: “On my orders, additional sectors were established: Ingush, Kabardino-Balkar, Daghestan, etc. Emirs [commanders] of these fronts were appointed, and they are all subordinate to the military leadership of the Chechen resistance.”

KBR 1There was something strange about these remarks. The republics in question were relatively quiet in the early years of the war, and Maskhadov frequently presented himself as an opponent of spreading the war from Chechnya to its neighbors. The “admission” may have been an attempt to apply pressure on the Kremlin to negotiate by presenting the Chechens as controlling the growing cycle of violence. Nevertheless, urban warfare between militants and security forces has become common in the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic (KBR).

Yet there may be nothing new about what is perceived as the widening of the Chechen war. Both the KBR and the neighboring Karachai–Cherkessian Republic (KCR) have supplied a steady source of fighters to the conflict in Chechnya. Many began their careers in the Islamic Peacekeeping Army that invaded Dagestan in 1999. While Chechens are routinely blamed for all bombings and other terrorist acts, it is the Turkic-speaking Karachays and Balkars that have actually been prosecuted for these incidents. An example is the 1999 apartment block bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, where blame was laid on Chechnya but all the individuals actually charged for these acts hail from Karachaevo-Cherkessia or Kabardino-Balkaria.

The Jamaat Movement

Jamaats (Islamic communities) began to emerge in the KCR and KBR in 1996 as a reaction to the opening of the former Soviet Republics to the outside world of Islam. With the established structures of “official Islam” held in distrust, a younger generation began to seek connections with “true Islam”, which to many meant adoption of Salafist beliefs current in the Arabian heartland of the faith but foreign to the North Caucasus. Some jamaats are entirely peaceful, while others have felt the lure of the message of jihad and adopted armed revolt. The Yarmuk Jamaat is of the latter type, having been formed in 2002 from Balkar followers of Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev in the Pankisi Gorge.

Other young Muslims have turned to the leadership of the self-described Emir of Muslims of Kabardino-Balkaria, Musa Mukhozhev. Mukhozhev’s Salafist Islam has experienced a sudden growth in popularity as many young people abandon the region’s traditional Sufi beliefs. Russia’s new Interior Minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev (himself a Tatar Muslim) has disparaged the republic as a breeding-ground for foreign-supported “Wahhabism”. The FSB (former KGB) directorate for the KBR alleges U.S., Turkish, and Middle Eastern involvement in intelligence and sabotage activities in the republic. [1] Despite these characterizations and allegations, Islam remains barely visible in the KBR after decades of Soviet secularism.

The KBR government has imposed restrictions on Islam that recall Soviet rule. All mosques save one in Nalchik have been closed, and the wearing of beards or praying outside the home marks an individual for arrest. Some young Muslims detained by police have had crosses shaved into their scalps. A list of 400 people deemed security threats has been compiled, though some suspect the list contains many non-militants whom the regime dislikes. Mukhozhev notes that “It is very hard for us to keep the youth from retaliating. The authorities’ policy cannot be described as sensible – rather, it is provocative.” [2] The FSB maintains that the KBR has become a base for terrorism and religious extremism. [3]

Militant Manifestos

In August 2004, the Yarmuk Jamaat announced the beginning of military operations in the KBR. [4] The statement rejected terrorism, calling it the preferred method of Russian security services: “We are not fighting against women or children, like Russian invaders are doing in Ichkeria (Chechnya). We are not blowing up sleeping people, like (the) FSB of the Russian Federation does.” (The last sentence refers to alleged FSB responsibility for the 1999 apartment bombings). The author expresses anger at the Russian forces, but focuses on the divisive corruption of the “mafia clans” that lead the republic: “These mere apologies for rulers, who sold themselves to the invaders, have made drug addiction, prostitution, poverty, crime, depravity, drunkenness and unemployment prosper in our Republic.”

Following the assault on the Narcotics Police of Nalchik on December 13, 2004 that left four policemen dead and a large quantity of weapons in rebel hands the jamaat released another statement alleging the Narcotics Police were actually involved in the distribution of drugs in the republic. The effect of narcotics sales on young people and the crime-rate of the republic were discussed in detail, with death being described as the appropriate penalty for the narcotics agents/drug-dealers under the Shari’a. [5]

A January 21 statement is the most detailed exposition of Yarmuk’s aims. [6] It begins with a summary of historic injustices suffered by the Muslims of the Northwest Caucasus at Russian hands while maintaining that Shari’a law has been the legitimate legal code in the region since 1807. The authors avoid reference to radical Islamic thought, preferring to establish the orthodoxy of their movement by citing the Hanafite legal code (one of the four accepted schools of Sunni Islamic law) as justification for beginning a “defensive [and hence obligatory] jihad.” Emphasizing personal reasoning and exercise of judgment, the Hanafite code differs greatly from the rigid and inflexible terms of the Hanbalite legal school followed in Saudi Arabia. The Hanafite interpretation is traditional in the Caucasus, and is a touchstone in the author’s appeal to historic resentment of Russian rule.

The Yarmuk statements are an unusual blend of Islamic militancy and local concerns (extending even to the scandalous behavior of a local pop singer). They describe an indigenous movement that derives its purpose from regional and traditional interpretations of Islam rather than imported “Wahhabism”. Indeed, foreign solutions to the problems of the KBR are explicitly rejected – Western democracy is deemed to practice a double standard in its dealings with the Russian Federation, while there is “nothing but betrayal to be expected from the fattened womanlike ‘sheikhs’ of the East.”

The Yarmuk manifestos call for political change through moral revolution. Even the Russians are warned that their rule in the North Caucasus is crippling them, “morally and physically”. The KBR’s large Orthodox minority and tiny Jewish community are both offered the protection of dhimmi status under Shari’a law. [7] The statements were probably the work of Yarmuk leader Muslim Atayev and his associate Ilyas Bichukayev, both graduates of the University of Nalchik. The two were both killed in a day-long gun battle in Nalchik on January 27.

Ethnic Dimensions of the Conflict

The Balkar population of the KBR was subject to total deportation to Central Asia by the Soviets in 1944. Though they were gradually allowed to return to their homelands after Kruschev’s reforms, land concerns and subordinate status remain contentious issues between Karbards and Balkars. There were suggestions of an ethnic component to the December 2004 attack on the Narcotics Police in Nalchik since the attackers were Balkar and the four murdered officers were Kabards, but this was perhaps inevitable since Kabards dominate all the republic’s security services. The Yarmuk statements contain no hint of the Balkar nationalism that was so prominent a decade ago. In a recent poll of Karbardino-Balkarians, only 1% mentioned ethnic problems as the “hottest problem” in the republic, even though they were allowed to give two answers. [8]

KBR 2Muslim Atayev

The Balkarian enclave around Mount Elbrus (Europe’s highest peak) is the home of many Yarmuk members, including the late Muslim Atayev. In mid-March 2005 the region was the special focus of a Russian counterterrorism sweep designed to preempt retaliation for Maskhadov’s death. The characterization of the Elbrus Balkars as Wahhabites has been used by the KBR regime to remove the tourist town of Prielbrusye (and its revenues) from local administration, placing it under the direct control of the capital Nalchik, 120 kilometers away.


A Balkar insurgency would present different challenges than those faced by the resistance in Chechnya. The Balkar homelands within the republic are small and geographically divided. Balkars represent only 10% of the KBR’s population and remain surrounded by Russian and Kabard communities. It is, in fact, the ultimate triumph of Soviet gerrymandering; a gift from Stalin to Putin. It is partly for this reason that efforts are being made by the mainly Balkar Yarmuk Jamaat to reach out to the Kabard (Circassian) community in the name of Islam and a brotherhood of Caucasian “Mountaineers”. The anti-religious measures of the government have affected Kabardian Muslims as well as Balkars. According to a statement from the Jamaat the new leader of the Yarmuk War Council is a Kabard. [9]

Maskhadov’s remarks seemed to contain the seed of a new strategy by the Chechen resistance: offering Chechen experience and leadership to militants in neighboring republics in order to expand the war and divert Russian military resources from Chechnya. Anti-Islamic measures, mass unemployment and police brutality ensure a constant flow of recruits to the jamaats. Though never part of the idealistic Pan-Caucasian camp of the late Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and others, Maskhadov saw clearly how Russian repressive measures might give the disparate peoples of the mountain republics a common cause. Though Maskhadov may have ordered the creation of these new fronts, it is the remarkably well-traveled Basayev who has demonstrated operational control. Basayev spent six weeks in KBR in 2003, narrowly escaping capture in a firefight at Baksan.

Both Russians and Islamists accuse the other of provoking war in the KBR. Russia has steadily increased the number of soldiers, police and secret services in the republics over the last year and incidents of torture, arbitrary arrest, and disappearances are now commonplace. The Yarmuk statements suggest that Islam will serve as a rallying point for young people tired of repressive rule, corruption and lack of economic opportunity. The war in Chechnya continues to serve as the catalyst for the violence, and the Kremlin’s pursuit of a military solution there ensures an escalating cycle of insurgency and repression in Kabardino-Balkaria.


  1. Sergei Ushakov, quoted in Itar-Tass, December 16, 2004.
  2. Milrad Fatullayev: “Building Bridges’ with the help of APCs’, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Feb. 2, 2005,
  3. Inga Babayeva: ‘Local governments’ measures to fight extremism and terrorism’, Caucasus Times, March 23, 2005.
  4. ‘A Warning to Russia’ (Statement by the Information Council of Kabardino-Balkarian Islamic Jamaat (War Council) ‘Yarmuk”), Kavkaz Center, August 24, 2004.
  5. ‘Yarmuk claimed responsibility for the attack’, Kavkaz Center, Dec. 15, 2004.
  6. ‘The Doors of Jihad are open’ (Statement of the Yarmuk Jamaat, Mujahideen of Kabardino-Balkaria), Kavkaz Center, January 21, 2005.
  7. Dhimmi status is traditionally available to ‘People of the Book’ (Christians and Jews) in Islamic states. The protected communities have an inferior social status and are obliged to pay an additional tax, but are often exempted from military service.
  8. ‘Over 40% of Nalchik residents link upsurge of violence in Kabardino-Balkaria with spread of Chechen war’, Caucasus Times, March 29, 2005.
  9. ‘Kabardino-Balkaria: Russian Muslim woman becomes a Martyr in battle’, Kavkaz Center, Feb. 2, 2005.


This article first appeared in the April 6, 2005 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Abu Hafs al-Urdani: The Quiet Mujahid

Andrew McGregor

February 2, 2005

A little known veteran jihadist, Abu Hafs al-Urdani, made a rather dramatic entrance onto the world stage on February 5, 2003, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell displayed his photo in a speech before the U.N.Security Council. Abu Hafs was identified as part of fellow Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s “Iraq-linked terrorist network.” (Abu Hafs al-Urdani is not to be confused with al-Qaeda leaders Abu Hafs al-Masri, who is deceased, or Abu Hafs al-Mauritani. Al-Urdani also has no connection to the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade).

Abu Hafs al-UrdaniAbu Hafs al-Urdani

Almost immediately after Saudi Amir Abu al-Walid (‘Abd al-Aziz al-Ghamidi) was reported killed in Vedeno province in April 2004, al-Jazeera carried a statement from the Chechen Majlis al-Shura (Command Council) that Abu Hafs had succeeded al-Walid as commander of the foreign Mujahideen in Chechnya. As a Jordanian, Abu Hafs is the first non-Saudi to command the foreign fighters (though the FSB claims he holds Saudi citizenship). Abu Hafs, like every other Arab mujahideen leader, is claimed by Russian intelligence to be a close associate of Osama Bin Laden, but the Russians have offered no evidence to support this claim. In the wake of the Beslan massacre, Abu Hafs was identified as the financier of the terrorist operation, working from a camp in Chechnya’s Vedeno district. (Saudi Abu Omar al-Saif has also been accused by the FSB of being the Beslan paymaster.)

Abu Hafs was likely commander of the approximately 80 foreign fighters (mostly Arabs and Turks) who accompanied Chechen warlord Ruslan “Hamzat” Gelayev in his return to Russia in August 2002. In the last two years there has been a gradual change in the composition of the foreign mujahideen. Turks and diaspora “Chechen-Arabs” now appear to be at least as well represented in the small corps of foreign volunteers as the more ideologically driven Gulf State Arabs. (This was recently confirmed by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. See: Alexei Berezin: “Most of Foreign Mercenaries killed in Chechnya are Turks,” RIA Novosti, January 3, 2005.) The topic of Turkish fighters in Chechnya was raised during President Vladimir Putin’s October 2004 state visit to Turkey. The promotion of a Jordanian to commander of the foreign mujahideen may reflect a shift in external financing from the hard-pressed Saudi charities to diaspora-based organizations. There are indications that external financing for the Chechen fighters is at a low ebb, though the problem has been eased by the seizure of Russian funds destined for the Chechen government and extortion of Chechen collaborators. (See Mark MacKinnon’s interview with Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, Chechenpress, October 31, 2004.)

Much of the FSB’s information on Abu Haf’s career comes supposedly through the interrogation of one his fighters, Algerian Abu Muskhab (Rabat Kamal Burakhlya), who was arrested entering Azerbaijan for medical treatment on September 17, 2004. Russian intelligence claims Abu Muskhab was present at the Beslan school seizure in early September 2004 with two other Algerians, Osman Larussi and Yacine Benalia, both of whom were already reported killed in a Russian operation in Chechnya on March 8, 2004. According to anonymous FSB sources, Abu Hafs joined Amir al-Khattab and Abu al-Walid in the Tajikistan civil war of 1994-95 before becoming a military trainer in Khattab’s camp in Chechnya in 1995, where he married a Chechen woman.

In 1996, Abu Hafs relocated to Georgia “on Osama Bin Laden’s order” to take charge of al-Qaeda operations in the Pankisi Gorge. Abu Hafs is allegedly in charge of the distribution of all al-Qaeda funds sent to Chechnya. (Before his death last year, Russian intelligence usually attributed this role to al-Walid.) Abu Hafs is also described as having been in charge of weapons supplies to the fighters in the Pankisi Gorge. (This statement implies that arms were being shipped in to the fighters. Aside from the practical difficulties of such international shipments, it is known that Gelayev arranged the re-outfitting of his men from Georgian sources in exchange for joining the fighting in Abkhazia. Russian arms are also available from the cash-strapped Russian rump garrisons in Georgia). In the FSB’s account, Abu Hafs returned to Chechnya in 2002 at the request of Khattab’s successor, Abu al-Walid. After his return Abu Hafs took a second wife, the widow of Yemeni mujahideen leader Abu al-Ja’afar. Abu Hafs’ picture was recently published on the website of the “Chechen Informational Center,” posing in the firing position with a weapon in a white winter uniform and traditional Chechen lambskin hat.

During his stay in Georgia, Abu Hafs operated under the name “Amjet” (or Amzhet). There were numerous reports of Abu Hafs’ largesse, building both a mosque and hospital in the Pankisi Gorge. According to Georgian security, the hospital was military in nature and (even more questionably) entirely funded by al-Qaeda. However, there seems to be little value to a military hospital that would be inaccessible from Chechnya for over half the year (due to ice and snow in the mountain passes) and would require the continued cooperation of the Georgian government to operate.

On August 20, 2004, Abu Hafs issued a rare statement, addressed to the Conference of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League. The statement urged member states to avoid participation in the Chechen presidential elections, warning that their role as observers offered legitimacy to the actions of the Russian army, which included “the killing of unarmed innocent civilians among the sheikhs, the women and the children, the rape of the virgin Chechen women, the looting of the oil wealth of Chechnya, and the attempt to subjugate the Chechen nation and the obliteration of its Islamic identity” (Communiqué from Abu Hafs al-Urdani, Commander of the Foreign Mujahideen in Chechnya, August 29, 2004). Abu Hafs signed his statement as “Commander of the Eastern Front,” the same role that Abu Walid held in the Chechen command.

Abu Hafs followed this statement with another on September 19, 2004, in which he berates the failure of Arab leaders to support the Chechen struggle as “treason against Allah.” The mujahideen leader also declared “the commencement of attacks on Russian and American interests in Chechnya after having observed that the Russian and American sides continue to [attack] the honor and dignity of Islam and the Muslims in Chechnya, Palestine, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and in other Muslim countries” (Communique from Abu Hafs al-Urdani, September 19, 2004). The statement is unusual in its targeting of the U.S., something typically avoided by Chechen militants. Even Basayev prefers to forgo threats to the U.S. in favor of warning the U.S. of the consequences of inaction as Russia descends into dictatorship.

In December 2004, the Russian army reported the presence of 200 Chechens and 30 Turkish-speaking fighters receiving training in the Pankisi Gorge. The camp is allegedly run by two members of Abu Hafs’ group, Abu Rabiya and Abu Atiya (also described in the Powell presentation). The latter was last heard from in September 2003, when he was arrested in Azerbaijan. Georgia has suggested these reports are a provocation designed to apply pressure in the ongoing dispute over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Abu al-Walid began his career as the successor of Emir Khattab in a similarly muted fashion, though his public wariness did not prevent his death from a Russian shell. Like Abu al-Walid, Abu Hafs is now vilified by Russian intelligence as the main representative of al-Qaeda in the North Caucasus. FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev has identified the detention of Abu Hafs as a priority for all the secret services of Russia. On December 3, 2004, Russian Special Forces announced the killing of a Syrian citizen in Ingushetia known as “Marwan,” said to be a deputy to Abu Hafs. According to the FSB, Marwan was closely tied to several Turkish Islamist groups.

If Abu Hafs is to have a longer career than al-Khattab and Abu al-Walid as leader of the foreign mujahideen he will need to keep a low profile. Antagonizing the U.S. is unlikely to contribute to his safety, especially in view of the alleged American surveillance contributions to the demise of Chechen President Dzhokar Dudaev and warlord Ruslan Gelayev. Without a public presence, however, Abu Hafs will have difficulty in keeping the Chechen struggle in the field of vision of the international Islamist donor community.

This article first appeared in the North Caucasus Analysis 6(5), February 2 2005