In late July 2011, the Caucasus Emirate’s official media mouthpiece Kavkaz Center announced that the two rival factions within the emirate had reconciled their differences through a Shari’ah court. Aslambek Vadalov and Khusayn Gakayev, as well as other commanders who previously rescinded their bay’at to Doku Umarov, renewed their allegiance. This episode provides further evidence of the decline of Arab fighter influence in the Caucasus jihad, yet paradoxically shows the impact of popular Arab online jihadi shaykhs. It also solidifies Umarov’s pan-Caucasus project as the leading resistance to Russian aggression in contrast to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria’s claims as the true representatives of the more nationalist-Islamist Chechen struggle.
BACKGROUND: Umarov, the emir of the Caucasus Emirate, first proclaimed the emirate in 2007, but his leadership came into question in late July 2010. 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. A week later, however, Umarov followed up his earlier message with a stunning announcement: he was recanting his resignation; the announcement of which he claimed had been “fabricated.”
In a separate message released online that same week, Vadalov announced that he was stepping down from the position of deputy Emir. This feud went back and forth online through October 2010, when Umarov and the new opposition leveled charges against one another, each attempting to shore up their positions. Umarov felt betrayed after conceding some of his failures in a high-level commanders meeting and offering to step down, but when the video that announced Vadalov as his successor contained an added statement from Vadalov, alongside two other senior leaders: Khusayn Gakayev and an Arab, known as Mukhannad (Khalid Yusuf Muhanned al-Emirati), who was reportedly al-Qaeda’s liaison in the North Caucasus and died in April 2011.
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 In the first video, Vadalov, Gakayev, and a commander named Tarkhan Gaziyev rescinded their bay‘at to Umarov.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 consulting 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, suggesting that Gakayev’s faction wanted to refocus the Caucasus Emirate on Chechen nationalist concerns rather than Umarov’s pan-Caucasus global jihadi 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 (discord). Umarov also released a video denouncing all who rescinded their bay‘at, saying they had lost their will for jihad. Complicating matters, online jihadi shaykhs Abu Basir al-Tartusi and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi issued fatwas stating that Umarov was the true emir.
IMPLICATIONS: It is believed that the death of Mukhannad paved the way for the two factions to come together and reconcile their issues. If this is indeed the case, although the Caucasus Emirate believes in the global jihadi pan-Islamic ideology, they may not have as strong links to al-Qaeda as some commentators believe. The death of Mukhannad provides further proof of the decline in not only Arab participation, but also influence amongst the fighters in the Caucasus. Indeed, part of the decline in Arabs joining the Caucasus jihad is due in part to the more popular destinations of jihad in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. This further confirms Cerwyn Moore and Paul Tumelty’s past research on the waning level of Arabs fighting in the Caucasus.
Although the level of influence from Arab fighters in the Caucasus has waned, the connection to the overall global jihadi community has become further cemented. When ruling on the schism, the leading shari’ah official in the Caucasus Emirate, Ali Abu Muhammed al-Dagestani, stated that the opposition faction’s disobedience to Umarov was contrary to Islamic law. This echoes the fatwa released by al-Maqdisi, who is considered the most influential living jihadi theorist, in September 2010. Al-Maqdisi has had a keen interest through his Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (The Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad) project in “purifying” the jihad from so-called negative influences and, as a result, has focused on providing advice to the Caucasus Emirate since he believes it provides a good example of how jihad should be waged “cleanly.” Therefore, although the Caucasus Emirate’s connections to al-Qaeda may be scant, al-Maqdisi’s advice and blessings upon Umarov’s leadership, and the way his movement conducts jihad, provides his group with legitimacy from a highly regarded religious scholar, placing the Caucasus Emirate as an important front in the global jihad against tawaghit (tyrants).
Further, the apparent reconciliation between the various factions would be a major blow to the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI), the predecessor to the Caucasus Emirate, which has focused more on Chechnya as a nationalist-Islamist oriented secessionist movement. Twice following the outbreak of the fissures within the Caucasus Emirate – first in October 2010 and most recently in June 2011 – Akhmad Zakayev, the leader of the ChRI in exile following Umarov’s creation of the Caucasus Emirate, announced and later reaffirmed he was resigning as President, dismantling his cabinet and supporting Gakayev as the new leader. The reconciliation between Gakayev’s faction and the Caucasus Emirate, therefore, is not only a repudiation of Zakayev, but also eliminates any possibility that the conflict with Russia will once again be centered on Chechen nationalist and secessionist ideas versus Umarov’s pan-Caucasus Islamic identity. Following the announced détente between the two Caucasus Emirate rivals, Zakayev’s ChRI released a statement in July 2011 condemning them, arguing that they were fomenting fitnah, which strengthens Russian hands in their conflict.
CONCLUSIONS: The reconciliation between Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate and Gakayev’s faction ends a years-long dispute that pitted influential leaders that have played crucial roles in the insurgency against the Russians the past few years. This development sidelines Zakayev and his ChRI leadership in exile. It also further diminishes Arab fighter influence over the Caucasus Emirate, yet boosts the importance of Arab shaykhs from the outside. Most significant, though, is that the Caucasus Emirate can now refocus its conflict with Russia instead of internecine fighting, and expand its sphere of influence in other former Muslim lands that they perceive to be occupied, such as the Volga-Ural region, which the Caucasus Emirate has attempted to reach out to recently in its propaganda. The resolution between the two parties also points to the victory of the global jihadi vision over more nationalist-Islamist claims in the long-running and protracted war with Russia.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Aaron Y. Zelin is a researcher in the Department of Politics at Brandeis University and maintains the website Jihadology.net, a clearinghouse for jihadi primary source material.