Ali Abu Mukhammad: The Emir who Wasn’t There?

On 18 March 2014 it was officially announced that Caucasus Emirate (CE) emir Dokku Umarov had been martyred, and that a successor had been named. The announcement, made by CE-linked website Kavkaz Center, took many by surprise when they named Aliaskhab Kebekov as new emir. Before his appointment, Kebekov – now known as Ali Abu Mukhammad – was Qadi of CE. Prior to 2010, little is known about Abu Mukhammad and little has been released since. So what is known about Emir Ali Abu Mukhammad al-Dagestani, and does he have what it takes to lead the Emirate?

Abu Mukhammad was born in 1972 in the Shamilsky District of Dagestan in Teletl. It was during his time at university that he really began to study Arabic, the Qur’an and Islam from several sheikhs. He even went to university briefly at Abu Nour Institute and at Ahmed Kuftaro University, both in Syria. After university, Abu Mukhammad returned to Dagestan where he began working at a local madrasa. It was at this madrasa that Abu Mukhammad met other Dagestani mujahideen. Through them he met Dagestani Emir Seyfullakh, who ultimately appointed him qadi of Dagestan. After Seyfullakh was killed, Umarov chose Abu Mukhammad as qadi of IK in 2010.

Abu Mukhammad had a bit of a criminal past prior to becoming qadi. Some of his known crimes are a conviction for selling homemade alcohol in 1996, and ordering the murder of Said Afandi al-Chirkavi, a well-known Sufi sheikh in Dagestan. In April 2012 he was put on Russia’s federal most-wanted list for participating in the “creation of an armed formation…as well as leadership in such a formation or its financing.” It’s unknown his exact role, but it’s thought that he led an insurgent group prior to becoming qadi. After being appointed, Abu Mukhammad did take part in an operation near Gimry (in Dagestan) in April 2013. His background, however, is more ideological than tactical.

Since his appointment, he has been mostly quiet, issuing basically one “major” statement in regards to the direction of CE. Although he has the allegiance of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, a Chechen-based Islamist group fighting in Syria, Abu Mukhammad has already announced he does not approve of fighting abroad and prefers the mujahideen to continue their fight in the Caucasus. He has also announced his disapproval of suicide bombers, especially women. While he takes this more moderate stance now, he is thought to have been behind an attack in August 2012 in which a woman blew herself up, killing a prominent Dagestani Sufi leader. The 4 December attack in Grozny is more an example Abu Mukhammad’s ideas in practice. The attackers didn’t target civilians, but law enforcement. His statement caused some concern with other networks, which approve of any means to gain independence and establish a caliphate. Since then he has been largely quiet; even the CE propaganda site, Kavkaz Center, has posted very little by Abu Mukhammad.

It has yet to be seen how long Ali Abu Mukhammad will last as emir. That it took several months for him to named emir indicates there may be some internal problems in CE. He is the first non-Chechen to become emir. It was even thought that Aslambek Vadalov may be appointed emir. Since the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, many groups within CE and neighboring Dagestan have split alliances, some pledging to IS, others saying an oath to support al Qaeda-linked factions. The Dagestani network, easily the most active, recently pledged their loyalty to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This may all be an indication of a shift in tactics in the Caucasus. The insurgency is far from dead in the Caucasus. Skirmishes happen frequently, but since the Chechen Wars, the crackdown on terrorists in Chechnya has been severe so that makes for attacks in Dagestan easier. If more networks switch allegiances away from the Caucasus Emirate and align themselves with the Islamic State, Abu Mukhammad’s authority as Emir could be called into question. He needs to show that he can be a leader and convince the fighters to swear to the Caucasus Emirate, the CE of Emir Dokku Umarov, especially if he now has to compete with not only networks in the Caucasus but also with the ideology of the Islamic State.

Currently, the ranks of the Caucasus insurgency are thin, due to the two Chechen Wars and the ongoing effort by Chechen and Russian security forces to eliminate the threat. The real fight may not be back to the Caucasus for some time, but there are still Caucasians fighting in Syria and Iraq, as well as Chechen diaporas in Germany, Austria and Turkey, to name a few. There have been plenty of signs of radicalization in these diasporas. If Ali Abu Mukhammad doesn’t want to risk losing these to Islamic State, he needs to speak up, and fast.

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The Attack in Grozny: a Resurgent Insurgency?

After the 4 December attack on Grozny, the question was asked whether this was the beginning of a new insurgency by the Caucasus Emirate or a one-off attack. The answer may in fact be both. The insurgency in the Caucasus has never gone away. Skirmishes still happen, and Russian and Chechen anti-terror units are still “neutralizing” terrorists.

The real question that needs to be asked is why. Why did the Emirate choose that time to launch the attack? The timing is curious. The attack happened right before President Vladimir Putin’s annual address to Russia. Defying Putin on a national level certainly sends the message that the insurgency is still a force in the Caucasus. This line of thinking was even mentioned in one of the statements posted by Emirate propaganda site, Kavkaz Center. If that were truly the case, though, why didn’t they launch any attacks during the Sochi Olympics, when the whole world was watching? That would have been an opportunity to promote their cause of an independent Chechnya to a worldwide audience. But is that the message they are really trying to send? Instead of sending a message to the world they are likely sending a message to Russia that they are still a threat and will remain so regardless of any counter measures taken by Russia to put down the insurgency.

Another theory bandied about was the attack coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the First Chechen War, which began on 11 December 1994. The attack didn’t happen on the anniversary itself, but near enough to cause some to wonder. Beyond quiet local commemorations, there were no ceremonies marking the anniversary. There have also been no mentions of the anniversary in any messages sent out by the Emirate. The anniversary is was probably not a reason for the attack but taking advantage of Russia’s occupation with the war in Ukraine, as well as Russia’s economic woes, may have played a role. Russia is fighting a proxy war in east Ukraine, providing military support for the separatists there. At the same time, Russia is dealing with a rouble that is freefall.

It is also possible the Caucasus Emirate is also feeling encouraged and emboldened by the success of another: the Islamic State (ISIL). The Caucasus Emirate has seen hundreds of fighters from the region make their way to Syria and Iraq, finding success on the battlefield and gaining a sort of celebrity along the way. Caucasus fighters have gained a reputation of being fearless, strong, and devoted to the cause. From the Caucasus the Emirate has watched ISIL capture an incredible amount of territory and establish a (self-proclaimed) caliphate, both of which the Caucasus Emirate would like to see at home. In the aftermath of the attack, the Emirate released another statement on Kavkaz Center that varied slightly from the first, saying the attack was in retaliation for Russian oppression. Another post, addressed to the Mujahideen involved in the attack, commands them to “Bring back your land, bring back your religion, bring back your honor. Establish the Sharia of Allah on your land. Do not live under the law of infidels.”

It’s unlikely the Caucasus Emirate could do anything close to what IS has pulled off in Syria and Iraq. First, they lack the manpower. Of those who were not killed in the two Chechen Wars, many who would fight have either migrated out of the country or have traveled to fight with IS. This has weakened the Emirate. Second, despite the collapsing economy and proxy war in Ukraine, Russia will take steps to quash any uprising in the North Caucasus. Every time there’s been a major attack, Russia has retaliated, many times brutally. One cannot forget the actions at Nord-Ost or Beslan. There are less dramatic anti-terror operations almost daily in Chechnya and Dagestan. Sweeping raids of Salafist mosques, arrests, and even murders of anyone thought to be involved with the insurgency happen regularly by Russian FSB and Chechen police, under the command of Chechen leader (and Kremlin figurehead) Ramzan Kadyrov. in fact, in response to the 4 December attack in Grozny, Kadyrov vowed to destroy the homes of those involved – including their families – and drive them out of Chechnya.

Will there be more attacks in the Caucasus. Definitely. The Caucasus Emirate will continue their fight until they establish a Caucasian Caliphate or get neutralized completely. The most likely scenario is somewhere in the middle. There will be no end to the Russians trying to eliminate the insurgency altogether, but this is an ideology that has existed for centuries in various forms of sincerity. And given the ties to the fight in Syria and Iraq (the Caucasus Emirate supports al Nusra Front, which includes many Caucasian fighters), there is the potential for this conflict to grow in coming years as those fighters return home. In short, this is a conflict that is not going away any time soon, and its participants will take every opportunity to prove it.

Killing the Dissidents

Recently, Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov made the (erroneous) claim on his Instagram account* that prominent ISIL fighter Omar al Shishani had been killed. While Kadyrov didn’t credit who had supposedly killed al Shishani, he did take great pleasure in reporting it. Kadyrov sees al Shishani as somewhat a threat to his control of Chechnya, not only because of al Shishani’s repeated calls to bring jihad back to the Caucasus but also because of al Shishani’s popularity among Kadyrov’s opposition. Kadyrov may not be able to get to al Shishani in Syria, outside a war of words, but he can – and has – gotten to many other dissidents outside of Chechnya. And it’s not just Kadyrov. His handlers in the Kremlin are still making good on their promise to hunt down the terrorists.

Since the end of the Chechen Wars, there have been a number of Chechens who have been murdered or at least targeted. The one thing they had in common was their vocal opposition to the Kadyrov and Putin regimes. Many of these assassinations have been attributed to Kadyrov, but Russia has certainly played a hand in several.

One of the most brazen killings happened in Vienna in 2009. In January of that year, Chechen War veteran and former Kadyrov bodyguard Umar Israilov was gunned down in broad daylight in the Austrian capital. Prior to living in exile in Vienna, Israilov fought against Russian in the Second Chechen War. He was captured in 2003 and was eventually made to be Kadyrov’s bodyguard. It was from this vantage that Israilov could see much of the inner workings of the Kadyrov regime. There was a falling out, and Israilov fled to Poland then to Austria. It was then that he first filed complaints with the European Court of Human Rights, alleging he had been tortured by the Kadyrov regime. It wasn’t the first time these allegations have been made regarding Kadyrov, but it was the first time they came from someone who had been so close. In the summer before Israilov was killed, a Chechen going by the name Artur Kurmakayev visited Israilov and allegedly showed him a list of several hundred Chechens targeted by Kadyrov. Israilov’s father, who passed on the story of the visiting Chechen, claimed the man told Israilov that he would be on the list if he continued speaking out against Kadyrov. Seven months later, Umar Israilov came home from shopping to find two men waiting at his flat. He ran, but was caught in an alley and shot twice in the head. One man was detained in connection to the shooting; a Chechen living under the name “Otto Kaltenbrunner” was held as the driver of the getaway car. The surveillance and clean kill had the hallmarks of a professional job. In a city filled with intrigue and nefarious characters, a city where the authorities don’t want to be bothered, this murder made them take notice.

Another Chechen who once had ties to Kadyrov met this fate in Dubai earlier in 2009. Sulim Yamadayev once commanded the Russian-backed Vostok Battalion during the Wars and even into South Ossetia during the conflict with Georgia. His popularity as commander swelled so much during the conflict that Kadyrov began to see him as a rival. A run-in between Vostok Battalion and Kadyrov’s motorcade, involving the exchange of gunfire, proved to be the beginning of the end for Yamadayev. He was stripped of his command and even charged with crimes including kidnapping and murder. He reportedly left Russia in 2008. The following year he was shot three times in a car park in Dubai. Interpol issued a notice for three Russians in connection with the murder.

Sulim Yamadayev should have known the fate that awaited those who fall out of favor with Kadyrov. In September 2008 his brother Ruslan was killed on the streets in Moscow. Ruslan, a former State Duma member, was shot while stopped at a red light in Moscow. The Yamadayevs are from a powerful clan, and Ruslan was a major political rival of Kadyrov’s. Ruslan had fought against the Russians during the First Chechen War but switched sides in 1999. For his actions he was even given the title of Hero of the Russian Federation. When Dmitri Medvedev was elected President, there were rumors that he would replace Kadyrov, possibly with Ruslan Yamadayev. These rumors fueled Kadyrov’s animosity toward Ruslan.

The assassinations of Israilov and the Yamadayevs were but three in a string of Chechens who have been killed abroad following the Chechen Wars. As far back as at least 2004, Chechen dissidents have been meeting their deaths at the hands of killers tracing back to Kadyrov’s regime and even the FSB.

The onetime acting president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was killed in Qatar in 2004. Yandarbiyev was a proponent of an independent Islamic republic of Chechnya. President from 1996-1997, he was defeated in the 1997 election for president. Yandarbiyev was then sent to the Gulf as a representative for Chechnya. There he continued to lobby for support for an Islamic republic, pushing a radical interpretation, his relations with the Chechen government grew strained. Russia began warning Gulf States that dealing with Yandarbiyev would be considered an act of hostility, and that Yandarbiyav was backed by al Qaeda. They even submitted to have him extradited back to Russia, to no avail. Then, in February 2004, Yandarbiyev was killed by a car bomb. Two Russian agents were arrested in connection with the bombing. After the assassination, Russian-backed Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov (Ramzan’s father) was quoted as saying Yandarbiyev wouldn’t be missed.

In November 2006, one-time commander of the Gorets unit and former FSB colonel Movladi Baisarov was gunned down on the streets of Moscow. The conflict between Kadyrov and Baisarov began when Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated. The Gorets was disbanded and reassigned to the Chechen Interior Ministry as a special policing group under the command of Ramzan Kadyrov. Baisarov, and much of the unit, refused to be subordinate to Kadyrov, after which Baisarov was charged with kidnapping and murder. Those crimes, along with a previously dropped 2004 charge of murder, were mostly fabricated. Once he resisted Kadyrov, Movladi Baisarov was considered a threat. The Russian government announced federal charges against him, and issued a nationwide search, though he never actually showed up in any database. He was held at least two times on unrelated charges prior to his assassination. On the night of his murder, Baisarov exited his vehicle and approached a group of Chechens on the street, who happened to be members of the Moscow Department to Combat Organized Crime (UBOP). They opened fire, claiming they saw Baisarov with a grenade and claimed he was resisting arrest.

The Chechen diaspora in Istanbul has suffered the most. As of this writing there have been at least six assassinations in the city. The first known happened in December 2008 when a former Chechen commander, Islam Dzhanibekov, was shot. At first it appeared to be just another murder until the murder weapon was revealed to be a 7.62 MSP Groza. This pistol is extremely rare, a highly specialized silenced pistol not available on the open market, and used almost exclusively by FSB for assassinations. That same weapon appeared again with the assassination in February 2009 of Musa Ataev, known as Ali Osaev. Osaev was a fundraiser for the rebels in Chechnya. In that killing, Turkish officials named Temur Makhauri as the suspect. Makhauri, the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) alleged, was an FSB agent who went by the name “Zona.”
In September 2011, three Chechen exiles were killed by a single gunman. Berg-haj Musayev/Amir Khamzat was a known associate of, and fundraiser for, Caucasus Emirate Emir Doku Umarov. Rustam Altemirov was wanted for an alleged involvement in the January 2011 attack on Domodedovo Airport in Moscow. The third victim was an alleged fighter by the name of Zaurbek Amriyev. A Russian MIT named Alexander Kharkov was suspected of killing the three men. A Groza pistol and a counterfeit passport were found in his hotel room. A person by the same name was also in Istanbul when Ali Osaev was assassinated. “Zona” has also been mentioned as an alleged suspect in the murder.

There have even been near misses in the effort to silence the dissidents. Magomed Ocherhadji, the leader of the Chechen community in Norway, was allegedly targeted for assassination. His would-be killer, Ruslan Khalidov, announced in a video that he had been contracted by Ramzan Kadyrov to kill Ocherhadji. He also claimed that he had been blackmailed and tortured to force him to comply with the contract. Instead of killing Ocherhadji, he instead informed him of the plot. Ruslan Khalidov’s fate since then is not known. What is interesting about him is that he is the nephew of Shaa Turlaev, a former presidential advisor and an alleged leader of a Chechen assassination squad charged with targeting Chechen dissidents abroad. Turlaev was said to be in Vienna immediately prior to the killing of Umar Israilov. Despite several other assassination attempts, Turlaev is said to be living openly in Chechnya.

December 11 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the First Chechen-Russo War. Officially the wars are over, but for some the killing has never stopped. The Chechens in exile, the dissidents who dared speak out against Ramzan Kadyrov and his Kremlin handlers still have much to fear. Russian President Vladimir Putin once announced he would wipe out the terrorists “in the outhouse.” Colorful as that was, he means what he says. Russian agents alone and with Chechen government assistance are hunting down the dissidents where they live. Given what’s going on in Ukraine, as well as the continuing insurgency in the Caucasus, crossing Russia and her proxies are ill-advised. Nowhere is safe.

*Kadyrov’s Instagram post has since been deleted.