Jihad in Ukraine: Putin’s Chechen Legion and the Ghosts of WWII

AIS Special Report on Ukraine No.2

March 10, 2022

Andrew McGregor

Packing Boxcars with Chechen Deportees, February 1944

The day before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began was the 78th anniversary of the Russian deportation of the Muslim Chechen and Ingush peoples of the North Caucasus. Carried out in 1944 with the utmost brutality, American trucks supplied for the Russian war effort transported the related ethnic groups to railyards where they were packed onto freight cars in scenes similar to the German transport of Jews to concentration camps. Thousands died on their way to internal exile in Central Asia, where hundreds of thousands more died of cold and starvation. Their crime? Joseph Stalin’s never substantiated allegations of Chechen cooperation with invading Nazis. The most bitter irony was that the deportations were only possible since most Chechen and Ingush men of military age were serving on the front-lines of the Red Army’s struggle with Nazi Germany. At war’s end, these men were decorated and deported to join their dead or dying families in exile.

Today, after two ultimately unsuccessful wars for independence from Russia that killed 100 to 200 thousand Chechen civilians between 1994 and 2000, we now see the incongruous sight of thousands of armed followers of Ramzan Kadyrov, Vladimir Putin’s coarse and violent appointee as Chechen leader, engaged in fighting in Ukraine to eliminate the “Nazis” Putin claims are running that country. One of Kadyrov’s first steps in expressing his appreciation of Putin’s sponsorship was the dismantling of the national memorial to the victims of the 1944 deportation in the Chechen capital, Grozny. The memorial was constructed from the scattered and broken tombstones of generations of Chechens; in their quest to eliminate the Chechens, Stalin’s men had not ignored the dead.

Perhaps the most hardline of all Putin’s acolytes, Kadyrov favors a Russian annexation of all Ukraine, achieved through extreme measures against the Ukrainian people, even suggesting the Russian army was “coddling” Ukrainians: “We need to change our tactics in order to convince them… Putin must give the appropriate order so we can finish with these Nazis” (Newlinesmag.com, March 3, 2022).

The Kadyrovtsy

Kadyrov’s armed followers, known as the “Kadyrovtsy,” are members of the Russian National Guard. The Rosgvardyia, as it is known, was formed in 2016 as an internal security establishment separate from the armed forces and reporting directly to the president. Viktor Zolotov, Putin’s former bodyguard and martial arts sparring partner, was appointed commander-in-chief of the National Guard at its formation. Zolotov is working closely with Kadyrov on the deployment of Chechen guardsmen in Ukraine. Ten thousand Chechen guardsmen, many of whom have combat experience in the long-running Donbas and Luhansk conflict in eastern Ukraine, are believed to already be operating in Ukraine, with the possibility of further deployments.

Muslim Kadyrovtsy at Prayer in the Ukrainian Forest

On March 3, a seemingly over-enthusiastic Kadyrov announced a pro-Putin “jihad” as he threatened the “shaytan-s [devils]” from Ukraine’s “nationalist battalions,” claiming the Chechens had their addresses and those of their families: “Nazis know this. Like jackals, they are hiding behind the backs of the military men.” The Chechen leader urged Ukraine’s military to turn on the nationalists or leave them to the Chechen special forces: “We won’t stop. We have an order, we have jihad!” (Pravda, March 4, 2022).

By March 5th, Kadyrov was falsely claiming President Zelensky had fled Ukraine: “He ran away so fast that no one could even see his clean pair of heels.” Kadyrov advised the Ukrainian president to turn the country over to former president Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian politician who was deposed by a popular rising in 2014 and since sentenced in absentia to 13 years in prison for treason. Kadyrov told Zelensky: “There is still time to return to Kyiv, accept Russia’s demands and ask for forgiveness… But don’t push your luck too much” (Pravda, March 5, 2022).

Kadyrov also warned that Ukrainians were planning aggressive action against Russia that had only been halted by the actions of President Putin, “a far-sighted strategist.” Again echoing Putin’s WWII-influenced rhetoric, Kadyrov declared nine days of “special military operations” had made it “obvious that we are not just dealing with Banderites, but with ruthless killers who do not disdain any methods. They and their fanatics plunged the whole of Ukraine into complete darkness… [the special operation] must be carried out to the complete defeat of Bandera’s followers” (Sputnik News, March 4, 2022). Kadyrov’s characterization of the Ukrainians as “Banderites” is a reference to Stepan Bandera (1909-1959), a controversial Ukrainian nationalist leader who initially cooperated with Nazi Germany against the Russians in WWII in the belief Germany would recognize an independent Ukraine. Disabused of this notion, he spent much of the war in a German concentration camp. He returned to his violent brand of nationalism after the war, but was killed with cyanide by a KGB assassin in 1959.

Bandera’s legacy is often invoked by Ukrainian nationalists as a symbol of anti-Russian resistance, while Russia’s leaders invoke it as proof of Ukraine’s ongoing allegiance to fascism; when Russia annexed Crimea in February-March 2014, Vladimir Putin declared he was saving Crimeans from Ukrainian leaders who were the “ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II” (Washington Post, March 25, 2014).

Recruiting Posters for the SS Division Galicia

Another troubling legacy of the war is the ongoing historical dispute over the activities of the SS Division Galicia (Galicia is a name for western Ukraine), a mostly volunteer Ukrainian Waffen SS unit active between 1943 and 1945. Recruiting for European Waffen SS units focused on the destruction of Russian communism and the overthrow of Joseph Stalin, which appealed strongly to many Ukrainians who had fresh memories of the Holodomor, Stalin’s man-made 1932-33 famine in Ukraine that killed at least four million people, possibly many more. [1] Though small numerically in comparison with the millions of Ukrainians who served in the Red Army, the intent of the division’s volunteers remains divisive, with some hailing them as anti-communist heroes, while others accuse them of anti-Semitism and war crimes.

The Kadyrovtsy at Hostomel

When the Russian airborne assault on Hostomel Airport turned into a debacle on the first day of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine, Russian mechanized forces were moved up to try and take the airport and rescue surviving paratroopers in the woods outside Hostomel. [2]

Ukrainian sources claimed that a Chechen National Guard column was crushed outside Hostomel Airport on February 26, with the destruction of 56 Chechen/Russian tanks and the death of hundreds of Kadyrovtsy. Though these precise claims are likely exaggerated and are impossible to confirm in current conditions, there does seem little doubt that a mechanized Chechen column was ambushed and halted outside of Hostomel. Turkish-designed TB-2 Bayraktar UAVs, now made in Ukraine under license, may have been used in the attack on the Chechens. The successful use of these attack drones has been reported against other Russian convoys in Ukraine. The office of the Ukrainian president confirmed the destruction of “a convoy of Chechen special forces” near Hostomel on February 26 (Kyiv Independent, February 27, 2022).

General Magomed Tushayev with Ramzan Kadyrov

Also reported was the death during the clash of the commander of the Chechen forces in Ukraine, General Magomed Tushayev of the National Guard’s 141st motorized regiment (Ukrinform, February 27, 2022; Interfax-Ukraine, February 27, 2022). The claim was quickly dismissed by Kadyrov, who said he had spoken to Tushayev by phone and posted what he said were recent photos and a video of the general in the northern suburbs of Kiev.

Chechen Battalions Fighting for Ukraine

The opportunity to fight Russians continues to attract Chechen fighters who reject the rule of Kadyrov and Putin. Some have been active against pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine since 2014; others continue to arrive on the battlefields from Europe, the Caucasus and Syria. The leading Chechen-led formations include:

The Dzhokar Dudayev Battalion: The battalion was initially formed by Chechens in exile in Europe to join the fighting against Russians and pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The unit became less active after the death in combat of its capable leader, Isa Munayev, while fighting pro-Russian separatists at the Battle of Debaltseve in 2015. Munayev had been the military commander of Chechen forces during the 1999-2000 battle for Grozny, the Chechen capital, where he became known for his expertise in urban warfare tactics. The battalion was revived after the Russian offensive on Ukraine was launched in February, with a reported 300 volunteers, mostly from various republics of the Caucasus. Adam Osmayev, who succeeded Munayev, remains the battalion commander. His wife, fellow fighter Amina Okueva, was killed in an ambush that also wounded Osmayev in October 2017.

Adam Osmayev (Radio Svoboda)

In 2012, Osmayev was accused of plotting to assassinate Vladimir Putin and was arrested in Odessa by special forces agents and tortured. He spent two-and-a-half years in a Ukrainian prison but successfully fought off extradition attempts and was eventually acquitted on all charges and released (BBC, October 31, 2017; The Sun [London], October 7, 2021). After Kadyrov announced the presence of his loyalists in Ukraine on February 26, Osmayev took to video to confirm “real Chechens” continued to oppose Russia: “I want to assure Ukrainians that real Chechens are defending Ukraine today… These puppets fighting for Russia are a shame to our whole nation — we consider them only traitors” (Newlinesmag.com, March 3, 2022). The battalion is named for Dzhokar Dudayev, a former Soviet Air Force general who became Chechnya’s first president from 1991 until his death in 1996 when a satellite call he was making was intercepted by Russian aircraft, giving them the coordinates for a laser-guided missile strike. His six successors were all killed in action or assassinated by Russian agents, the latest in 2015.

Georgian, Ukrainian and Chechen fighters in Eastern Ukraine (Adam Osmayev)

The Shaykh Mansur Battalion: Another formation of volunteers from Chechnya and other Caucasus republics heavily involved the 2015-15 fighting in eastern Ukraine, this unit has similarly been revived. While its total strength is unknown, it includes both Chechens and Crimean Tatars, another Muslim minority that has suffered significantly under Russian rule, including its wholesale deportation to Central Asia in 1944. This unit has a more Islamist orientation than the Dzhokar Dudayev Battalion. The battalion is named for Shaykh Mansur, an 18th century Chechen military commander and religious leader who battled the Russian armies of Catherine the Great in the North Caucasus.

Osmayev and the Shaytanov Affair

Among the units facing the Chechen column outside Hostomel was Ukraine’s “Alpha” special forces group. Normally occupied with counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism tasks, the formation reports to the Security Service of Ukraine (Sluzhba bezpeky Ukrayiny – SBU) rather than the Ministry of Defense.

Arrest of Major-General Valeriy Shaytanov, October 2020

As part of its counter-intelligence work, the SBU arrested its own chief, Major General Valeriy Shaytanov, in 2020 on charges of high treason and terrorism related to plotting the assassinations of Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and Commander Adam Osmayev (Radio Svoboda, October 8, 2020; Radio Svoboda, October 19, 2020). Osmayev claimed to have been part of the operation that captured Shaytanov by allowing loyal Ukrainian SBU agents to fake his death in a scheme designed to trap the traitor (The Sun [London], October 7, 2021). The SBU general was allegedly turned by a colonel of the Russian Security Service (Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti – FSB) in 2014 while they worked on a joint anti-terrorism project (Interfax Ukraine, April 15, 2020; RFERL, April 17, 2020).


Coverage of the ongoing war in Ukraine tends to ignore the ghosts of the USSR and their role in the ideology behind the invasion of Ukraine. World War Two is a settled issue in most parts of the world, but less so in some of the former states of the Soviet Union, where it continues to inspire and even define certain conflicts. What can sound like crude propaganda, such as Putin calling the Zelensky government a cabal of “Nazis,” may even reflect sincere convictions, regardless of their accuracy. In Ukraine, the ghost of Stepan Bandera still stalks the steppes and cities, a divisive figure from the past that inspires some and incenses others. Many Chechens continue to frame their relations with Russia through the experience of Stalin’s genocidal campaign against their people. Some have made their peace with Russia and see a way forward through allegiance to the pro-Putin Kadyrov regime; others will never forget the deportations or Putin’s ruthless repression of Chechen independence in 1999-2000.

Unfortunately for Moscow, the deployment of the Kadyrovtsy could lead to the resurrection of the Chechen independence struggle, especially if Russia’s military offensive falters and Putin’s war in Ukraine begins to work against him. Weakness is spotted quickly in the North Caucasus, and Kadyrov’s early bluster may be replaced by the realization that many of his best-armed supporters are now fighting and dying far from Grozny.


  1. Remarkably, Stalin and his methods still have supporters, even in the West. In 2019, Dougal MacDonald, a University of Alberta lecturer and candidate for the Marxist-Leninist Party, used Holodomor commemoration week to claim that “in Canada, former Nazi collaborators and their spawn have long led the phony [sic] Holodomor campaign.” The “educator” was supported by 43 fellow academics after many calls came for his dismissal (National Post, December 6, 2019).
  2. See “Russian Airborne Disaster at Hostomel Airport,” AIS Special Report on Ukraine, March 8, 2022, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4812.

Peacekeepers or Provocateurs? Kremlin-Backed Chechen Troops Raise Tensions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Andrew McGregor

North Caucasus Analysis, December 6, 2007

The unannounced and surprising arrival of pro-Russian Chechen military units as “peacekeepers” in Georgia’s separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has sparked widespread speculation as to the reason behind their deployment. Their appearance coincided with violent protests in the Georgian capital of Tblisi against the government of President Mikhail Saakashvili. Complaints are common that Saakashvili is reversing Georgia’s democratic gains of the last few years. Chechens have played major roles in fighting both for and against Georgia since the breakup of the Soviet Union, so their renewed presence on Georgian territory is being watched closely.

Abkhazia-S.OssetiaThough the breakaway regions have proclaimed their independence from Georgia and their intention to join the Russian Federation, neither separatist government has gained international recognition—even from Moscow. The legally recognized Georgian regional government of Abkhazia is located in Georgian-controlled Upper Abkhazia, while the separatists, who declared independence in 1992, run their own government in Sukhumi. Russian citizenship was granted to 80% of the Abkhazian population in 2006. South Ossetia likewise has a separatist government in Tskhinvali and a Tblisi-approved “Provisional Administration” operating from Kurta, Georgia. Since 1989, the separatists in Tskhinvali have sought to unite South Ossetia with the Russian Federation. Joint Russian-Georgian peacekeeping forces were set up in Abkhazia and South Ossetia after violent internal conflicts erupted after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Gelayev Affair

It may not only be the Georgians who are unhappy to see Chechen fighters back in Abkhazia. Many Abkhaz recall that the last time Chechens were there (under the command of Chechen warlord Ruslan “Hamzat” Gelayev in 2001) they were acting as Georgia’s hired guns in a secret operation against the Abkhaz separatists.

Gelayev had already fought on the separatist side in Abkhazia in the civil war of 1992-93 as part of Musa Shanibov’s Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus (CMPC). In 2003, thousands of volunteers from the North Caucasus played a large part in driving the poorly trained Georgian army from Abkhazia while inflicting heavy casualties. One of Gelayev’s CMPC comrades was the late Shamil Basaev, who later suggested the volunteers may have been misused—“It was in Russia’s interest to have the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict grow into war so that both sides would be brought to their knees” (FBIS, 16 February 1994).

GelayevRuslan Gelayev

Gelayev started rebuilding his army in 2001 at Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge after his command was destroyed at the battle of Komsomolskoye the year before. In exchange for food and weapons from Georgian authorities, Gelayev and 300 of his men were taken in Georgian military trucks from their base in the Pankisi Gorge to the Abkhazian frontier. Incredibly, the entire covert operation was documented by a Japanese journalist who travelled with the Chechens and managed to escape Georgia with his life. Moreover, one of Gelayev’s men was a former Japanese Seld-Defense Force officer who had converted to Islam and joined the Chechen jihad. Russian intelligence appears to have heard of the plot in advance. Heavy fighting began on October 3, 2001, when Gelayev’s Chechens advanced into Abkhazia through the Kodori Gorge, where they were joined by Georgian partisans and a number of Ukrainians and Azeris. After a series of battles, Gelayev’s men were forced into a fighting retreat. Gelayev himself and a handful of others (including the Japanese journalist) were evacuated by helicopter (24 Saati, February 28, 2003).

A captured member of Gelayev’s band, Murtaz Maniya, claimed Gelayev’s plan called for driving right through Abkhazia to Sochi in Russia’s Krasnodar Krai, where the Chechens would seize the airport and demand independence for their homeland (Georgian Times, October 9, 2002). In February 2002, the Abkhazian government claimed that Chechens from Gelayev’s command were still in the Kodori Gorge in Georgian uniform. Georgian authorities dismissed the charge as a “fantasy” (Prime News, February 1). By December 2002, Gelayev had led a force of 800 Chechen, Turkish and Arab fighters into Chechnya. Gelayev was eventually killed by a Russian border patrol while trying to cross the border into Georgia in 2004.

Last year Alu Alkhanov, then president of the pro-Russian government of Chechnya, revived memories of the 1992-93 conflict when he suggested that “volunteers” from Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus would join any renewed fighting on the side of pro-Russian separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Interfax-AVN, October 19, 2006).

Peacekeeping in Abkhazia

There are about 1,500 Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia operating under a 1994 Commonwealth of Independent States mandate. The mission receives support from 100 unarmed UN monitors (United Nations Observer Mission to Georgia–UNOMIG). The Chechen peacekeepers in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are drawn from the Zapad (West) and Vostok (East) battalions of the Russian 42nd Motorized Rifle Division. Both battalions fall under the direct command of the GRU (Russian military intelligence). Men from the same units were deployed on a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon last year that passed without incident. There are reports that Said-Magomed Kakiev’s Zapad battalion (the more professional of the two) has already been used on covert missions in the mountainous border regions of Georgia (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 6, 2006).

The Chechen presence in Abkhazia became well known after an October 30 incident along the Abkhazian border. An APC carrying Russian troops arrived at the Ganmukhuri youth camp in Georgian controlled territory, where they handcuffed three Georgian policemen to the APC before giving them severe beatings. The incident was caught on videotape by a Georgian journalist. Learning of a growing armed standoff between Georgian and Russian troops, President Saakashvili gathered a team of cameramen and flew to Ganmukhuri where he castigated the Russian peacekeepers personally. A number of Chechen troops in Russian uniform were caught on video that was later widely broadcast in Georgia. The Russian press reported that the Chechens “did a lot” to prevent the confrontation from escalating (Gazeta, November 7).

After his first-hand encounter with the Chechens, President Saakashvili issued a press release: “I think it is incorrect and strange that a large number of ethnic Chechens have been brought to Abkhazia as peacekeepers. I met these people today. We do not have [a dispute] with the Chechens. However, to say the truth, all this has a smell of a provocation… It was absolutely beyond my understanding today that a significant part of the [peacekeeping] contingent were ethnic Chechens… However, everyone should remember that this is not the Georgia of 1992. This is not some Bantustan where one can walk about as he likes. I think the results of [the Chechens] being dispatched to Georgia for the first time should have been a good lesson for those people in [Russia’s] military leadership who dispatched them…” (President of Georgia Press Release, October 30, 2007).

In the aftermath, Georgia declared the Russian commander of the peacekeeping mission, Major General Sergei Chaban, persona non grata on Georgian soil. Georgia also withdrew its agreement to the CIS peacekeeping mandate for Abkhazia. A month later Chaban dismissed Colonel Alexander Pavlushko, Chief of Staff of CIS forces in Abkhazia. The Colonel was accused of negligence and now faces criminal proceedings (with several other officers) in connection with the Ganmukhuri incident.

The Chechen presence became news again in mid-November, when Georgia’s Minister of Conflict Resolution, David Bakradze, accused Russia of sending artillery, armor, Russian paratroopers and hundreds of Chechen troops to the Black Sea coast town of Ochamchira (Prime News, November 12). The equipment allegedly included five T-72 battle tanks, five GRAD rocket launchers and seven howitzers (Civil Georgia, November 12) .Tanks are not allowed under the peacekeepers’ mandate, while rockets and howitzers have no peacekeeping applications. The embattled Georgian president interpreted the alleged Russian troop movements as the prelude to a coup attempt within Georgia and declared a state of emergency (Kommersant, November 15).The Russian Foreign Ministry called Bakradze’s allegations “a provocation” (Kommersant, November 13). General Valeri Yevnevich, deputy commander of Russian Land Forces, used similar language: “Such statements coming from Georgian government officials can’t be described otherwise than a provocation against Russian peacekeepers in the zone of Georgian-Abkhazian conflict and, in the final run, against Russia” (ITAR/TASS, November 15). By November 21, the Georgian government declared that the flow of Russian arms and troops to Abkhazia had ceased after a successful appeal by Georgia to the international community (Prime News, November 21).

In an interview with RFE/RL, a Chechen peacekeeper named Movsar Usmanov described the goals of his detachment in Abkhazia: “Considering the fact that we have seen the tragedy of war and know what it is like, we hope that it will be possible to solve this conflict and that these people will live peacefully. Sometimes we use force, but most of the time we operate through words” (RFE/RL, November 15).

South Ossetia

A company of 150 men from the Vostok Battalion arrived in Tskinvali, capital of separatist South Ossetia, in September (Gazeta, November 7). South Ossetia had its own conflict with Georgia in 1991-92. Russian peacekeepers arrived when hostilities ceased in 1992, but Georgia has frequently charged the Russian force with bias and calls for their withdrawal. Part of the region is still controlled by Georgian authorities, who are experimenting with a new regional government composed of former separatists that the government hopes may lead to the creation of an autonomous administration under Georgian sovereignty.

The South Ossetian peacekeeping mission is known as the Joint Control Commission (JCC), with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) providing a rather ineffectual monitoring group. The JCC consists of 500-man battalions from Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia and North Ossetia. In practice, this means Russian dominance of the mission, especially since Georgia stopped deploying a full battalion in 2006. Russian troops routinely violate their mandate by providing arms and training to troops of the separatist government (EDM, October 26, 2005). Chechens from both the Vostok and Zapad battalions have been assigned to the North Ossetian peacekeeping battalion, which, despite its name, actually contains troops from across Russia (Gazeta, November 7).


Unlike the Lebanon deployment, which provided Moscow with a minor propaganda success through an international display of Chechen loyalty to the Putin regime, the Chechen presence in the Abkhazian peacekeeping force seemed designed—at least at first—to draw as little attention as possible. Nonetheless, considering the recent history of Chechen involvement in Abkhazia, the choice of Chechen troops as peacekeepers suggests Moscow intended to send a message to Tblisi as both sides inch toward war.

In Abkhazia, much depends on the decision that has yet to be reached regarding Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. Russia might use what it views as Western support for Kosovo’s independence to declare that Abkhazia has the same right to secede from Georgia. With some Georgian MPs talking of an “automatic declaration of war” in the event of Russian recognition of an independent Abkhazia, Russia’s choice of Chechen “peacekeepers” seems designed to provoke Georgian memories of the disasters that befell Georgians during the 1992-93 Abkhaz War. Facing stiff domestic opposition at home, President Saakashvili has taken up the popular cause of restoring displaced Georgians to Abkhazia: “Sukhumi is my home…and I will not rest until I return to this home with over 400,000 of its residents” (Messenger [Georgia], November 14). According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian and Chechen peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are now the only obstacle “hindering Georgia’s military machine” (Civil Georgia, November 29).

This article first appeared in the December 6, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s North Caucasus Analysis.

YouTube: The New Video Front for Chechnya’s Mujahideen

Andrew McGregor

March 22, 2007

While internet video-sharing sites like YouTube continue to be dominated by a sea of pop music videos and a vast assortment of odd people recording themselves doing even odder things, they are also becoming home to a large number of videos emerging from the political hot spots of the Islamic world, including Chechnya. The impact of this new technology was displayed in a video clip of a May 2006 speech by the late Chechen president, Abdul-Halim Sadulayev. Sadulayev wears a camouflage uniform and speaks from behind a desk supporting a Chechen flag and a number of Islamic texts, but the usual prop of an AK-47 assault rifle has been replaced by a laptop computer.

SadulayevVideo of the late Chechen President, Abdul Halim Sadulayev

YouTube, the original and best known of the video-sharing sites, was founded in 2005 and purchased a year later by Google Inc. The site offers its users an opportunity to upload their own video material so that it may be viewed and shared with other users. Submissions to YouTube are not subject to an editorial process – the sheer volume alone would preclude this, with over 65,000 new videos uploaded every day. Viewers are given the opportunity to flag offensive videos as inappropriate.

Ever since the audio-cassette tape replaced the leaflet in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian revolution, every new technology has been seized upon as a means of spreading political messages. As a political medium, YouTube offers direct access to the viewer on a website that is safe from hackers or direct political interference. As success breeds imitation, YouTube has now been joined by several other video-sharing websites, including Google Video, Revver, Guba and Grouper, all of which now host jihadist videos from Chechnya and the Middle East.

The Videos

 The Chechen-related videos available on YouTube and Google Video include many documentaries alleging genocide on the part of the Russians, various “tributes” to the Chechen people (usually from diaspora sources), combat footage used in pop music videos and recordings of Chechen mujahideen in the field. Some videos are simply exploitative, such as the one labeled, “Footage from Chechnya with cool music.” Most of the video-sharing sites provide space for viewer comments, which typically mix profanity with calls for torture and genocide. The comments rarely have any connection to the actual footage to which they are attached.

The late Saudi mujahideen leader Amir al-Khattab is a favorite subject for many of the videos. In his lifetime, al-Khattab became a sort of “superstar” mujahid in the eyes of Islamist radicals, particularly because of his visibility as a leader of mujahideen in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Chechnya. Khattab’s reputation was made by the success of his devastating ambush of a Russian armored column in Shatoi during the 1994-96 Chechen-Russian war. Footage of the ambush is available in a video entitled “Shatoi 1996,” produced by the Turkish-based cihad.net [1]. The media-savvy Khattab was a pioneer in producing video footage of combat operations in order to aid fundraising efforts and demoralize the Russian population.

Chechnya’s new president Ramzan Kadyrov is also the subject of several videos intended to humiliate the young president by attributing him with acts of rampant violence. In a video of less than a minute, entitled “Kadyrov Hits Woman in Chechnya,” a young woman is slapped several times by a member of a group of uniformed men. Though voices and laughing can be heard from the men, it is impossible to identify anyone due to the jerky camera work and the fact that the sun is behind the man doing the slapping. Another short video from Kavkaz Center, “Chechen Justice,” shows grainy footage of a bound and kneeling captive who receives several swats from his captors (Kadyrov’s men, according to the label) before being shot with a handgun.

Various short videos can be found showing the Chechen mujahideen at prayer, preparing food in camp, cleaning weapons, mounting ambushes, shooting down helicopters and carrying out patrols. More inspirational videos combine traditional music, the zikr (a Sufi ritual), combat scenes, folk dancing, footage of wolves (the symbolic animal of the Chechen people) and plenty of IED explosions [2]. Movladi Udagov’s Kavkaz Center website has been a leader in developing what are often called “jihadi websites.” Video clips of mujahideen operations have long been available on the site, many of which are now finding their way to video-sharing sites. Some of the videos are also the work of Nizam TV, the video production arm of the Chechen resistance.

Several videos deal with the 1999 massacre of civilians by Russian troops in Samashki, while others contain footage of Russian troops brutalizing wounded Chechen prisoners after the battle at Komsomolskoye in 2000 (where Ruslan Gelayev’s command was encircled and destroyed). It is often clear that the Russian soldiers themselves were the ones who recorded this carnage. A great deal of the Russian and Chechen footage available comes from the 1994-96 war or the early years of the current conflict, now in its eighth year. The limited amount of mujahideen video available from the last few years most likely reflects operational realities created by the formation of large pro-Russian Chechen militias that could potentially identify resistance fighters and camp locations from the video clips.

Political Implications of Video-Sharing

 Lebanon’s Hezbollah are the masters of electronic guerrilla warfare, having discovered early on the value of video footage of Hezbollah attacks against Israeli soldiers during the guerrilla war of the 1990s. The political effect in Israel of seeing Israeli troops killed by Shiite fighters created what military analysts refer to as a “force multiplier.” Hezbollah now operates radio stations, a television network and websites in eight languages, including Hebrew.

Likewise, video footage of anti-Coalition fighters in Iraq has long been available on cassette, but recently, much of this material has found its way onto the video-sharing sites. YouTube pulled dozens of these videos from its website in response to complaints about footage of U.S. soldiers being killed or wounded (New York Times, October 6, 2006). CNN used footage (described as “user generated content”) from YouTube in its coverage of last year’s conflict in Lebanon. Realizing the potency of such footage, the news network has followed this up by creating CNN Exchange, a website featuring “user-submitted video, audio and articles” (CNET News, July 30, 2006).

Iran banned YouTube, Amazon.com and several other websites last December as part of its campaign to eliminate the “corrupting influence” of foreign music, films and video. In March 2006, YouTube was temporarily banned in Turkey after a video clip suggested that the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk” and most Turks in general were homosexuals. The offending video was part of a battle of offensive and insulting videos between Greek and Turkish users. (Insulting the memory of Ataturk remains a serious criminal offense in modern Turkey.)

Matthew BradyNo Drums, No Flags, No Bugles: Matthew Brady’s View of Antietam


The graphic combat footage available on video-sharing sites has rarely been available to the public in the past. Governments have been sensitive to the effects of realistic portrayals of what actually occurs during battle ever since the first publication of Matthew Brady’s daguerreotypes of the U.S. Civil War. In 1862, Brady mounted his first exhibition of Civil War photographs, his black and white photographs of the maimed corpses and shattered animals from the Battle of Antietam presenting a stark contrast to the heroic war art that had dominated public perceptions. British government photographs of the butchery of World War I battlefields—silent and unseen witnesses to the mismatch between human flesh and flying metal—remain under lock and key to this day. As it now comes within the power of virtually anyone to both record and distribute all incidents that they witness, graphic scenes of warfare and civilian atrocities are suddenly accessible at an unprecedented degree. Graphic violence violates the user guidelines of YouTube and Google Video, but the sites only respond to complaints rather than try to review all submissions for “inappropriate content.”

While many jihadist videos are eventually removed from video-sharing sites, a single user can upload dozens of new videos in a single day. Labeling the videos in Arabic rather than English is often enough to prevent monitors from identifying jihadist material. (Guardian, October 7, 2006) Since the video-sharing sites are reactive rather than proactive in dealing with sensitive material, it is up to the viewers to identify and report “inappropriate” videos. Even when a site might agree to remove “offensive” material, a user can re-upload the same material almost immediately afterwards, often using new titles. Even deleted material can be recovered by using the Deleted YouTube Video Viewer application. For now, insurgent groups like the Chechen resistance can be expected to continue to find means of exploiting new information technologies. The brief Greek-Turkish ‘cyber-war’ will not be the last conflict to use YouTube as its battleground.


  1. Available online at www.youtube.com/watch.
  2. See for example www.youtube.com/watch.

This article first appeared in the March 22, 2007 issue of the Chechnya Weekly

Achimez Gochiyayev: Russia’s Terrorist Enigma Returns

Andrew McGregor

February 1, 2007

In the wake of the London poisoning of former FSB Colonel Alexander Litvinenko came unexpected reports that the alleged “terrorist mastermind” and organizer of the September 1999 apartment block bombings in Moscow and Vologodonsk that sparked the current Russian/Chechen war was still active in the North Caucasus republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia (KCR). Though the two stories appeared to be unconnected, there may indeed be some relation between them.

gochiyayevAchimez Gochiyayev

Russian security services allege that Achimez Gochiyayev (a member of the Turkic Muslim Karachai ethnic group) directed the September bombings as retaliation for Russian attacks on “Wahhabi” villages in Dagestan in August 1999. Yet, it seems unlikely that such a carefully planned operation could have been put together in such a short period. Indeed, nearly every aspect of the bombings suggested months of planning by professional saboteurs familiar with the methods used to bring down large buildings. Gochiyayev, a small-time Moscow-based trader (by some accounts), seemed an unlikely leader for such an operation.

Russia’s FSB (the successor organization to the KGB) charges that Gochiyayev was the leader of a gang of Karachai “Wahhabis” and terrorists known as “Muslim Society no. 3” (also known as the Karachaev Jamaat) based in Karachaevsk, Uchkeken and Ust-Dzhigut. In the biography advanced by Russian security services, Gochiyayev led the movement into terrorism, organized the 1999 bombings, became involved in a failed Islamist coup in the KCR later that year and eventually emerged as a powerful rebel and terrorist leader in the first half of the present decade.

In a handwritten disposition dated April 24, 2002 and obtained by Litvinenko and historian Yuri Felshtinsky, Gochiyayev painted a very different picture of his life, beginning with his move to Moscow as a sixteen-year-old in 1986. He eventually married in Moscow, received official residency and opened a food distribution business. According to Gochiyayev, a childhood friend from the KCR capital of Cherkessk posing as a potential business partner (but in reality an agent of the FSB) persuaded him in June 1999 to rent basement units used, unknown to him, for the storage of explosives. After the second bombing, however, Gochiyayev realized that he was an unwilling accomplice in the attacks and called the police with details of the two other basements that he had rented. Police raids on these premises found timers and explosives, thus preventing two further blasts. Gochiyayev claims he was warned by his policeman brother that security services were intent on liquidating him and thus went into hiding, where he has remained ever since. The FSB declared that Gochiyayev’s account “could not be taken seriously,” coming from “a man who has besmirched the calling of an officer of the special services [i.e. Litvinenko]” (Interfax, July 25, 2002). A Chechen group claiming to be investigating the 1999 bombings later claimed that the Gochiyayev account had been obtained by them before copies were stolen from them by an “unscrupulous American journalist” and delivered to Litvinenko (Kavkaz Center, July 26, 2002).

The allegations of FSB’s involvement in the 1999 bombings were taken up by exiled Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, who funded Litvinenko and Felshtinsky’s investigation and the publication of their book, Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within. The former oligarch’s personal feud with Putin and mysterious dealings with Caucasus-based kidnapping gangs has made it easier for Moscow to discredit his efforts (and those funded by him) to expose an FSB role in the apartment bombings.

While still on the loose, two other Karachai suspects in the 1999 attacks, Yusuf Krymshamkhalov and Timur Batchiev (both alleged senior members of the “Gochiyayev gang”), confessed in a letter to the commission investigating the bombings that they had participated as “middlemen” in transporting explosives to Moscow. The two claimed that those who recruited them (FSB men under agents German Ugryumov and Max Lazovsky, both killed shortly after) told them the explosives were for use on administrative and military installations, not apartment buildings. The suspects added that reports that the Karachais had trained together in camps run by the Saudi commander of foreign mujahideen in Chechnya, Amir al-Khattab (the alleged financier of the bombings) were false: “We declare, that neither Khattab nor [late warlord Shamyl] Basayev nor someone from the Chechen field commanders and their political leaders, nor any Chechen had any relation to the September terrorist acts of 1999. They did not order, they did not finance and did not organize those terrorist acts. As for Khattab and some other field commanders, we met for the first time only after we escaped to Chechnya…” (“Open Letter to the Commission for the Investigation of the Explosions of Apartment Houses in Moscow and Volgodonsk,” July 28, 2002, published by Novaya gazeta, December 9, 2002). Aside from Gochiyayev, all other alleged members of the bombing conspiracy are presently either dead or in Russian prisons. Though the bombings are typically described in the international press as the work of “Chechen rebels,” none of the accused were Chechen.

From time to time, Gochiyayev’s name has resurfaced in Russian media and federal security reports. The September 2003 allegations that Gochiyayev had been arrested with several Chechen mujahideen in Azerbaijan were denied by Azeri security services (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 27, 2003; PRIMA, September 1, 2003). In June 2004, a Karachai “member of Gochiyayev’s gang” named Khakim Abaev was killed in Ingushetia. Two months later, Nikolai Kipkeyev, another Karachai member of “Muslim Society no.3” was killed in Moscow during the course of a subway bombing. Kipkeyev was also alleged to be Gochiyayev’s associate (Interfax, May 12, 2005). In September 2004, Russian media reported that security services suspected Gochiyayev of financing the terrorist operation in Beslan (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 11, 2004). In May 2005, a group of “Wahhabi terrorists” was killed in a police raid in Cherkessk. The six dead men and women were said to have been “under the command of Achimez Gochiyayev” (Pravda, May 19, 2005; MosNews, May 15, 2005. lenta.ru, May 15, 2005).

In the December 25, 2006 shootout at a Cherkessk block of flats that claimed the life of one alleged rebel, Russian media were quick to note that the cornered gunmen were from “Achimez Gochiyayev’s group” (Regnum, December 25, 2006). While the other fighters escaped the siege, the deceased was identified as Ruslan Tokov, allegedly an aide to Gochiyayev in a campaign led by the latter to murder FSB agents and policemen from the KCR’s Ministry of the Interior (ITAR-Tass, December 25, 2006). Russian TV later added that a second rebel named Saltagarov had been killed, while Gochiyayev himself had left the building only moments before the assault (Channel One TV, December 26, 2006).

The FSB charged that Amir al-Khattab paid Gochiyayev $500,000 in cash to carry out the 1999 bombings. Yet, Gochiyayev has always claimed that he had nothing to do with al-Khattab, and that the photos on the FSB website showing the two of them together were either fabricated or of another man. Litvinenko engaged British forensics expert Geoffrey Oxlee to examine the digitized photos. While Litvinenko insisted (in Oxlee’s absence) that the forensics expert had declared the photos a fake, Oxlee later held short of making such a declaration in an interview with a Russian newspaper, venturing only that the images were “of poor quality” and had been “exposed to digital processing.” In short, the photographic evidence was “inconclusive” (Kommersant, July 27, 2002).

Gochiyayev is often said to be hiding in the Pankisi Gorge, but was not found there during the October 2002 Georgian security sweep of the area. Georgia promised to extradite the fugitive if found (as they did with several other Karachai suspects). FSB Lieutenant General Ivan Mironov stated that captured Chechens revealed during interrogation that they had seen Gochiyayev with Krymshamkhalov at the Pankisi base of late Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev (lenta.ru, December 10, 2002).


 For over seven years, Gochiyayev’s menacing shadow has loomed over the North Caucasus. He is everywhere but nowhere; always planning new terrorist outrages but staying one-step ahead of the security services. In reality, since his (unwitting or deliberate) role in the 1999 bombings, Gochiyayev cannot be decisively tied to any rebel military operation or terrorist attack in the Caucasus. To the contrary, Gochiyayev denies having any role in the Chechen resistance or the bitter war being waged between the Karachai Islamists and security forces in the KCR.

It is entirely possible that Gochiyayev is already dead. He has not been heard from for four years and there appears to have been no takers for the $3 million reward for his capture offered by the FSB. While the leaders of KCR jamaats and other militant groups make public statements and give interviews (none of which mention Gochiyayev), there is only silence from the fugitive. The banner of Chechen resistance, the Kavkaz Center website, depicts current leaders of rebel leaders across the Caucasus, a pantheon from which Gochiyayev is conspicuously absent. Kavkaz and other resistance websites never mention Gochiyayev as an active insurgent.

Much of Bombing Russia relies on the testimony of Gochiyayev, so it is perhaps not surprising that Russian security forces might resurrect his name as a current terrorist leader just as the Litvinenko poisoning investigation intensified in December. If Gochiyayev were indeed an active resistance leader, this would discredit his account of himself as an innocent patsy of the FSB who has gone underground, fearing for his life. Reviving Russia’s reluctant “terrorist mastermind” as an ongoing threat deals a strong blow to Litvinenko’s version of the events of 1999 just as Bombing Russia is released in a new edition.

This article first appeared in the February 1, 2007 issue of the Chechnya Weekly.

Death of a Jordanian Mujahid: Abu Hafs al-Urdani

Andrew McGregor

December 31, 2006

Shortly after the Jordanian Arab Abu Hafs al-Urdani succeeded the late Abu Walid as the commander of the foreign mujahideen in Chechnya, his death or detention was declared a priority for all of Russia’s secret services. (RIA Novosti, December 15, 2004) After a decade in Chechnya and two years of nearly constant combat operations as the leader of a mixed force of Turks, Arabs and diasporic Chechens, the Jordanian mujahid was finally killed on November 26 by Russian security forces. False reports of his death have circulated in the past, but this time a report from the Chechen Eastern Front headquarters confirmed the Jordanian’s death several days later (Kavkaz Center, November 29).

Abu HafsAbu Hafs al-Urdani

Abu Hafs (real name Farid Yusuf Amirat) was described by Russia as the financier of the Beslan attack and a personal acquaintance of Osama Bin Laden. What is certain is that the Jordanian was involved in fundraising for the Chechen movement while playing an important role in organizing and leading military operations. With years of combat experience in Chechnya behind him, the 33-year old Abu Hafs was heavily involved in training new mujahideen as well as commanding the Eastern Front of resistance operations. His al-Qaeda connections have never been verified; while not as dismissive of the terrorist group as other Chechen leaders, such as Aslan Maskhadov, Abu Hafs made no public claim of affiliation to Osama Bin Laden. This did not prevent Abu Hafs from being cited by then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell as a leading member of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s “terrorist network” in February 2003. The allegation, made during a presentation before the UN Security Council, was part of an unlikely description of Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge as a major centre of al-Qaeda chemical warfare activities.

At times, Abu Hafs expressed hostility to the United States, though this does not appear to have been encouraged by the Chechen leadership. In an interview earlier this month, Abu Hafs addressed the poisonous legacy of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal: “The Abu Ghraib prison serves as the greatest proof of the fallacy of the American agenda. How shall we trust America after all this?” (Vakit [Istanbul], November 12) Since the current war began in 1999, the Chechen view has been to avoid unnecessary antagonization of the United States. If the United States would not support the Chechen struggle, goes the thinking, then it would be better that it remains uninvolved, rather than provide military support to Russia.

Assault in Khasavyurt

Following a tip, Russian security forces surrounded a house in Khasavyurt. By 6:15 AM, a mixed force of Dagestani police and Alfa (Special Forces) units of the FSB were prepared for the assault on the suspects’ house. Without warning, two militants were shot by snipers through the windows, while the other three being offered a chance to surrender, according to the FSB (Kommersant, November 27). The FSB report states the operation lasted four hours, though the actual fighting lasted only 30 minutes. A later media report claimed that three women and five children ran out the back door when sharpshooters opened up on the house. In this version, security forces continually fired on the house for 2.5 hours (NTV Mir, November 26). The Chechen Eastern Front HQ report described a daylong battle with only three mujahideen killed (Kavkaz Center, November 29). When the house was searched, the body of Abu Hafs was discovered together with one Chechen and two Dagestani militants, all dead. Security forces also reported that they found an assassination list containing targets from within the local police, as well as assault rifles, machineguns, grenades, explosives and ammunition.

The FSB report claimed that Abu Hafs was in Dagestan to “engineer and commit large-scale terror acts” (ITAR-TASS, November 26), but an FSB spokesman added that Abu Hafs may have been in Dagestan attempting to flee the region, “given the lack of prospects for jihad in the North Caucasus” (Interfax, November 26,). As winter approaches, the Chechen resistance typically reduces its forces in the field, sending many to winter quarters in other parts of the Caucasus. Abu Hafs may have been in Dagestan to organize rebel operations, though travel outside of the resistance lines would have been very dangerous for the commander, who was quite obviously Arab in appearance. The killings in Khasavyurt came only days after reports had emerged that Sadval (a militant separatist group based in the Lezgin ethnic group that straddles Dagestan and northern Azerbaijan) was planning to cooperate with existing Dagestani insurgent formations to break up Dagestan in preparation for the establishment of a North Caucasus caliphate (APA [Baku], November 22).

The premier of Chechnya’s pro-Russian government, Ramzan Kadyrov, alleged that Abu Hafs was the conduit for funding headed to Wahhabist groups in the North Caucasus, but also mistakenly called him a Saudi Arabian. Ramzan was perhaps referring to an old FSB allegation that Abu Hafs also possessed Saudi citizenship. The discrepancy may be part of Ramzan’s continued posturing as a champion of native Sufi Islam over Saudi-inspired “Wahhabism.”

Implications for the Foreign Mujahideen

There seems to be no obvious successor to Abu Hafs as the leader of the foreign mujahideen. Chechnya has declined as a destination for Arab jihadis since Coalition operations began in Iraq in 2003. It may be time for a Turk to take command, reflecting the changing composition of the foreign mujahideen in Chechnya as well as the growing reliance on donations from supporters in Turkey. Abu Hafs was deeply involved in nurturing the Turkish connection, training Turkish volunteers for jihad and appearing in fundraising videos distributed in Turkey.

The FSB described Abu Hafs as “the actual head and financier of bandit formations in Chechnya,” implying that Chechen resistance to Russian rule is managed by foreign terrorists like Bin Laden (RIA Novosti, November 26). These claims seem improbable; the Chechen insurgency remains ethnic-nationalist at its core and could never be led by a foreign militant. Refuting Russian claims, Abu Hafs declared, “All commanders are in obedience to [Chechen President] Dokku Umarov.” At the moment, there is no evidence that Umarov’s command is disputed; on the contrary, he is a veteran fighter who is well respected within the ranks of the mujahideen.

While Abu Hafs may have handled some foreign donations, the Chechen resistance is unlikely to have placed all of its finances in the hands of a single person, as suggested by the FSB. The Chechen nationalist movement has been very successful in establishing systems that can withstand the death of an individual, as seen in the orderly transition of power each time a Chechen leader or foreign mujahideen commander has been killed.


It appears that Russian security forces nearly pulled off a dual decapitation of the Chechen resistance last week, with Russian reports claiming that Chechen President Dokku Umarov was wounded and nearly captured during a three-day operation in the region of Achkhoi-Martan (Kommersant, November 24). The attack was allegedly based on information regarding Umarov’s whereabouts supplied by the 35 militants who had surrendered at Gudermes. These supposedly included members of Umarov’s inner circle, though such mass surrenders in the past have included many ex-fighters who have been inactive for years.

Ironically, Russia’s success in eliminating Arab mujahideen leaders makes it increasingly difficult to maintain their depiction of the Chechen resistance as a movement led and controlled by al-Qaeda. Logic would suggest that the Chechen nation is not large enough or unified enough to be able to replace the many resistance leaders who have fallen in combat over the past few years. It has also become difficult to attract capable foreign militants in sufficient numbers and to keep the Chechen struggle in the public consciousness of the Islamic world. An important function of the foreign mujahideen and its commander is to keep foreign interest alive in order to raise much-needed funds from Muslim communities. Operational leadership is becoming a problem for the Chechens as commanders become ever younger and more inexperienced. The loss of veteran warriors like Abu Hafs is a major blow to the resistance, but before his death, the Jordanian remained optimistic about Chechnya’s ability to renew its leadership: “These young commanders are full of advantages and honor; jihad in the way of Allah has raised Chechnya. We should not forget that a lion cub is also a lion” (Vakit [Istanbul], November 12).

This article first appeared in North Caucasus Analysis, November 30, 2006

Aleksandr Litvinenko: An Islamist Threat?

Andrew McGregor

North Caucasus Analysis, December 7, 2006

One of the most surprising elements in the recent poisoning of the former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko is his apparent deathbed conversion to Islam. At first, there seemed little reason to believe this unlikely development, but the gradual confirmation of the story has raised a number of questions regarding Litvinenko’s cooperation with the Chechen resistance and, in a more sensational vein, with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist organization.

litvinenko 1Aleksandr Litvinenko

A Quiet Conversion

The first notice of Litvinenko’s conversion to Islam came in a press release from the Chechen Presidential Administration after the death of the former spy: “We have learnt that shortly before the attempt on his life, Aleksandr Litvinenko voluntarily and sincerely converted to Islam. Thus, he not only became our comrade-in-arms but also brother-in-faith” (Chechenpress, November 26). Though the source was not given for this unexpected development, it was eventually revealed that this news came from the Chechen representative in London, Akhmed Zakayev, a personal friend and neighbor of Litvinenko. News of the conversion apparently took several of Litvinenko’s friends by surprise.

There seemed little reason to believe this strange tale until it was confirmed by the spy’s father, Walter Litvinenko, who described his son’s growing estrangement from Russia’s Orthodox Church. Two days before his death, Litvinenko told his father that he had decided to convert to Islam and desired to be buried as a Muslim (Kommersant, December 4). Zakayev said that Litvinenko first broached the subject of conversion shortly after he became ill, returning to the topic repeatedly despite a lack of encouragement from Zakayev. Eventually, Litvinenko recited the shahadah, a formula whose recitation indicates the speaker’s willingness to convert to Islam. At Litvinenko’s urging, Zakayev arranged for an imam to recite the appropriate Koranic verses in the hospital room the day before the spy’s death (RFE/RL, December 5).

Experiments with Poison

There was initial confusion as to what constituted a lethal dose of polonium-210. If the Litvinenko poisoning was indeed the work of Russia’s secret services, it is unlikely that such an unusual method of assassination would have been employed without previous testing.

In a recent interview, Zakayev alleged that polonium poisoning had already been carried out on several high-profile Chechen prisoners, including Lecha Islamov (Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, December 3). The reference is undoubtedly to veteran field commander Lechi (‘The Beard’) Islamov, who had worked closely with the warlord Ruslan (Hamzat) Gelayev. Both hailed from the same town of Komsomolskoye in southwestern Chechnya. As the leader of the “Shaykh Mansur Special Task-Force Regiment,” Islamov was captured in 2000 following the siege of Grozny and was sentenced to nine years in prison for seizing hostages and “organizing an armed group.” The Russian Deputy Minister of Justice maintained that Islamov died in 2004 from heart and kidney diseases, as well as from the complications brought on by a “severe skin allergy” (Grani.ru, April 26, 2004). Islamov, however, was convinced that he had been poisoned, describing a meeting that he had attended in prison with several unknown men. The men seemed intent on discussing matters of “life and death” with Islamov while urging him to partake in tea and a pile of sandwiches. Within minutes after the meeting, Islamov became seriously ill, though he did not receive medical attention for days, and instead, was transferred to another prison.

Litvinenko 2Field Commander Lecha Islamov

According to Islamov’s attorney, the commander began to suffer from organ failure. Some of the symptoms of Islamov’s last days resemble those endured by Litvinenko. His attorney provided a description: “He cannot speak or move, has become absolutely bald, lost his hair, beard and eyebrow hairs, skin is peeling off in pieces from his head and hands” (Kommersant, April 4, 2004). Doctors were unable to diagnose the disease that was quickly killing Islamov or devise any treatment. Zakayev alleges that it was only because of Litvinenko’s extraordinary good health that allowed him to survive long enough for the radioactive poison to be discovered; the poor health of the past victims resulted in their death within ten days. Traces of polonium-210 have also been found in Zakayev’s car.

Zakayev, who serves as the representative of the Chechen republic in London, has been the subject of several extradition attempts by Moscow on charges of murder, abduction and torture. Russian allegations have tended to be so spurious that they have been tossed aside by British judges. For instance, an Orthodox priest that Zakayev is alleged to have killed actually turned up to challenge allegations of his own murder. There are reports that Russia will now require the extradition of Zakayev and exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky in return for Russian cooperation in the investigation of Litvinenko’s death (The Times, December 6).

Dirty Bombs and Suitcase Nukes

After the news of his conversion broke, a number of media sources retroactively elevated Litvinenko to the ranks of the “Islamist extremists” who threaten the West as well as Russia. Britain’s Sunday Express tabloid reported that Scotland Yard and counterterrorism experts feared that Litvinenko was assisting al-Qaeda in building a radioactive “dirty bomb” (Sunday Express, December 3). A televised panel of Russian “nuclear experts” claimed that Litvinenko worked in an underground laboratory in London where he was preparing a “dirty bomb” on behalf of the Chechen extremists (NTV, December 3). A news agency also suggested that Litvinenko actually poisoned himself by handling polonium-210, the last ingredient needed to detonate a “dirty nuclear bomb” (RIA Novosti, December 5). Another Russian agency repeated the “dirty bomb” allegations while adding the accusation that “Anglo-American” security forces were planting traces of polonium around London to implicate Russia in Litvinenko’s death (Isvestiya, December 5). The Washington Times asked whether Litvinenko’s assassination might have been “just another revenge killing in the name of Allah?” (Washington Times, December 5). Less credible internet sources have even revived the long discredited allegations that Osama bin Laden had purchased a number of “suitcase nukes” from Chechen militants for use against the United States. These stories speculate that Litvinenko was working on polonium-based triggering devices for these weapons and had failed to clean traces of polonium from his fingers before going out for a sushi lunch.

As usual, many media sources seem unable to differentiate between nuclear bombs and “dirty bombs.” The latter is a primitive weapon involving no nuclear reaction, just the dispersal of radioactive debris. Polonium-210 was used as part of the triggering devices on early nuclear weapons, but is no longer used for this purpose. A “dirty bomb” does not require a sophisticated trigger as it is simply radioactive waste wrapped around a conventional explosive; polonium-210 is not a very useful material for constructing “dirty bombs.” A 1957 fire at a Cumbrian nuclear facility in England released enough polonium-210 to kill thousands of people if ingested, but the isotopes dispersed quickly and harmlessly in the air. The point of a “dirty bomb” is not so much to kill individuals (conventional explosives are much better for this purpose) but to create lasting contamination, public panic and economic damage. Polonium is not regarded as particularly dangerous unless inhaled or ingested in a significant quantity. A sheet of paper is enough to block the radioactive alpha rays and even human skin can be enough to prevent penetration into the body.


Despite Litvinenko’s talents in the world of espionage, it is highly unlikely that he would have been capable of maintaining and repairing complicated nuclear weapons, such as portable “suitcase bombs” in a basement laboratory in London. Assumptions of this sort belong to the world of paperback thrillers. Many of the imaginative stories regarding the “Islamist threat’ posed by Litvinenko are designed to sell newspapers, but other accounts seem designed to discredit the former KGB member and divert attention away from his assassins or even to justify their deed as being in the interest of public security.

Chechen Troops Accompany Russian Soldiers in Lebanon

Andrew McGregor
October 26, 2006

In a surprise move, the Russian Defense Ministry assigned security responsibility for its team of military engineers in Lebanon to two detachments of Chechen troops, despite the outcry from human rights activists who cite the units for incidents of kidnapping, torture and murder. In Lebanon, the Chechens will be operating in a land once ruled by Circassian Mamlukes from the North Caucasus. Neither the United Nations nor Israel was given advance warning of the Chechen deployment.

chechnya - kakievZapad Battalion Commander Said-Magomed Kakiev (right) with former Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov (assassinated 2004)


The engineers will build temporary bridges to repair what Russia’s Defense Minister described as Israel’s “barbaric bombing attacks” (Interfax, October 4). Press reports suggest that the idea of sending Russian Muslims as peacekeepers to Lebanon was broached in Moscow by a delegation of Saudi and Lebanese diplomats (Kommersant, October 4)

According to President Putin, the Chechens, as Muslims, will find it easier to “establish contacts with the local population” (Interfax, October 10). Alu Alkhanov, president of Chechnya’s pro-Russian administration, observed: “Importantly, all of these men strictly observe the Muslim rites which will play a role in Lebanon” (Interfax, October 4). Televised footage from Lebanon of Muslim troops of the Russian Army in prayer are a departure for the Russian Army, which has close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and has historically been a hostile environment for religiously observant Russian Muslims. In announcing that Muslim servicemen would be allowed to pray and observe the Ramadan fast, Lieutenant-General Tsygankov (commander of the Russian task force) did not appear particularly enthused with the changes; “If they are religious to the extent that they need to serve religious ceremonies in a close-to-combat environment, they are free to do so” (Interfax, October 4).

Russian Aims in Lebanon

The Russian security detachment consists of two platoons of Chechens, one each from the Zapad (West) and Vostok (East) battalions of the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division, permanently stationed in Chechnya. The East and West battalions of Chechen troops are controlled by Russian military intelligence (GRU) and do not report directly to the Chechen government. The North and South battalions controlled by the Interior Ministry (MVD) are not involved in the operation. The Russian field camp is self-sufficient, with larger security concerns handled by the Lebanese Army. Supplies are brought direct from Russia in Il-76 transport aircraft.

The Russian task force (300 engineers, 54 security men and 1 platoon of bomb disposal sappers) is stationed in the Saida region of Lebanon, near the Mediterranean coast. The Russian group intends to build six temporary bridges north of the Litani River by December. UNIFIL operates only in the region south of the river and north of the border with Israel. The Russian presence exists completely outside of UNIFIL command, based on a separate agreement between Beirut and Moscow. In Israel, Russia is suspected of covert support for Hezbollah.

The Vostok and Zapad Battalions

Despite coming under the same command, the two Chechen units have many differences, reflected in their contrasting commanders. The Zapad Battalion is led by Said-Magomed Kakiev, a career military man who began his association with the GRU as a member of the Soviet Red Army in Karabakh during the dying days of the communist state. Missing an eye and an arm from a grenade blast, Kakiev is now a GRU Major, his loyalty to the Russian Federation displayed in a tunic full of Russia’s highest military decorations. A native of the northwest region of Chechnya, a place with deep historical ties to Russia, Kakiev fought with the pro-Russian Chechen militias against Dudaev’s separatists in the first Chechen-Russian war. Following the war, Kakiev and many of his men were forced to withdraw to Moscow, but rejoined federal troops during the siege of Grozny in 2000. Shortly afterward, Kakiev’s pro-Russian militia was in the front line during the encirclement and eventual slaughter of Ruslan Gelaev’s column at Komsomolskoye.

chechnya - sulim yamadayevVostok Battalion Commander Sulim Yamadaev

All of Zapad’s men are drawn from the northwest region of Chechnya, where Sufism prevails and the alleged “Wahhabism” of the resistance is strongly condemned. Unlike Vostok and the MVD units, Zapad maintains its reputation for tight security by refusing to accept amnestied former members of the resistance under any circumstance. Kakiev’s battalion appears to have already been entrusted with covert operations in the neighboring republics of the Russian North Caucasus and even in the mountainous border regions of Georgia (Moskovsky komsomolets, April 6)

The dependable Kakiev’s counterpart as commander of the Vostok battalion is long-time warlord Sulim Yamadaev, an ex-rebel and notorious kidnapper who sees the Vostok formation as existing mainly to serve the interests of the powerful Yamadaev family. A one-time ally of Ramzan Kadyrov, Yamadaev is now a bitter opponent of the prime minister. Sulim’s brother Ruslan is a State Duma deputy representing the pro-Putin United Russia party in Chechnya. An explosion in 2003, blamed on either the resistance or the Kadyrovs, killed another brother, military commander Dzhabrail Yamadaev.

Though allegiances are fluid in Chechnya, both GRU units generally support Chechen President Alu Alkhanov in his disputes with Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov. Disputes between Yamadaev’s group and Ramzan Kadyrov’s men are common and frequently violent. Kakiev’s men regard Yamadaev’s group as thoroughly penetrated by double agents and sympathizers with the resistance.

Vostok has developed a reputation for indiscipline and brutality. In June 2005, members of the battalion broke away from a planned operation to undertake a revenge raid on civilians in the ethnic Avar village of Borozdinovskaya. The village was founded in the 1950s by Avar emigrants from neighboring Dagestan and used to maintain its own militia to protect it from predatory Chechen gangs, including one led by Sulim Yamadaev (Moscow Times, June 23). The raid left one dead and eleven still missing after their detention. Most of the village’s 1,000 residents fled to Dagestan and could only be persuaded to return with great difficulty. President Putin’s representative in the North Caucasus, Dmitry Kozak, denounced the operation as “direct sabotage” against Russia (RIA Novosti, June 24, 2005). An investigation resulted in a Vostok officer receiving a three-year suspended sentence.

On September 15, Vostok members made a surprise appearance in St. Petersburg to intervene in a real estate dispute between two Chechens. The dispute revolved around a meat-packing plant owner who refused to sell his land to another Chechen who was assembling real estate for a housing development worth $1 billion. The plant’s offices were occupied in a military style operation and the reluctant seller was allegedly beaten. He resigned the following day (Kommersant, September 19; Chechnya Weekly, September 21). The meat plant raid clearly showed that the Vostok battalion was in need of work, since it apparently had enough time to become involved in property disputes in St. Petersburg. The apparently independent movement of a unit of 20-40 armed Chechens to St. Petersburg was an embarrassing reminder of the undetected arrival of Movsar Barayev’s Chechen terrorist group in Moscow four years ago. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov noted that the Chechen deployment to Lebanon was “a reasonable step because as of recently, these servicemen do not have much work to do in the territory of Chechnya” (Itar-Tass, October 4).


The Israeli government has said nothing publicly about the Chechen mission, but there is no doubt some alarm in security circles regarding the fact that the Russian security force is composed of military intelligence elements operating without UN supervision. Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was recently in Moscow seeking guarantees that Russian arms to Syria would stop ending up in Hezbollah hands. Russia’s privately negotiated peace mission to Lebanon continues a Russian Federation tradition of unilateral operations, as seen in Kosovo and post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The Chechen stay in Lebanon is likely to be a quiet one. On their best behavior, these selected representatives of Zapad and Vostok are unlikely to meet any opposition to their bridge-building mission. With the Chechen war in a low-intensity phase, the Kremlin has found a useful task for its restless Chechen militias, presenting Russia’s Muslim face to the Middle East as part of a wide-ranging initiative to improve relations in the region. The Chechen deployment is also intended as a public demonstration of Chechen loyalty to the Federation; as pro-Russian Chechen Premier Ramzan Kadyrov put it, “Serving the Russian flag and enjoying the trust of their fellow citizens, what can be more important than that?” (Itar-Tass, October 4).

This article originally appeared in the October 26, 2006 issue of Chechnya Weekly.

Russia Reorganizes its War on Terrorism

Andrew McGregor

September 21, 2006

In August 2006, the Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) announced changes in the security structure of the North Caucasus that would dissolve the Regional Operational Headquarters responsible for counter-terrorism, replacing it with a series of local operational headquarters in the Southern Federal District led by MVD officers. The order ensures that operational control of the region’s security element will remain under centralized MVD leadership even as the Kremlin pursues a planned withdrawal of temporarily based federal troops of the Defence Ministry and soldiers of the Interior Ministry from the region (Delo, St. Petersburg, August 26, 2006).

NurgalievRussian Interior Minister Colonel-General Rashid Gumarovich Nurgaliyev

Russian Interior Minister Colonel-General Rashid Gumarovich Nurgaliyev will head the new network, with direct administration handled by Deputy Minister General Arkadi Yedelev. The Ministry cites significant improvements in security since the death of Chechen warlord Shamyl Basaev in July, but the administrative reforms are unwelcome in the pro-Russian Chechen government, which seeks to take responsibility for its own security.

The MVD Takes Over

Russian counter-terrorism operations in the North Caucasus have been plagued by overlapping responsibilities and jurisdictions amongst the many security agencies at work there, most notably the FSB (successor to the KGB), the GRU (military intelligence) and the MVD, all of which have a historical tendency dating from Soviet days to deal with each other as rivals rather than as allies.

The scandalous failure of the security services at Beslan finally brought home the need for coordinated activity in the Caucasus. In December 2005, a parliamentary commission found that Nurgaliyev had sent warnings to the North Ossetia MVD warning it of terrorist attacks just prior to the Beslan massacre. The finding contrasted with widespread calls for Nurgaliyev’s resignation for his on-the-scene management of the disastrous response of the MVD and other security units to the mass hostage taking.

Born in 1956, Nurgaliyev is a Volga Tatar and the highest-ranking Muslim in the administration of the Russian Federation (AIS Update: Nurgaliyev was reported to have converted to Orthodox Christianity sometime in 2006 – http://www.islamnews.ru/news-8292.html ). After joining the FSB in 1981, Nurgaliyev made a career in that organization, picking up a Ph.D. in economics along the way. His appointment in March 9, 2004 to head of the Interior Ministry was expected to herald a series of much-needed reforms, but the new minister carried out few changes in his first year. Nurgaliyev has come under attack from Russian human rights activists for his ministry’s use of random and unproductive violence, illegal detentions and a “cynical abasement of human dignity” (Kavkazky Uzel, October 5, 2005). His predecessor, Boris Gryzlov, was sacked after the tragic mishandling of the Nord-Ost Theatre crisis in October 2003.

In October 2005, Nurgaliyev described widespread corruption in MVD police forces as a threat to the nation’s internal security and damaging to the public’s trust in the security apparatus. Police procedure was described as ‘rife with violations’ including falsification of data (RIA Novosti, October 26, 2005). Nurgaliyev outlined some of the difficulties preventing efficient Interior Ministry operations in a speech last year: “The expertise of the militia [police] offices and interior troops has not been able to meet modern requirements. Working for militia forces has not become prestigious, which leads to the considerable turnover of employees, a weaker professional backbone and fewer people eager to take up vacant positions” (MVD website, August 28, 2005). The conscripts of the MVD militias are notoriously low-paid, almost ensuring corruption as first, a means of survival, and later as a means of enrichment.

The Russian Ministry of the Interior is responsible for public security tasks, emergency relief, narcotics control and the prevention of internal disorder. Nearly all police agencies in Russia come under MVD control. The Ministry also maintains its own army, the “Vnutrennie Voyska” (Internal Corps), a lighter-armed version of the armed forces of the Defence Ministry. There are also Special Purpose Detachments of Militia (OMON), which have handled much of the fighting in Chechnya, as well as the elite Special Rapid Reaction Units (SOBR).

In the North Caucasus there are twelve Operational Management Groups (GrOU), all commanded by MVD colonels. Each GrOU includes MVD, Defence Ministry and Emergencies Ministry personnel, with the MVD commander subordinate in terrorism matters only to the local governor. Under the administrative reforms, the GrOU groups have been removed from local control and are now attached to the MVD’s regional operational headquarters. Governors no longer head counter-terrorist operations in their republics, but are now part of the operational headquarters under MVD leadership.

Part of the reforms spring from the creation of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee (NAK), which includes General Nurgaliyev and is headed by FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev. (RIA Novosti, March 7, 2006) According to an MVD spokesman, “After the creation of NAK, which will deal with the task of countering terrorism on a country-wide basis, the necessity of maintaining parallel regional structures disappeared.” (Kommersant, August 22, 2006)

Nurgaliyev has promised a more intelligent war against the “international terrorists” he suggests are trying to create “acute crisis conditions” to precipitate the break-up of the Russian Federation (RIA Novosti, February 16, 2005). The Interior Ministry is exploring new methods of fighting the insurgents in the North Caucasus, including the creation of databases, the monitoring of nearly 200 websites, sting operations, more critical analysis and the elimination of financing networks for armed groups.

He added, “[Modern terrorism] is not just a military movement. It is also an ideological, social and moral phenomenon. So we should fight accordingly–not just with force but psychological, ideological and economic instruments, too…Law enforcement agencies will not weed out the ideological roots of crime, terrorism and youth extremism if they use nothing but force to fight against these phenomena” (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, September 29, 2005).

International Cooperation

The Interior Ministry chief is also interested in expanding cooperative security efforts between the MVD and its equivalent ministries in the CIS. In April 2005, Nurgaliyev used a meeting of CIS Interior Ministers in Minsk to announce the successful prevention of attacks by a Central Asian based terrorist organization through the cooperation of the Interior Ministries of Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan (Interfax, April 21, 2005).

After a meeting with Chinese authorities in March 2006, General Nurgaliyev announced that large-scale joint counter-terrorism exercises would be held with Chinese Special Forces in the Southern Federal District of Russia (including the North Caucasus) in the spring of 2007. (RIA Novosti, March 7, 2006) The first Russian/Chinese joint military exercises were held only last year. Chinese security personnel—39 agents in 2005—are now receiving training in Russia (RIA Novosti, March 1, 2006).

Implications for Chechnya

The MVD currently maintains about 25,000 troops in Chechnya, mostly in the 46th Brigade of Interior Ministry troops. Other permanently based federal units include the 42nd mechanized infantry division and about 3,000 FSB Border Guards (deployed along the border with Chechnya). Earlier this month Nurgaliyev approved the withdrawal of MVD support and logistics units from Chechnya in 2007-08. Under a plan long in development, conscripted troops will be phased out by January 1, 2007, and will be replaced with contract servicemen (ITAR-TASS, September 1, 2006). With MVD police and troops a main target of insurgents across the North Caucasus, recruitment remains a problem. Nurgaliyev admits that there were over 100 attacks on MVD forces in 2005, with 60 men killed and 120 wounded. Some 200 MVD men have been killed in Dagestan alone in the last four years (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 22, 2006).

The reorganization means that the pro-Russian Chechen government of President Alu Alkhanov and Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov has still not been entrusted with control of counter-terrorism operations on their own territory. The two leaders are seeking the complete withdrawal of federal forces from the republic, insisting that security can be easily maintained through the four battalions of Chechen government troops. Two battalions (Vostok and Zapad) answer to the Ministry of Defence while the other two (Sever and Youg) are under Interior Ministry command.


Centralizing control of counter-terrorism efforts under the MVD indicates the Kremlin’s reluctance to enhance the authority of Chechnya’s pro-Russian leadership even as they declare counter-terrorism operations are coming to an end in the republic. Dragging the Interior Ministry from its culture of institutionalized corruption will prove a formidable task. Shamyl Basayev’s terrorist operations routinely exploited this weakness in Russia’s MVD. Nurgaliyev is already believed to be on borrowed time as MVD chief after President Vladimir Putin publicly criticized the Interior Ministry for rampant corruption and inefficiency last February. Whether the often-methodical Nurgaliyev has the energy to create such a radical transformation in Russia’s security structures remains to be seen.

This article first appeared in North Caucasus Analysis 7(36), September 21, 2006

Military Jama’ats in the North Caucasus: A Continuing Threat?

Andrew McGregor

September 14, 2006

“The Creation of a Caliphate in Russia is only the first part of their plan”

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, November 11, 2002.


The last few years have seen a concerted effort by the pro-independence Chechen leadership to consolidate scattered Islam-based resistance movements across the North Caucasus. These locally based jama’ats (Islamic communities) champion a Salafist approach to Islam, a regional moral revival, and a steadfast opposition to Russian ‘colonialism’. In many ways these groups are Islamic inheritors of an earlier (and largely secular) pan-Caucasian movement. The late Chechen warlord Shamyl Basayev spent years developing ties to the independent jama’ats in order to bring them under Chechen command in a united North Caucasian front against Russian Federation rule.

Basayev’s death on July 9, 2006, was a major setback to the expansion of the Chechen struggle to the rest of the North Caucasus, though it does not appear to have had much impact on the level of militant activity in the region so far.

The growth of the jama’ats as locally based centers of Islamist resistance raises a number of questions. How has the military jama’at evolved from its communal roots? How does it reconcile its Salafist ideology with basic pan-Caucasian sentiments? Most importantly, do the military jama’ats constitute a serious threat to the integrity of the Russian Federation? Some of the answers can be found through an examination of the origins of the military jama’ats, their connection to the pan-Caucasus movement, and their role in the expansion of the Chechen/Russian war through the North Caucasus and even into the Russian Republic itself.

Pan-Caucasus Movements

Though the Muslim North Caucasus is divided into scores of ethnic groups and as many languages, there have been significant attempts to unify these groups in the past, most significantly Imam Shamyl’s Islamic state of 1834-59 and the short-lived Mountain Republic of 1918. Soviet rule was designed to divide and weaken the region’s Muslims, but the collapse of the communist state allowed a revival of the pan-Caucasus movement.

The Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the North Caucasus (KGNK) was formed in 1990 by a group of writers and academics, including its leader, Musa Shanib (a Kabardin, aka Yuri Shanibov) and the Chechen poet Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. The Confederation had no representation from Dagestan and nor real constituency; the delegates were all self-appointed representatives of their peoples but did not include representation from Dagestan. In a move to be more inclusive the organization changed its name to the Confederation of the Peoples of the North Caucasus (KNK) in October 1992.

It was war that would galvanize the movement, with the KGNK declaring war on Georgia in support of the Abkhazian separatist movement in August 1992. A volunteer force of several thousand fighters was assembled, the ‘volunteer peace-keeping battalion of the Mountain Confederation’, composed mostly of Cherkess, Kabardins, Adigheans and Chechens. The Chechen ‘Abkhazian Battalion’ was the largest single volunteer unit and included the late Ruslan Gelayev and Shamyl Basayev, both of whom would go on to become major warlords in Chechnya. The volunteers, with covert training and equipment from the intelligence services of the Russian Federation, played an important role in helping the Abkhazians defeat a ramshackle Georgian paramilitary force. The involvement of the GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) in organizing and equipping KNK fighters led to persistent rumours that Shamyl Basayev was, and remained, a GRU officer until his death (see the recent remarks of Chechen parliamentary speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov; Agentstvo Natsionalnykh Novostei, August 22, 2006). KNK leader Musa Shanib (a Kabardin, aka Yuri Shanibov) came under suspicion from Russian authorities for suspected separatist activities and was arrested in September 1992. Shanib escaped (or was possibly released) a short time later following a public outcry over his detention.

The fall of the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi to Abkhazian and KNK fighters in October 1993 marked the peak of the KNK’s strength and influence. The collapse of North Caucasian solidarity began with disputes over unfulfilled promises made to the KNK fighters over compensation for their efforts. With the outbreak of war in Chechnya in 1994 the Kremlin began to regard the KNK as a threat to the unity of the Federation. Moscow had no desire to see a North Caucasian legion joining the Chechen separatists, but support for the Chechen cause from the other North Caucasus republics actually proved to be weak. A rift formed with Chechen leaders who felt their defence of Abkhazia had entitled them to similar support from their fellow Muslims in their independence struggle.

Confederation fighters were not especially welcome in largely secular Abkhazia, particularly those considered Islamists. Because of different forms of worship practiced throughout the North Caucasus, Islam ultimately proved to be a divisive influence in the volunteer battalions. Discipline was poor among the opportunists who followed the first wave of idealists to Abkhazia. It was mainly the sheer disorganization of the inexperienced Georgian paramilitaries that ensured their defeat in 1993. Nevertheless, it was the links established here that Basayev would call on to create his ‘Islamic Peacekeeping Army’ in 1999. By then many of the volunteers had picked up another two years of combat experience in the Russian/Chechen war of 1994-6. Shari’a law was introduced as a form of military discipline in the volunteer battalions; Islam added a religious motivation in fighting against the Georgian Christians as well as a means of unifying the disparate assembly of Mountain fighters.

When war between Chechnya and Russia broke out again in 1999 the KNK backed the Chechens, but were unable to offer anything more than moral support. Many members of the movement feared Chechen domination. Shanib’s Chechen successor as leader of the KNK, Yusup Soslambekov, was assassinated in Moscow in July 2000 (Soslambekov was a Chechen parliamentarian and early supporter of Chechnya’s first president, Dzhokar Dudayev).

Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev

With Russian forces on the attack in Chechnya, leading KNK member Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev maintained that “all the Moslem countries should participate in the Chechen jihad, rendering it both military and humanitarian support.” (al-Jazeera TV, July 6, 2000)

By 2002 Yandarbiyev had abandoned the Pan-Caucasus ideology for more specific aspirations; “Our aim is Chechnya as an independent Islamic state”. (Zerkalo [Baku], September 24, 2002) After leaving the KNK, Yandarbiyev’s assessment of the group was critical; “At the time of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict the Confederation was ruled by (Yusup) Soslambekov, (Musa) Shanibov, and other people, who worked under the direct supervision of the Russian special servicesWe all know that unfortunately the Russian special services directed this organization from the very beginning” (Georgian Times, January 28, 2003). After briefly serving as Dudayev’s successor as president of Chechnya, Yandarbiyev was assassinated by Russian agents in Qatar in 2004 where he had been involved in fund-raising for the Islamist element of the Chechen resistance.

Both the Pan-Caucasus and the Islamist movements in the North Caucasus have always had to contend with nationalist movements that reinforce ethnic divisions rather than promote unity. Such divisions are unsurprising in a region experiencing mass deportations under Soviet rule and the subsequent re-assignment of land belonging to deported groups. The irredentist flavour of many of these national movements inevitably brings them into conflict with their neighbours. In Dagestan alone there is a broad range of nationalist groups, such as the Lak ‘Kazi-Kumukh’ or ‘Tsubars’, the Lezgin ‘Sadval’, the Dargin ‘Tsadesh’, the Nogay ‘Birlik’, the Kumyk ‘Tenglit’, the Avar ‘Union of Avar Jama’at’, etc.

Dagestani Origins of the Military Jama’ats

A jama’at is simply a communal organization designed to enable the pursuit of an Islamic lifestyle. They are found in many parts of the world and most are entirely peaceful organizations. In Dagestan, the formation of mountain jama’ats with economic and political functions followed closely on the Islamization of the region.

The Dagestani jama’ats of the 18th and 19th centuries were largely self-sufficient and were typically based on a single ethnic group. The jama’ats gradually took a role as protectors of community land against incursions from neighbouring jama’ats or other ethnic groups. In this way they developed a limited defensive military role. In times of extreme crisis the jama’ats could create alliances against a common threat.

The model for the modern North Caucasus military jama’at is found in Dagestan’s 1990s ‘Muslim Jama’at’, led by its Amir, Bagauddin Magomedov (aka Bagauddin Kebedov, an ethnic Khvarshin).  Membership of the jama’at was mostly, but not exclusively, from the Dargin ethnic group. With at least thirty major ethnic groups and languages, ethnic tensions are never far from the surface in Dagestan. Peace and stability are ensured by a complicated political structure that reserves certain political offices for specific ethnic groups (much like Lebanon religiously-based system). Unfortunately the same system promotes stagnation, corruption and an almost complete reliance on federal subsidies.

Amir Ibn al-Khattab – right hand damaged by explosives

The Muslim Jama’at a had two military leaders, Saudi jihadist Ibn al-Khattab (Samir Ibn-Salih Ibn ‘Abdallah al-Suwaylim) and Jarulla Rajbaddinov of Karamakh, the latter a self-styled ‘Brigadier General’ in command of the jama’at’s ‘Islamic Guard’. Al-Khattab, a veteran jihadist with experience in Tajikistan and the 1994-96 Russian/Chechen war, married locally but was often away in Chechnya, where he ran guerrilla-training camps in the interval between wars. The camps were attended by militants from across the North Caucasus.

Jama’at leader Bagauddin was one of the Dagestani leaders of the Islamic Revival Party (IRP), an early Islamist movement initiated in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union began to show signs of dissolution. In the early 1990s IRP demonstrations led by Bagauddin’s mentor, Abbas Kebedov, succeeded in driving Mufti Mahmud Gekkiyev from office (the Mufti was viewed as an agent of the old Soviet regime).  By 1997 Bagauddin was leader of the newly formed Islamic Jama’at of Dagestan, a Salafist community dedicated to creating shari’a-ruled enclaves free of federal authority.

Bagauddin once declared ‘For us, geographic and state borders have no significance; we work and act in those places where it is possible for us to do so’. (Mikhail I Roshchin, ‘Dagestan and the War Next Door’, Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy, Perspective 11(1), September-October 2000) The Muslim Jama’at believed Dagestan’s government to be in a state of shirk (paganism). They strongly opposed the traditional Sufi lodges, believing that they violated the Salafists’ core doctrine of tawhid (monotheism) through the veneration of saints and pilgrimages to the tombs of holy men.

The Salafists, who soon became known as ‘Wahhabis’ (a pejorative in Russian use), centred their jama’at in the Buinaksk region of Dagestan. Previously obscure villages such as Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi became Salafist strongholds that attracted the presence of young Islamists from across Dagestan and further points in the North Caucasus. The presence of the veteran jihadist Ibn al-Khattab gave the jama’at a military dimension, with al-Khattab providing training to would-be mujahidin for what seemed an inevitable conflict with the Russian state. Volunteers received basic Islamic instruction that had to be mastered before the candidate could begin military training. A library was available, featuring works by Islamic reformers such as Indian/Pakistani Abu Ala Maududi, Egyptian Muslim Brothers Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, and Magomed Tagaev.

A Dagestani Avar, Tagaev authored two influential Russian-language works calling for armed rebellion against Russian ‘occupation’; Our Struggle, or the Imam’s Army of Insurrection (Kiev, 1996), and Jihad, or How to Become Immortal (Baku, 1999). These works found great favour with the Salafist Islamists of Dagestan, who saw to their distribution throughout their communities.  In 1999 Tagaev served as Minister of Information in the short-lived (and self-appointed) ‘Islamic Government of Dagestan’. Tagaev was eventually extradited from Azerbaijan in April 2004, and sentenced to 10 years in a hard-labour camp for his part in the Salafist uprising (Interfax, April 10, 2004).

The murder of the mufti of Dagestan, Sa’id Muhammad-Haji Abubakarov, by a radio-controlled mine in August 1998 was a turning point for the Salafist movement in Dagestan, which was immediately blamed for the assassination. The charge was never proved, and there were many other suspects, including Avar leader Gadji Makhachev, and fellow high ranking clerics. Even the then president Magomed Magomedov was accused of the murder in rallies organized by Khasavyurt mayor Saigidpasha Umakhanov in 2004. (IWPR, August 19, 2004)

Mufti Abubakarov was a critical opponent of the Salafists (referred to, pejoratively, as ‘Wahhabis’):

Their teaching is constructed on quicksand. They deny what our grandfathers and ancestors believed. Can we defile the graves of our ancestors simply because Wahhabis consider that there should not be gravestones in the cemeteries? In disputes they appeal to the authority of Imam Shamil, who created the Caucasus imamate, and Islamic state. Well, this is true, but Imam Shamil cited holy men, many of whom were sheikhs of Sufi orders and religious leaders. It is against them that the Wahhabis are arguing by affirming that the true Muslim does not need mentors since between him and Allah there should be no intermediaries (Moskovskie Novosti, 25 August 1998).

As a political foundation for his activities Basayev formed the Congress of the Peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan (co-chairmen Movladi Ugadov and Magomed Tagaev – Kommersant, Ag 5, 05), supported by the ‘Islamic Peacekeeping Brigade’ under the command of al-Khattab.

Following Russian attempts in 1999 to suppress the semi-autonomous ‘Wahhabite’ enclave, Chechen warlor Shamyl Basayev his Arab ally Ibn al-Khattab attacked northwest Dagestan with a mixed force variously referred to as the ‘Islamic Peacekeeping Army’ or the North Caucasus Liberation Army. The attacks failed in part because Dagestanis were accustomed to ghazawat (holy war) leaders or Imams coming from the Avar ethnic group. While the insurrection attracted numbers of Avar youths, neither Basayev nor al-Khattab fulfilled this basic condition for leadership. Certainly neither even pretended to religious leadership, admitting that they were warriors who had spent months trying to determine the Islamic authority for their incursion into Dagestan.

The over-ambitious declaration of the Islamic Republic of Dagestan met with steadfast opposition from most of Daghstan’s Muslims, who were not prepared to abandon their carefully balanced system of local government (which did indeed help preserve peace between the republic’s many ethnic groups) and the much-needed subsidies provided by the central government of the Russian Federation in favour of a Salafist-led Islamic state. Basayev’s attacks initially focused on the Botlikh Rayon of Dagestan, where the Andi population organized their own Sufi-based jama’ats to oppose the Islamists.

The jihadists’ subsequent penetration of the Novolaksky Rayon did not fare any better. The failure of the Dagestan population to join a popular uprising against Russian rule seems to have taken Basayev by surprise. Bagauddin Magomedev, Lak politician Nadir Kachilayev and Ibn al-Khattab had all assured Basayev that the Dagestanis were only waiting for a signal to join a general rebellion. In fact the Salafists’ verbal and sometimes physical assaults on the dominant Sufist brand of Islam and its followers in Dagestan had made the Islamists extremely unpopular. Bagauddin’s movement made conciliatory moves towards the traditional Sufi community in 1998 as the Salafists refocused on replacing state control with Islamic government, but it was too liitle, too late. A bitter rift ensued between Basayev and Bagauddin after the failure of the invasion, though Basayev’s differences with al-Khattab proved only temporary. While still mufti of Chechnya, the late Akhmad Kadyrov saw Russian hands behind the Salafist revival in Dagestan; “The Kremlin deliberately fostered ‘Wahhabism’ in the Caucasus, in order to divide Muslims and unleash yet another war–a religious war–there” (Jamestown Foundation Prism, August 7, 1998).

Islamic Basis of the Jama’ats

The Islamic nature of the military jama’ats is unquestionable. Much of their effort is taken up with verbal or even physical assaults on the ‘hypocritical’ local leaders of ‘official Islam’. The spiritual boards responsible for Islamic activities in the Russian Federation were notorious in the Soviet era for including large numbers of KGB or GRU agents and informers. Suspicions linger to this day, and the spiritual boards are often regarded as being far too close to the regimes they serve. In August 2004 the ‘Mujahidin of Dagestan’ declared that “the position of the so-called ‘clerical department of Dagestan’ is anti-Islamic. This is a structural organization of Russian secret services, working for Moscow, against their fellow people and against Muslims. Its main mission is to provoke strife and discord among the nations of the Caucasus” (Kavkaz Center, August 14, 2004). A statement from the Shari’a Jama’at, for example, warned the Dagestani “spiritual board” (the administrative structure for official Islam) “to either shut their mouths or we would shut them for them and bury them” (Kavkaz Center, August 3, 2006).

The political opening brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed religious students the first opportunity in decades to study at Islamic schools in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The severe and ostensibly authentic version of Islam encountered by Caucasian religious students in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states contrasted with the rich traditions of Caucasian Sufist Islam, which soon came under fire from the Salafists for its numerous innovations (shirk) based on local customs rather than ‘authentic’ Islam.

The Jama’ats are mainly Salafist, although there are occasional efforts to incorporate Sufist Muslims into the communities. Bagauddin Magomedov’s Salafist jama’at made the mistake of constantly attacking the Sufi tariqats, creating much needless opposition within Dagestan. The current jama’ats tend to be more inclusive. Much of the appeal of Salafism is economically based in the Caucasus. The austerity of Salafism and its opposition to the extravagant and often ruinous ceremonies accompanying local occasions like funerals and marriages had an immediate appeal following the economic collapse of the 1990s.

The military jama’ats have made a point of broadening their ethnic base, rather than incorporating members of only a single ethnic type. The Kabardino-Balkarian Republic’s (KBR) Yarmuk Jama’at, for instance, has issued statements rejecting its depiction as ‘a monoethnic [Balkar] organization’, emphasizing the membership and even leadership roles of Kabardins in the jama’at. (Utro.ru, February 4, 2003)  The North Caucasus Sufi lodges tend to have a more homogenous ethnic base than the Salafist jama’ats, which are open to a broader membership. Islam in the jama’ats tends to focus on the principle of tawhid (the unity of God) without the intercession of shaykhs or saints.

An important element of any Islamic insurgency is whether participation is individually obligatory (fard ‘ayn) for all Muslims, as opposed to a community obligation (fard kifayah), i.e., one that is met by the participation of traditional armed forces belonging to a Muslim state. Modern Islamist ideologues such as the Egyptian Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb and the Palestinian founder of al-Qaeda ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam took a hard line on interpreting this question, with ‘Azzam going so far as to insist that jihad is fard ‘ayn until every piece of land that was once under Muslim rule is retaken.

With reference to the situation in their republic, the KBR’s Yarmuk Jama’at cited the three conditions under which jihad becomes mandatory (fard ‘ayn) under the Hanafite school of Islamic law followed in the northwest Caucasus:

1/         At the moment of invasion our nations were Muslim and were attacked by infidels

2/         Our lands were Muslim and were invaded by infidels (Kafirs);

3/         Shari’ah was the ruling law, the Law of Almighty Allah, and it was abolished by the invaders

Dagestan’s Shari’ah Jama’at has likewise insisted on the compulsory nature of resistance to Russian rule; “Jihad in the Caucasus is obligatory so long as the infidels continue to occupy an acre of Muslim land. It is obligatory to all, including men and women. During the time of the Imam Shamil, when there were not enough troops, the women took up arms to defend their villages, as happened in the battle of Akhulgo [the Dagestan site of an 80 day Russian siege in 1839]” (Kavkaz Centre, August 3, 2006).

Dagestan’s Shari’a Jama’at has suggested a change in the motivation in the young men who seek to join the mujahidin in the last decade:   “Whereas before in the camps of Khattab near Serzhen-Yurt [1997-98], some people came out of curiosity and the desire to acquire Islamic knowledge, today young people dream of becoming martyrs on God’s path. And that means the time has come – the time of a Jihad and the victory of Islam” (Kavkaz Center, August 8, 2006). The jama’at also notes that the new generation of Muslims has the advantage of not having been indoctrinated in the Soviet ‘jahiliya’ (state of ignorance), thus leaving their minds open to the message of Islam.

Immediately following the Basayev/Khattab incursion into Dagestan, many of the other North Caucasus republics began a campaign to root out and destroy all traces of ‘Wahhabism’ in the region. Although the term ‘Wahhabi’ applies to followers of a specific Saudi Arabian Islamic reform movement founded in the 18th century, in the Russian context it covers a broad and often convenient spectrum of religious/political beliefs, at times applying to everyone from hard-core Salafist gunmen to those who simply attend the mosque on a regular basis. Though the number of Islamist militants in the northwest Caucasus was still extremely small in 1999-2000, rumours of an impending Islamist/’Wahhabist’ coup were promoted by local authorities. According to Khazretali Berdov, head of the Nalchik city administration:

Wahhabism in our republic [KBR] is by no means a horrifying myth. The Wahhabites work according to a well established plan: first, they infiltrate existing religious organizations, then they spark off confrontation between traditional Muslims and extremist factions. Finally they start shouting and screaming about the suppression of Islam in the Caucasus. (CRS no. 58, November 17, 2000)

Many jama’at members were arrested and brought to trial on all types of charges relating to armed insurrection and attempted overthrow of the state. The unfamiliarity of both state prosecutors and media with the jama’at structure at the time is reflected in the numerous references to ‘the terrorist organization called Jama’at’.

In a post-communist world of corruption and criminality the jama’ats assumed a communal security role that at times came into conflict with the police. The arbitrary brutality and torture allegedly practiced by state police in the Muslim republics gave the jama’ats a new purpose – revenge. Most of the jama’ats’ so-called ‘military operations’ across the North Caucasus are in fact part of a ruthless, no-quarter battle between police and those with experience of police violence. An example is the case of Gadzhi Abidov, his brother Shamil, and Sharaputdin Labazanov, who were tried for the murder of police Major Tagir Abdullayev in 2005. According to their testimony they committed the murder in revenge for torture inflicted by Major Abdullayev three months earlier. (Moscow Times, March 15, 2005).

Despite the militant nature of the new ‘military jama’ats’, leadership still tended to be drawn from Imams and local religious authorities. In the Stavropol region two Imams were convicted of organizing ‘a gun-toting Wahhabi gang’ that killed five policemen in 2002 before the group was broken up. (ITAR-TASS, October 27, 2004) Here again, Basayev used connections established in 1999 to help raise the ‘Nogai Battalion’ under the leadership of three brothers who had accompanied Basayev on his invasion of Dagestan, Ulubey, Kambiy and Takhir Yelgushiyev. Takhir was killed in 2002 and Ulubey was killed while allegedly planning a major operation under Basayev’s direction in Kizlyar in August 2004. (Vremye Novostei, August 2, 2004)

Shamyl Basayev: Organizing the Resistance

Though the Basayev/Khattab invasion of Dagestan will be remembered as a stunning miscalculation that played into the hands of the ‘hawks’ in the Kremlin, the connections Basayev made with the militant volunteers of the ‘Islamic Peacekeeping Army’ would later serve as the basis for Chechen attempts to broaden their war against Russia by creating new fronts across the northern Caucasus. The fierce fighting against the Russian Army separated the wheat from the chaff in the Islamist rebellion. Bagauddin, Siraj al-Din Ramazanov (Prime Minister of the ‘Islamic State of Dagestan) and Nadir Kachiliyev proved to be fighting a word of words, but the men who stood firm with Basayev formed strong bonds that could be called upon in the future.

ChRI President Aslan Maskhadov (left) and his successor, Abdul Halim Sadulayev

The late president of Chechnya, Shaykh Abdul-Halim Sadulayev, described the North Caucasus expansion of the Chechen war as part of a plan intended to extend until 2010 (Chechnya Weekly, July 6 2006). The scheme was adopted at the 2002 Majlis al-Shura meeting during the presidency of the late Aslan Maskhadov. As both a military veteran and a religious leader (though his authority in this area was challenged by his enemies), Shaykh Abdul-Halim seemed to Basayev and others an ideal candidate for the role of Imam of the North Caucasus. Following in the tradition of Shaykh Mansur and Imam Shamyl, Sadulayev would lead the region’s Muslims in a general uprising against infidel rule (at least in theory), and Basayev was quick to arrange an oath-taking of personal loyalty to Sadulayev by the leaders of the various Caucasian jama’ats. Sadulayev claimed the existence of jama’ats composed of ethnic Russians in the Russian republic that had pledged their loyalty to him as Amir of the Majlis al-Shura. (Chechnya Weekly, July 6 2006) The Shaykh also announced the creation of a new ‘Caucasian Front’ incorporating Ingushetia, Ossetia, Stavropol, the KBR, the Karachaevo-Cherkessian Republic (KCR), Adyghei and Krasnoyarsk before the entire programme crashed to a halt with Sadulayev’s death at the hands of federal forces in June 2006.

Surviving Basayev’s Death

Though the Chechen resistance may be reluctant to admit it, Basayev’s death was a major blow to creation of the ‘Caucasian Front’. The defiant reaction of Dokku Umarov (current ChRI president) to Basayev’s death was to announce the creation of two new sectors in the larger ‘Caucasus Front’. The statement creating a Ural Front and a Volga Front amounted to declaring an expansion of the war to the Russian republic. The Volga Front was placed under the command of Amir Jundulla, while the Ural Front is led by Amir Assadulla, a former member of the ‘Ingush mujahidin’ and a leading participant in the 2004 raid on Nazran.

Should a negotiated settlement be reached at some point between the representatives of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and the Russian Federation it is difficult to see how the jama’ats would fit into such an agreement. Would the orphaned Jama’ats revert to independent activities under local leadership or would they gradually dissolve under the weight of Russian security forces freed from deployment in Chechnya? (see Mayrbek Vachagaev, Chechnya Weekly, August 3, 2006). The recent and controversial ‘Manifesto for Peace in Chechnya’ presented by ChRI Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev after the death of Shamyl Basayev made no mention of the jama’ats. In an August 2006 statement meant to refute the damage caused to the Jama’at movement by Basayev’s death and to establish the continuing viability of their organization, the ‘Military Command of the Ingush Center of the Caucasian Front’.presented a lengthy list of military operations carried out since Basayev’s death on July 10, 2006 (Kavkaz Center, August 29, 2006).

The growth of the locally based military Jama’ats has been concurrent with the declining importance of the foreign mujahidin led by Jordanian Abu Hafs. The Arab jihadists have found more accommodating territory (in a cultural, linguistic and even climatic sense) for the pursuit of their struggle in Iraq, part of a general abandonment of the Chechen cause in the Arab world. Abu Hafs al-Urdani has commanded the international mujahidin since the death of Saudi Amir Abu al-Walid (‘Abd al-Aziz al-Ghamidi) in April 2004. Though precise numbers are hard to come by, at this point foreign jihadis are not likely to amount to more than a few score members, with Turks probably as well represented as Arabs.

A Moral Revolution

The Jama’ats routinely assail the corruption and lax moral standards of the region’s rulers. The trade in narcotics, the existence of prostitution, the use of alcohol and a general moral decay are all laid at the door of the official power structures. The Yarmuk Jama’at detailed their objections to conditions in the KBR in their August 2004 founding statement:

We are fighting against tyrants and bloodsuckers, who put the interests of their mafia clans above the interest of their nations. We are fighting against those who get fat at the expense of the impoverished and intimidated people of Kabardino-Balkaria, whom they brought down to their knees… 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. It is their corrupt policies that undressed our daughters and our sisters and brought them to lechery and permissiveness… On their orders Muslims of Kabardino-Balkaria get kidnapped and tortured. On their orders our mosques are getting closed down. (Kavkaz Center, August 24, 2004)

Bagauddin Magomedov favoured the creation of a force of moral police (muhtabisin) to enforce the observance of shari’ah law in daily life. (Statement of July 1997, quoted in; Mikhail I Roshchin, “Dagestan and the War Next Door,” Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy, Perspective 11(1), September-October 2000). Armed Salafists created their own system of law enforcement in northwest Dagestan in 1997-98, driving criminal elements and drug dealers from their villages.

The Nalchik Narcotics Control Department raid in December 2004 is the outstanding example of the use of arms by the jama’ats to correct immoral conduct. The department as a group was accused of running the local illegal drug trade and in the ruthless attack no attempt was made to ascertain the individual responsibility of those police present for these alleged crimes. Some consolation for was offered by a leading KBR mujahid for honest police officers who fell in mujahidin assaults:

We know that among government officials there are many people who did not join the law enforcement bodies and other state government structures to rob the people. They work in good faith, combat crime, the drug business and corruption. There are many Muslims among them, who observe religious requirements fully or partially. If these types of people suffer from our actions this will happen only because we don onot know them and cannot distinguish them from atheists and corrupt people. If they suffer by mistake, they will be recompensed for this on Judgment Day, and if they get killed, they will become martyrs, if they are true believers… (Kavkaz Center, March 25, 2005).


Operations of the Military Jama’ats: Dagestan

Considering the origin of the military jama’ats, it should be unsurprising that Dagestan is today the home of the most active of all these organizations. For some years now Makhachkala has been a virtual battleground. In Dagestan the rebels are less likely to be found in the mountains than in the cities, with the urban warfare of assassinations, bombings and gunfights replacing the tactics of a mobile guerrilla force. The fighters have even renamed Makhachkala ‘Shamilkala’, after the great 19th century Dagestani Imam and rebel leader Imam Shamyl.

Support for the jama’ats is far from universal. Many in Dagestan regard Russian rule as the only thing that prevents the region from exploding into a multi-sided civil war. While corruption is endemic in Dagestan (like the other North Caucasus republics), ethnic imbalance in access to the proceeds of corruption generally tends to be more provocative than Islamic or separatist motivations in sparking opposition to the government.

Like its counterparts in the North Caucasus, Dagestan’s Shari’a Jama’at has concerns that go far beyond religious revival. The group points out the poor educational level of the Dagestani leadership, their proclivity for corruption, and the prevalence of nepotism. The republic’s leaders are characterized as “intellectually and morally backward riff-raff” and an “unmanageable rabble or ignoramuses and half-wits”. (Kavkaz Center, July 31, 2006) The difficulty of progressing through the clan-based power structure has persuaded many educated young Dagestanis to leave the republic, an issue the jama’at also addressed in a response to government claims that the rebel Muslims lacked the intellectual abilities and administrative skills to form a government;

Among the Muslims there are many educated people and brothers who are honest and care about God’s religion. They include doctors, engineers, teachers, psychologists, managers and builders, economists and businessmen. By mobilizing the intellectual potential of Muslim youth, we shall be able to effectively run the economy and the state. The brothers who are today studying in higher educational establishments, and not just Islamic ones, will be involved in building an Islamic state. (Kavkaz Centre, July 31, 2006)

The Shari’a Jama’at has also taken a strong position against the activities of the Spiritual Board of Muslims in Dagestan (SBMD), an Avar dominated directorate headed by Sa’id Effendi of Chirkey (Avars are the largest ethnic group in Dagestan). The SBMD is responsible for the operation of the republic’s officially registered mosques, and vehemently opposes the existence of all unauthorized expressions of Islamic faith. The Board has been responsible for a number of seemingly provocative decisions, such as the May 2004 ban on the distribution of Russian translations of the Koran (despite Dagestan’s historic ties to Arab Islam, few in the republic can now read the Koran in its original Arabic). (Caucasian Knot, May 24, 2004) The Shari’a Jama’at has warned that those involved in replacing the Imams of Dagestani mosques on political grounds will face ‘severe punishments’.

Rappani Khalilov (center) with Shaykh Abdul-Halim Sadulayev (left) and Abu Hafs al-Urduni.

Much of the insurgent acitivity in Dagestan appears to be directed by Lak guerrilla leader Rappani Khalilov, a dangerous and experienced field commander, tightly integrated to the Chechen forces, and a former close ally of Shamyl Basayev. Khalilov is Amir of the Dagestani Front of the ChRI Armed Forces and is alleged to control the activities of the Dagestani jama’ats, though this is difficult to confirm. Khalilov appears to spend much of his time in eastern Chechnya (a group of his men was spotted there recently – Interfax, September 7, 2006). A veteran of the Russian army, Khalilov was a brother-in-law of Arab mujahidin leader al-Khattab and participated in the 1999 attack on Dagestan. After a period in Chechnya Khalilov took the fight back to Dagestan in March 2001, launching a wave of attacks. (Gazeta.Ru, May 21, 2003) Khalilov was blamed for the May 9, 2002 bombing of a military parade in Kaspiisk that killed 45 and wounded 170.

Rasul Makasharipov

Rasul Makasharipov was the first leader of the Shari’a Jama’at and the former leader of Dzhennet (Jenet – Arabic; ‘paradise’), a militant group that evolved into the Shari’a Jama’at. Like Khalilov, Makasharipov’s relationship with Basayev went back to the 1999 Dagestan incursion, when Makasharipov served as Basayev’s Avar interpreter. He surrendered to Dagestani authorities in 2000, but was released in an amnesty a year later. Within a year he was assembling his own organization, finding willing recruits from young Dagestanis who had suffered at the hands of the police. According to one of his followers, “Makasharipov spoke about the necessity to stop persecution and humiliation of Muslims in Dagestan. He said this could be done by killing policemen”. (Moscow Times, March 15, 2005) Good to his word, Makasharipov launched a vicious three year campaign of retribution against police officials. Operating mainly in the Makhachkala region, Shari’a hit squads have killed dozens of high-ranking police officers and investigators while fighting to the death when cornered.  Hand-grenades, bombs, mines and small arms are the weapons of the jama’at’s campaign against the police.

The FSB reported the death of Makasharipov in a tank attack on a home in Makhachkala, January 15, 2005, although the jama’at commander surfaced four days later to refute these claims. Makasharipov was finally killed in a gunfight in Makhachkala on July 6, 2005. There are reports that after Makasharipov’s death the Shari’a Jama’at splintered into several smaller groups, though assassinations and bombings continued at the same pace. Gadzhi Melikov took over as Amir of the Makhachkala-based group that continues to use the name ‘Shari’a Jama’at’ until his own death in a spectacular firefight in the Dagestani capital on August 26, 2006.

The military jama’ats of the Caucasus are often divided into Special Operations Group at an operational level. Among the subdivisions of the Shari’a Jama’at are the Abuldzhabar Special Operations Group, the Asadulla Special Operations Group and the Mahdi Special Operations Group. The Riyadus al-Salikhin Special Operations Group (Shamyl Basayev’s ‘suicide battallion’) has also been reported as carrying out assassinations and other attacks on police. (Kavkaz Centre, August 21, 2006)

A leaflet entitled “Address to the police of Dagestan” and signed by ‘The Mujahidin of Dagestan’ appeals directly to the often poorly paid policemen of the republic:

We, the Mujahidin of Dagestan, are once again addressing the policemen of Dagestan, who still possess sound judgment. For a miserable sop from your oppressors, you are risking your own lives. We are calling you to quit this job and to not stand between us and the unlawful authorities of Dagestan, which are in power today… Your rulers want to retain their power over you at any cost. They are sacrificing your lives and putting you under our bullets… [The leaflet finishes with a distinctly Salafist invocation] Return to the religion of monotheism, pure from all admixtures of polytheism and all sorts of innovation. (Kavkaz Center, August 11, 2004)

Despite the ferocity of the battle between Islamists and police in Dagestan, it should not be interpreted as a sign of an incipient general uprising. The mujahidin of the Shari’a jama’at and the guerrilla band of Rappani Khalilov have not yet managed to rouse more than a tiny portion of the republic’s population to their cause.

Another active jama’at in Dagestan is the Khasavyurt Jama’at, formerly under Amir Islam Batsiyev until his capture in 2005. (Interfax, February 7, 2005) His successors, the Amirs Vagit Khasbulatov and Shamil Taimaskhanov, were killed October 2, 2005 in a wild shootout near Kizilyurt. (Kommersant, October 3, 2005) Chechen militants belonging to the Gudermes Jama’at have also been operating in the Khasavyurt region, according to Dagestani police (Itar-Tass, February 22, 2005).

Though there are many signs that Dagestan’s military jama’ats often receive information from collaborators within the security structure, constant pressure from the police may have led the jama’ats to split up into autonomous three-man cells, an effective means of resisting police infiltration or interrogation. (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 17, 2005) Dagestani president Mukhu Aliyev has alleged in the past that ‘traitors’ in the government were working closely with ‘the terrorists’. (NTVru.com, May 13, 2002)

Operations of the Military Jama’ats: Ingushetia

The ‘Ingush Jama’at’ may have its origins in the battle for the entrance to Chechnya’s Argun Gorge (known as the ‘Wolf’s Gates’) in 2000. Here a group of Ingush volunteers mounted a stubborn defense against the overwhelming force presented by Russian arms. According to Chechen sources, only seven fighters survived, each of whom became a leading member of the Ingush Jama’at (Chechenpress, June 23, 2004).

Magomet Yevloyev “Magus”

The Ingush Jama’at had a prominent role in the rebel raid on the Ingushetian city of Nazran in June 2004. According to pro-Russian Chechen president Alu Alkhanov (a former police general) Basayev’s Ingush deputy, Magomet Yevloyev (aka Ali Musaevich Taziev, aka ‘Amir Magas’), led the Nazran operation. Yevloyev was raised in Grozny and was a sub-commander under Basayev in the second Russian/Chechen war before Basayev assigned him to use family and clan ties to begin raising armed units in Ingushetia. (Interfax, June 28, 2004) Ilyas Gorchkanov, the Amir of the Ingush Jama’at, was killed in the October 2005 raid on Nalchik.

Aside from the participation of nearly 100 Ingush insurgents in the Chechen-led raid on Nazran, the Ingushetian rebellion is primarily one of ambushes and assassinations, largely against police and Interior Ministry units. Despite belonging to the same Vainakh ethnic group as the Chechens, rebellion in Ingushetia was slow to build, due to a prevailing atmosphere of loyalty to the Russian Federation. Political interference and growing severity on the part of state security forces in an apparent pre-emptive campaign against Islamist separatists eventually began to turn Ingushetia into one of the most active centers of resistance to federal rule. ChRI Foreign Minister Ahmad Zakayev described the situation in Ingushetia prior to the assault on Nazran:

It can be stated with certainty that the war in Ingushetia began already at the moment whenthe Kremlin forced President [Ruslan] Aushev to retire and installed its humble protégé [Murat] Zyazikov in his place, a Chekist cadre. From that time on, Ingushetia became a zone of the bloody trade of the Russian death squads. Murders, hostage-taking, terror against the Chechen refugees and complete lawlessness became a daily reality in Ingushetia… Finally, the indignation of the people reached a critical mass and took the form of a direct, armed riot. (Chechenpress, June 22, 2004)

Zyazikov, who has been the target of several assassination attempts since taking over the presidency, offered his own take on the Nazran raid:

This inhuman action was aimed not only against the Ingush people, but also against tens of thousands of Chechen refugees living in Ingushetia. Its objective was to destabilize the republic, expand the theater of military operations, and spread fear among the civilian population… The republic’s residents can be confident that any barbarous actions will be rebuffed in a resolute manner (Interfax, June 22, 2004).

In their July 24, 2004 declaration of a jihad to establish an Islamic state, the Military Council Majlis al-Shura of Ingushetia presented an optimistic assessment of Islamist aims in a deteriorating Russian Federation:

Weakness in domestic and foreign policies, a collapsing economy, desertion in the army, failure of reforms, administrative anarchy, lack of security, drug trafficking, AIDS, elimination of social morals compared to the strengthening of the Mujahidin and orderliness in the organization of combat operations speaks about changes and the future victory coming soon. False ideologies are collapsing; nations all around the world (including Russia) are focusing their eyes on Islam as the only source of true justice, law and safety from tyranny, abomination and ignorance. (Kavkaz Center, July 10, 2004)

Retribution by the police for the murder of their comrades in the Nazran raid began immediately. According to the Ingush Interior Ministry, 170 of the raiders have been eliminated. (Ingformburo, September 1, 2006) Ingush journalist Yakub Khadziyev has noted the pernicious influence of the North Caucasus custom of blood feud on the struggle between insurgents and police:

The members of illegal armed formations who are still at large are also not waiting for the security officers to come after them or for a bullet from someone settling a blood feud, but are waging a real struggle with the republic’s law-enforcement bodies. No-one knows how many years this struggle will go on for. The relatives of the dead and the detained from both sides are virtually taking part in a bloody feud of retribution against one another  (Ingushetiya.ru, August 25, 2006).

In a similar fashion to some of the other North Caucasus republics, the conflict in Ingushetia has degenerated into a brutal contest between police and insurgents. The homes of policemen have been burned to the ground and security operatives of all types are constantly subject to assassination by gunmen. Ruthless interrogations of detainees too frequently provide the insurgency with new recruits after their release.

Also active in Ingushetia is the Khalif Jama’at, whose leader Alikhan Merjoev, (responsible for the Ingush sector of the Caucasian Front) was killed by FSB (Federal Security Service; former KGB) agents in Karabulak in October 2005.

Operations of the Military Jama’ats: Kabardino-Balkaria

The first major Islamic jama’at in the KBR was the Kabardino-Balkar Jama’at, led by Imam Musa Mukozhev and Anzor Astemirov. Mukozhev studied Islam in the Arab world and developed a large following in the KBR. The K-B Jama’at avoided militancy, devoting itself to the study of Islam and promoting freedom of worship. After Basayev’s disastrous terrorist operation in Beslan in September, 2004, the jama’at came under pressure to dissolve from the police. Accused of participation in the December 2004 raid on the Federal Drug Control Service in Nalchik, Astemirov threw in his lot with Basayev. Both Mukozhev and Astemirov were close associates of Ruslan Nakhushev, the head of the Islamic Studies Institue in Nalchik. Nakhusev disappeared after reporting to FSB headquarters in connection with the Nalchik raid. He was charged in absentia a week later with terrorist activity.

Anzor Astemirov

The KBR’s Yarmuk Jama’at was founded by Muslim Atayev (AKA Amir Se’ifulla), a Balkar veteran of the Pankisi Gorge training camps in Georgia. Atayev led a group of 20-30 KBR volunteers in the Ruslan Gelayev-led field force that crossed back into the North Caucasus republics in the autumn of 2002. After fighting in Ingushetia, Atayev led the KBR guerrillas back into their home republic, creating the ‘Kabardino-Balkarian Islamic Jama’at ‘Yarmuk’’ in August 2004 as a local independent militant operational group. The jama’at’s founding statement cited government closure of mosques and interference in Islamic practices as core reasons for their embrace of jihad. (Kavkaz Center, August 31, 2004)

The KBR police (who are mostly Kabardins) took the threat seriously. The head of the religious extremism unit (a frequent target of the fighters) suggested, “Yarmuk presents a real threat to the security of the people of the republic. Members of this jama’at are experienced fighters who have undergone special technical and psychological preparation in order to carry out subversive activities.” (CRS no.255, September 29, 2004) Basayev was nearly killed in the KBR town of Baksan on an organizing tour when his presence was detected in a house. The building was assaulted and a policeman killed before a wounded rebel blew himself up with a grenade, enabling Basayev and his companions to escape in the chaos.  In December 2004 the jama’at struck the Federal Drug Control Service in Nalchik, shooting several narcotics officers it described as ‘drug dealers’ and seizing a large quantity of arms. The jama’at stated that the officers had been killed according to Sharia’ law, which prescribes the death penalty for dealing in narcotics. (Kavkaz Center, December 14, 2004) Amir Atayev and several comrades were killed not long after in a spectacular January 2005 urban gun-battle after being cornered by police in a Nalchik apartment building.

Anzor Astemirov was the successor to Atayev as chief of the Yarmuk Jama’at. Astemirov was the director of the Institue for the Study of Islam and a student of Dagestani Salafist preacher Ahmad-Kadi Akhtaev (poisoned, 1998).

The sudden appearance of hundreds of armed gunmen on the streets of the KBR capital of Nalchik on a quiet morning in October 2005 took the republic and the Kremlin by surprise. Throughout the city bands of insurgents attacked police stations, government offices and the local FSB headquarters. The raid was planned by Basayev and directed by Yarmuk leader Astemirov. Surprisingly the insurgents were Balkar and Kabardin in nearly equal numbers, demonstrating that political/religious repression combined with clan politics was capable of bringing armed rebels into the street.

Although the jama’at developed in the Balkar villages of the mountains, their statements avoid any hint of Balkar nationalism in favour of appeal for ethnic unity amongst Muslims. A January 2005 statement mentions the 19th century colonization and subsequent expulsion of much of the population of ‘Kabarda, Balkaria, Karachai, Cherkessia and Adygea’, reminding these groups of a common experience and common grievance. (Kavkaz Center, January 21, 2005)

The Yarmuk Jama’at remains active; a fierce gun battle between armed members of the jama’at and federal security forces was reported in a forested area just outside of Nalchik following the discovery of a rebel base on August 12. (Interfax, ITAR-TASS, August 12, 2006)The jama’at is now part of the Kabardino-Balkar sector of the Caucasus Front. (Chechenpress.org, October 17, 2005)

Operations of the Military Jama’ats: Karachaevo-Cherkessia

According to the reports of the security forces, the leading group of Salafist militants operating in the Karachaevo-Cherkessian Republic (KCR) is the Karachai Jama’at, also known as ‘Muslim Association No. 3’. The group is allegedly led by Achimez Gochiyayev, a self-described ‘patsy’ in the 1999 apartment building bombings in Moscow and a fugitive from federal authorities ever since. Gochiyayev was accused of working with Salafist Imam Ramzan Burlakov to create Islamic jama’ats in the KCR during 1996-99, a period Gochiyayev claims he spent in Moscow doing business.  (Moscow News, June 23, 2002) Despite occasional messages from Gochiyayev in which he denies having anything to do with the North Caucasus insurgency, Russian security forces maintain that Gochiyayev is an elusive terrorist mastermind responsible for a series of bombings and terrorist attacks in Moscow as well as the Caucasus.

Dozens of jama’at members in the northwest Caucasus were prosecuted behind closed doors in 2002 in relation to a series of car bombings and an alleged plot to overthrow the KCR and KBR governments in the summer of 2001. Although even security officials questioned the likelihood of a small number of lightly armed militants mounting a successful coup, the roundup was proclaimed a triumph for ‘anti-Wahhabist’ counter-terrorism efforts. The alleged ringleaders were Khyzyr Salpagarov and the brothers Aslan and Ruslan Bekkaev (Isvestia.ru, May 12, 2002). Salpagarov was an Imam and Amir of the KCR’s Ust-Djeguta Jama’at. His eventual testimony described a wide plot engineered by Shamyl Basayev, al-Khattab and Ruslan Gelayev. Salpagarov was alleged to have attended one of al-Khattab’s training camps in Chechnya in 1998 before returning to the KCR to initiate jihad operations (Moscow News, June 23, 2002).

The Imam was convicted and sentenced to 19 years and confiscation of property for ‘preparing an armed uprising’. The details of the conspiracy did not seem to concern the KCR president, General Vladimir Semenov (a Karachai):

When I heard how the whole country is being told about an attempted coup d’état in Karachai-Cherkessia, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. What coup, what nursery of Wahhabism? We were among the first in Russia to ban religious and political extremism. I can’t say that we have absolutely no Wahhabis, but the population has a single view on this, they reject it (CRS no.152, October 24, 2002).

Islamic insurgency in the KCR is usually associated with the Turkic Karachai people. The Hizb al-Tawhid Jama’at is almost exclusively Karachai. In 2002 its Amir, Dagir Bejiev, described the importance of Salafist preacher Ramzan Burlakov bringing Karachais to jihad; ‘Today over a thousand of the best sons of the Karachai Nation are participating ias much as it is within their capabilities in the process of the revival of Islam, at their home as well as across the entire Caucasus. Ramzan was the initiator of this revival’. (Radio Kavkaz, July 17, 2002) Burlakov is reported to have led 150 Karachai mujahidin to Chechnya in the early days of the second Russian/Chechen war, where he was killed in combat.

The KCR Interior Minstry estimates there are at least 200 radical Islamists in the republic prepared to take arms against the government. Insurgents tend to travel freely between the KCR and the neighbouring KBR.

Operations of the Military Jama’ats: North Ossetia

Despite the continuing violence in North Ossetia (much of which carries undertones of Ossetian-Ingush ethnic rivalry and disputes over land), the local FSB directorate has denied the very existence of an ‘Ossetian Jama’at’. (Caucasus Times, August 4, 2006) Responsibility for assassinations and attacks on police in North Ossetia is regularly attributed by Chechen websites to a local group known as the Kataib al-Khoul Jama’at and its ‘Sunzha’ Special Operations Group.

A statement from the Kataib al-Khoul Jama’at taking claim for the destruction of a Russian armoured personnel carrier (APC) described the type of local knowledge and access to inside information that enables the jama’ats to operate; “The Mujahideen of the Kataib al-Khoul Jamaat know all the dislocation areas, stationary and mobile posts as well as all the secrets used by Russians and traitors in the border area between Ossetia and Ingushetia and the routes of military convoys… We have flight charts of the aviation deployed in Ossetia, we know all the airfields of military airplanes and helicopters. Allah willing, already this year Ossetia will cease being a safe airspace for (the Russians)”. (Kavkaz Centre, September 7, 2006)


Abdul-Halim Sadulayev observed that the North Caucasus jama’ats shared with the Chechens “one common goal – liberation from colonial slavery and achieving freedom and independence. Like the Chechen people, all the peoples around us have risen up and want freedom and independence.” (Chechnya Weekly, July 6 2006)

Some jama’ats are now describing themselves as regional units of the Caucasus Front, using names such as ‘Mujahidin of the Caucasian Front of the CRI Armed Forces’, suggesting a greater integration with the Chechen command. Regardless of conditions in the North Caucasus republics, the jama’ats and associated militant groups enjoy the active support of only a minority of the population. Many Muslims have made clear that the militants do not speak in their name. Despite the Islamic basis of the Jama’ats, their activities and membership are still subject to ethnic, territorial and economic considerations. The Sufi tariqats still hold the allegiance of most North Caucasus Muslims, even in Dagestan.

In the last year the jama’ats have not displayed any ability to mount coordinated attacks that would test the response abilities of federal armed forces. This is no doubt due to difficulties in communication between armed groups justifiably wary of electronic communications. Basayev’s great talent was his ability to travel throughout the North Caucasus, organizing the resistance, planning attacks, and providing a link to the ChRI military command. The warlord used sympathizers in the security services and exploited the corruption that prevailed in government structures to enable his safe passage through checkpoints, though he was constantly in danger of exposure.

Pro-Russian Chechen President Alu Alkhanov recently estimated that there are only 500 guerrillas still operating in the North Caucasus. (Interfax-AVN, August 3, 2006) Indeed, Ramzan Kadyrov has proclaimed that 2006 “is the last year of bandits in Chechnya”. (Interfax, July 31, 2006) The Jama’ats typically claim that their ranks are increasing to the point where many would-be mujahidin have to be turned away. FSB chief Patrushev seemed to confirm this possibility when he stated that rebel attacks in Ingushetia and North Ossetia during the period January to July 2006 had increased by 50% over the same period last year.

Federal and Republic authorities have had great hopes for the amnesty announced for political militants this summer. Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Adam Demilkhanov recently claimed that only 50 mujahidin and 30 foreign-born ‘mercenaries’ were still active in the republic (Interfax, August 29, 2006). According to FSB director Nikolai Patrushev, 224 insurgents have answered the call to surrender since the amnesty program was put into place on July 1, 2006. (Ekho Movsky, September 5, 2006) The amnesty campaign has been extended until the end of September 2006. Efforts are being made to tie the amnesty to job creation programmes, without which the ex-mujahidin might once more ‘go to the forest’.

Besides creating new fronts for jama’at activity in the Caucasus, the Chechen armed forces have signaled that they are prepared to operate beyond the traditional Russian boundaries of the conflict prescribed by Maskhadov and Basayev. On June 8 the State Defence Council of the Majlis al-Shura council announced that it had given operative powers to President Dokku Umarov to authorize Chechen operations abroad to eliminate those sentenced to death by the Shari’ah courts for participation in what the council refers to as the ‘genocide of the Chechen people’. The task was assigned to the Chechen Special Services under the direction of the ChRI Department of Special Operations.

While the military jama’ats remain a virtually impenetrable and highly flexible source of instability in the North Caucasus, they by no means represent a legitimate challenge to the Russian armed forces. Attacks on police occur on a regular basis, but there has been no major raid or insurgent campaign since last year’s events in Nalchik. Losses in police ranks are easily replaced in a region with dramatically high levels of unemployment, like the North Caucasus. The real question is whether a war against the police constitutes a revolution? The jama’ats have not been able to relieve pressure on the Chechen mujahidin, as was intended by the creation of new fronts, nor are they any closer to achieving their aim of an Islamic state in the North Caucasus, despite their embrace of pan-Caucasianism.

This article first appeared in Glen E. Howard (ed.), Volatile Borderland: Russian and the North Caucasus, Jamestown Foundation, Washington D.C., 2011, pp. 237-264.

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