North Caucasus: Chechnya and Dagestan
In the North Caucasus in southern Russia, a bloody conflict is going on in the shadows. Islamist groups are fighting the Russian regime and over 3,400 people have lost their lives in various acts of violence since 2010. Almost as many have been injured.
Today’s conflict originated in the 1990s war between Chechen separatists and Russia. The two-round war claimed at least 160,000 lives and caused immense suffering to the civilian population in Chechnya.
Today, the situation is calmer in Chechnya, but the violence has spread to neighboring republics and now has its center in Dagestan, where the rebels in 2007 declared an Islamic state, the Caucasus emirate. About half of those killed or injured fall victim to violence in Dagestan. The latest major terrorist attacks on targets in Russia have also been based on this.
In recent years, the rebel movement has split and weakened, but there is still no end to the conflict.
Dagestan in focus
With the establishment of Umarov’s emirate, the center of the uprising moved from Chechnya to Dagestan. In Dagestan, the religious element is clearer than in the neighboring republics. There, the believers are divided between Sufists, who profess a traditional form of Islam and submit to the current authorities, and Salafists who reject all forms of government that are not entirely based on Islam. During the Soviet era, the Sufis had state support and when Salafists began to gain increased influence in the late 1990s in connection with the Chechen wars (see above), they were met with persecution and repression by the authorities. Being a Salafist became synonymous with being a terrorist. It was enough to have a beard and come from a Salafist village to risk being kidnapped, tortured and, in the worst case, murdered. The violence of the security police drove more and more people to take up arms.
When Magomedsalam Magomedov became president of Dagestan in 2010, the authorities changed tactics. Magomedov took a more conciliatory stance against the rebels, with the result that the number of acts of violence decreased and the flow of new recruits to the movement decreased.
However, Magomedov’s methods were not liked in Moscow. In early 2013, he was replaced by Ramazan Abdulatipov, who started a new wave of repression against the Salafists, including with the help of newly created militias. The advance of the police and militias was marred by reports of human rights violations. Mass arrests took place and the houses of suspected terrorists were razed to the ground. Abdulatipov’s tough times were soon copied by the other republics.
New leader of the uprising
In 2012, Umarov ordered his forces not to attack civilians, but this was claimed ahead of the Winter Olympics in early 2014, which were held in the Black Sea city of Sochi, not far from the Caucasus. In December 2013, 34 people lost their lives when two suicide bombers attacked targets in the city of Volgograd in southern Russia.
Before the Olympics themselves, the outside world held its breath. Russia cordoned off the area in a gigantic security operation and during the games no attacks took place, neither in Sochi nor in the rest of Russia. One explanation for this may be that Umarov died – his death was declared in March after the Olympics – and that the movement was then paralyzed by an internal power struggle.
Umarov, who was Chechen, was replaced as the supreme leader of the self-proclaimed emirate by a rebel leader from Dagestan – Aliaschab Alibulatovich Kebekov, also known as Sheikh Ali Abu Muhammad. Kebekov was killed in 2015 in a Russian special operation. His successor also lost his life in a Russian raid, as did his successor. The movement thus stood without a leader. Kebekov’s accession coincided with the extreme Islamist movement Islamic State expansion in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of militiamen from the emirate had already sided with the Islamists in the Syrian war. Now the flow of volunteers to Syria increased and even some of the rebels’ commanders left to join the Islamic State. After IS declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014, the militant movement in the Caucasus split. More and more commanders in the emirate declared their loyalty to the Islamic State. In June 2015, IS announced that its caliphate now also included the republics of the Caucasus and that the caliphate’s supporters began carrying out attacks on local authorities, such as the police.
Rustam Asildarov from Dagestan was appointed leader of the Caucasus branch of the caliphate. On the ground, however, there were militia leaders who clung to the emirate and condemned those who switched to IS.
In late 2016, the Russian security service announced that Asildarov and four of his aides had been killed in a raid on the Dagestan capital, Machachkala. A number of other leaders from both the emirate and the caliphate have also been killed in recent years. The Russian security service has not only focused on hunting down active terrorists but has also arrested a large number of people who have been indirectly involved in the rebels’ activities, for example by contributing materials and other support. As a result, the terrorists’ base has been eroded and the number of attacks has fallen sharply, as has the number of deaths. In 2011, 700 people were killed and 600 injured. In 2016, the death toll was just under 200 and the number of injured was around 85. However, attacks and firefights are still part of everyday life in the area and the situation is worst in Dagestan.
The desire to rebel is fueled by the depressed economic situation in Russia, which is exacerbating the situation in an area where unemployment is already high and poverty is widespread. Tensions are rising in Chechnya. Chechen President Kadyrov is carrying out a comprehensive Islamization of society while enriching himself and cracking down on his critics. At the same time, many experienced fighters are returning home from IS disintegrating power in Syria / Iraq and the authorities warn that tensions could lead to a new wave of violence.