The North Caucasus insurgency has been in a state of flux since December 2014, when the emir and several lower-ranked commanders from the Dagestani sector of the Caucasus Emirate (IK) broke with the movement and publicly swore allegiance to Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Numerous rebel leaders elsewhere in the North Caucasus subsequently followed suit. The IK was further undermined by the death in an April 2015 special operation of its leader Aliaskhab Kebekov (Ali Abu Mukhammad). Although much remains uncertain about the insurgency’s future, the apparent decision of Chechnya’s emir to now also swear allegiance to Al-Baghdadi provides sufficient clarity to offer some initial thoughts.
Is the Caucasus Emirate Dead?
So asks Joanna Paraszczuk in her report on an audio recording in which Chechen Emir Aslan Byutukayev (Khamzat) apparently pledges allegiance to Al-Baghdadi (From Chechnya to Syria, 13 June and 15 June). Organisations are often buried before their time, but in this instance — if the pledge turns out to be genuine — the question is more than reasonable. Barring the emergence of an unheralded inspirational leader within the movement and something just shy of a miracle for the group, everything seems to point towards the IK being either in its death throes or at the very least critically ill.
Byutukayev was a leading contender to succeed Kebekov as IK leader: Having been the deputy within Chechnya of IK founding leader Dokka Umarov (Abu Usman), he became Chechen emir after Umarov’s death. Although he was passed over as a candidate to succeed Umarov due to his lack of a profile outside Chechnya, the republic under his leadership has witnessed high-profile attacks and the emergence of a much stronger Chechen presence online. Moreover, Byutukayev reportedly has strong ties to Chechen diaspora communities (Politrus, 30 April), which may translate into influence over the direction of funding and support from those communities. At the very least, he would have had a major say in the decision of who succeeds Kebekov, and how he decided to respond to the uncertainty was always likely to play a major role in determining if the IK had a future. If he has switched to IS, he may have hammered the final nail into the IK’s coffin.
In each republic, the situation looks critical for the IK, such that a recovery, while not impossible, certainly appears highly unlikely. Byutukayev will not be the first Chechen commander to swear allegiance to Al-Baghdadi: Makhran Saidov, commander of Chechnya’s Eastern Front, was among those from the republic who had already done so (RFE/RL, 2 January 2015). As such, the IK may now lack any prominent representation in its historical core. The emir of neighbouring Ingushetia has spoken favourably of Al-Baghdadi — although he has not actually publicly pledged allegiance, he can probably be placed in the pro-IS camp, particularly if Byutukayev’s oath is genuine. In Dagestan, the current focal point of regional violence, rebels are split: the sector’s emir, Rustam Asilderov (Abu Mukhammad), switched sides (Kavkazskiy Uzel, 20 December) and was replaced by Kamil Saidov (Said Arakhanskiy). Several people who joined IS with Asilderov are already dead, but IS is in the ascendancy in the republic. A similar situation of apparently competing emirs can be seen in Kabardino-Balkaria: A man claiming the role has proclaimed loyalty to IS, but Salim, the man acknowledged by IK websites as the occupant of that position, has previously criticised those who have switched to IS. Without Byutukayev, the IK appears to be the weaker party in each of the North Caucasus republics, if now it can even be said to exist in Chechnya at all. Throw in a question of legitimacy — a new IK emir would have to be largely self-proclaimed, since even a virtual shura to elect him isn’t possible without the republics each having an emir to comprise it — and the IK’s future is bleak in the extreme.
A Clean Sweep for the Islamic State?
Much of the commentary on the North Caucasus since Kebekov’s death has simply presumed pro-IS forces will now simply take over the region. Yet there are reasons to doubt this will happen. Firstly, a number of rebel commanders have spoken out against IS, including the rumoured new IK emir Magomed Suleymanov (Abu Usman Gimrinskiy). While some statements have left room for a volte-face — focusing, for example, on issues of fitna (discord), rather than Baghdadi’s legitimacy — this shouldn’t be expected as a matter of course. The IK-IS in the North Caucasus split is largely a reflection of the divisions in the broader jihadist community, and can also be seen among the North Caucasian groups in Syria. Some opponents, for example, have challenged Baghdadi’s legitimacy, noting the failure of supposedly respected (mostly Al Qaeda (AQ)) scholars to recognise him. To presume that everyone will now join IS is to say that all jihadists are the same and there is no sincerity in their differences of opinion. While there is certain to be a degree of opportunism in some of the proclamations of loyalty, there will also be genuine belief on both sides of the IK-IS in the North Caucasus divide. Indeed, one could make a case for the split being the result of Kebekov’s firm ideological conviction: unlike Umarov — who claimed he declared the IK in part because others would have done so anyway — Kebekov had a clear theological vision that he wasn’t prepared to sacrifice for unity. Suleymanov’s background is very similar to Kebekov’s, and he and others may share Kebekov’s ideological convictions.
The IK to date has also retained the loyalty of website administrators and sections of the pro-jihadist expatriate community (the former likely belonging to the latter). Or, at the very least, IS has attracted their enmity. Akhmad Umarov, the Turkey-based brother of Dokka who is an IK representative abroad and who has become more prominent since his brother’s death, could play an important role, particularly in the future distribution of funds. He has previously urged North Caucasians to reconcile and not break their oaths of allegiance to the IK’s emir, but his current position on IS is unclear (less because he has remained silent and more because he usually speaks Chechen, a language I do not understand!). Then there are other prominent ideologists living abroad, such as the grey cardinal of the Caucasus, Movladi Udugov, and his cousin Isa Umarov (no relation to Dokka or Akhmad). Their relationships to the North Caucasus insurgency are complicated by their involvement in recruiting fighters for the Syrian conflict (see, for example, Kommersant, 26 July 2013) and the splits in the groups with which they are involved (Chechensinsyria.com, 12 June). The situation in the North Caucasus has been heavily influenced by what happens in Syria, and will likely continue to be so, at least in the near future.
In some limited ways, the situation may be compared to the proclamation of the IK: it split the expatriate community and was fiercely rejected by certain sections of the insurgency. The IK as a viable organisation (in as far as any such organisation may be called viable) may be dead, but many of its supporters, at home and abroad, are not. Some groups may retain the IK name so as to have a banner to rally around, or they could seek a new brand. But either way, without Byutukayev, it will not be the same group. Interestingly, recently there were rumours on social media that Suleymanov, in his rumoured new capacity as IK emir, had ordered the IK’s Syrian affiliate, Jaysh al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar (JMA), to swear allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusrah and/or AQ itself. Whether he did this — or whether whoever’s currently in charge of JMA would follow this order if he gave it — is certainly open to doubt. But the possibility that the remnants of the IK could swear allegiance to AQ is not as far-fetched as it might once have been: under Kebekov, the IK unquestionably moved rhetorically closer to AQ, and each step the North Caucasus insurgency has made in the direction of the global jihadi movement has arguably been partially, if not primarily, driven by weakness. With or without Byutukayev, the IK’s supporters need new allies, and aligning with AQ would complete the symmetry with the IS-aligned groups in the North Caucasus and provide the IK brand with some much-needed credibility. If anything, it is the weakness of AQ itself that would diminish the attractiveness of such a move. Stronger evidence is required for any such alignment to be considered probable, but the possibility warrants consideration at the very least.
The Challenges for the Islamic State in the North Caucasus
Anyone expecting a sea change in the fortunes of the North Caucasus insurgency in the immediate future is likely to be disappointed. Even if spectacular individual attacks were to occur (and they haven’t in the first six months of IS-aligned groups being present in the region), it will take a long time for the insurgency’s capacity to change. Sticking a Mercedes badge on the hood of a Lada does not a Mercedes make. IS will face many of the same problems the IK has faced to date: a depleted insurgency largely held in check by the Russian security services and weakened by the loss of many potential recruits to Syria itself. IS-aligned groups have already lost several prominent figures. Although everyone is rightly concerned about the possibility of fighters returning from the Syrian conflict, it should not be forgotten that many of those who travelled to Syria in the early days from North Caucasian expatriate communities justified their choice of destination by claiming they could not get back into the North Caucasus (see Jihadology.net, 7 September 2013). Attention to border security is even greater now, as shown by a recent special operation in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge against a group of militants supposedly trying to cross into Russia (Kavkazskiy Uzel, 14 June 2015). Individual fighters may get through, but it will be extremely difficult for them to do so in sufficient numbers to change the nature of the conflict.
IS-aligned groups in the North Caucasus also face several short-term challenges that will require time to resolve. A clear leadership structure is lacking and many lower-level commanders defected before their erstwhile leaders. Whether all will accept the same subordinate position in a new hierarchy or expect to be rewarded for jumping first is unclear. IS-aligned groups also lack the same online presence that the IK has to date enjoyed, and this will also take time to establish. IS’ presence in the North Caucasus does not even have a formal name yet. Russian-speakers within IS have certainly made overtures to North Caucasus-based groups (see, for example, Jihadology.net, 21 April), but IS is yet to establish an official vilayyat. Over the long-term, switching to IS may indeed boost the resources available to groups, either through direct provision or simply improving brand appeal so as to allow groups to attract more funds themselves. But observers should take care not to believe IS propaganda and expect the North Caucasus insurgency to be magically transformed into an invincible fighting force.
Much remains uncertain about the future of the North Caucasus, and as such any conclusions are provisional and caveated by a recognition of a lack of information coming out of the region and out of the insurgency. But perceptions matter, and if the IK does not or cannot act soon to challenge the perception that it is no longer a going concern, it will be unable to appeal to potential recruits and supporters and risks being buried alive regardless of its true health.