Russia’s Brutal Guerrilla War
How the crisis in the North Caucasus could go global.
The daily and deadly news from Russia’s restive North Caucasus region — police buildings blown up in Ingushetia, human rights activists murdered in Chechnya, firefights in Dagestan — makes it clear that the insurgency there is far from finished, despite Moscow’s frequent claims of victory. The conflict has splintered and metastasized, with atrocities carried out by both sides. Guerrillas are increasingly turning to suicide attacks, and they do not rule out more mass hostage takings, like the 2004 Beslan school seizure. Human rights activists and rivals of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov are murdered in Moscow, the Chechen capital, and abroad with impunity.
The absolute worst-case scenario — a gradual linking-up of insurgents in Central Asia with the North Caucasus’ young Islamist fighters — might be remote, but it is now possible. Such a link-up would require at least three factors. First, Russia’s policy of blind brutality in the North Caucasus would have to continue, ensuring a steady stream of recruits to the Islamist cause. Second, the Taliban would have to consolidate along Afghanistan’s frontiers with Central Asian countries such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan, turning the borderlands into safe havens and creating a series of conduits allowing fighters to move from Afghanistan into Central Asia and beyond. Finally, Central Asian jihadists from countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan would have to emerge as a fighting force large enough to exert serious regional pressure. The first is already happening. The second is a matter of time. The third cannot be ruled out. These eventualities threaten to transform the conflict in the Caucasus from a secessionist struggle to something vastly more menacing.
What is the state of the conflict now? On one side is Kadyrov, a former separatist guerrilla and the self-proclaimed defender of Russia’s frontiers. He has become the Kremlin’s chief enforcer in the region. On the other side sits the North Caucasus guerrillas, led by Doku Umarov. Like Kadyrov, he fought in the first war against the Russians, from 1992 to 1996. He has since embraced the Islamist cause. He and his guerrillas fight for the establishment of a caliphate, and he is now known as "the Emir of the Caucasus Emirate." Umarov is seconded by an adroit guerrilla organizer code-named Magas. He is an ethnic Ingush connected to the 2004 attack on the school in Beslan, in which 330 people, 176 of them children, died. In the past, many Chechen guerrillas, including their former leader, Aslan Maskhadov, repudiated such barbarism. Umarov, however, remarked in a recent interview that "if [it] is the will of Allah" there would be more Beslan-type attacks. "As far as possible, we will try to avoid civilian targets," he explained. "But for me there are no civilians in Russia."
The regional government is equally sinister. Western media and human rights groups have long accused Kadyrov’s security services of a nasty list of atrocities, including abduction, torture, and murder — all of which, naturally, he denies. In mid-July, one of Chechnya’s best known human rights activists, Natalia Estemirova, was abducted and murdered. In August, Zarema Sadulayeva, who worked with a children’s charity, and her husband were abducted from their office and murdered. Two members of the Yamadayev family, warlords close to the Russian military intelligence service, died recently after falling out with Kadyrov last year. One was murdered close to the prime minister’s office in downtown Moscow, the other in Dubai. There was an attempt on a third brother recently.
Kadyrov dismisses any responsibility for these events. The attacks on the Yamadayevs are efforts to discredit him, he says. He also denies any connection to the Estemirova murder. "Why would Kadyrov kill a woman nobody needs?" he said in a recent interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "She never had any honor, dignity, or conscience." His tortuous logic recalls that of his self-proclaimed idol, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who, when asked about the 2006 murder of opposition journalist Anna Politkovskaya, described her influence as exceedingly insignificant.
Putin’s macho throwaway remarks on occasions like that one set the tone for the general brutality of the fighting in the North Caucasus. This is a man who gave hunting knives as presents to the troops in Chechnya at the height of that battle, in January 2000. Moscow’s policy, if one can call it that, can be summarized in two simple points. First, ignore the conflict for as long as possible. Keep it out of the mainstream media, and thus the public eye. Make sure the masses are not distracted or demoralized by the news. Second, if it gets really bad, send in the troops.
This policy is not working and sooner or later will once again blow up in the Kremlin’s face. Unrest is slowly escalating within the North Caucasus. If the uptick continues, there is a strong chance of a cross-fertilization — in resources, propaganda, and strategies — with the guerrillas gradually returning to Central Asia from Afghanistan.
The new generation of North Caucasus guerrillas is intensely aware of what is happening elsewhere in the Muslim world. They are often better educated than their predecessors and almost always computer savvy. Today, most guerrilla movements in the region have Web sites, and some even use Twitter. Increasingly, the North Caucasus guerrillas use the suicide tactics favored by the Taliban and al Qaeda — which means they do not need as many fighters to wreak havoc. This is no coincidence. Their Web sites regularly report and carry videos of suicide attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their own shahids-to-be now record video farewells, in the style of their Iraqi and Afghan comrades.
The links between insurgents in the North Caucasus and Afghanistan are deep and long-standing. Hundreds of Central Asians were trained in Chechnya in the late 1990s by two of the best known guerrillas at the time: Shamil Basayev and his Saudi comrade in arms, Ibn al-Khattab (who incidentally gained his first combat experience fighting with the mujahedeen, allegedly alongside Osama bin Laden, against Soviet forces). When the fighting in Chechnya tailed off, these volunteers regrouped and joined other conflicts: in Afghanistan and then in northwest Pakistan. There, they reportedly have joined up with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an umbrella group for Islamists from Central Asia, the North Caucasus, and Muslim areas of Russia, such as Tatarstan.
Reportedly, a small number of wizened IMU fighters has returned to Central Asia — to Russia’s border — this summer. The trend is disturbing. The Central Asian states are deeply corrupt, incompetent, and authoritarian — all desperately brittle edifices. The alacrity with which countries such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan opened their facilities to the U.S. military has made them a more attractive target for Islamists still. And they sit close to Russia’s most restive and violent province, filled with radicalizing forces.
The situation in the North Caucasus looks bad now, but you can be sure it will get much worse if the Kremlin allows the murderous status quo to fester. It may no longer be far-fetched to imagine the day when the fighters of the Caucasus Emirate link up with their jihadi allies in Central Asia, turning much of the southern rim of the former Soviet Union into a zone of low-intensity warfare that will destroy political dreams and reputations from Moscow all the way to Washington.