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.


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