The Islamic State Splits the Caucasus Emirate360°ANALYSIS
Despite a myth to the contrary, the Caucasus Emirate has extensive links to global jihadist networks, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
For nearly two decades, many Washington DC think-tanks and US mainstream media maintained the myth that the Caucasus Emirate (CE) mujahedeen and their predecessors had little or no relation to the global jihadist revolutionary movement. Since its inception in October 2007, the CE has carried out thousands of attacks in Russia and has been involved in and inspired seven foreign plots in Europe and Azerbaijan. The CE also inspired the Tsarnaev brothers’ April 2013 attack on the Boston Marathon and several other assaults abroad; the elder brother, Tamerlan, was planning to join the CE mujahedeen during his 2012 trip to Dagestan.
Moreover, there are CE groups operating in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Yet in September 2014, writing for The Jamestown Foundation, Mairbek Vatchagaev, the former spokesman of the late Aslan Maskhadov — president (1995-2005) of the CE’s predecessor organization, the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ChRI) — claimed: “[T]he North Caucasus resistance remains a separate movement that has not developed solidarity networks with the Middle Eastern radicals.”
In fact, the CE has been deeply integrated into the global jihad for about a decade, with ties going back for two. On December 19, an announcement by Abu Muhammad al-Kadarskii (born Rustam Asildarov), the emir of the so-called Dagestan Vilayat (DV) — the CE’s largest network — that he had taken the Islamic loyalty oath or “bayat” to the Islamic State (IS) and its “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is just the final stage of that integration, institutionalizing what had already been developed over many years. Refusal to recognize such facts led to the Boston Marathon attack and even 9/11.
As documented by this author in The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond, Defense Intelligence Agency and US court documents, as well as statements and historical accounts offered by the CE and the ChRI, testify to ties dating back as far as 1995 when al-Qaeda and other Islamist elements began infiltrating the ChRI. Moreover, the so-called 21st bomber of 9/11, Zacarias Moussaoui, was left untouched because his only tie to al-Qaeda was through Ibn al-Khattab. An associate of Osama bin Laden who worked in the ChRI for years and led the July 1999 invasion of Dagestan by jihadists from the then semi-independent Chechnya, Khattab was thought not to be part of al-Qaeda or the global jihad. ChRI was mistakenly thought to be a purely nationalist separatist movement of “freedom-fighters.” However, it was deeply involved in an ultimately aborted 2000 al-Qaeda plot to hijack a civilian airliner flying out of Frankfurt.
By 2002, ChRI’s jihadist wing had become as least as powerful as its nationalist wing. Then in October 2007, the jihadist wing seized complete control of the ChRI, ejected the ChRI nationalists, rejected their goal of an independent Chechnya and declared the Caucasus Emirate and jihad against all infidel countries fighting Muslims across the globe.
Since its founding, the CE has carried out nearly 3,000 attacks in Russia, including 55 suicide bombings; undertaken failed plots in Belgium (2010), Azerbaijan (2012) and elsewhere; inspired several more; and published on its websites nothing but global jihadist propaganda from the likes of bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Anwar al-Awlaki. In a 2011 video, its present emir, Ali Abu Muhammad al-Dagistani (born Aliaskhab Kebekov) stated explicitly: “We are doing everything within our power to create the Caliphate.”
The global jihad’s perhaps leading philosopher, Abu Muhammad Asem al-Maqdisi, called on Muslims to support the CE as it is jihad’s “doorway to Europe.” Chechen-born Eldar Magomedov led a 2012 al-Qaeda plot to attack targets in Spain and possibly France during the London Summer Olympic Games and was described by a Spanish court and police as al-Qaeda’s top operative in Europe.
In late 2011 or early 2012, the CE’s founding emir, Dokku Umarov, financed and dispatched several emirs to Syria. Among them was Tarkhan Batirashvili, better known as Umar al-Shishani, the emir of IS’ northern or Syrian front. Some reports indicate he masterminded IS’ offensive in Iraq’s Anbar Province that led to Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate. Batirashvili’s brother, Tamaz, may have a more important if clandestine role in IS. At least seven other CE-tied emirs now head smaller groups in IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist umbrella groups. Many of them, including Batirashvili, say they plan to return to the Caucasus and CE to strengthen jihad at some future date, while several of them maintained their bayat to the CE emir.
Since Emir Dagistani replaced Umarov this year as the CE’s leader (after Russian intelligence succeeded in poisoning him in September 2013), he has been preoccupied with stemming the emigration of mujahedeen to fight in the Levant and justifying a neutral, though transparently pro-al-Qaeda, position in the conflict between IS and al-Qaeda over leadership of the global jihad. In September, he, along with Maqdisi and several other prominent jihadist “scholars,” issued a statement calling on IS to be more moderate and patch up the split with al-Qaeda. This exacerbated what was already a tense verbal war between the CE and IS.
Defection to IS
In November 2014, a small DV cell or “jamaat” from Aukhovskii village took the bayat to IS’ Baghdadi. The DV’s Shariah Court judge and its Mountain Sector emir, Abu Usman al-Gimravii, condemned the Aukhovskii jamaat for risking dissension (fitna) and division within the CE and noted that the CE takes no side in the IS-al-Qaeda dispute. However, he implicitly criticized Baghdadi’s declaration of the caliphate and himself caliph by asking how CE mujahedeen could commit such treachery and destruction in regard to the CE by declaring allegiance to an “unknown entity,” which “has not been recognized by scholars, hides out of sight, lacks the strength to defend Muslims, and does not see or know Muslims.”
On December 19, a more damaging defection occurred when the DV’s top emir, Abu Muhammad al-Kadarskii, and the leader of a key DV sector covering Dagestan’s capital declared the bayat to Baghdadi. This likely resulted in them “taking” several hundred mujahedeen; though it remains unclear whether they plan to go to the Levant. Only days later, the emir of one of only two fronts in the CE’s Chechnya network, the Nokchicho Vilayat (NV), followed suit, perhaps taking half the NV mujahedeen with him. These defections were a severe blow to the CE, which has seen its capacity diminish since 2011, especially following the surge in emigration to Syria since 2013.
The first response to these major splits came from Gimravii, who referred to Asildarov as the DV’s “former emir” and condemned his action as “treachery” and a “violation of the bayat” to CE Emir Dagistani. Fearing many DV emirs and mujahedeen would follow Asildarov, he warned that violating the oath is a “serious offense” that carries with it “grave consequences” for everyone committing it. On December 28, CE Emir Dagistani displayed an equally harsh stance and announced the appointment of a new DV leader.
The DV and NV (IS-CE) emirs could take with them more than half of the CE’s forces. If the now IS-loyal CE emirs and their mujahedeen depart for the Levant, the CE’s capacity would be devastated. In that case, Umarov’s gamble of sending mujahedeen to Syria so that they could network and gain experience with the global jihad in the Levant and later to strengthen the CE will have failed miserably. If, on the other hand, the IS-CE remains in the Caucasus and draws back some of the CE mujahedeen in the Levant, then a strong resurgence of jihad in Russia is almost certain.
Either way, the above developments confirm once again — for those still in denial — that the CE is part and parcel of the global jihadist revolutionary alliance. Former or active CE mujahedeen plotting terrorist attacks should be expected in the West fairly soon. From here onward, unlike the pre-Boston Marathon period, Western capitals would do well to ignore those in Washington and mainstream media downplaying jihadism in Russia, and this time take heed of the warnings that Moscow issued to the CIA and FBI regarding the Boston bomber.
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