Broader, Vaguer, Weaker: The Evolving Ideology of the Caucasus Emirate Leadership

In October 2007, veteran Chechen field commander Dokka Umarov proclaimed the formation of the Caucasus Emirate (IK), formalizing the victory of the North Caucasus insurgency’s Islamist wing over its nationalist separatists. Despite the importance of this decision, however, the IK’s ideology and Umarov’s role in shaping it remain understudied. By analyzing Umarov’s statements throughout his lengthy tenure as leader, it is possible to identify three distinct phases to Umarov’s ideological positioning of the insurgency: nationalist-jihadist (June 2006-October 2007); Khattabist (October 2007-late 2010); and partially hybridized (late 2010-September 2013). Understanding these phases helps us gain a clear picture of the IK’s ideological transformation and the limits of its engagement with external actors, and suggests that weakness was a key factor driving that transformation. 

Phase One: National-Jihadism (June 2006-October 2007)

In his early communiqués as leader, Umarov clearly identified what he viewed as the main problem facing the insurgency and the region: an “imperial” Russia was “occupying” the North Caucasus and perpetrating “genocide” against the civilian population. The North Caucasian authorities, by contrast, were a secondary concern, the “apostates, traitors, cowards, and outcasts” facilitating Russia’s presence in the region. References to actors beyond Russia’s borders demonstrated deep disillusionment with the West without elevating it to the status of an enemy.

The goals Umarov established for the insurgency were equally clear cut: “driving the occupier from the Caucasus,” and establishing an independent state governed by Shariah. Religion underpinned his efforts to appeal beyond Chechnya to the broader North Caucasus region: The conflict was portrayed as a “jihad,” and jihad as fard al-ayn, an individual religious duty, to all those in and from the region. Yet this religious rhetoric had a distinct local logic and tells us very little about Umarov’s overall ideological orientation at this time.

Umarov’s positioning of the movement in this first phase was clearly distinct from any transnational agenda, focusing instead liberating historically Islamic lands from non-Muslim rule. Usually, such ideology is categorized as irredentist jihadist, yet the dividing lines between this and national-separatism pursued by Islamic actors is unclear. Instead it may more usefully be termed national-jihadism: sharing many of the goals of national-separatism but differing in the prioritization of religion as a defining characteristic of both problem and solution.

Phase Two: Khattabism (October 2007-Late 2010)

The proclamation of the IK significantly transformed the way in which the conflict was framed. Religion became not one the primary defining characteristic of the conflict itself, but also of its protagonists, with Umarov describing Russia predominantly as kaffir (infidel) rather than occupier. He continued to accuse Russia of “genocide,” but now it was genocide against Muslims. Similarly, he rebranded the local authorities as murtady/verootstupniki (apostates) and munafiq (hypocrites). The proclamation also introduced a greater focus on affairs outside Russia, with Umarov claiming “the whole world of nonbelievers and apostates” is fighting against Muslims. Umarov sought a closer alignment with both the Muslim and the jihadist world, declaring that “all who have attacked Muslims, no matter where they are located, are our enemies.”

Umarov’s transformation of how the conflict was framed and the movement was positioned ideologically, however, had evident limits. Umarov’s references to events outside Russia’s borders were mostly superficial, demonstrating little genuine interest and neglecting to establish targeting the West as a goal for North Caucasus insurgents. On the contrary, there was little change in the priorities Umarov articulated.

The significance of the decision to proclaim the IK cannot be understated. Umarov presented a starkly different overall conceptualization of what the insurgency was fighting for and against, rhetorically aligned the movement with jihadists elsewhere, and displayed greater hostility towards the West. At the same time, he did not alter the overall hierarchy of enemies or undermine the focus on domestic affairs. Umarov’s positioning of the movement at this time was therefore clearly distinct from the transnational agenda of Al-Qaeda, reflecting instead the territorially bounded ideology of Ibn Khattab, the most famous of the foreign fighter contingent to participate in the North Caucasus conflict.

Phase Three: Partial Hybridization (Late 2010-September 2013)

From approximately late 2010, Umarov demonstrated increased engagement with the outside world. Following the 2011 suicide attack on Domodedovo airport, Umarov articulated in-depth grievances about the deaths of fellow Muslims in foreign conflicts, accused Israel and the U.S. of dismantling Sudan, and denigrated the heads of Muslim states as “puppets.” He celebrated the martyrdom of Bin Laden and explicitly claimed the IK was “part of this global jihad.” Umarov also increasingly appealed to Muslims outside the North Caucasus, both in the Volga-Urals region and the broader umma.

As before, however, there were clear limits to the transnational dimension of Umarov’s ideological positioning. Umarov made only one explicit threat to an external actor, accusing Turkey of allowing Russian agents to target alleged IK personnel — an external threat with a distinctly domestic dimension. He later sought to engage in a balancing act over the Syrian conflict, expressing concern that events there would negatively affect the situation at home and portraying North Caucasians participating in it as people unable to return to the region.

This third phase is characterized by increasingly detailed references to events outside Russia and a gradual blurring of enemy hierarchies. Whereas in both preceding phases Russia was clearly the primary enemy—with the North Caucasus authorities a distant second and, despite increasingly hostile references, the West a tertiary concern—from late 2010, the gap between these actors is much less pronounced. Umarov devoted greater efforts to elevating the IK’s status vis-à-vis other jihadist movements and afforded more space to grievances about the West’s treatment of Muslims elsewhere. He also appealed more frequently to the external communities. At the same time, he did not abandon Russia as an enemy or establish goals extending beyond the Caucasus for those actually fighting in the Caucasus. This blurring of enemy hierarchies is far from unique to Umarov, and reflects an incomplete progression towards what Thomas Hegghammer has labelled hybridization: “the mixing of ideal rationales for violence and the attendant bleeding of their associated enemy hierarchies.”

Weakness as a Driver of Ideological Change

Strain and weakness have been offered as key reasons for the process of hybridization, allowing groups to expand their potential support base with reduced costs of alienating original supporters. Umarov’s communiqués provide ample evidence to suggest that weakness was behind not just hybridization, but the entire transformation process. When Umarov assumed the leadership, the insurgency was in a perilous state, and it was clear that the insurgency needed to expand its appeal if it were to survive. Religion offered a means both of appealing to the broader region and downplaying perceptions of weakness. Moreover, it appeared to resonate more strongly among both the younger generation of fighters and those outside Chechnya.

The reason for further transformation beyond the proclamation of the IK ultimately lies in the failure of this transformation to bring the desired results. By late 2010, the IK had lost more leading figures, and security service losses were declining across the region. There is little evidence that Umarov’s efforts to attract support from the Volga-Urals region brought significant results. Thus, the pressures and rationale driving the original transformation remained in force. In the international sphere, it appears that the insurgency had nothing to lose from hostility towards the West: Russia designated the IK as terrorist in February 2010 and, although the U.S. and the UN did not follow suit until mid-2011, by that point the U.S. had already designated Umarov personally. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring and, in particular, the conflict in Syria radically altered the situation in the Muslim world. Aligning the IK with jihadists elsewhere allowed Umarov to respond to these changes in the international environment; given the absence of alternatives, alienating the West was largely a costfree endeavour.

This article is based on my paper, published in Terrorism and Political Violence, entitled “Broader, Vaguer, Weaker: The Evolving Ideology of the Caucasus Emirate Leadership.” The paper, supporting data and sourcing, is open-access and available here.