Wednesday, 02 September 2015

A weakened insurgency precludes IS inroads to the North Caucasus

Published in Analytical Articles

By Emil Aslan Souleimanov (09/02/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Recent months have seen North Caucasian amirs pledging allegiance to the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS). Many have pointed to this process as a sign of the changing paradigm of the regional resistance, which is being transformed into – or absorbed by – the global jihadist insurgency. But these assumptions can be challenged by a look at the internal dynamics, the distance from key hotbeds of jihadist violence, and the limits of the North Caucasian insurgency. While ISIS may have some impact on the North Caucasian jamaats, it is likely to be rather limited and indirect. 

BACKGROUND: Before the killing of the previous amir of the Caucasus Emirate (see the 04/09/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst), a number of leaders of local jamaats, particularly in Dagestan, formally defected to IS, disavowing the leadership of the Caucasus Emirate. During Kebekov’s formal rule, these defections caused a split in the ranks of the regional jihadists (see the 04/15/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst). However, the defectors were balanced by a number of influent amirs, including the latest leader of the Caucasus Emirate Magomed Suleymanov (killed in mid-August), who supported Kebekov.

Yet following Kebekov’s death in April, this process accelerated, with an increasing number of local jihadist leaders pledging allegiance to ISIS. Suleymanov, an ethnic Avar from the Central Dagestani village of Gimry, formally announced as the leader of the virtual theocracy in early July (even though his appointment had been known in regional jihadist circles substantially earlier) lacked reputation in jihadist circles. Lacking combat experience, Suleymanov was a qadi, or judge, of a mosque in his native Gimry. Within four years, Suleymanov managed to switch his peaceful life for membership in the Gimry jamaat, then capitulate to authorities, just to rejoin the Dagestani insurgency shortly thereafter. The lack of a strong leader of the Caucasus Emirate insurgency, coupled with the general decline of the regional insurgency, has prompted further defections. The fact that many reputed insurgent leaders loyal to the idea of the Caucasus Emirate have been killed recently, with no strong leaders in sight, makes the insurgency’s prospects poor.  

Most importantly, in late June North Caucasian jihadist leaders issued a joint statement pledging a collective oath to al-Baghdadi. Some observers went so far as to argue that while Kebekov’s death dealt a fatal blow to the Caucasus Emirate, the turnaround in the region holds the potential of turning the North Caucasus into another hotbed of global jihad, with consequent ramifications relating to the excessive use of violence in the area and beyond.

IMPLICATIONS: However, these accounts largely ignore the local dynamics and scope of North Caucasian jihadist groups. In Chechnya for example, kadyrovtsy have succeeded in establishing firm control over the local population, with supporters, relatives, or sympathizers of the remaining jihadists severely punished. Against this background, Chechen jihadist groups have found themselves confined to a few dozen individuals isolated in some mountainous areas of Chechnya, while counterinsurgent forces have deployed sophisticated instruments for identifying and combatting the insurgents. From time to time, jihadist groups may carry out sensitive blows to the kadyrovtsy and pro-regime forces, yet usually at a high cost as in the case of December 2014 attack in Grozny (see the 12/10/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst).

Unlike in Chechnya, the principle of collective responsibility – seemingly the most effective counterinsurgency practice ever – has not been deployed by authorities in Dagestan. Yet what appeared to be the advantages of Dagestani insurgents – the republic’s relatively large population, the popularity of locally operating insurgent groups, and massive recruitment into local jamaats – has backfired, with jihadist groups being infiltrated by agents. The deployment of zachistka style operations in Dagestan – much more selective and less violent than in Chechnya – have also proved successful, for instance with the strongholds of jihadist insurgency in and around Gimry being retaken by authorities.

Importantly, given the absence of large scale repression in Dagestan and the prevalence of kinship ties, many jamaats and local administrative units sought to avoid targeting each other. According to the testimonies of former fighters, this led to jamaats and local administrations or police striking non-aggression pacts, which under certain circumstances led to collaboration. Dagestani police forces on the local level, infamous for corruption and incompetence, were gradually replaced by elite units from the republican Ministry of Interior and aided by elite units from across the Russian Federation. While the deployment of the Russian Army units in a number of key areas isolated insurgent units in urban areas from those operating in rural areas, the deployment of elite police, a determined and experienced force, helped overcome the omnipresent Dagestani particularism, coupled with the unwillingness of local police to fight insurgents that were sometimes their clan relatives.

In Dagestan, authorities have also sought to provide support to local businesses, which have been a source of financial income for jamaats through the practice of zakat, “money for jihad,” or racketeering, often in collaboration with local authorities (see the 06/26/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst). The drying up of finances along with the “cleansing” of local administration, albeit incomplete, has also reduced the room for maneuver for Dagestani jamaats, which now operate in a considerably narrower terrain than earlier.

In Ingushetia, President Yunus-bek Yevkurov has chosen a balanced strategy of negotiating with insurgents and winning them over by means of persuasion and ensuring security for them and their families. This approach, contrary to Ramzan Kadyrov’s in Chechnya, has proven effective, with dozens of insurgents seeking disengagement particularly following the debilitation of the local insurgency, confined to a couple of valleys.

In the Northwest Caucasus, the jihadist network had been successfully crushed on the eve of the Sochi Olympics of 2014, with local jihadist units, usually isolated and void of popular support, being gradually infiltrated and destroyed from within. Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia has historically been regarded the weakest wing of the North Caucasian insurgency, relatively easy to wreck.

Against this backdrop, the Dagestani insurgency, often torn apart by quibbles and sometimes engaging in collaboration with local authorities, was recently deprived of strong leadership and has increasingly lost its appeal to the local youth. Dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of frustrated Dagestanis have sought to travel to Syria to participate in the “real” jihad, becoming part of a feared transnational force of devoted fighters who experience control over territory – and who run a state of their own – without constantly hiding in the mountains or city apartments. This has been another important factor leading to the weakening of the Dagestani insurgency, which in previous years accounted for the largest share of insurgent-related violence.

CONCLUSIONS: Regardless of the statements of North Caucasian jihadists, this is the reality on the ground, which will hardly change depending on allegiances. The region, with a scarce population of only a few million, is being placed under increasing incumbent control, with the lifespan of local jihadist units constantly decreasing. Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus does not seem destined to become a massive affair, given the local population’s predominantly skeptical attitudes to the Salafi-jihadist insurgency and the burden of fighting an isolated war. While many North Caucasians will continue to retaliate against individual offenses – whatever the implications – committed by the police and authorities, they will do so regardless of ideological motivations. Ideological motivations would likely develop in the course of individual avengers’ membership in insurgent groups, but as first-hand evidence shows, they are rarely recruited into jamaats due to theological considerations.

Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the leaders of ISIS, now facing imminent challenges of their own, would be willing to turn their sights on the North Caucasus, a peripheral region to the Muslim world, to which they lack immediate access. If ISIS choses to grant “money for jihad” to North Caucasian amirs, this would barely have any effect on the ground; jihadists in Chechnya may not be able to use these funds because of their interrupted ties with the local population. In the hypothetical case of ISIS choosing to send mujahedeen to the North Caucasus, they would be easily identified and annihilated by Russian and local siloviki. If local jihadists choose to deploy excessive violence against civilian “apostate” targets in the North Caucasus, they will lose any support from the local population, upon which they heavily depend. Whatever the rhetoric, the local insurgency will likely remain an isolated affair largely unrelated to the global jihadist movement.

AUTHORS’ BIO: Emil Aslan Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists, co-authored with Huseyn Aliyev (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Peter Lang, 2007).

Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons 

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