Staunton, August 3 – The decision of Doku Umarov to hand over the leadership of the Caucasus Emirate to Aslanbek Vadalov this past weekend reinforces the continuing shift from nationalism to Islamism as the primary motivating force among the anti-Russian underground, according to Sergey Markedonov.
In an essay posted online today, Markedonov, one of Russia’s leading commentators on the North Caucasus and currently a visiting fellow at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues that this change in rebel leadership does not represent a change in the direction the militants have been moving for some time (www.politcom.ru/10517.html).
And that trend, he continues, signals that the new generation of militants is ever less willing to enter into any conversation with Moscow or the West and thus represents a greater threat especially because now “the problems of the region cannot be solved without broader political changes” in Russia itself.
In order to understand what is likely to happen next, Markedonov says, it is important to begin with a recognition of Umarov’s role in putting an end or at least a long pause “in the history of the Chechen separatist project” and the transformation of the militants in the North Caucasus in an Islamist direction.
Although he became president of the Chechen Republic-Ichkeria after the death of Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, Umarov was a different and much more radical militant leader than most of his Chechen colleagues. On the one hand, he began “his path to separatism” “not from the military” as Dzhokhar Dudayev had or from the university but from brushes with the law.
And on the other – again in contrast to Dudayev – he attracted attention less by his military prowess than by kidnapping people and very publically executing Russian soldiers and militiamen and by criticizing other Chechens who were not prepared to be as radical and violent as he.
In 1998, for example, he “promised publically to struggle with [Aslan] Maskhadov if the latter decided to conduct negotiations and reach compromises with the Kremlin.” And in the ensuing two years, before the start of the second post-Soviet Chechen war, Umarov began his shift away from nationalism to Islamism.
Umarov’s new approach was signaled by his “liquidation of ‘the Chechen Republic-Ichkeria’ and the proclamation of the Caucasus Emirate,” by his affirmation of the links between “the North Caucasus jihadists and the global Islamist project,” and by Umarov’s “’sentencing’” of Akhmed Zakayev, who represented the secular nationalist Chechen movement in emigration.
Although Umarov lacks even the basic Islamic education that Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups consider necessary for “the mujahid of the future,” he nonetheless over the last three years “acquired the reputation as the most well-known and most brutal North Caucasus Islamist.”
That is because, Markedonov says, “for Umarov Islamism is in the first instance a manifestation of his political radicalism,” a demonstration that a return to Russia cannot take place” and that there “cannot be any negotiations or compromises” with Moscow or any contacts with the West.
Consequently, it is possible to say that Umarov “was that figure which bid farewell to nationalism at the symbolic level” and “made possible the acceleration of the transformation of the anti-government movement in the North Caucasus,” eliminating “slogans of struggle for secession and the creation of a particular nation state” in favor of struggles against “unbelievers.”
To that end, the Moscow analyst continues, “Umarov has educated” a new generation “for whom jihad is already not a political technique but a way of thinking and life.” More than that, this approach means that his replacement by Vadalov does not mean as much as it would otherwise.
That is because, Markedonov continues, “for this group of young people, Russia and its culture (in the broadest sense of this word) is much more distance than it was [even] for Umarov.” And that holds true also for the relationship of these younger North Caucasians to the West as well.
And it is also because, he says, that the Caucasus Emirate “does not recall the Central Committee of the CPSU or any other vertically constructed system of power.” Instead, it is “a diversionary-terrorist network, where the emirs of greater or smaller caliber carry out their struggle often without direct orders from ‘the secretary general of the terrorists.”
Given that, “one should not exaggerate the importance of the change of persons on the terrorist Olympus.” The new man, like Umarov, will seek to “show the Emirate as a powerful state within a state, capable of strategic opposition to ‘the infidels.’” And it will attract people with various “motives” for participating in a jihad.
Vadalov lacks the authority among these people that Umarov had, but “for a netw3ork structure, the figure of ‘the first person’ is not so important.” And if Russia is able to “liquidate” Vadalov, there will be no reason for Moscow to launch the kind of “powerful information campaign as was the case with Maskhadov or Basayev.”
But Vadalov’s appointment, Markedonov says, does lead to two conclusions. On the one hand, it highlights that the radicals are not becoming young just in age but also in terms of “the ideological baggage” that they carry. For them now, jihad is not a tactic but a profound commitment.
And on the other, his becoming emir means that the Emirate as an organization is less concerned with having “prominent” figures at the top than about maintaining “reliable links in the network,” a shift that promises more problems ahead for Moscow unless it finally focuses on the true nature of those opposing it and the shortcomings of Russian strategy to date.