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

Andrew McGregor

June 29, 2006

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

Dokku Umarov 2Dokku Umarov

Battling the “Quislings”

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

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

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

Said Magomed KakievSaid Magomed Kakiev

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

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

Umarov Booby-Traps the Presidency

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

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


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

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

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

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

Pakistan Launches New Offensive in Balochistan

Andrew McGregor

June 27, 2006

Since the forcible annexation of the Baloch Khanate of Kalat by Pakistan in 1947, the Balochistan region has seen a succession of revolts against political centralization and resource exploitation. Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province, but is sparsely populated with only six million people. A low-level insurgency in the last two years has seen a mixture of indiscriminate bombings and targeted attacks on the region’s energy and transportation infrastructure. The nationalist militants are divided into several factions, the largest of which is the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA).

Balochistan mapThe region is a strategically important territory with considerable mineral, gas and petroleum wealth. Little of the wealth now produced in Balochistan has found its way back into the province, which remains badly underdeveloped and faces a major financial crisis even as new natural gas discoveries continue. As a result, pipelines and other energy installations have been primary targets of Baloch nationalists. President Pervez Musharraf’s government has recently committed large sums for development projects, but some distrustful Baloch nationalists view these as further efforts at “colonization.”

Although Islamabad’s accusations of foreign assistance to the Baloch insurgents typically omit naming suspect countries, Pakistani security services apparently fear the intervention of agents from their traditional Indian rival, as well as others from certain Gulf states said to be unhappy about the opening of a new port in the Baloch coastal town of Gwadar. Balochistan’s society is remarkably insular, however, and is unlikely to fall under the thrall of what Balochis call “outsiders.”

The Dera Bugti and Kohlu regions are the centers of the insurgency and government counter-terrorism operations. The latest outrage was a June 12 terrorist bombing in the city of Quetta that killed five and wounded 17. Nearly all of the casualties were Balochis. The provincial governor suggested the involvement of “foreign hands” and vowed that he would not compromise with opponents of Pakistan’s “national integrity” (APP, June 12). In response to the attacks, helicopter gunships are again being deployed in the region, painful reminders of the havoc caused by these weapons on the civilian population during the bitterly fought 1973-1977 insurgency. Many of the region’s politicians are calling for their withdrawal.

On June 15, 12 members of the BLA were arrested on charges of terrorism. They are alleged to have carried out a series of bombing and rocket attacks under the direction of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, an important chieftain (Daily Times, June 16). Jets and helicopter gunships followed up with attacks on armed tribesmen in the Kohlu region. Gunbattles between insurgents and security forces were also reported in the Dera Bugti region (Dawn, Karachi, June 15). Nawab Bugti claimed that the government attacks killed 17 civilians but no militants (Pajhwok Afghan News, June 14).

Balochi fighterBalochi Fighter (Friday Times)

Government plans to build military bases in Balochistan to secure valuable energy resources are seen as the imposition of a foreign occupation force (Balochis are a rare element in Pakistan’s armed forces). The former commander of Pakistan’s armed forces, General Jehangir Karamat, has warned that a prolonged military presence in Balochistan would be “counter-productive” (Dawn, June 4). The leader of the Pashtun minority political party, Mehmood Khan Achakzai, claims that the presence of the army and Pakistan’s ISI has turned Balochistan into “a prison cell.”

The Karachi regime has hit back on the political front. An arrest warrant has been issued for the leader of the Balochistan National Party, Sardar Akhtar Khan Mengal, who is accused of kidnapping government intelligence agents. The BLA was declared a terrorist organization (under the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act) on April 10. General Musharraf has denounced all talk of Baloch “rights” or “sovereignty” as “provocations” (PakTribune, May 23).

There are also government fears that Balochistan is being used as a transit point for foreign militants on their way to join al-Qaeda or Taliban forces active in Pakistan’s northwest frontier. Four Turks and one Afghan were arrested on June 22, attempting to cross from Balochistan into the neighboring province of Waziristan, home of a fierce tribal/Islamist insurgency against Pakistani security forces. The five detainees are accused of ties to the Taliban and/or al-Qaeda terrorists (Pajhwok Afghan News, June 23). After their interrogation, another 11 Afghan nationals were arrested for “possible links” to “al-Qaeda sleeper cells” (Daily Times, June 24).

The Baloch nationalist movement still suffers from tribal and personal enmities and has failed to present a united front. Although accusations have been made that al-Qaeda suspects are harbored in Balochistan, the region has never been known for religious extremism, unlike neighboring areas to the north. The Baloch “liberation movement” still retains a nationalist focus. The Musharraf government appears willing to discuss economic and development issues, but is unwilling to tolerate any discussion of separatist aspirations. Despite this, many local politicians are still eager to open a dialogue with the leading militant nationalists, rather than risk another debilitating civil conflict.


This article first appeared in the June 27, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

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

Andrew McGregor

June 15, 2006

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

Muslim AtayevYarmuk Jamaat Founder Muslim Atayev

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

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

The Caucasian Jamaats in Action

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

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

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

The Raid on Nalchik

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

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

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

Battlel of UhudBattle of Uhud

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

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

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


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

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

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

President Obama’s Outreach to the Muslim World (II) – Jihadi Analyst Dissects U.S. President’s Praise of Turkish Secularism

Andrew McGregor

June 12, 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama’s continuing outreach to the global Islamic community has brought a harsh response from Jihadi-Salafist ideologues. Typical of this reaction is an article entitled “ObamaTurk: The Secular Phenomenon” by a jihadi analyst using the name “al-Janubi.” The article, based on President Obama’s visit to Turkey and his April 6 address to the Turkish parliament, appeared in issue two of the magazine Jihad Recollections, published in May by al-Fursan Media Productions.

Obama Egypt 1

(Washington Times)

Al-Janubi claims Obama’s speech “championed a version of Islam that advocated secularism, nationalism and democracy in place of the Islam revealed 1400 years ago.” Particularly offensive was his praise of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, “who single-handedly dismantled the greatest nation Allah ever let exist on the face of the earth” (i.e. the Ottoman Empire). Ataturk’s creation of a secular nationalist democracy in place of the Istanbul-centered Caliphate (dismantled by Ataturk in 1924) may be his legacy, but this does not make it a good legacy; “Obama forgot that Islam has no room for secularism.”

Al-Janubi cites a Quranic verse, Surah Baqarah, verse 120: “Never will the Jews or the Christians be satisfied with you unless you follow their way.” Secularism, says al-Janubi, is the way of the Jews and Christians, though if the Muslims were to follow them in this way they would be respected even less than they are now. Addressing Obama’s statement of U.S. support for Turkish accession to the European Union (EU), al-Janubi points to the futility of Turkey’s attempts to join the EU as proof of the truth of this Surah.

While Obama praised Turkey’s choice of a new path (the creation of a secular democracy) rather than allowing partition by the Great Powers or attempting to restore the Ottoman Empire, al-Janubi maintains Turkish nationalism was nothing less than another form of “European hegemony,” as proved by Ataturk’s preference for the Latin, European alphabet and European dress rather than “neutral, non-European” modes. President Obama “lied when he said that the Turkish republic commanded the respect of the United States and the world. By imitating those who will not accept them except as alternative to the ‘radical Muslims,’ they are begging for the respect of the U.S. and the world, not demanding it.”

The author calls Obama a hypocrite for stating “There is no excuse for terror against any nation,” after having already pledged his support for Israel during the electoral campaign. “He has already promised to aid one nation, Israel, which has no right to exist, in its terrorizing of a neighboring nation of which Israel should be a jizyah-paying dependency [jizyah is a tax on non-Muslims]. He means one thing and says another, and according to a Muslim or a non-Muslim, that is the definition of a hypocrite!”

Finally, al-Janubi responds to President Obama’s assertion that “The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.” According to al-Janubi, “To not be at war with Islam, he would have to withdraw troops from all Muslim lands, allow the Shari’a to be implemented by whom everyone else calls the ‘radicals’ and the ‘extremists,’ stop supporting any anti-Shari’a movements in the Muslim lands, and then withdraw all support from Israel so they may be easily overrun and absorbed by the Islamic caliphate to pay jizyah or be driven into the ocean.” Had Obama been sincere in his stated intention to deal fairly with the Islamic community, according to al-Janubi, he would have withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan and admitted that America had started the current conflict with the support of the one nuclear power in the Middle East, “the real terrorist, Israel.” He would also have cut off aid and support for dictators in Muslim lands, such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King ‘Abdullah of Jordan. Al-Janubi concludes by asking whether Muslims will withdraw their support of Obama or support an enemy of Islam “and thereby become our own enemies in the process.”

This article first appeared in the June 12, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Subverting the Sultan: British Arms Shipments to the Arabs of Darfur, 1915-16

Dr. Andrew McGregor
June 10, 2006

In recent years the Sudan government has been responsible for pouring weapons into Darfur at a time when territorial and environmental tensions were already high. Rather than encourage and supervise resolutions to these issues the government has chosen to inflame ethnic and racial divisions in the region. The well-known devastation created by this policy has a precedent in British activities in the region in 1915-16 as part of the buildup to the Anglo-Egyptian invasion that brought the independent Sultanate of Darfur under the control of the Khartoum government.

Anglo-Egyptian Rule in the Sudan

Darfur’s independence was first shattered by an invasion led by the powerful slave-trader and freebooter Zubayr Pasha in 1874. Zubayr’s conquest was quickly taken from him by the Turko-Egyptian government,[1] which controlled the rest of the Sudan at the time. The Egyptians in turn were expelled by the forces of the Mahdi, whose Islamic movement took control of most of the country except for a small strip of the Red Sea coast.

Subverting Sultan 1An Embassy from Sultan ‘Ali Dinar to Khartoum, 1907

(Sudan Archives, Durham University)

After the Mahdist government of Sudan was crushed at Omdurman by the British-led Egyptian Army in 1898 a so-called British-Egyptian Condominium government was created to administer the Sudan. Though a partnership in theory, government decisions were made exclusively by the senior partner, the British. Units of Sudanese and Egyptian troops were available to enforce the government’s writ, but the senior officers were all British soldiers on loan to the Egyptian Army. The Governor General of the Sudan was also exclusively British, creating friction with Egyptian nationalists who justifiably questioned the balance of this ‘partnership’. Added to this were civilians of the Sudan Political Service, powerful and independent men who often worked in isolation from other Europeans for long stretches of time. Almost exclusively drawn from Oxford and Cambridge universities, they were fluent in Arabic and expected to make most decisions in the field without having to refer everything to the Governor General in Khartoum. For over five decades this low-cost and, indeed, low-interest, form of administration worked surprisingly well, in large part because of British willingness to apply overwhelming force to any sign of defiance, especially in the early days of the Condominium.

Darfur remained outside the Condominium. It had been intended that it would form part of the Sudan in 1898, but a member of the Fur royal family, ‘Ali Dinar, beat the British back to the capital of al-Fashir after the battle of Omdurman, deposing a British-supported pretender while re-establishing the Fur Kingdom. The British recognized ‘Ali Dinar as sovereign of distant Darfur in exchange for an annual tribute and a nominal acceptance of the Sudan Government as the suzerain power.

Most of the British inspectors were trained in Arab language and culture, and had little sympathy for what they saw as backwards and ignorant Black Africans, regardless of their skills or achievements. For the Fur these achievements were considerable. For three centuries they had ruled a prosperous trading nation with a rich culture, building political unity from a nearly impossible ethnic and linguistic diversity.

Creating Divisions

The Arabs were never enthusiastic about Fur rule, but the centralized authority of the region created a tense but workable relationship between the tribes and the Sultan, who had recourse to a large professional army. Tribute was usually paid, and a degree of order prevailed between African and Arab tribes who might otherwise raid each other to their mutual impoverishment. What had changed by the late 19th century was the encroachment of European imperialists, the French to the West, and the British to the East. The Arab leaders realized that they now had a new card to play by manipulating this presence to their advantage. A similar phenomenon occurred in the Sultanate of Dar Sila on Darfur’s western border, where the nomadic Arab tribes besieged the French with complaints about the ‘African’ Sultan Bakhit. The Sudan government’s relationship with Darfur began to change in 1914, when the British became interested in using the Arabs against the African tribes who dominated Darfur.

The security of the Darfur border region was placed in the hands of one of the Sultan’s most trusted lieutenants, Khalil ‘Abd ar-Rahman. Determined to put an end to the insolence of the Arabs, Khalil pursued an active policy of force against the tribes, creating an incident in 1913 when he attacked a large party of Zaiyadia Arabs fleeing the Sultan’s troops. The attack took place on the Kordofan (Sudanese) side of the border, causing a great deal of anxiety amongst the handful of British administrators who regarded this as a direct challenge to government authority in the region.

The problem was that there was no uniform policy in dealing with the Arab tribes, especially those that routinely crossed the border to seek refuge from the Sultan or the Khartoum government, depending on the circumstances. The generally pro-Arab inspectors were divided on the timing and degree of support to be offered to the Arabs, while the Inspector-General, Rudolf von Slatin Pasha (who knew ‘Ali Dinar from their mutual captivity in Omdurman during the days of the Mahdist government) favoured a conciliatory relationship with the Sultan. Before the Mahdist revolution Slatin had been governor of Darfur in the old Turko-Egyptian regime. Under the Condominium government Slatin was given nearly total control over the nomadic tribes and the appointment of their leaders, mostly men known personally by Slatin and regarded by him as loyal to the government.

With the outbreak of a European war in August 1914, the Austrian-born Slatin was expelled from the Sudan as a security risk despite having been a member of the Egyptian Army since 1879. No European had such intimate knowledge of the peoples of Darfur as Slatin. Tribal policy in the western Sudan now passed into the hands of less-experienced British officials. In November 1914 the Ottoman government declared war on the Allied Powers, followed soon after by a declaration of jihad for all Muslims by Ottoman Sultan Muhammad Rashad V in his role as Caliph of Islam. From this point on a religious dimension emerged in the deteriorating relations between ‘Ali Dinar and the Khartoum government. Governor-General Wingate (an experienced intelligence hand in the Egyptian Army) began to make funds available to the Kordofan inspectors to mount espionage and other secret operations against Darfur.

Preparing the Grounds for War

The Ottoman Sultan’s proclamation of jihad had no impact on the Arabs of Darfur. The bitter legacy of the Turko-Egyptian 19th century occupation of the region meant that the Arabs had no interest in supporting the Ottomans. The survival and growth of the tribe remained paramount, and the key to this was seen to be cooperation with the British.

With the Kababish Arabs raiding the eastern frontier of Darfur in 1915 the Sultan appealed to the Government for arms and ammunition to defend his territory, a natural request to make of the suzerain power. The Kordofan-based Kababish were the largest nomadic tribe in the Sudan. In 1911 they had been bold enough to strike into western Darfur to raid one of the Sultan’s own caravans carrying a large shipment of arms. The tribe’s loyalty was more important to the Khartoum government than ‘Ali Dinar’s satisfaction, so the Sultan’s request for arms was denied. In the end the British relented to sending 1,000 rounds, a ridiculously small amount. Larger considerations were at play here; ‘Ali Dinar had for years battled French encroachment on his western border and had repeatedly requested arms from the government, only to be denied in every case. The British did not wish to create an incident with their wartime French allies by giving a Fur army the means of defeating a French expedition.[2] The British and the French had already been negotiating the limits of the western border of Darfur before the war, but put off a decision until the war was over.

Subverting Sultan 2Rizayqat Herders (Dabanga)

By May 1915 ‘Ali Dinar was sending threatening letters to the leader of the Kababish Arabs. He accused them of joining the infidels but suggested they follow the path of jihad instead. The Kababish chief, ‘Ali al-Tum, immediately dumped the letters on the closest British inspector with a warning that the government should take care of this ‘fanatic’. The British inspectors in Kordofan now began to realize the thinness of their rule, and broached the idea of a pre-emptory invasion of Darfur.

Governor-General Wingate and most of his fellow officers in the Sudan were refused in their applications to transfer to the fighting on the Western Front on the grounds of their experience and irreplaceability in the Sudan. These were all professional soldiers who began to realize that their own efficiency in keeping Sudan quiet during the war was cutting them out of the opportunities for promotion and decorations they could get in Europe. Once planted, the idea of creating a new battleground for the Great War began to take on steam. Rumours of German officers in al-Fashir and diabolical cruelties committed by the Sultan began to circulate. Eventually these rumours and other fantasies were all packed off to London labeled ‘Intelligence’.

Musa Madibbu and the Rizayqat

Normally Arab complaints of the Sultan’s hostility were grounded in the Arab tribes’ own prevarication in paying the annual tribute. Therefore the Government usually responded with a few words of sympathy and a suggestion to pay the tribute more promptly. In July 1915 the Governor-General instructed his agents to advise Musa Madibbu, chief of the Rizayqat tribe, to avoid paying the tribute, advice sure to result in fighting. It was thought that any government invasion of Darfur would benefit greatly from having the Sultan’s army ’embroiled with the Rizayqat’. Wingate, whose experience in intelligence work included what may be called ‘dirty tricks’, suggested that in his correspondence with the Sultan, Madibbu should name any supporters of ‘Ali Dinar in his own tribe as the individuals preventing him from collecting the tribute.

Musa Madibbu was interested in enlisting the aid of the Sudan Government in a growing struggle between his tribe and the Fur Sultan. In 1913 the Rizayqat had narrowly beaten a Fur punitive expedition, but losses were heavy and Madibbu did not believe the Rizayqat could duplicate their win. In September 1915 British Inspector John Bassett offered to loan the Rizayqat arms and ammunition to defend themselves from the Sultan. The total amount came to 300 rifles and 30,000 rounds, enough to turn the Rizayqat into potent challengers to Fur rule. In December a similar loan of 200 rifles and ammunition was made to ‘Ali al-Tum and the Kababish. Musa Madibbu had no intention of taking on the Sultan himself, however, and wrote to the Government that ‘we are poor Arabs and have no power to resist this man’. By this point both the Arabs and the Government were trying to manipulate each other. The dispute grew as the Sultan sent Musa Madibbu a pair of sandals to run away with, while Musa replied that he would soon be watering his horses at the Sultan’s capital of al-Fashir.

The new Government policy was a reversal of its long-standing efforts to disarm the Arab tribes of Kordofan. The region was still awash with 35-year old rifles seized by Mahdist fighters from the ill-fated Hicks Pasha expedition of 1883, but many of these had lost their sights or seen their barrels sawed off to make them easier to carry. Even those still intact commonly used pebbles for ammunition in lead-poor Sudan. The supply of modern weapons and ample ammunition was a dramatic change to the strategic situation in Darfur.

Nomadic Maelstrom

By April 1916 460 Arabs of the Kababish, Kawahla, and other Arab tribes had been deployed in a string of eight posts along the Darfur frontier. All were armed and paid by the Government. The Arabs were ordered to carry out scouting forays into Darfur, but, as one inspector wryly put it, ‘their vigorous interpretation of the term reconnaissance’ took them some 300 miles right across Darfur. The new British-supplied weapons were used by the Arabs to attack their old rivals in French territory, the Bidayat and the Gura’an. There were suggestions that a Government man be sent to the Arabs to reign in their excesses, but eventually it was decided it was better to look the other way, as a government representative would simply be a witness to ‘enormities’ that he could do nothing to prevent.

As the Egyptian Army crossed Kordofan ‘Ali Dinar sent a strange report to Sultan Muhamad Rashad in Istanbul that reflects his agitation and a great deal of wishful thinking besides:

We beg to inform Your Majesty that the Moslems who have abandoned Islam and embraced Christianity have been punished in a miraculous way never heard of on this earth – except during the time of the Prophets… It fell on a tribe called Rizayqat, subjects of ours who had abandoned the light of Islam and followed the advice of the Christians, the dogs – The heaven rained fire on them and they ran to the river and diving therein, turned into black coal – In another place Heaven rained red blood.[3]

‘Ali Dinar failed to meet the British at the border with his army, fearing that if he moved his troops up, Musa Madibbu would sweep in behind him and loot al-Fashir (presumably with those Rizayqat who had not been turned into coal). The Sultan now took on a more friendly tone in his communications with the Rizayqat chieftain. The Sultan announced that he was satisfied with Musa, and in a mix of threat and encouragement informed the Arab chief that the Fur army had already met the Anglo-Egyptian invasion force, and that though each of his men was hit at least ten times by the infidels’ bullets, there were no injuries.

In May 1916 the Sultan’s army was defeated at the battle of Birinjia, followed several months later by the Sultan’s own death at the hands of an Anglo-Egyptian mounted infantry task force. While this put an end to Fur resistance the nomads of Darfur were just getting started. By the middle of 1916 the nomadic African Bidayat, Gura’an and Zaghawa tribes were all raiding from French territory into northwest Darfur. ‘Ali al-Tum led the Kababish against the Berti in northern Darfur, defeating them and seizing their herds on the pretext that they were ‘enemies of the government’. From there they turned to raiding Dar Zaghawa (a territory straddling the Chad/Darfur border). At the same time the Bani Halba of southern Darfur were looting herds without any concern for whether their owners were pro or anti-government.

In October a raiding party of 200 Kababish was in the Ennedi region (modern north Chad) seizing women and children. In retaliation the Bidayat and Gura’an raided the Arabs of northern Darfur in November, then turned south to take 3,500 head of cattle and 50 women and children from the Fur. In December, 1916, a column of the Egyptian Army Camel Corps was sent to northwest Darfur to cooperate with French units against the Bidayat and the Gura’an. The provision of arms had unleashed a storm of retaliatory violence that the government had great difficulty reigning in over the next several years.


The Darfur campaign never achieved recognition as part of the Great War. This was a great disappointment to the expedition’s British officers, but designation as a part of the World War meant that London would be responsible for the costs of the conquest. Although the invasion was justified as a strike against German and Ottoman forces in Africa, the conflict received the official designation ‘Patrol 16 of the Egyptian Army’ making it a purely local affair. This revisionist slight of hand allowed the entire bill to be sent to Cairo instead.

In the end, the Arab tribes contributed almost nothing to the conquest of Darfur. The violence of raid and counter-raid swept across northern Darfur long after the campaign of 1916. Even the Great War had come to an end by the time French and British colonial officials cooperated to bring an end to the destruction of life and property. Like the current situation in Darfur the Sudan government had introduced modern arms into the region while aggravating ethnic and territorial conflicts that were usually resolved by traditional methods of conciliation. As the chaos spiraled out of control the colonial government (like today’s regime in Khartoum) chose to disclaim any responsibility. Unfortunately the lessons of history have little attraction for today’s policy-makers.

[1]. So-called since the entire ruling class of Egypt at the time was composed of Turks, Circassians, and other races of the Ottoman Empire. Turkish rather than Arabic was the language of both the elite and the military.

[2]. I have used the term ‘Fur army’ in this paper in reference to the Sultans’s forces, but the army was in fact composed of many different tribes and ethnic groups. The two senior commanders were both slaves from the southern hinterland, named Sulayman ‘Ali and Ramadan ‘Ali.

[3]. National Records Office, Sudan: NRO INTELL 2/2/11, pt.2; Letter from ‘Ali Dinar to His Majesty Sultan Muhammad Rashad, 1334 (1916)


This article first appeared on Military History Online, June 10, 2006,


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

Andrew McGregor

June 2, 2006

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

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

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

Origins of the Caucasian Jamaats

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

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

Are the Jamaats Wahhabist?

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

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

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

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

Strategic Advantage of the Jamaat Organization

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

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

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

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

A Sour Freedom: The Return of Russia’s Guantanamo Bay Prisoners

Andrew McGregor

June 1, 2006

During the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a ready market developed for the seizure and sale of foreign individuals to U.S. forces as suspected Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters. Typically these captives were transferred to the special U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for further investigation. Included in their number were a handful of Russian citizens. All were Muslims who had arrived separately in Afghanistan with various motivations. Several had a history of Islamist activities that had brought them to the attention of Russian authorities in the 1990s. During their stay in Afghanistan some of the Russian prisoners appear to have been integrated into units of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an Islamist guerrilla force that took part in the 2001 fighting in Afghanistan on the side of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Sour 1Imam Airat Vakhitov

The Road to Freedom

On February 28, 2004, seven of the eight Russian detainees were released to Russian custody after nearly two years of negotiations. According to a March 1, 2004, statement by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, the U.S. State Department received “assurances that the individuals will be detained, investigated, and prosecuted, as appropriate, under Russian law.” In a surprise development that angered those in the State Department who believed they had a secure arrangement with Russian authorities, the prisoners were released after a few months of detention and given bus tickets home. Charges of mercenary activities, participating in a criminal gang, and illegally crossing state borders were all dropped. Though freed, the former prisoners began to complain of constant police harassment and an inability to find any kind of work.

The men, who have come to be known as “the Russian Taliban,” included two Balkars from Kabardino-Balkaria (Ruslan Odzhiev and Rasul Kudaev) and five Tatars from Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and the Tyumen region of Siberia (Ravil Gumarov, Airat Vakhitov, Rustam Akhmarov, Timur Ishmuradov, and Shamil Khadzhiev). Another Tatar, Ravil Mingazov, was not released with the rest and is now the sole Russian citizen held at Guantanamo Bay. Initially the ex-prisoners were allowed to give testimony regarding ill treatment during their U.S. detention.

Legal Remedies

Imam Airat Vakhitov was leader of a Salafist mosque in Tatarstan and came to the attention of Russian security forces by visiting Chechnya in 1998. Vakhitov claims he was kidnapped by IMU fighters during a visit to Tajikistan and eventually sold to U.S. forces in Afghanistan for $5,000. Before his sale to U.S. forces, Vakhitov claims he was drugged and tortured in Afghanistan for seven months in an attempt to force an admission that he was a Russian agent. After a year of imprisonment Mullah Omar (leader of the Afghan Taliban) learned of the torture of fellow Muslims and ordered their release. Vakhitov was instead transferred to a prison near Kandahar where he remained until U.S. security services began to scour Afghanistan for al-Qaeda members.

Apparently quick on his feet, Vakhitov describes being asked at Kandahar by CIA and FBI agents regarding the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Vakhitov says he promised to tell his captors where he had seen bin Laden in exchange for much-needed blankets and warm food. After receiving coffee, pizza, and two blankets, Vakhitov told his inquisitors that he had seen bin Laden on the cover of Time magazine. In return Vakhitov alleges he was punched in the face, returned to prison for another six months, and eventually flown to Cuba, blindfolded and chained (Pravda, June 28, 2005). During his two-year detention at Guantanamo, the imam claims that prisoners were gassed, tortured, and forced to witness the desecration of the Koran on a regular basis. He is suing to clear his name of all allegations of terrorist activity with the help of Reprieve, a human rights NGO.

In a press interview announcing his lawsuit against the United States, Vakhitov complained of beatings, the use of tear gas, sleep deprivation, and various humiliations. Gumarov and Ishmuradov have also joined the suit, with Ishmuradov declaring, “I am very angry at Americans for what they did to me — I have traces of their tortures on my body” (Izvestiya, April 1, 2005). Rasul Kudaev, who now suffers from heart and liver disorders and still carries a bullet lodged in his spine that limits his mobility, said guards responded to his defiance with beatings and tear gas. The family of Ruslan Odzhiev claims that he is suffering organ failure as a result of beatings at the U.S. detention facility and is kept alive only through a steady regimen of pills. Federal police frequently search Odzhiev’s home, which he shares with his mother.

Rustam Akhmarov was allowed to travel to London in November 2005 to describe his experiences to an Amnesty International conference on conditions in Guantanamo Bay. Akhmarov said that he and his family were kept under constant surveillance in Russia after his release, and he alleged that during his detention at Guantanamo Bay he and other men were given forced injections and later developed Hepatitis B (Amnesty International, November 20, 2005).

Return to Jihad?

Only two weeks after announcing their participation in the lawsuit, Ishmuradov and Gumarov were arrested (together with a third man) and charged with bombing a natural gas pipeline in Tatarstan on January 8, 2005. The small explosion caused little damage, harmed no one, and occurred close to the local FSB headquarters. The initial investigation by the Interior Ministry focused on mechanical failure, but the FSB took control of the investigation and declared sabotage to be the cause (Kommersant, April 19, 2005). During their trial the three men complained that torture had been used to elicit confessions.

The three were released in September 2005 after a jury trial handed down an acquittal — an unusual result for a Russian terrorist prosecution. The Russian Supreme Court overturned the ruling and ordered a new trial. Ishmuradov had apparently seen the writing on the wall and was arrested trying to cross the border into Ukraine. On May 12, 2006, a new trial ended with convictions and sentences of between 11 and 15 years for the three men.

Both Airat Vakhitov and Rustam Akhmarov were arrested in August 2005 on suspicion of involvement in a number of terrorist attacks. Amnesty International organized an immediate campaign calling for their release, which occurred a week later. At a press conference, Vakhitov claimed to have learned from an unnamed U.S. military intelligence officer (confirmed by Russia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office) that the original terms of his release from Guantanamo Bay called for a prison sentence in Russia of 15 years, together with round-the-clock access for CIA and FBI investigators (Prima News, September 13, 2005).

Sour 2Photos of Rasul Kudaev before and after two months’ detention in Russia.

Despite his infirmities, Rasul Kudaev was subjected to frequent detentions and beatings by police after his return to Kabardino-Balkaria. In mid-August, 2005, he was abducted by masked men in camouflage uniforms, but was released several days later after his mother arranged the intervention of lawyers from the Reprieve NGO (Caucasian Knot, August 17, 2005). Kudaev, like fellow Balkar Ruslan Odzhiev, was already under police suspicion before his detention by the Americans as a result of his religious studies in Saudi Arabia and his association with local jama’ats in Kabardino-Balkaria.

Kudaev was again arrested shortly after the October 2005 insurrection in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria. His lawyer was dismissed from the case after she complained that her client was being tortured in prison. (Three other Nalchik lawyers were also barred from defending their clients after alleging torture.) Before and after photos of Kudaev released by his lawyer following two months of detention showed extensive bruising and swelling of the face (RFE/RL, December 6, 2005). After the photos appeared in the press Kudaev disappeared; his lawyer eventually located him in an FSB prison in Pyatigorsk. Russian authorities cite Kudaev’s confession as proof of his involvement in the attacks, although friends and family point out that his physical condition would preclude any such involvement. Kudaev’s mother fears for his life, since prison officials will not accept delivery of his medicines.


The plight of the “Russian Taliban” has attracted the attention of a number of human rights NGOs, including Memorial, Amnesty International, Justice in Exile, and Reprieve. The prisoners’ initial release after their return to Russia took many by surprise, including the U.S. State Department. There seemed little reason for this unlikely turn of events, but the release may well have been a public display of magnanimity at a time when Moscow was desperately seeking the release of two Russian agents held in Qatar for the assassination of former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbaev. With the assassins now back in Russia as a result of a pardon by the emir of Qatar, there is little to prevent the incarceration of these individuals on new charges as part of the Kremlin’s crackdown on known or suspected Islamist militants. With their temporary usefulness as pawns in Russia’s foreign relations at an end, the Russian Taliban face a dark and uncertain future.


This article first appeared in the June 1, 2006 issue of the Chechnya Weekly.