Place Your Bets: Is Dokka Umarov Dead?

Chechen Head Ramzan Kadyrov has set off a flurry of speculation over whether his nemesis – and leader of the Caucasus Emirate (IK) movement that is designated by both Russian and US governments as a terrorist organisation — Dokka Umarov is dead or alive. But, ultimately, Kadyrov is the boy who cried wolf, and absent either a body or confirmation from one of the IK’s “official” websites, few are prepared to accept his claims at face value.

On 16 January, Kadyrov used his Instagram account to claim that Umarov is dead:  “Journalists ask me whether Dokka Umarov poses a threat to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. I have said before that he is no longer alive, and now we have received a recording of a conversation by so-called emirs, in which they announce his death, console one another, and discuss candidates for a new emir.  They do not want to do it before the Olympics.  Therefore all talk about a threat to the Olympics is completely without foundation.”  Elsewhere Kadyrov was cited as naming “someone called Vadalov” as one of the candidates discussed.

The Case In Favour

Kadyrov has declared Umarov dead many times before.  In December 2013 he announced that the security services were no longer searching for a living Umarov, but for his corpse.  Yet this time, he claimed to have evidence.  On cue, an audio transcript was posted to YouTube, purportedly containing a message from IK judge Abu Mukhammad to another rebel leader identified as Abdul Aziz.  In the message, Abu Mukhammad offers his condolences on Umarov’s death and discusses possible replacements.  Rejecting the role for himself, he nominates “our brother Aslan, Aslanbek.” Put the two names together and you get Aslanbek Vadalov, a prominent Chechen rebel commander.

Circumstantial evidence also, if not supports, then at least does not contradict the idea that Umarov is dead. He not only hasn’t claimed the December attacks on Volgograd, he hasn’t been heard of for months. His most recent video address – posted to the website representing the IK’s Ingushetian sector on 16 January shortly before Kadyrov’s statement – is clearly several months old at the very least:  the vibrant green forest in the background is not exactly a classic winter scene.  His last statement before that – posted just after Kadyrov’s December claim – looked like it could be similarly dated.

The Case Against

Yet there are also considerable grounds for doubting Kadyrov’s claims, not least that he has made them multiple times before.  Cats have fewer lives than Dokka Umarov (see here for a list of Umarov’s reported deaths).

The most prominent IK website has already denied Kadyrov’s claims. The Russian security services also appear reluctant to back Kadyrov up. They have not issued an official statement saying they are of a similar view, and Interfax cited a security service source’s claim that they had no information that could corroborate Kadyrov’s assertions.

Moreover, the audio is of the distinctly suspicious variety.  The YouTube account that posted it is a single-use account, and therefore has no track record that can be relied upon. The YouTube audio came to light via, an anti-IK website that appears to be either run directly by the security services or by people very close to them.  Moreover, the content raises a few questions:  Why would an IK judge, rather than a prominent commander, such as the emir of Dagestan, be nominated to succeed Umarov? Why does the judge claim that Umarov never appointed a naib (deputy), when Umarov has publicly referred to Emir Khamzat (Aslan Byutukayev) as his naib, and has featured alongside him with sufficient frequency to have a strong claim to being his right-hand man?  And why would they back someone (Aslanbek Vadalov, if that is indeed who the audio refers to) who tried to oust Umarov in 2010 but failed to win the support of key rebel commanders? It is also worth noting that even in the audio, Abu Mukhammad admits he doesn’t know the details of Umarov’s death.

Some of the other evidence in favour of Umarov’s death is also not particularly convincing.  That he hasn’t claimed the Volgograd attacks isn’t necessarily conclusive – he frequently leaves a lengthy gap between events and statements on them.  His past behaviour offers little grounds to expect a claim in the immediate aftermath. Moreover, he has never been particularly prolific with his statements, and months-long gaps are not that unusual.  This doesn’t mean that he’s not dead, simply that the evidence in favour is hardly overwhelming.

Why Make the Claims?

It is reasonable to ask why Kadyrov is claiming Umarov is dead. Of course, the possibility that it is true – or that Kadyrov sincerely believes it to be true – should not be entirely discounted. Umarov could be dead, and Kadyrov could know it.

Putting that aside, Kadyrov is not a fool. Although he makes a good many statements that make him look foolish to Western analysts, Western analysts are not his intended audience — his audience is North Caucasians home and abroad, the militants, and, of course, the Kremlin.  Moreover, one does not acquire the power and influence that Kadyrov has – particularly in Putin’s Russia – by being a fool.

Thus, even if Kadyrov is not telling the truth, he could have good reasons for making his statement. A couple spring to mind. Firstly, he could be seeking to force Umarov into making a statement; that would require him activating whatever communication channels he has available to him, which in turn could generate opportunities for finding him.  The longer Umarov goes without making a statement, the greater the speculation will be.  Knowing this, Kadyrov could reason that rushing Umarov into making a statement will lead him to make security mistakes.  After all, he’s made the claims multiple times before, so it’s not like his credibility is at stake.  Another possibility is that by making Umarov’s death or otherwise the focus of media attention, he stems the flow of negativity that has surrounded the Olympics since the Volgograd attacks.  Instead of people talking about the threat Umarov poses, they are talking about whether he is even alive to pose a threat. If that is his goal, then it will probably be a successful one, at least until Umarov does make a statement. Either theory is impossible to prove either way, but both would be low cost for Kadyrov.

Be Careful What You Wish For

On one level, it does not matter a great deal whether Umarov is dead. The IK is a highly decentralized organization and, at the Vilayyat (province) level or below, the IK has a high turnover of leaders.  The structure of the organization is chosen to minimise the impact of the loss of individual leaders. And in any case, even if Kadyrov is wrong this time (again), eventually he will be right, and Umarov will have to be replaced. Furthermore, as far as the most pressing security issue is concerned – the Winter Olympics in Sochi – Umarov has already green-lighted attacks, and it seems likely that plans would already have to be in place if they were to be successful. Thus Umarov’s death is unlikely to change the security situation around the Olympics.
On another level, it matters a great deal.  Leaders determine the direction and ideology of the movement – whether it positions the insurgency as a national-separatist movement (be it Chechen or Caucasian independence from Russia) or whether it positions itself as part of the global jihadist movement. That in turn impacts who it can attract into its ranks and who it can attracts other forms of support from.  The IK invests considerable effort into propagating its ideology through the Internet, and it wouldn’t do this if it didn’t see value in it. It thus seems perverse to say it doesn’t matter who’s at the top.

Individuals can also make a big difference in determining the strategy the movement employs. For example, does it target only security services, or does it attack civilians? Does it restrict its operations to the North Caucasus, or carry out attacks outside the region?  Although numerous factors influence these decisions, leadership is one of them. A good example of this occurred in Kabardino-Balkaria a few years ago: the security services appeared to secure a significant success with the elimination of that vilayyat’s leadership, only for violence to escalate under the new emir, Asker Dzhappuyev.  When Dzhappuyev was killed, violence started to fall again.

And this highlights the danger for Kadyrov and Russia: Umarov is not an inspirational leader or a grand strategist.  He has never displayed the charisma or achieved the notoriety of Shamil Basayev.  Although neutralising Umarov represents a logical goal from a Russian perspective, it could backfire if he were to be replaced by someone who is an inspirational leader or grand strategist.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

Ultimately, few are prepared to take Kadyrov’s claims on faith. They may well be true, but he has made them too many times. Absent either a body, a confirmation from one of the top-level IK websites, or a new statement from Umarov that references recent events, it is impossible to say whether he is alive or dead. And absent either of those, it doesn’t really make the slightest bit of difference: the rest of the IK will carry on functioning as before, and there can be no grand change in strategy or inspirational new leader.  Thus the smart money will probably stay in people’s pockets for the time being.

(Credit for ideas and inspiration is due to the various people — including @ninaivanovna, @ncaucasuscaucus, @andrew_s_bowen, @reidcontini, and @nicholasviau, as well as whoever else I have forgotten to specify — with whom I have discussed the latest events. If you’re interested in the region, you should be following them!)

[Update: Over the weekend, two developments occurred which belong in The Case in Favour section and which may mean the smart money is now out of people’s pockets and on Umarov being dead. Firstly, the “official” website of rebels in Dagestan posted a statement claiming responsibility for the attacks on Volgograd, as well as a martyrdom video supposedly featuring the two suicide bombers. If it is a coincidence that these have been released just as people are speculating over Umarov’s fate, then it is a remarkable one. It seems more likely an attempt to bring the focus back on the security threat the IK poses to the Olympics. That an IK website choses to use such a statement and video, rather than a proof-of-life video for Umarov, to achieve this could suggest the latter is not possible. Secondly, a prominent Caucasus jihadist Twitter user and the jihadist media outlet Global Islamic Media Front have both apparently stated that Umarov is dead. Since I don’t have Arabic, I can’t evaluate either (and it would be interesting to know if GIMF have ever falsely reported a major jihadist leader’s death), but it seems that at least some jihadists are talking the claims seriously and there may be more than propaganda to the story. However, the IK have not yet declared Umarov dead, and not much in the IK is likely to change until they do.]

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