Jihadists in Crisis


The Caucasus Emirate, a global jihadist organization based in Russia's Caucasus mountain region, functions much like similar groups across the world: it kills civilians and policemen; it attacks government centers, as it did during a recent assault on the Chechen Parliament in Grozny; and it issues frequent statements, often as videos posted to jihadi forums, to explain and spread its ideology. But the Caucasus Emirates' recent statements, which are also a means of communication among disparate cells and fighters, appear to show a group increasingly consumed not by Chechen independence or by religious warfare, but by internal squabbles, power politics, and battles of succession. Beneath the posturing and rhetoric, the infighting has exposed and perhaps exacerbated an existential divide. Is the terrorist group, at its heart, a nationalist-Islamist organization focused on regional issues or a wing of the global jihadist movement led by al-Qaeda? It's an abstract and difficult question that has at time troubled, and even fractured, similar groups across the Muslim world. The Caucasus Emirate's ideological fissuring, though far from unprecedented, has played out in the near-total transparency of public statements and web forums, allowing us to reconstruct much of it blow-for-blow.

The Caucasus Emirate was first proclaimed in 2007 by Dokku Umarov, who calls himself the Emir. Umarov, who was president of the Chechen Republic of Ickheria in 2006 and 2007, established the Caucasus Emirates to bring the handful of disparate Islamic fronts operating across the Caucasus region together under one umbrella.

But Umarov's leadership came into question this summer, launching a number of internal disputes that have still not been resolved. It began on July 24, when Umarov announced in a video that Aslambek Vadalov, the commander of the Eastern Front of the Armed Forces of the Caucasus Emirate, would succeed him immediately. Umarov said he strongly believed in the importance of clear lines of succession should he suddenly die. He urged his followers to pledge bay'at, a formal declaration of allegiance, to Vadalov and to follow his orders as new the Emir. This may appear to have been a forward-looking, even wise, decision on the surface, but Umarov's call for bay'at may have been the moment that his pan-Caucasus Islamic alliance began to come undone.

A week later, Umarov followed up his earlier message with a stunning announcement: he was recanting his resignation, the announcement of which he claimed had been "fabricated." He wrote in a message posted to the Caucasus Emirates official media mouthpiece Kavkaz Center, "The previous statement is canceled by my statement. The previous statement was completely fabricated." In an apparent move to shore up Umarov's support, Sayfullah Gubdensk, the Qadi (a judge certified to rule on Islamic law) of the Caucasus Emirate and the Emir of the Dagestan Front, released a statement urging fighters not to violate their bay'at to Umarov, who Gubdensk emphasized was the sole Emir of the Caucasus Emirate. In a separate message that same week, Vadalov announced that he was stepping down from the position of deputy Emir. A few days later, fighters from the Shamilkala Sector of the Dagestan Front publicly reaffirmed their loyalty oath to Umarov, suggesting that, despite the confusion, order was maintained in the ranks and Umaraov remained on top.

At the end of August, Umarov released a new video message explaining his resignation and what he seemed to describe as what had been a sudden change of heart. He said that during a meeting of high-level commanders, he had faced criticism for claiming responsibility for the March 2010 Moscow subway bombings and for not supplying his commanders with sufficient weapons, food, or other supplies. Conceding his failures to secure enough supplies, Umarov said he had offered at the meeting to step down. To prepare for his departure, he had recorded a video explaining Vadalov's succession. But when the video found its way online, it contained an added statement from Vadalov, made alongside two other senior leaders: Khusayn Gakayev and an Arab, known only as Mukhannad, who is reportedly al-Qaeda's liason in the North Caucasus. As Liz Fuller, who writes on the Caucasus for Radio Free Europe, explains: "[they] presented Umarov's resignation as a done deed and expressed approval of Umarov's imputed request to swear loyalty to Vadalov as his chosen successor." As a result, Umarov believed Vadalov broke their agreement, leading Umarov to revoke his resignation.

Presented by

Aaron Zelin

Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Rena and Sami David fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. He is the founder of the website Jihadology.net.

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