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.
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.
Jamaats 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 (Pravda.ru, 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.
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