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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