On March 21 in Dagestan, Russian police forces effectively sealed off an entire block in the capital city of Makhachkala sometime in the early morning hours and proceeded to carry out an intense mission to root out suspected Islamist militants in an apartment complex.

While reports have varied somewhat and timelines differ from one source to the next, a gunfight eventually ensued. When the smoke cleared, six militants were reported dead. An interesting sequence in the mission occurred when the operation was halted as Russian security force personnel took a small child from the besieged building and carried it to safety.

The mother of the child apparently remained behind and was subsequently killed:

Four and a half hours after the start of the special operation, the police called on the militants and the members of their families to surrender, including a child and a woman. “To avoid the threat to their lives and wellbeing, the police decided to start negotiations and convince the criminals to surrender,” local media reported. “As a result, they let a child leave, whose is now out of danger. However, the police failed to persuade the woman to leave the surrounded apartment.” (Riadagestan.ru, March 21) (Mairbek Vatchagaev, The Jamestown Foundation, March 26)

The most recent raid is just the latest in a protracted war between the Russian government and a Northern Caucasian group dominated by Dagestani and Chechen separatists. Many of these militants draw a direct lineage to those who fought two previous major wars against Moscow. They are now in the midst of another campaign against the domination of Moscow: one to establish what they have termed the Caucasus Emirate.

Dagestan and links to recent suicide bombings

A predominantly Muslim region in the Northeast Caucasus, Dagestan has been the site of several high-profile Russian security force raids and operations in recent years. Most Americans remain largely unfamiliar with the region, though some will associate it with Chechnya and the wars fought there in the two and a half decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Others will associate Dagestan with Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, two ethnic Chechen brothers who carried out the bombing of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. The Tsarnaevs grew up in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, but moved to Makhachkala, Dagestan in 2001.

Anna Nemtsova, a Russian reporter, has written extensively on the conflict in Dagestan. In 2012, while writing for Foreign Policy Magazine, she profiled what she termed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ‘secret war’ and highlighted the Russian government’s targeting of Salafist Dagestanis through raids and operations in the mountainous Northeastern Caucasus republic. Dagestan’s conflict appears in some ways to be self-propelling and one driven simultaneously by a confluence of poverty, Islamic fundamentalism, ethnic-based nationalism, and repressive security tactics by Russian forces.

In 2013, Nemtsova contributed another piece on Dagestan for Foreign Policy Magazine, this time focusing on the region’s rising Islamist insurgency and the ‘election’ of Putin loyalist Ramazan Abdultipov to the office of president in Dagestan. She writes of the Russian security forces crackdown:

For several years now I’ve been hearing Dagestani human rights activists, journalists, defense lawyers, and residents complaining about threats to their lives and violations of their rights. Since the spring of 2012, police have detained a large number of Muslims on suspicion of supporting the insurgency (also known as ‘the forest,’ since that’s where the guerillas tend to hide). Law enforcement officers often grab suspects on the street without a warrant and without informing families about the whereabouts of the detainee. (Anna Nemtsova, Foreign Policy Magazine, September 20, 2013)

Last year, as the Winter Olympic Games in the southern Russian city of Sochi approached, multiple suicide bombings rocked the city of Volgograd (formerly known as Stalingrad) located approximately 1000 km to the northeast of Sochi. On October 21, 2013, a woman detonated a suicide vest while traveling aboard a Moscow-bound bus from Volgograd, killing six. On November 16th, Russian anti-terror forces conducted a raid in Makhachkala, killing the group’s leader and the husband of the suicide bomber, Dmitry Sokolov.

In late December, two additional suicide bombings were carried out in Volgograd, the first at a train station and the second on a trolley. The first was conducted on December 29th, killing 18 and injuring dozens more. The second suicide bombing, carried out just 24 hours later, targeted a trolley bus traveling in Volgograd. The second attack killed another 16 people and injured dozens. The bombers were later identified by Russian authorities as Asker Samedov and Suleyman Magomedov. In February, Russian security forces in Dagestan again raided the house of the man who commanded the operations and arrested several others.

Responsibility for the attacks in Volgograd was claimed by Vilayat Dagestan (formerly known as Shariat Jemaat), a sub-element of the Caucasus Emirate. The Caucasus Emirate is, as its name implies, an Islamist movement in the Caucasus which has declared as its goal the establishment of an emirate in the Caucasus. Since the end of 2014, many of the mid-level commanders of the Caucasus Emirate have pledged their fealty to the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Vilayat Dagestan is an interesting group in that it sustains important relationships with other separatist groups in the North Caucasus, notably in Ingushetia and Chechnya. Although additional reports have indicated that Vilayat Dagestan maintains bases in Azerbaijan, it is unknown whether there are substantial numbers of personnel affiliated with the group operating outside of the Russian Federation.

Dagestan: The restive federal republic

Dagestan is a federal subject (republic) of the Russian Federation, located in the Northeast Caucasus. It borders Russia to its north, Chechnya to its west, and the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan to its southwest/south. The geostrategically valuable Caspian Sea coastline forms the eastern border of the republic. Dagestan is an extraordinarily underdeveloped area of the Russian Federation.

Map of Northeast Caucasus courtesy of Panonian and Wikimedia Commons.
Map of Northeast Caucasus courtesy of Panonian and Wikimedia Commons.

While Dagestan is well known as a significant source of energy reserves (both oil and gas), recent expeditions to confirm new locations for resource extraction have been stymied by the assessments of Russian strategists that highlight the lack of cost effectiveness in exploiting the deposits. There are at least 34 ethno-linguistic groups residing in Dagestan, making the region one of the most diverse in all of Eurasia. Most of the Muslims are Sufi. Much of the internal conflict between Muslims in Dagestan is catalyzed by the integration of Salafist teachers with the traditionalist Sufi Dagestani population. This rift was made particularly evident when 73-year-old well-respected and moderate Sufi scholar was killed by a woman wearing a suicide belt.

The modern history of Dagestan is marked by poverty and conflict. That history is also inextricably tied to the conflicts that have scarred neighboring Chechnya. In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Chechnya declared its independence. Two protracted and bloody wars were fought between the Russian military and Chechen separatist forces, the first from 1994 through 1996, the second following the collapse of an agreement between Russia and Chechen leaders.

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The second war mimicked the bloodletting of the first, fought from 1999 through 2009. While several centuries have been riddled by Chechen (and Dagestani) insurrections, rebellions, and wars for independence fought against their Russian patron, until recently, the post-Soviet period was among the bloodiest battles in the history of the North Caucasus’ wars. With the installation of Ramzan Kadyrov as de facto ruler of Chechnya in 2005, much of the Islamist militancy of the North Caucasus has been on a sharp downward trajectory.

This is not to say that the militancy itself has been eliminated (it has not), but that the ability of groups organic to Chechnya and Dagestan to conduct attacks inside the Russian Federation has been sharply reduced. In December, attacks in the Chechen capital of Grozny on the eve of President Putin’s annual state-of-the-nation speech in Moscow threatened to reignite war in the tenuously stable Russian federal republic. Kadyrov, defiantly loyal to Putin, has also been suspected of possibly ordering the death of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Nemtsov was murdered February 27th, shot several times near the Kremlin itself. Since the death of Nemtsov, curiosities have divided analysts who closely observe Russian government and politics. Putin disappeared for 10 days. Interestingly, Kadyrov initially spoke highly of one of the men arrested for the murder.

In particular, Dagestan has been greatly affected by and has contributed mightily to the rise of Islamic militancy in Chechnya. While analysts and historians often debate the origins of the Chechen resistance and insurrection, and the motivations behind the group battling the Russian government, most agree that the influence of Dagestani militants in the wars was profound.

Dagestan and the Caucasus Emirate

The Caucasus Emirate’s first emir, Doku Umarov, proved to be a constant thorn in the side of Russian security strategists. An ethnic Chechen, Umarov was a veteran of both Chechen wars and eventually rose to the office of vice president in the Chechen government. Known as ‘Russia’s Bin Laden,’ Umarov ordered attacks targeting Russian civilians and was affiliated with other jihadist groups, to include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Islamic Jihad Union—both Uzbek groups.

Map courtesy of Kbh3rd and Wikimedia Commons.
Map courtesy of Kbh3rd and Wikimedia Commons.

Umarov carried out numerous high-profile attacks in Russia, to include an attack in 2003 targeting FSB headquarters in Ingushetia. Umarov was also known to be an ally of Shamil Basayev, a notorious commander of leader in the Chechen independence and separatist movements. Ramzan Kadyrov, now the leader of the Chechen Federal Republic, had sought the death of Umarov throughout the second Chechen war. Umarov managed to survive the war and became a symbol of Islamist resistance to Russian rule in the years following the end of the second Chechen war.

Numerous reports of Umarov’s death had dotted the years following the end of the war in Chechnya, but he managed to continually defy authorities as they pursued him. Eventually, Umarov’s luck ran out: While the exact date of his death is unknown, Umarov was confirmed as killed by Russian government officials in the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) in April 2014. Ali Abu Mukhammad (also known as Aliaskhab Kebekov) replaced Umarov as leader of the Caucasus Emirate. Though an ethnic Russian, Mukhammad is a native of Dagestan and was formerly a member of Vilayat Dagestan. On March 25, the United States Department of State added Mukhammad to its list of specially designated global terrorists.

Mukhammad continues to be loyal to his patron, al-Qaeda. While many of the Caucasus Emirate’s key mid-level leaders have begun ‘defecting’ to the Islamic State, Mukhammad’s affiliation with al-Qaeda has been somewhat controversial for many members of the Emirate. As many of the rank and file have traveled to Syria to fight on behalf of the Islamic State, Mukhammad’s allegiance to al-Qaeda and Ayaman al-Zawahiri has split the group.

Whatever his motivations in remaining loyal to al-Qaeda, Mukhammad’s legitimacy as a leader in the Caucasus Emirate is likely to remain firmly rooted in his ability to rally fighters for the cause of establishing the Caucasus Emirate throughout the North Caucasus. Mukhammad’s fealty to al-Qaeda has caused some of the members of the group to support ISIS. Much of the division causing the rift between the two groups pivots around Zawahiri’s insistence to his subordinate commanders that they eliminate the targeting of civilians in operations.

ISIS, most apparently deriving much of its motivation from leaders such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has not been as disciplined in its operations, often directly targeting civilians during the protracted wars in Iraq and Syria. Zawahiri’s long-term view of global jihad is often interpreted as more disciplined and with greater vision. This is an especially dangerous strategy, one that is more methodical than the one directing ISIS. ISIS is heavily reliant on brutal means of execution (often of civilians, to include beheadings and other bloody forms of battlefield execution) for its powerful social media campaign.

The abhorrent barbarity of ISIS stands in somewhat strong contrast to the insidious, methodical, yet no-less-dangerous approach of al-Qaeda, the latter of which seeks to utilize events such as the Arab Spring in the effort to establish a caliphate. These two groups may diverge from one another on strategic foundations, but their goals coincide: the establishment of a caliphate.

Geopolitical fallout and the way ahead

The squabbling in the ranks and command structure of the Caucasus Emirate between those loyal to Mukhammad and al-Qaeda and those inspired more by the Islamic State and the war in the Levant is a reflection of a cleavage in the global jihadist movement. This rift could eventually threaten to split the Caucasus Emirate as it has rived the global Islamist movement in the past year. Less certain is the future of Dagestan itself.

Infested by poverty, Russian officials have often ignored the lack of opportunity in Dagestan. Security officials in the Russian capital remain preoccupied with the region’s rising Islamism, much of which is based in the Salafi community. Although neighboring Chechnya continues to be comparatively calm under the rule of iron-fisted leader Kadyrov, Dagestan has withered in recent years and the Islamist fundamentalism that preys on disaffected Muslim youth in the Arab world has begun taking firmer root in Dagestan.

Reports recently of Dagestanis traveling abroad to fight have highlighted an apparent upsurge in Dagestanis taking part in global jihadist movements. While it is not unheard of for Dagestanis to participate in these global movements, until the last few years, Dagestani Islamists focused primarily on the separatist movements of the North Caucasus—targeting Russian government and security forces for attack.

While reports of Dagestanis traveling to such areas as the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan remain unverified, the apparent relocation of Islamist fighters from Dagestan to other global jihadist hot spots like Syria has been well documented. This apparent surge has implied a change in the character of the militancy that has comprised much of the separatist movement in Dagestan. Recent reports of in-fighting among Chechens, battling one another in both Syria and Ukraine, have been punctuated by Dagestanis taking a larger role in recruitment and command. A militant named Mukhammad Abu Barud al-Daghestani promoted a guide that outlines ways in which Dagestanis could join the Islamic State and fight in Syria:

Daghestani gives some practical advice for would-be IS militants seeking to leave the North Caucasus and reach Syria, saying that his suggestions are based on his personal experience. “The first dilemma faced by Muslim men and women who have made the firm decision to relocate is the question of how to safely leave the country without hindrance. Many people write in and ask about this,” Daghestani writes. There is no easy route, unless you happen to be rich, he admits. “In all honesty, if you have money, you can get to Europe and cover your tracks, do a couple of laps so to speak, and then stop off in Turkey,” Daghestani says. (Joanna Paraszczuk, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, March 26)

The rise in profile and number of Dagestani militants in wars such as the one raging in Syria represents a disturbing trend in the Islamic militancy of the Caucasus. While there are significant fissures inside the Caucasus Emirate, the limitations of the strategic vision of the senior leaders of al-Qaeda and ISIS are irrelevant in the context of the surge of Dagestanis radicalized beyond separatism and insurrection, targeting the Russian government, and traveling to fight for a global jihadist movement.

Again, the historical ties binding Chechen and Dagestani rebellions together against their common enemy in Moscow appear to have had great impact on the choice of many in the two North Caucasian Russian federal republics to wage jihad beyond the mountains of the Caucasus.

(Featured image courtesy of spetsnazalpha and Wikimedia Commons)