Jihad in the Rasht Valley: Tajikistan’s Security Dilemma

Andrew McGregor

October 4, 2010

Efforts by Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon to solve his problem with Islamist militants through lengthy sentences for detained opposition members encountered a serious reversal on August 22 when 25 militants made a dramatic escape from a State National Security Committee (SNSC) remand center Tajikistan’s capital city of Dushanbe, killing four guards in the process.

Tajikistan has experienced little internal success since obtaining its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. A devastating civil war followed from 1992 to 1997, which provoked the loss of most of Tajikistan’s ethnic Russian and European population, which formed much of the country’s professional and administrative classes. A peace and reconciliation agreement in 1997 promised a new era, but in recent years the regime has expelled most of the former armed Islamist opposition from their posts in the reconciliation government, adding to a wave of unrest fueled by corruption, economic failure and the revival of Islam after decades of Soviet repression.

The Jailbreak

The SNSC remand center in Dushanbe has its own security staff and is located inside a larger remand center operated by the Ministry of Justice. Though the escapees appear to have been in control of the SNSC facility for four hours, they nevertheless took Justice Ministry guards by surprise as they burst out of the SNSC building dressed in regulation camouflage uniforms. One car was commandeered by the fugitives, but it is unclear how the rest escaped through the city without hindrance (Avesta [Dushanbe], August 25).

Rasht Valley 2 Escape Planner Ibrohim Nasriddinov

According to one report, the escapees were able to arm themselves with 20 pistols, seven AK-47 assault rifles, one machine-gun and four grenades (Nigoh [Dushanbe], September 1). Most of the fugitives had been charged with plotting a coup against the state and had been handed stiff sentences of 15 to 30 years imprisonment by Tajikistan’s Supreme Court on August 20.  Unidentified gunmen who were believed to be part of the group of escaped prisoners fought a four-hour gun-battle with Defense Ministry outposts in the Romit Canyon (about 45 km from Dushanbe) on September 3 (Asia-Plus Online [Dushanbe], September 3; Itar-Tass, September 3).

Authorities believe the escape was organized by Ibrohim Nasriddinov, who was serving 23 years for murder and the planning of a terrorist act. Nasriddinov was caught on September 7 (Interfax, September 7). He is frequently identified as a former inmate of Guantanamo Bay although his name does not appear on the official list of prisoners (RFE/RL, August 7, 2007; Itar-Tass, September 7). There were reports that Nasriddinov was treated as a “privileged” prisoner, being allowed to move around the facility freely at night (Asia-Plus Online, September 2). Close relations between prisoners and guards coupled with understaffing (three guards for 90 prisoners) were cited as reasons for the success of the escape (Imruznews [Dushanbe], September 1).

The fugitives included 15 citizens of Tajikistan, five citizens of Russia, four citizens of Afghanistan and two citizens of Uzbekistan (Interfax, September 7; Khovar [Dushanbe], September 24). The two Uzbeks, Furkat Khalmetov and Khamidullo Yuldashov, were convicted of illegal border crossing and participating in an attempt to overthrow the government of Tajikistan, respectively (Itar-Tass, September 24).
A Dagestani escapee, Gusein Sulaymanov, was killed after wounding three policemen in a September 8 raid on a house used by militants (Interfax, September 29). Another escapee, Rahmiddin Azizov, a former Rasht Valley security officer, was killed in an operation in the Fayzobod district (Asia Plus Online, September 27; Interfax, September 29). Rahmiddin was serving a life sentence and was charged with belonging to a militant group led by his brother, Negmat (RIA Novosti, September 26).

Most of the fugitives were seized in last year’s Operation Kuknor (“Poppy”) and are alleged to have been former loyalists of Lieutenant General Mirzo Ziyoev, the military commander of the Tajik Islamists in the civil war who was given a high military rank and his own paramilitary in the reconciliation that followed the war (Itar-Tass, September 2). He was dismissed in 2006 and accused of having joined the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an assertion that was quickly denied by late IMU leader Tahir Yuldash (RFE/RL Uzbek Service, July 16, 2009; Ferghana.ru, July 16, 2009). Ziyoev was captured by security forces on July 11, 2009 and died later that day in crossfire between security forces and a group of militants (Millat [Dushanbe], July 23; al-Jazeera, July 16, 2009; IWPR, July 23, 2009).

Though some escapees were thought to be headed to the Afghanistan border, most were believed to be on their way to the eastern Tavildara district, where they were apprehended in a military sweep last year.

The Dagestan Connection

One of four Dagestanis involved in the escape, Magomet Ahkmadov was named as one of the three men who led the breakout by killing four guards and wounding two others (Interfax, August 24). The other leaders included Mirzomen Abiyev, Kazbek Dzhabailov, and Gusein Sulaymonov, who was later killed in a gunfight with police (Interfax, September 29).

Another Dagestani, Ahmad Sultanov, was sentenced to nine years in prison only days after the prison break for “circulating extremist ideas” and making calls for jihad. Sultanov is an alleged member of Dagestan’s Shari’a Jamaat, one of the most active armed Islamist groups in the North Caucasus (Itar-Tass, August 27).

The Ambush in the Kamarob Gorge

Using grenades and automatic weapons, an unidentified militant group ambushed a military convoy in the Kamarob gorge of eastern Tajikistan, about 260 km from Dushanbe, on September 19. The attack killed at least 28 soldiers and left many more wounded, leaving the government to suspect experienced guerrilla leaders like Mirzokhuja Ahmadov (a.k.a. “Belgi”), Abdullo Rakhimov and Alovudin Davlatov (a.k.a. Ali Bedak) of responsibility for the assault. Later reports put the death toll at 40 of the total 75 man detachment (RIA Novosti, September 20). The Tajik Defense Ministry insisted fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya were part of the ambush force (Itar-Tass, September 26).

Tajik security officials identified Abdullo Rakhimov (better known as “Mullo Abdullo”) as the main suspect, and a later video message from an IMU spokesman claimed responsibility on behalf of the movement, which has had little presence outside the northwest frontier region of Pakistan since 2001. Issued by Abdufattokh Ahmadi, the message said the attack was a response to several issues, including the closure of “thousands” of mosques, unreasonable detention of Muslims, a prohibition on headscarves, and government cooperation with the United States and NATO against Afghanistan’s Muslims (Radio Liberty Tajik Service, September 23; Ferghana.ru, September, 24).

Calls for the resignation of the Tajik defense minister followed criticism that the army consisted of poorly-trained and poorly-supplied workers and farmers, many of whom are young and without military experience (Farazh [Dushanbe], September 22; Chark-i Gardun [Dushanbe], September 22). Last June the United States announced it would build a $10 million Counterterrorism Training Center at Qarotogh in Tajikistan’s Shahrinav District, pending an agreement with the Tajikistan government. Both Washington and Dushanbe have made it clear that the center will train only Tajik soldiers and will not house American military personnel. U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert Blake, told reporters on September 1 that the United States had no intention of establishing a military presence in Tajikistan (Interfax, September 7).

Tajik Military Operations Following the Kamorab Gorge Ambush

Two days after the ambush in the Kamorab Gorge, government troops began searching houses in the Rasht Valley belonging to former members of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), the leading opposition front in the civil war. Security forces encountered resistance at the home of Mirzokhuja Ahmadov, where five of Ahmadov’s followers were killed in a gunfight. Security forces reported seizing assault rifles, grenade launchers, mines and three completed bombs containing nearly 20 kg of explosives (RIA Novosti, September 23). Ahmadov himself was not found at the scene and his whereabouts remain unknown. The former Islamist warlord was formerly head of the government’s organized crime unit in the Rasht Valley following post-civil war reintegration efforts. An attempt to arrest him in 1998 resulted in the shooting death of Oleg Zakharchenko, chief of Tajikistan’s OMON police unit, by one of Ahmadov’s men. Government officials have accused Ahmadov of sheltering Mullo Abdullo in his home since the latter’s return from Afghanistan (RFE/RL, September 28). The government attack reportedly prompted another former opposition commander, Shoh Iskandarov, to join the militants in the mountains (RFE/RL, September 22).

Rasht Valley 3Rasht Valley

The raid on Ahmadov’s residence came only a week after Defense Minister Sherali Khayrulloev, Interior Minister Abdurahim Qahhorov and SCNS Deputy Leader Mansurjon Umarov met with Ahmadov and Iskandarov to assure them military operations in the Rasht Valley were intended only to apprehend Mullo Abdullo (RFE/RL, September 15). There were also rumors that the ministers had asked for the ex-warlords’ cooperation in hunting down Mullo Abdullo. The ambush in the Kamarob Gorge appears to have led to a turnabout in government policy. According to an Interior Ministry spokesman, two more members of Ahmadov’s group were detained without resistance on September 29, but many other suspected members of Ahmadov’s group might be released due to lack of evidence (RFE/RL, September 29).

The pursuit of the spectral Mullo Abdullo, who largely disappeared from view after reports he was captured by government forces in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in 2002, and who may or may not have returned to the Rasht Valley last year, consumes much of the efforts of Tajikistan’s security forces and provides a convenient bogeyman for government use. Mullo Abdullo has not been seen in Tajikistan since September 2000, when a government offensive destroyed most of his group. Mullo Abdullo’s wife claims she does not know the whereabouts of her husband and does not believe he was responsible for the ambushed convoy (Asia-Plus Online, September 27).

Continuing military operations are being led by the chief of the Tajik General Staff, Ramil Nadyrov, and are reported to involve Tajik Special Forces and helicopter gunships (Itar-Tass, September 30; AFP, September 20). Rumors of Russian intervention in the form of troops or helicopters from the Russian 201st Motor Rifle Division base in Tajikistan began circulating after several alleged sightings in early September, but both Tajik and Russian sources denied the involvement of Russian personnel in the counterterrorist operations (Avesta, September 8; Itar-Tass, September 30). The 201st Division is permanently based in Tajikistan where it has been responsible for guarding the border with Afghanistan against militant incursions since 2001. While some Tajiks suspected Russian involvement in the hunt for the fugitives, others accused Russian or other “foreign forces” of engineering the escape (Farazh [Dushanbe], September 1; Millat [Dushanbe], September 1).

The mass escape, both alarming and humiliating, resulted in quick changes to the nation’s security leadership. Colonel-General Khairidin Abdurakhimov was relieved of his duties as head of the State National Security Committee (SNSC) “at his own request” and was replaced by Saimumin Yatimov, a former diplomat who became involved in state security matters in 2000 (Asia Plus Online, September 2; Interfax, September 7). All other top officials of the SNSC were dismissed, as well (Itar-Tass, September 2).

The Khudzhand Suicide Bombing

A rare Tajik suicide car-bombing on September 3 targeted a regional police unit in the northern town of Khudzhand (350 km north of Dushanbe), killing at least two policemen and injuring nearly two dozen others (Interfax, September 3; September 7; Asia-Plus Online, September 3; Avesta, September 3; Daydzhest Press [Dushanbe], September 9). Authorities blamed the IMU, but responsibility for the attack was later claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself Jamaat Ansarullah. The claim suggested the assailants were local in origin; “The operation was carried out in response to the killing and humiliation of our brothers and ordinary Muslims behind the walls of that God-damned place” (Kavkaz-Tsentr, September 8). A representative of Tajikistan’s Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) was hesitant in accepting the claim, saying “enemies of Islam” invent organizations with Arab names to tie Muslims to acts of violence. “As far as we know, there is no such organization even among banned religious organizations in our country. I even doubt that it exists in the world,” stated the IRP representative (Asia-Plus Online, September 11).

A September 5 explosion at a Dushanbe disco that wounded seven people was at first believed to be an attack by radical Islamists, but investigations revealed the blast was the result of “gross misconduct by visitors using pyrotechnics” (Interfax, September 7).

Taliban on the Border

On September 10, a Tajik border patrol encountered what they described as a large group of Islamist fighters, including Afghan Taliban, trying to cross the border from Afghanistan. A firefight lasting nearly 24 hours ensued, with the border police eventually driving off the Taliban incursion. Authorities claimed one officer and 20 Taliban were killed. Though only seven Taliban bodies were recovered, officials said the rest were observed being put into the river by their former comrades to be carried away. The battle took place roughly 210 km south of Dushanbe on the banks of the River Pyandzh and on a number of islands in the river occupied by Taliban fighters (Reuters, September 11; AFP, September 13).

Response from the Legal Islamist Opposition

In an effort to curb extremism, President Emomali Rahmon has asked parents to arrange for the return of their children studying at Islamic institutions abroad, claiming they were being trained as “extremists and terrorists” (Asia-Plus Online, August 30). The request proved highly controversial and brought pointed criticism from the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (the only legal Islamic party in Tajikistan) (Asia-Plus Online, August 26).

The IRP responded to the new violence by issuing a call for national unity and a halt in the process of destabilization (Ozodagon [Dushanbe], September 22). Party leader Muhiddin Kabiri said his appeals to the government to open discussions with the militant opposition had fallen on deaf ears and led to the current violence (Najot [Dushanbe], September 23). Kabiri maintains that moderates form the majority in Tajikistan, but both the secular government and the armed Islamist opposition are now dominated by extremists. The government has jailed more than 100 members of banned Islamic groups in the last year alone. Kabiri’s views on the violence were sought by assistant to the U.S. secretary of state on South and Central Asia Robert Blake during a recent two-day visit to Dushanbe (Vecherniy Dushanbe, September 7).


It is difficult to get a clear picture of the security picture in Tajikistan. Foreign press reports are quick to work al-Qaeda into their headlines, with reports suggesting all of Tajikistan’s militants are somehow operatives of that organization. Tajik authorities prefer to blame their troubles on a revival of the IMU in Tajikistan or alternatively to blame Islamist opponents of the government who have already been subject to a campaign of marginalization for some years. The possible emergence of new groups such as the Jamaat Ansarullah and the pursuit of shadowy figures such as Mullo Abdullo tend to confuse the picture even more. Along the frontier with Afghanistan there is the risk of fugitive militants escaping across the border to join the Taliban while other groups of Taliban are apparently trying to make their way into Tajikistan. Presenting its troubles in the framework of the “war on terrorism” allows the Dushanbe government to avoid discussions of official nepotism, corruption and inefficiency as factors causing unrest in the country.

The small number of militants active in Tajikistan does not pose an existential threat to the nation, as some have suggested. They have little influence outside the Rasht Valley and do not enjoy the levels of popular support the armed opposition had in the 1990s. However, economic stagnation and the continuing marginalization of all types of political opposition threaten to create the conditions in which militant groups could flourish, especially those offering an Islamic solution to Tajikistan’s problems in harmony with the nation’s ongoing grass-roots Islamic revival.

This article first appeared in the October 4, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Armored Trains Return to the Russian North Caucasus

Eurasia Daily Monitor

Volume: 7 Issue: 36, February 23, 2010

Andrew McGregor

A weapon thought by many to belong to military museums is making a return to active anti-insurgency operations in the North Caucasus: the armored train. First used for such purposes in the American Civil War, armored trains and the tactics associated with their use were most fully developed in the vast expanses of Russia, where they were used in large numbers in World War One, the Red-White Civil War of 1917-22 (including extensive operations in the Caucasus), the Second World War and the Sino-Soviet border conflict of the 1960’s. More recently, Russian armored trains were deployed to secure railway lines against Azeri nationalists during the 1990 Soviet military intervention in Baku. Now Russia’s defense ministry has announced the return of armored trains for use against Islamist insurgents in the North Caucasus (Interfax, January 5, 2010; Russia Today, January 5, 2010).

The growing insecurity of Russia’s railway system led to an announcement by President Dmitry Medvedev on December 2 that he had just signed a special order regarding the prevention of terrorist attacks on railways (ITAR-TASS, December 2, 2009). Medvedev’s announcement followed remarks by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that called for pre-emption as the best means of eliminating attacks on the rail system (Moscow Times, December 1, 2009).

Bombings of Russian trains in Dagestan have become a major security problem, with some seven explosions occurring on trains in the last six months of 2009 alone. The attacks appear to be part of a new campaign by North Caucasus Islamist insurgents to strike Russian infrastructure, including railways (EDM, December 10, 2009).

A review of recent attacks on railway infrastructure gives some sense of the growing problem:

  • One person was killed in an explosion on railroad tracks near the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala on February 10. The bomb appears to have gone off prematurely, narrowly missing an incoming freight train carrying 20 tankers full of jet fuel (www.news.az, February 11, 2010; AP, February 11, 2010).
  • Militants fired two shots from a grenade launcher at militia quarters in the railway station at Nazran (Ingushetia) on February 2 (Chechenpress, February 2, 2010).
  • Federal Security Service (FSB) forces in Dagestan announced the killing of a veteran Egyptian jihadist who had targeted railway infrastructure in the North Caucasus. Mahmud Muhammad Shaaban was killed in a shootout on February 2 (RIA Novosti, February 3, 2010).
  • A cargo train including oil tankers was derailed by an explosion in Nazran on January 4 (Caucasian Knot, January 4, 2010).
  • On November 30, 2009, a bomb went off under the Tyumen-Baku train in Dagestan, damaging the locomotive (Moscow Times, December 1, 2009; ITAR-TASS, November 30, 2009).
  • The Nevsky Express running between Moscow and St. Petersburg was derailed by a reported explosion on November 27. The FSB estimated seven kilograms of explosives were used (RIA Novosti, November 28). Though the Caucasus mujahideen claimed the explosion was carried out under the orders of their amir Dokka Umarov, elements of the police and many observers questioned the ability of the rebels to conduct such an operation. The mujahideen’s message included threats to carry out further attacks on rail lines and other Russian infrastructure (www.kavkazcenter.com, December 2, 2010; RIA Novosti, December 2, 2010; ITAR-TASS, December 2, 2010).
  • A landmine blew up a section of rail in Makhachkala as a locomotive passed over on October 25 (Interfax, October 25, 2010).
  • A section of the Baku-Rostov rail line near Makhachkala was destroyed by a bomb blast on October 12, 2010.
  • An explosion damaged the rail line between Makhachkala and Baku and set fire to a locomotive on November 26, 2009 (ITAR-TASS, November 26, 2009).
  • A sapper was killed by an explosion on the rail line south of Makhachkala on July 2. The bombing occurred as a repair crew arrived to fix track destroyed earlier that day in another explosion (RIA Novosti, July 2, 2009).

Building on the 1919 innovation to include a desantniy ortryad (raiding team) with every armored train for offensive and defensive missions, modern armored trains include detachments of armor and infantry that can be quickly offloaded and deployed around the area of the train or sent on reconnaissance missions. This makes it difficult for insurgents to prepare ambushes or destroy sections of track without detection. Meanwhile, the armored train can provide mobile artillery fire in support of infantry operations. Anti-aircraft weapons provide a defense against air attack, though this does not figure into anti-insurgency operations such as those in the North Caucasus where control of the skies is held by state forces. Tanks carried on the armored train may also be used in a secondary role as tractors in the removal of derailed railroad cars (as a result of ambush, mines, etc).

During the Cold War, Russia deployed 56 RT-23 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s) (NATO name – SS-24 Scalpel) on military trains used as mobile launch pads. The last of these was decommissioned in 2005. Elaborate armored trains were deployed along the Soviet-Chinese border in the 1970’s. These trains carried a motorized rifle platoon, an anti-missile detachment, military engineers and communications units. The train could also deploy 12 tanks (two amphibious), eight armored personnel carriers and a variety of lighter transport. The armored trains were demobilized as border tensions with China calmed in the 1980’s (www.russia-ic.com, November 26, 2009).

Russia maintains a unique formation of Railway Troops (Zheleznodorozhniki -ZhDk), composed of four railway corps, 28 railway brigades and a number of military and research units under the control of the defense ministry since 2004 (ITAR-TASS, May 2, 1999). The Railway Troops are responsible for securing and rebuilding railroads in support of combat and mobilization efforts, the construction of new railways and the repair or reconstruction of rail systems destroyed by enemy forces or natural calamities. Railway troops were active in these roles in the First Chechen War of 1994-96. Shortly after the Second Chechen War began in 1999 the Railway Troops began operating an armored train to protect commercial cargo and military supply trains (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 10, 2008).

In the wake of continuing insurgent attacks on the railroads of the North Caucasus, Russia will return two Stavropol-based armored trains to service in Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. The trains, which have been held in reserve for two years, are equipped with “special devices for the removal of landmines and heavy weapons capable of countering an attack by armed militants.” The armored trains will likely be manned by railway troops of the 76 ZhDK, based in Volgograd. The unit is considered well-trained, well-equipped and ready for combat operations. [1]


  1. C.W. Blandy, “Georgia and Russia: A Further Deterioration in Relations,” Advanced Research and Assessment Group, Caucasus Series 08/22, July 2008, http://www.da.mod.uk/Publications/category/67/georgia-and-russia-a-further-deterioration-in-relations-1167.

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.

Dagestan’s Politics of Murder: The Unsurprising Death of Nadirshaykh Kachilayev

Andrew McGregor

Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, John Hopkins University

November 19, 2003


Nadirskhaykh Khachilayev’s car was approaching his home in Makhachkala when a passing Lada motorcar opened fire with machine-guns, killing the 44-year-old leader of the Lak community. Police claimed their investigation led to three unidentified Chechen suspects after finding a burnt-out Lada on the outskirts of Makhachkala. While it is possible the Lak leader was the victim of a political assassination, he may have been the victim of a blood feud, arising after the deaths of several ethnic Dargin policemen in the 1998 Islamist assault on Parliament.

Lak 1Nadirshaykh Kachilayev

The Khachilayev brothers seized on ethnic politics to build their political base during the years of uncertainty following the demise of the Soviet Union, providing the muscle for the Lak community’s Tsubarz movement. Using the revenues of their criminal activities, the Khachilayevs armed and equipped the Lak national movement during the Novalakskii dispute. The land belonging to Akkin Chechens, deported from Dagestan’s Aukhovskii rayon in 1944 had been given to Laks and Avars, and the area renamed Novolakskii rayon. The resettled Laks became the victims of a 1991 Russian policy to resettle internally exiled peoples, including the Akkin Chechens. Following a brief armed confrontation, the Khachilayevs proposed a compromise that was accepted by all parties. The settlement served to propel the Khachilayevs to the leadership of the Lak movement.

The Laks are an indigenous Caucasus group, believing themselves to be descended from an eighth century Syrian Arab governor of Dagestan. They were the first group in the area to convert to Islam after the conquest of Abu Maslama in 733. This early conversion may be only legendary, but by the 15th century the Laks were spreading Islam throughout Dagestan, becoming known as Ghazi-Ghumuqs, “warriors for Islam.” The Lak are one of 14 ethnic groups receiving equal representation in the Daghestan State Council.

Lak 2Lak Regions of Russia (Joshua Project)

In 1994 the Dargin group succeeded in having their nominee, Magomedali Magomedov, appointed to the post of Chairman of the State Council. Charges of corruption and ethnic favoritism began almost immediately. Ironically, some of the strongest charges came from the leaders of Dagestan’s powerful ethnic mafias, including the Khachilayev brothers. Publicly, Khachilayev posed as a corruption-fighter, and had embarrassed the government in recent years by collecting incriminating documents. When nothing came of his campaign, he declared himself retired from politics. After his acquittal on charges of illegal arms possession in March 2002, Khachilayev re-entered politics, alleging government responsibility for 35 unsolved political murders.

Despite having only scant knowledge of Islam, Nadirshaykh took the leadership of the Union of Muslims of Russia (SMR) in 1996 and embarked on an ambitious program to promote himself as the leader of Russia’s Muslim community. In the same year he became a member of the Russian Duma. Dagestan’s religious community, deeply divided by schisms between various tariqas (Sufi orders) and Salafist reformers, has failed to generate any widely accepted leaders, allowing populist politicians such as Khachilayev to assume roles as ‘Islamic’ leaders. As the Khachilayevs and other Laks gained prominence in Dagestan’s political system, Nadirshaykh began to dabble in separatism. In May 1998 Magomed and Nadirshaykh joined forces with the Avar national movement and others to seize the Daghestan Parliament building in Makhachkala in the name of Islam. The leaders described the event as a protest against Daghestan’s corruption and feudalism rather than a coup d’état. These few hours under arms led to the dissolution of the SMR and criminal charges for the Khachilayevs. Though found guilty, the brothers were given suspended sentences and later amnestied. Magomed was murdered by one of his bodyguards in 2000.


After 1991, Lak resentment of Avar and Dargin domination of official Islamic structures increased. Khachilayev was instrumental in arranging the 1996 peace negotiations that ended the first Chechen conflict, one of many times in which the Khachilayevs were used as mediators by Moscow. Following the war, Khachilayev established contacts with figures like Muammar Khadafi, Saddam Hussein and Louis Farrakhan while calling for an Islamic state in Dagestan.

Beginning in 1998, there were attempts to establish autonomous ‘Wahhabi’ enclaves governed by shari’a . Dagestan relies overwhelmingly on federal subsidies from Moscow that would be endangered by any local separatist movement. The radicals of the Jama’at al-Islamiyun al-Daghestani led by Bagauddin Kebedov were opposed not only by traditional Sufis, but also by elements of the Dagestani mafia, who had suffered from local Wahhabi anti-crime campaigns. The jama’at declared jihad against Daghestani authorities in 1998. Though there were reports Khachilayev was actively involved in fighting on the Wahhabi side during the 1999 incursion by al-Khattab and Shamyl Basayev, he vigorously denied them. Criminal charges of armed insurrection were eventually dropped for lack of evidence, but there were reports that Basayev sentenced Khachilayev to death for failing to rally Daghestani Muslims to their cause. It is unlikely, however, that Basayev now has the time to indulge himself in assassinations that have no effect on the Chechen conflict.


In an interview done shortly before his death, Khachilayev was in a pessimistic mood regarding the future of Islam in Dagestan: “The people are not ready yet to accept a Shari’a state, they are afraid of the word ‘Shari’a’, they think that it is something very harsh and scary.”

Though Khachilayev’s political influence had waned greatly, he was reported to be contemplating another run at the State Duma despite warnings not to do so. Khachilayev himself often said that Russian security forces were preparing to kill him. Chechen rebel sources report that the Russian-backed Chechen National Guard leader Sulim Yamadayev fulfilled a four year old contract on Khachilayev’s life, in an attempt to instigate fighting between Laks and Chechens in the still volatile Novalak rayon. Lak leaders have already promised revenge for Khachilayev’s death, ensuring Dagestan’s cycle of political murder will continue.

Islamism in Dagestan: The Roots of the Crisis on Russia’s Southern Flank

Strategic Datalink no. 80, September 1999

Andrew McGregor, Canadian Institute of International Affairs

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a low-level Islamist rebellion has simmered along Russia’s frontier with the new Central Asian states. In August of 1999, this rebellion crossed into Russia proper as Islamist fighters seized territory in the Russian republic of Dagestan. The explosive violence of the insurrection has dealt another embarrassing blow to Russian security forces and largely eliminated any hope of a Russian-Chechen reconciliation as Russian bombers struck deep into Chechnya in attempts to destroy rebel training bases.

Most of the current analysis of the conflict has depicted the rebellion in terms of a Chechen-inspired Islamic/nationalist revolt against the Russian state, much like the 1994-96 conflict in neighboring Chechnya. The presence of leading Chechen guerrilla commanders such as Shamyl Basayev lends weight to the notion that the fighting in Dagestan is an extension of the earlier conflict into a new arena. Lost in this line of reasoning are the severe divisions the fighting has revealed in the Chechen leadership and the importance of ultra-conservative Islamic “Wahhabism” in creating the direction of the revolt. The Wahhabi campaign in Dagestan is concerned just as much with conquering the Dagestanis as with expelling the Russians.

Rather than constituting a nationalist struggle, as in Chechnya, the campaign in Dagestan is the military expression of a two-and-a-half century old Islamic movement that has been reinvigorated as the ideology of the foreign volunteers who fought communism in Afghanistan. These mujahidin have gone on to form the core of Islamic resistance movements throughout Asia and the Middle East.

Traditional Tower in the Dagestan Mountains (Hotel-all.ru)

Russia, in seeking Western support for its 1994-96 Chechen war, overemphasized the importance of Islam as a source of the conflict, describing the Chechen nationalists as “Muslim fundamentalists,” which clearly, they were not. Even General Dudayev, the late Chechen president, warned in 1991 of the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism if the nation did not follow a politically secular path. While nationalism drove the Chechen rebellion, it was the discipline provided by the introduction of the Shari’a (Islamic law) that helped keep the guerrillas in the front lines through the war’s darkest days. The appeal of a more conservative form of Islam grew among some commanders such as Shamyl Basayev, one of the war’s Chechen heroes. For many others though, Shari’a came into conflict with the still important pre-Islamic Chechen code of tradition know as the adat.

Wahhabi Origins

The Wahhabist movement derives its name from the puritan reforms introduced to Arabian Islam in the 18th century by ‘Abd al-Wahhab, a formidable religious reformer who took inspiration from the teachings of the Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328). He rejected religious innovation, the survival of pre-Islamic traditions, pilgrimages to shrines, saint-worship and the cult of intercession; in short, the core of popular Islam as it is practised in the Sufi-influenced North Caucasus. The modern importance of Wahhabism is derived through the Wahhabi alliance with the founder of Saudi Arabia, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Sa’ud, whereby it became the officially recognized form of Islam in that nation.

Though the puritanism of modern Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia has been tempered by political necessity in the post-war decades, the Wahhabism espoused by missionaries and guerrillas in Central Asia and the Caucasus bears none of the restraints found in the Saudi court. Wahhabis often refer to a struggle against “Sufis, saint-worshippers and grave-worshippers,” whom they refuse to acknowledge as true Muslims, and therefore not subject to the prohibition against fighting fellow Muslims. Long seen as a militant expression of Arab superiority over backsliding non-Arab Islamic cultures, the recent growth of Wahhabism in the Caucasus and through the Turkic cultures of post-Soviet Central Asia and China represents an important step in the growth of the movement.

The core belief of Wahhabism is tawhid (literally the “unity” of God), an unflinching commitment to monotheism. The movement rejects the term “Wahhabi” (which implies worship of the man rather than adherence to his ideals), preferring the name muwahhidun, or Unitarians.

The Russian government has warned of the “dangerous expansion of Wahhabism” in Central Asia, and even signed a pact with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in May of this year to combat the movement. The pact is similar to one China signed with the Central Asian states in 1998 in an effort to dampen Islamic militancy in its western province of Xinjiang. [1] In late August, as the Russians battled Wahhabis in Dagestan, President Yeltsin attended a summit of the “Shanghai Five” (named for a previous summit) in Kyrgyzstan. While the summit of leaders from Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan continued, troops from the host country of Kyrgyzstan were battling Islamist guerrillas who had seized several villages in the east of the country. It has been suggested that the gunmen were also responsible for February’s assassination attempt on Uzbekistan’s president.

Islam in Conflict

While quick to designate fellow Muslims as guilty of shirk (polytheism) because of even slight variations from the spirit of eighth century Islam, the Wahhabis have always reserved a special antagonism towards followers of Shi’a Islam (as practiced in Iran, southern Iraq, eastern Saudi Arabia and elsewhere) and members of the mystical Sufi brotherhoods that often incorporate pre-Islamic elements in their rituals and customs. Sufism, or “popular Islam,” can be found everywhere from Bosnia to Indonesia, but it is particularly well grounded in the North Caucasus, making it seemingly infertile ground for Wahhabi expansionism. The lengthy list of prohibitions on personal and social activities demanded by the Wahhabists are also certain to dim their appeal to most Muslims of the North Caucasus. Dagestanis, who converted to Islam centuries before their Chechen neighbors, are on principle unlikely to accept Chechen leadership in any Islamic movement.

In the North Caucasus, Sufi Islam has long been seen to be the staunchest defender of national independence, with the tombs of great Sufi leaders martyred in the struggle against Russian imperialism being among the most revered and visited sites in the region. Sufism survived the Soviet period because the communist rulers of the Caucasus realized, after a long period of persecution, that the only effective way to combat Sufism was to re-invigorate more orthodox forms of Islam. This option was a non-starter for the atheist Soviets in Moscow.

The Mosque of Sulayman on Mount Shalbuz-Dagh (Hotel-all.ru)

At Mount Shalbuz-Dagh in southern Dagestan (a place where the Prophet Muhammad was said to have ascended to the summit on horseback, but is more likely to be a holy site of pre-Islamic origin), seven ascents of the mountain were considered locally to be the equivalent of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Traditions such as these represent the grossest heresy to the Wahhabis. Unlike some other areas where Sufi orders showed submissiveness to Soviet rule, the brotherhoods of Dagestan proved capable of mobilizing and leading resistance to those who would challenge local Islamic practice. The current Wahhabi revolt is not only a challenge to Russian rule, but is the first major challenge to Sufi leadership of independence movements in the North Caucasus since the eighteenth century. To the Wahhabis, the current state of religious expression in the Caucasus is akin to that found by al-Wahhab in 18th century Arabia; full of deviation and pre-Islamic custom, ripe for the most severe Orthodox reformation.

Wahhabism in the North Caucasus

The Wahhabists saw in the Chechen war an opportunity to expand their presence in the Caucasus, providing fighters and refugee relief while missionaries spread the word of Islamic reform and revival. Following the war, the continued Wahhabi presence produced violent religious tensions in Chechnya. In 1997, armed clashes occurred in Dagestani Kari-Makhi between hundreds of Wahhabist converts and more traditional supporters of Sufism. The Wahhabists gained the upper hand, policing the area themselves according to the Shari’a. An attempt by Russian prime minister Sergei Stepashin last year to buy off the Wahhabites with expensive Western medical equipment was a failure, with the Wahhabites accepting the equipment but refusing the presence of Russian police.

After declaring victory against the rebels in late August, the Russian security forces turned their attention to the Wahhabist enclave around Kari-Makhi and Chaban-Makhi south-west of the capital of Makhachkala. Instead of an easy victory over the villagers, the Russians only succeeded in opening a second front as the Dagestani Wahhabis fought back ferociously. Their bombing of a military apartment complex in the nearby town of Buinaksk sent shock waves to the highest levels of the Russian government. At the same time, Wahhabi guerrillas once again poured over the border from Chechnya into the Novolakskoye district in western Dagestan. Russian bombing raids on Chechen targets and the consequent civilian losses will only ensure a steady supply of Chechen volunteers to take up the fight against the hated Russians, thereby playing right into the hands of the rebel commanders.

The campaign mounted by an international group of Wahhabist fighters in Dagestan has gathered little public support, other than in the small Wahhabite communities, and, to a lesser extent, in the western border area of Dagestan, where 60,000 ethnic Chechens live. Isolated by language and geography from most other Dagestanis, these communities have little influence in the republic, which has a complicated power-sharing agreement among its 34 ethnic nationalities. [2] Moderate Muslim leaders have strongly opposed Wahhabism, and called for the arrest of the council of Muslim leaders who gathered in Botlikh to declare an independent Islamic State of Dagestan. The Wahhabis appear determine, however, to impose their will on the rest of the republic; according to one Wahhabi leader, “If the people of Dagestan don’t like to live in accordance with the law of Allah, we will take corresponding steps…”. [3] The rebels have even gone so far as to form a tribunal to judge the members of what they referred to as the “occupation government” of Dagestan. Despite three decades of resistance to the Russians offered by the legendary 19th century Dagestani Imam Shamyl, the current Dagestani government has sided solidly with Russia in the current conflict, even providing local militias with arms to combat the Wahhabi threat. This strategy has been questioned within Russia, which still has a standing army of 1.2 million men and several hundred thousand Interior Ministry troops.

Igor Ivanov, the Russian foreign minister, has denounced the presence of “foreign mercenaries” in Dagestan and sternly warned the Organization of the Islamic Conference (an umbrella group of Islamic governments) of the consequences of interference in Russian domestic affairs. Moscow has further accused Saudi Arabia and Kuwait of funding the Wahhabites, and even claimed a connection between the Dagestani rebels and the notorious Osama bin Laden. In September, Russian interior minister Vladimir Rushailo informed FBI director Louis Freeh that Bin Laden was directing the Wahhabi operations in Dagestan, but so far the Russians have failed to provide any evidence of their allegations of foreign support.

Leaders of the Rebellion

The Wahhabi fighters operating in the Caucasus are led by the high-profile Chechen commander Shamyl Basayev, and a shadowy but highly experienced Jordanian known only by his nom de guerre, Khattab. Beside the contribution of his formidable military talents, Basayev assumed the early role of public leadership of the rebellion, issuing statements and posing for photographers. Basayev is, however, a fairly recent addition to the troubles in the Dagestan frontier where the committed Wahabbist Khattab has been operating for several years.

Emir Khattab and Shamyl Basayev

Basayev’s pan-Islamist inclinations were shown as early as 1991, when he joined the armed force of the Confederation of the People of the Caucasus, eventually commanding a force of foreign Islamic volunteers in the Abkhazian separatist struggle against Georgia in 1992. During this conflict Basayev received covert military training from Russian security forces. In 1994, after further training in Afghanistan, Basayev was ready to emerge as a daring rebel commander in the Chechen war of independence, leading an audacious commando raid on the Russian town of Budenovsk as well as the stunning two-day re-conquest of the Chechen capital of Grozny against an entrenched Russian force at least ten times the size of his lightly armed group of fighters.

Basayev appears not to have found a niche in the post-war political structure of Chechnya. Having lost the presidential election to the more pragmatic Alsan Maskhadov (Chechen chief-of-staff in the war), Basayev recently served six months as prime minister before resigning to dedicate himself to the “liberation” of Dagestan. Tensions are well known between the conservative Maskhadov and the militant Basayev, who views the Chechen war as only the first step in the expulsion of Russia from the entire North Caucasus. Basayev and his allies are committed to restoring the Shari’a-based North Caucasus Emirate (1919-20). Led by Uzun Hadji, a 90-year-old Sufi sheikh, the Emirate united Dagestan, Chechnya, North Ossetia, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. The Bolsheviks admired Uzun Hadji for his iron will; as an old man he had survived 15 years imprisonment in Siberia and once promised to “weave a rope to hang students, engineers, intellectuals and more generally all those who write from left to right.” [4] The Wahhabis envision a theocratic “Islamic Confederation of the North Caucasus” covering the same area as the former Emirate. Some Russians fear that the Islamist Caucasians also have designs on areas within Russia proper, including parts of Stavropol and Krasnodar krais, and Rostov Oblast. [5]

Despite the trouble the Dagestan adventure has caused Maskhadov in repairing Chechen-Russian relations, ties of comradeship seem apparent in Maskhadov’s unwillingness to cooperate with the Russians in suppressing the Wahhabi bases and supply lines in Chechnya. The extent of Maskhadov’s patience with the fiery Basayev is, however, unknown. Many observers have regarded a civil war within Chechnya as inevitable, but so far the deep-seated Chechen aversion to killing other Chechens seems to have prevented open conflict.

In Russia, Basayev is publicly despised as a terrorist, and privately feared as a brilliant guerrilla leader and a major threat to Russian dominance of the Caucasus. His reputation is so formidable that once, after musing to shocked reporters that if food ran out for his men they could always eat dead Russian soldiers, he felt compelled by their expressions to add that he was only joking.

Shamyl Basayev and ChRI President Aslan Maskadov

In late August, Maskhadov sacked security advisor Mavladi Udugov and security chief Ibrahim Khultigov for their participation in the attack on Dagestan. Udugov was the energetic and often flamboyant spokesman for the Chechen forces in the 1994-96 war against the Russians, but reinvented himself for the subsequent presidential elections as a dour, black-suited Islamist. Well respected by the Russians for his control of information and handling of international media, Udugov’s support is a major contribution to the rebel effort. While Udugov presents confident rebel commanders in press conferences and television interviews, Russian public relations remain as confused and unbelievable as ever. After mistakenly bombing the Republic of Georgia, Russian spokesmen claimed that unnamed individuals had carried unexploded Russian bombs from Chechnya to Georgia before strewing them on the ground in order to cause embarrassment to the Russians. Only after this rather preposterous refused to float did the Russians finally admit to a mistake.

In his mid-thirties, like Basayev, Emir Khattab arrived in Chechnya in early 1995 leading a mujahidin battle group composed of Saudi Arabians and North African Arabs. A veteran of the Afghan war, Khattab keeps his origins secret but is believed to be a Jordanian ethic Chechen, a member of the extensive North Caucasus exile community in Jordan. By other accounts, Khattab is held to be a Saudi Arabian, marked by a heavy regional accent in his Arabic. Wounded three times in the Chechen war and denounced by the Russian government as a foreign mercenary, Khattab remained in Chechnya after the war, marrying a Dagestani woman. Known locally as “the Black Arab,” Khattab and his men have frequently been accused of forming one of the leading gangs in Chechnya’s lucrative post-war kidnapping business.

Emir Khattab with Rocket Launcher

Khattab gained immense notoriety in the Chechen war with his destruction of a Russian column at Yarysh-Mardy in March 1996, the humiliation of which is thought to have led the Russians to assassinate Chechen president Dudayev in reprisal. His contributions to Chechen independence have made Khattab impossible to remove from Chechnya, though the Maskhadov government is well aware that the Wahhabis regard Chechnya’s dominant form of Sufi Islam as heresy. Customarily accused by the Russians of any outrage in the region, including the murder of six Red Cross workers in the village of Novye Atagi in 1996, Khattab has responded: “Whenever anything happens, the Kremlin immediately accuses me, without a shred of evidence.” [6]

Since the end of the Chechen war, Khattab has run a number of guerrilla training bases in eastern Chechnya, though these were mostly destroyed by Russian air raids in late August 1999. It was from these bases that Khattab launched an attack on the Russian armour base at Buinaksk in December of 1997. Khattab claims that his force of 115 “foreign mujahidin” surprised the garrison and destroyed 300 vehicles, including 50 brand new T-72 battle tanks. [7] Though the Russians claimed only two tanks destroyed, they were clearly embarrassed by Khattab’s ability to launch a successful attack deep into Russian Federation territory.

Referred to by Basayev as “head of the Islamic Army of Dagestan,” it is most likely to be Khattab rather than Basayev who conceived the Wahhabist rebellion in Dagestan. The hard core of the fighters also appear to be mujahidin from Khattab’s command. While Basayev commands the headlines in the press, Khattab’s importance is recognized by the Russian military, which claimed to have seriously wounded and captured Khattab in mid-August. The Emir was shortly afterwards seen on TV, mocking reports of his capture and asserting the success of mujahidin operations.

Khattab and Basayev have both threatened to bring the war to Moscow through terrorist attacks on political leaders and installations. The Russians are taking the threats seriously, and have stepped up the visible military presence in Moscow, creating yet another strain on the Russian budget and the fragile political structure. As explosions rip through Moscow, Russian security forces are left wondering whether they are the work of gangsters, radical anti-materialists, Islamic terrorists, or even the product of Moscow’s decaying system of gas lines.

The initiation of the rebellion in Dagestan may yet prove to have been a strategic miscalculation on the part of the Wahhabi volunteers; Dagestan is more likely to dissolve into a bewildering web of ethnic violence than to suddenly rise as one under the Wahhabi banner. The initial success of their campaign will, however, sow the belief amongst the great number of Dagestanis disaffected by corrupt Russian rule that defiance of the militarily inept Russian security forces is possible. Resilient and aggressive by nature, the Wahhabi movement will provide a growing threat to the stability of most of the ex-Soviet Islamic nations ranged along Russia’s southern frontier.


  1. Andrew McGregor, “Mummies and Mullahs: Islamic separatism in China’s ‘New Frontier’,” Behind the Headlines, 56(4), CIIA, Summer 1999.
  2. The exact number of ethnic groups or nationalities in Dagestan is a matter of some dispute. Depending on your definition, the number of groups may range from 9 to 200.
  3. Bagaudin Magomedov, quoted in Reuter-AP, “A call for holy war: Islamic rebels want Russian states liberated,” Toronto Star (Toronto ON), 11 August 1999.
  4. Marie Bennigsen Broxup, “The Last ghazawat: The 1920-1921 uprising,” in MB Broxup (ed.), The North Caucasus barrier: The Russian advance towards the Muslim world (C. Hurst, London, 1992).
  5. Boris Nikolin, “The Threat from the Caucasus,” Russian Politics and Law 36, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1998), p. 40.
  6. Jamestown Foundation Monitor, A daily briefing on the post-Soviet states 3, no. 202, 10-29-97 http://www.jamestown.org/pubs/view/mon_003_202_000.htm, 08-19-99. Blame for the massacre was eventually laid by the Chechen government against a pro-Russian Chechen who had fled to Moscow to evade charges. Geoffrey York, “Chechens believe assassin roams free,” Globe and Mail, Toronto,, 27 January 1998.
  7. Communiqué from Emir Khattab, “Mujahideen attack Russian base in Dagestan” (Parts 1-2), Azzam Publications, MSA News (12/29/97), http://msanews.mynet.net/MSANEWS/199712/19971228.1.html, 08/19/99. The mujahidin claim to have videotaped the entire operation, as is their practice.