BACKGROUND: On the eve of the Winter Olympic Games (WOG) in Sochi in 2014, Russian law enforcement aided by the local siloviki intensified measures aimed to stem the tide of the regional insurgency. Moscow has deployed three tactical innovations since around 2012-2013: first, the authorities began to selectively target the insurgents’ support base. This highly controversial approach was designed after the Chechen way of counterinsurgency where it proved effective. In Chechnya, the deployment of kadyrovsty paramilitaries since the early 2000s has led to massive violence against the insurgents’ relatives. Insurgents who chose not to capitulate or defect have seen their family members “forcefully disappear” or subjected to extrajudicial executions. Chechens who provided the insurgents with shelter, intelligence, and material have been identified and targeted by kadyrovsty and their local networks, usually kadyrovsty’s relatives. Similar methods have been deployed in Dagestan. The practice of “forced disappearances” – aimed at insurgents’ relatives and supporters – has reached Dagestan. So have extrajudicial executions, implemented during zachistki in the republic. Discrimination against insurgents’ families has been instituted in Dagestan, and their houses have been demolished in line with the Chechen experience. As in Chechnya, this method has overall reduced the willingness of many Dagestanis to risk the lives of their relatives by joining local jamaats.
The second innovation entails the deployment of elite counterinsurgent forces primarily in Dagestan. In previous years, most of the fighting was in practice done by local police, known for incompetence and corruption, aided by a numerically weak counter-terrorist force. Since early 2010, the Russian Ministry of Interior has deployed Special Rapid Response Units (SOBR) against insurgent groups particularly in Dagestan, now backed by numerically expanded Special Purpose Mobility Units (OMON) of the republican Ministry of Interior. The result has been more selective, brighter, and effective counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations.
The third innovation entails the installation of moles in insurgent groups, enabled by the massive recruitment into jamaats during the peak of the insurgency in the early 2010s. The killing of the influential insurgent leaders, Chechen brothers Husayn and Muslim Gakayev, followed by the liquidations of Tengiz Guketlov in Kabardino-Balkaria and Artur Gatagazhev in Ingushetia, as well as the Dagestani and North Caucasian amir Aliaskhab Kebekov, along with a number of jihadist commanders in 2013-2014 are all attributed to the effective infiltration of insurgent groups.
Last but not least, hundreds of frustrated Dagestanis and North Caucasians have joined Syria-based jihadist groups since 2011, attracted by the jihadist propaganda of the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and unhindered by Russian secret services. For the first time since the early 2000s, this has led to an unprecedented shortage of would-be fighters to recruit into locally operating jihadist groups.
IMPLICATIONS: These innovations nevertheless also have their limitations. First, while the deployment of violence against the insurgents’ relatives and support base in Dagestan has on the whole reduced the supply of prospective insurgents available to local jamaats, it has also produced a less numerous, but all the more committed share of radicalized fighters willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of personal retaliation. Nowadays, these prospective fighters lack experience and guidance, but the situation may change in the near future.
Second, elite forces in Russia – particularly SWAT-styled forces effective in counterinsurgent and counterterrorist operations – are now in shorter supply than was previously the case. Russia’s initiation of a hybrid war in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region absorbed hundreds of these troops previously deployed in the North Caucasus, a move that was immediately felt on the North Caucasus battleground. Moscow’s Syrian venture has made it pull its elite forces off from Donbas to help consolidate the Assad regime, which explains the cessation of large-scale hostilities in Ukraine. As long as their number of members are dwindling, the North Caucasian jamaats pose no serious challenge to the existing counterinsurgent forces. Yet should the situation reverse, those minuscule elite forces would be in no position to cope with replenished jamaats. Already today, given the low number of deployed elite forces, the burden of fighting has again been placed on the shoulders of the local police and numerically weak republican special forces. Fourth, according to some local experts, the leaders of Dagestani jamaats have recently sought to deploy more selective recruitment policies, a move facilitated by the recent drop in the number of prospective recruits.
The recent military setbacks for the once-idealized ISIS and its victorious image have led to a decrease in its pull on North Caucasian youth, and a reduction in the number of fighters departing to join the ranks of Syria-based insurgent groups. As ISIS is widely believed to have passed its peak, many North Caucasians are rethinking their planned participation in the “Syrian jihad,” and are instead willing to stay and fight at home. The recent liquidation of Umar Shishani, an ethnic Chechen icon of ISIS that once attracted hundreds of Chechens and North Caucasians, also appears to have caused a decrease in the number of prospective volunteers to ISIS. This has been manifested in the slightly increasing share since 2015 of insurgency-related deaths particularly in Dagestan. To sum up, while significantly weakened – given the factors discussed above – the local insurgency still appears to be alive and capable of regrouping.
CONCLUSIONS: Since 2013, on the eve of the WOG in Sochi, the tactical innovations deployed by Russian law enforcement backed by the local siloviki have, along with the departure of hundreds of North Caucasians to Syria to join local jihadist groups, particularly ISIS since 2011-2012, have led to a dramatic weakening of the North Caucasus insurgency. Yet this state of affairs should not be taken for granted.
Despite of the risk of severe punishment particularly in Dagestan, some locals have become radicalized enough to join the local jamaats, willing to carry out insurgent and terrorist attacks for the sake of personal or familial revenge. The elite SWAT-type forces, which are numerically weak overall, have to a large extent been deployed to eastern Ukraine and Syria, again leaving the burden of counterinsurgency operations on the local police and less numerous republican special counter-terrorist units. The practice of infiltration, successfully deployed to target insurgency leaders and disrupting some locally operating insurgent groups, has become increasingly difficult due to the selective recruitment procedures of the insurgent groups. Moreover, the dwindling numbers of North Caucasian volunteers to ISIS and other jihadist groups operating in Syria have provided an impetus for the frustrated local youth to join jihadist groups operating in their home region instead of traveling to the Middle East.
Given these circumstances, and despite its considerable weakening in recent years, the North Caucasus insurgency is likely to survive and regenerate in forthcoming years.
AUTHORS’ BIO: Emil Aslan Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic (https://cuni.academia.edu/EmilSouleimanov). His most recent book is Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists, co-authored with Huseyn Aliyev (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
Image source: www.wikimedia.org, accessed on October 3, 2016