The build-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi has been accompanied by fears of terrorism. In December, two suicide bombings took place in Volgograd, just over 600 miles from Sochi. They were claimed by militants of the Caucasus Emirate, a jihadist group from the region that includes the war-torn province of Chechnya.
In this Insight, ICSR Associate Fellow Dr. Domitilla Sagramoso — a veteran researcher who has conducted fieldwork in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia since 2002 — explains where the Caucasus Emirate comes from, what its leader Doku Umarov wants, and why the conflict won’t be over any time soon.
Who is Doku Umarov?
Doku Umarov succeeded Sheikh Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev as leader of the “Chechen resistance” movement. Sheikh Sadulaev was the religious and ideological godfather of the political programme that Umarov is now pushing for. He was the first Chechen leader to call for an Islamic state across the entire region, and it was he who established the Caucasian Front bringing together small groups — the so-called jamaats — fighting for Islamic rule in places like Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkharia and Dagestan and trying to build a common, united front against Russia and the secular local leaders in the North Caucasus.
Umarov, by contrast, is a fighter first and foremost. You won’t see him writing books about jihad or engaging in discussions about Islamic practices. He’s been part of the movement since the first Chechen War in the 1990s and is hugely respected for his bravery and operational skills. Though he’s not a theologian and wasn’t initially a supporter of Salafi Islam, he turned to Salafi-jihadism and adopted the language of the “global jihad” in the mid-2000s. In 2007, he declared the entire North Caucasus region to be an Islamic emirate to be ruled by a strict form of Sharia law.
Why did he turn to “global jihad”?
For a variety of reasons. First, it reflected a desire to unite all North Caucasian rebel movements under a common banner, inspired by a single ideology — Salafi Islam — which would appeal across ethnic lines. The counter-terrorist campaign by the pro-Russian Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in the mid-2000s had severely strained the Chechen rebels, forcing them to change strategy and operate increasingly beyond Chechnya’s borders. Moreover, through Islam, a connection could be established with the previous North Caucasian colonial wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries against the Russian Empire, which had also been fought in the name of Islam.
Another factor was the ability to attract external support. Umarov was looking at places like Iraq and Afghanistan and how those insurgencies had been embraced by Islamists in all corners of the world. He concluded that by adopting the same language, symbols, and ideology, he would receive the same level of attention, funding and support. Finally, there may have been personal reasons too. Under the influence of foreign fighters and local Salafists, Umarov seems to have converted to a more international jihadist agenda. Whether that’s entirely true or not — and to what extent his conversion was “real” — is, however, hard to judge.
What are the links between al Qaeda and Umarov’s group today?
The Caucasus Emirate is not formally affiliated with al Qaeda, and though some of their latest declarations mention Christians and Jews as their enemies, the rebel movement is not primarily focused on the West — at least for now. This became obvious last year, when it turned out that the Boston bombers were of Chechen origin. Two days later, Umarov’s people released a strong and credible statement saying they had nothing to do with the bombings and weren’t planning to attack the United States.
That said, their ideology and aims are, of course, similar to those of global jihadist networks. They justify violence to topple local rulers who they see as apostates failing to run their countries according to Islamic law. They are keen to establish an Islamic state locally, and they wouldn’t mind similar states existing elsewhere. Indeed, some have joined the rebels in Syria, often on their own accord. Still, Russia remains their strategic priority, and I wouldn’t expect that to change any time soon.
To what extent are they focused on the Sochi Olympics?
Sochi matters for two reasons. On the one hand, it’s an opportunity to get attention for their cause and, also, to humiliate President Putin. Before the attacks in December, the world wasn’t paying much attention to Umarov and his people because their attacks were focused primarily on the North Caucasus. With Volgograd, that’s changed: it’s brought them back to the front pages, and everyone’s talking about them, who they are and what they want.
On the other hand, Sochi isn’t just any place. Over the past year, the fighters in the North Caucasus have consciously adopted the cause of the Circassians, a people who used to live in that area but were mostly forced out by the Russians in the 19th century. Their websites make many references to the Circassian “genocide” and their current plight. Sochi, after all, is part of Doku Umarov’s virtual emirate, and when fighters talk about getting rid of secular, tyrannical rule, that includes all the places where the Olympics are going to be held.
If there is a terrorist attack during the Games, what will be the Russian response?
One would expect an increase in Russian counter-terrorist and counter-insurgent operations in the North Caucasus. But this is nothing new. They’ve been trying to eliminate all these various groups for 15 years. Whether it is going to succeed I am not sure: there’s plenty of sympathy among young people in the region for a separation from Russia, and the economic, social and political situation in all of these Republics is very difficult. During the 2000s, anyone in the North Caucasus associated with expressing Islamic ideas that weren’t officially sanctioned by the local authorities was sent to prison and mistreated, and when they came out they started joining these groups.
Putin has pushed for a form of dialogue between “traditional” Islamic figures and more quietist Salafist groups in Dagestan, and though both groups have managed to reach a common understanding on respect and principles, there are still enough hardened fighters out there who will carry on regardless.
In fact, relations between ethnic Russians and people from the Caucasus who have migrated to the big Russian cities are very tense, and there have been many attacks against them. People in Russia — especially in the cities — are increasingly supporting the idea of complete disengagement from the North Caucasus and an end to economic subsidies for the region. Their slogan is: “Stop Feeding the Caucasus”. Putin, of course, won’t allow that to happen, but it’s clear that there isn’t any easy quick or easy solution.
The questions were asked by ICSR Director Professor Peter Neumann.