Jihadists in Crisis

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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.

In early October, two videos that had been originally recorded in August surfaced, detailing a growing rift between those loyal to Umarov and a breakaway contingent that had joined with Vadalov. In the first video, Vadalov, Gakayev, and a commander named Tarkhan Gaziyev rescinded their bay'at to Umarov. They said their main grievance was that Umarov had suspended the Majlis al-Shura, the Emirate's consultative council, and had formed the Caucasus Emirate without first consultating with other senior leaders. They declared that Gakayev was now the Emir of Chechnya and that they no longer recognized Umarov, asserting that the fighters in Chechnya supported their decision. In a second video, the three men reiterated their loyalty to Gakayev, this time alongside other commanders. They listed all of the military leaders who they said had joined in recognizing Gakayev as their Emir. This suggests that Gakayev's faction wanted to refocus the Caucasus Emirate on Chechen nationalist concerns rather than Umarov's pan-Caucasus global jihadist vision.

Umarov responded not long after with a published decree eliminating the South-Western and Eastern Fronts, ordering all commanders to renew their bay'at to him, demanding Gakayev to hand over the money and supplies he'd been given, and giving Mukhannad one month to report to the Emir's "court" over charges he had fomented fitnah, or discord within the ranks. Umarov also released a video denouncing all who rescinded their bay'at, saying they had lost their will for jihad.

The faction led by Vadalov and Gakayev may already be taking charge of terrorism operations within the Caucasus. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting's Oliver Bullough told the BBC that the October 19 attacks on the Chechen Parliament in Grozny appeared to use some of the same tactics frequently deployed by Shamil Basayev, a Chechen rebel commander who died in 2006. If veterans from Basayev's command are exercising greater control over operations in Chechnya, then it stands to reason that they will also steer ideology back to the pre-Caucasus Emirate emphasis on nationalism rather than global jihadism.

Complicating matters, two influential jihadist scholars, Syrian Abu Basir al-Tartusi who currently lives in London and Jordanian of Palestinian descent Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, have issued fatwas stating that Umarov is the true Emir. Their endorsements lend Umarov ideological legitimacy, especially among potential donors and recruits outside of the Caucasus.

Beneath the infighting, the splits within the Caucasus Emirate reveal an unresolved ideological dispute among the disparate cells and fighters that Umarov attempted to unify. On one side are the global jihadists, Umarov and his scholarly Arab backers, who see the region as another front in a global, ideological war against Western aggressors. On the other side are the Islamist-nationalists, Gakayev and a number of senior leaders, who are focused on resisting, and if possible gaining independence from, Russian rule. Though the two groups likely agree on far more than they disagree, it is a question of emphasis. Are they fighting for Islam or for Chechnya?

There have been many other high-profile terrorist feuds: Abdullah Azzam against Ayman al-Zawahiri over the future of the jihadist movement after the Afghan war against the Soviets; within the al-Qaeda Senior Leadership over tactics in Iraq; and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi against Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, also over Iraq. This dispute in the Caucasus, between the global jihadists and the nationalist-Islamists, reveals the same ideological fissure that has opened within several jihadist groups and in several countries since the 1990s: is the movement chiefly interested in waging local battles or a global war? That question, and the inner tension it brings, may be fundamentally irresolvable; Osama bin Laden himself, the preeminent global jihadist, began his career aiding anti-Soviet nationalists in Afghanistan. Whichever cause dominates, the terrorist attacks and guerilla campaigns in the Caucacus will likely continue unabated.


Image: Dokku Umarov, center, with other members of Caucasus Emirate.
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Aaron Zelin is the Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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