Between Caucasus and Caliphate: Understanding the Splintering of the North Caucasus Insurgency

In December 2014, several high-ranking field commanders from the Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz, IK) pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). Following the defection of many of the IK’s remaining commanders, IS in July 2015 established a formal branch, the Caucasus Wilayah (IS/CW), and is now the main insurgent grouping in the North Caucasus. This article argues that there are clear ideological differences in the positions adopted by the competing IK and IS/CW factions, but ideology is potentially more important in explaining the decisions of those leaders who remained loyal to the IK than those who defected – and the ideological divide was exacerbated by the communication difficulties facing groups.

The Syrian Context

The splintering of the North Caucasus insurgency can only be understood in the context of ethnic North Caucasian involvement in the Syrian conflict, which became irrefutable from autumn 2012 onwards. Initially, the majority joined the group that evolved into Jaysh al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar (JMA), led by Tarkhan Batirashvili (Umar al-Shishani). However, in late 2013, JMA fractured, with Batirashvili leading a large number of fighters into IS. The continually shifting relations between North Caucasian groups inside and outside IS – particularly those who took up the JMA banner and later established the Caucasus Emirate in Syria – created additional pressures on the domestic insurgency beyond those coming from an increasingly radical conflict that attracted participants from around the world.

Initially, IK leader Dokka Umarov (2006-2013) struggled to balance competing interests in responding to the Syrian conflict, offering support to those fighting while simultaneously trying to mitigate any negative impact on the domestic insurgency. However, it fell to Umarov’s successor, Aliaskhab Kebekov, to deal with the repercussions of the JMA-IS split. Initially conciliatory on IS’ broader dispute with Al-Qaeda (AQ) affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN), Kebekov later switched to firmly backing JN and AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Kebekov also noted the dilemma created by the Syrian conflict: on the one hand, he cited hadith advocating fighting there, as well as his own experience of the county; on the other, he referenced Qur’anic passages advocating fighting the enemy at home. Drawing on the position of key jihadist scholars, however, he concluded that there was no justification for North Caucasians to quit the region for Syria. At the same time, the IK leadership appears to have dispatched individuals to gain combat experience.

The IS Advance Into the North Caucasus and the IK Response

The decision of IK leaders to pledge allegiance to IS was a pivotal moment in the evolution of the North Caucasus insurgency, on a par with the proclamation of the IK in 2007. However, arguably the most notable feature of the defections was the paucity of explanation: there were no founding documents, video statements were low in number and often formulaic in content, and defecting leaders offered no explanation of how joining the “caliphate” would improve the prospects of the insurgency. Instead, IS/CW leaders appeared to rely on the emotional appeal of the “caliphate,” drawing on the nostalgia inherent in the “caliphate” project and an audience awareness of an IS ideology that draws heavily on emotional themes. Yet this reliance on emotion was not irrational; it allowed leaders to sidestep complex and theological debates for which they were poorly qualified. This rationality is most clearly evident in how some defecting leaders sought to redirect the emotional appeal of the “caliphate” back into the domestic insurgency, arguing that there was no need to travel to the “caliphate” – the “caliphate” had come to the North Caucasus.

By contrast to the defecting leaders, those who remained loyal to the IK drew heavily on rational argumentation and, in particular, legitimate authority in the form of jihadi scholars. Kebekov and IK shariah judge (later IK leader) Magomed Suleymanov (Abu Usman Gimrinskiy) rejected the legitimacy of the “caliphate,” claiming the requisite conditions for its proclamation had not been met. Kebekov criticised IS, among other things, for failing to consult these scholars, spilling Muslim blood, and being unable to protect Muslims in the territories it claimed to control. The reliance of IK loyalists on rationality and scholarship arguably limited their appeal. At the same time, it shows how they drew on a contrasting source of authority and rooted their opposition in ideology. This argues against those who presume all leaders would switch allegiance to IS/CW because it was beneficial to do so. Zalim Shebzukhov (Salim), the IK’s leader in Kabardino-Balkaria – and one of the few surviving IK leaders – could, for example, have neutralised a local challenge to his authority by pledging allegiance to IS, and his position cannot be easily explained by interpretations of ideology as a cover for instrumental and material interests. IK loyalists were unwilling to accept the legitimacy of IS even after they admitted they had lost the fight with it.

The Challenges of Negotiating Ideological Change

Despite clear differences in the statements by leaders of the IS/CW and IK factions, operational factors also clearly had a major impact on events. Rebel leaders were not always able to meet and often relied on messages exchanged on USB flash drives. This, however, introduced considerable delay into decision-making processes, and messages did not always reach their intended destination, exacerbating the ideological divide. Leaders struggled to coordinate their responses to internal and external pressures over IS, and numerous statements reference lengthy periods of waiting, often in vain, for answers as to how to proceed. Many groups therefore appeared to make their decisions in isolation. Thus, while there were clear ideological differences, communication problems appear to have hindered the leadership’s ability to keep them in-house. Tellingly, there do not appear to have been any instances where leaders who could meet ended up on alternate sides of the ideological divide.


There are clear differences in the statements of North Caucasus rebel leaders who pledged allegiance to IS and those who remained loyal to the IK. However, the picture that emerges of ideology’s role in explaining the defections is somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, the differences do not exclude the possibility of rebel leaders defecting because they saw practical advantages in doing so. On the other, ideology employed instrumentally is not necessarily insincere, and ideologically driven actors may simultaneously be highly pragmatic. Rejection of IS, however, does appear to be more ideologically rooted, and instrumental explanations for behaviour – the need to stem the outflow of people to Syria or the need for external support – fail to explain why some leaders remained loyal to the IK in the absence of clear benefits of doing so. Nevertheless, these ideological differences were clearly exacerbated by communication difficulties that prevented rebel leaders from presenting a united front. Ideology provides a useful means of understanding the splintering of the insurgency, but that splintering cannot be reduced solely to questions of ideology.

This article is based on my paper, published in
Caucasus Survey, “Between Caucasus and caliphate: the splintering of the North Caucasus insurgency.” The paper, supporting data and sourcing, is open-access and available here.