BACKGROUND: Umarov’s incessant suffering from several diseases that he acquired in the early 2000s made him disappear from the public space for most of 2013. Umarov was hence primarily considered a symbol of resistance. This was compounded by the considerable weakening of the Chechen insurgency particularly in the aftermath of the liquidation by pro-Moscow Chechen security forces in 2013 of the Gakayev brothers (see the 02/06/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst) and other prominent insurgent leaders, along with members of their groups. With the command of the Caucasus Emirate heavily fragmented, the Chechen wing of the regional resistance movement weakened, and individual jamaats operating on their own, Umarov’s debilitation and subsequent death had little impact on developments on the ground.
Abu Muhammad is 42 years old, and he comes from the Avar-majority village of Teletl in Central Dagestan. Appointed a qadi, i.e. supreme judge, of the Caucasus Emirate in 2010, he is known to have a basic command of Arabic and Islamic theology, and a limited military record. He reportedly engaged in criminal activities and attempted to run his own business before joining a group of jihadis in 2008 or 2009. During this period, he developed close personal ties with emir Saleh, then leader of the major Dagestani jamaat of Shariat, who was killed in 2012. He subsequently fought for about a year in the ranks of amir Sayfullah Gubdensky’s jamaat.
His uncle Khalid Kebedov was shot dead by unknown gunmen in 2013, which some observers in Dagestan have interpreted as an act of vengeance by local law enforcement against Abu Muhammed. One of the reasons is believed to be Abu Muhammed’s masterminding of the infamous 2012 assassination of Said Chirkeysky, a reputed Sufi clergyman, which alienated local jihadists from ordinary Dagestanis. Dagestani sources have also claimed that Abu Muhammad has approved of suicidal terrorism, and is personally motivated to fight local law enforcement, as well as federal troops. He has been supportive not only of large-scale assaults on Dagestani police, but also of attacks on civilian targets in “continental” Russia. His power base has been in the capital city of Dagestan, in his native Shamil district, as well as in the Gubden district in the mountainous Avar-populated central-western part of the country, where insurgent activities have been on the rise recently.
Against this background, Abu Muhammad’s election as the new amir of the Caucasus Emirate confirms the increasingly momentous standing of Dagestan-based jihadist groups that have turned the Caspian republic into a hotbed of regional insurgency since the late 2000s (see the 09/29/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst).
Abu Muhammad is the first ever non-Chechen leader of the regional insurgency. He is also unrelated to the “old guard” of influential regional insurgency leaders, who fought in the First and Second Chechnya wars. Despite his limited military experience, the four amirs of the vilayets of Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachay are said to have supported his bid over that of Aslambek Vadalov, a prominent leader of the Chechen insurgency, who along with Tarkhan Gaziyev remains one of few Chechen amirs still alive. Since around 2013, Chechen insurgents have generally sought to avoid attention from local and federal security agencies to outlive current tough times. Therefore, they have considerably limited their activities, which apparently weakened Vadalov’s bid.
IMPLICATIONS: According to local sources, Abu Muhammad has a dubious reputation among some Dagestani insurgents and their supporters due to his controversial past, as he was allegedly involved in the alcohol business in the early post-Soviet period, and because he is all but a strong and experienced military leader. Others claim that his status as a former qadi gives certain credit to Abu Muhammad’s authority, though some have decried his lack of solid Islamic education and his limited knowledge of Arabic and Islamic law. Either way, due to his limited experience as an insurgent leader, his election is likely to have little impact on the ground as individual jamaats in Dagestan will operate independently. In recent months, no significant changes have taken place in insurgent activities in Dagestan and the broader region.
Abu Muhammad’s relationship with Umar al-Shishani, the North Caucasian jihadists’ informal leader in Syria and a rising star of the global jihadist movement, deserves particular attention. The Georgia-born ethnic Chechen amir, currently commanding hundreds of Syria-based North Caucasian jihadists, is said not to know Abu Muhammad personally. Yet intriguingly, Abu Muhammad’s recent statement addressing al-Shishani, in which he called on the Chechen to refrain from making jihad-related statements because of the latter’s lack of Islamic education and “poor command of the Russian and Arabic languages” revealed a certain sense of competitiveness, envy, and mistrust on Abu Muhammad’s side toward the currently most influential jihadist leader of North Caucasian origin, unlike him known to be a gifted military commander and a brave warrior.
Possibly due to Abu Muhammad’s personal envy toward al-Shishani, the former has publicly sided with the al-Zawahiri-led and Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group Jabhat an-Nusra (JN) in the ongoing dispute within the ranks of North Caucasian jihadists in Syria (see the 07/02/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst). Abu Muhammad has criticized al-Shishani’s ties with the al-Baghdadi-led Islamic State (IS), formerly known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). The utilitarian character of Abu Muhammad’s stance toward al-Zawahiri and al-Shishani is reified by his recent ambiguous and rather illogical statements. He has referred to al-Zawahiri as “our sheikh,” explicitly recognizing Al-Qaeda’s leadership over Muslims in general, and North Caucasian jihadists in particular. Yet in another recent statement, Abu Muhammad called on the Syria-based North Caucasian jihadists to refrain from joining the competing jihadist armies, that is, both IS and JN, and instead pledge allegiance to him. In so doing, Abu Muhammad sought to retain his influence among North Caucasian volunteers deployed in Syria, profiling himself as a jihadist leader whose influence extends beyond the boundaries of the North Caucasus.
While some North Caucasian fighters, particularly those grouped into the Caucasus Emirate-aligned Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), have indeed sworn allegiance to Abu Muhammad, North Caucasian jihadists aligned with IS have denounced him; a recently released tape suggests that Abu Muhammad should rather “eat leaves” than comment on al-Shishani, hinting at the increasing frictions within the North Caucasian insurgency. Abu Muhammad’s effort to enhance his reputation among Syria-based North Caucasian jihadists, as yet the strongest force composed of local fighters, has seemingly been counterproductive, revealing deep divides between North Caucasians deployed in Syria and Dagestan-based insurgents in the North Caucasus. Since many IS-linked insurgents are of Chechen origin, and Abu Muhammad is an ethnic Avar claiming leadership over Chechen insurgent groups, nationalist overtones may also have reinforced these divisions. Last but not least, it appears that Abu Muhammad lacks direct ties with external financial sources, which are now largely controlled by Syria-based North Caucasian jihadists, not least by al-Shishani himself and his associates.
CONCLUSIONS: Abu Muhammad’s formal “reign” has so far had little impact on the developments on the ground. Currently, little interaction takes place between individual North Caucasian jamaats. Chechen and Ingush insurgent groups are considerably weakened, and groups in the Northwest Caucasus were virtually annihilated on the eve of the Sochi Olympics. Still, as Abu Muhammad has been a proponent of attacks on “apostate” Sufi leaders, approving of indiscriminate terrorist attacks in Russia proper on ideological grounds, no change of tactics deployed by the most operational segment of the Caucasus Emirate, the Dagestani jamaats, is to be expected as long as Abu Muhammad’s personal reputation shapes the mindset of individual jihadists. Because Abu Muhammad has a dubious reputation outside his native Dagestan, and an ambiguous standing within the republic, the new amir will likely to seek to strengthen his credentials as a strong and committed military commander. He may promote high-lethality attacks in Russia proper, as well as in Dagestan and across the region. Still, his standing will likely remain symbolic, as his capacity to impact developments on the ground is limited due both to his personal traits, and to the increasingly harsh counterinsurgency.
(Image Attribution: Youtube)