By Gordon M. Hahn
(first published as “The Boston Marathon Attack and the Caucasus Emirate: One Year After” by Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, 3 February 2014, http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com/tag/caucasus-emirate-ce)
One year ago, the third successful jihadi terrorist attack to take place on U.S. territory hit Boston, Massachusetts, when two Dagestani-Chechen immigrants from Russia detonated home-made IEDs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Some immediate reaction conjectured that this was the handiwork of home-grown, conservative Americans who decided to protest tax day by killing three and wounding more than two hundred fellow Americans.
It soon emerged, however, that Tamerlan and Jokhar Tsarnaev had acted under the influence of the global jihadi revolutionary movement, their resentment of Russian efforts to quell jihadi fighters in their native Dagestan and Chechnya, and jihad propaganda they imbibed on the websites of the North Caucasus-based global jihadi group called the Caucasus Emirate (CE).
With the death of amir Dokku ‘Abu Usman’ Umarov – confirmed both by Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee and the CE’s new amir Sheikh Ali Abu Muhammad ad-Dagistani (born Aliaskhab Alibulatovich Kebekov) – the CE enters a new era. What is the state of the CE today and how might it evolve under Sheikh Dagistani?
Weathering the Umarov Succession
Despite criticism of Umarov’s leadership from Western observers and even some CE amirs (recall the August 2010, temporary albeit, CE-NVsplit) and claims by the former that the CE is not really a united organization and terrorism in the region is driven excusively by local issues and nationalism, the development of the succession post-Umarov demonstrates quite the opposite.
The organization has not withered but rather it has weathered easily the succession without any crisis, as far as we know. Loyalty oaths or ‘bayats’ to the new amir have been given by the top amir of two of the CE’s four vilaiyats: Galgaiche (Ingushetiya) Vilaiyat (GV) amir Abdullah and, most importantly, amir Hamzat (born Aslan Byutukaev). Byutukaev was a close associate of Umarov, serving simultaneously as his naib in Umarov’s other position as amir of the CE’s Chechnya network, the ‘Nokchicho Vilaiyat’ (NV), the CE’s military amir, and the amir of the suicide bombing brigade, the notorious ‘Riyadus-Salikhiin Martyrs Brigade.’ Byutukaev now replaces Umarov as NV amir, marking another point of continuity and stability within the CE. Many lower level amirs and mujahedin from the CE’s other two vilaiyats have done the same. The bayat from the DV amir Abu Muhammad (born Rustam Asildarov), a close associate of CE amir Dagistani, is sure to come. The amir of CE’s ‘United Vilaiyat of Kabardiya, Balkariya and Karachai (OVKBK), which covers Russia’s North Caucasus republics of Kabardino-Balkariya and Karachaevo-Cherkessiya, was recently killed, which makes its bayat statement difficult to come by, being dependent on the appointment of a new amir.
In some ways this new era or at least its ‘pre-history’ began years ago, when the ‘Dagestan Vilaiyat’ (DV) – the CE’s network in Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Dagestan – took the lead in the number of attacks carried out monthly for the first and has never relinquished it. Indeed, from April 2010 through 2013 the DV has been the CE’s spearhead, with Dagestan seeing approximately 70 percent of the CE’s some 1,700 attacks and violent incidents in Russia and the DV carrying out more than half of the suicide bombing attacks during the same period, including those outside the North Caucasus. Because of the DV’s pre-eminence within the DV, as I wrote several years ago, Umarov’s successor was bound to be a Dagestani from the DV, and so he is.
CE amir Dagistani is an ethnic Avar and hails from the DV and Dagestan. He was born on January 1, 1972 in the ethnic Avar-dominated village of Teletel (Teletl’) in Dagestan’s Shamil District in the heart of the DV’s Mountain Sector (one of 4 main DV sectors). The Avars produced two of the top three Shari’a law-oriented Sufi imams who led the resistance to Russia’s colonization of the North Caucasus in the mid- to late 19th century, including most notably imam Shamil, after whom Dagistani’s native district is named.
In 1996, Dagistani was fined some $15,000 for producing alcohol without a license. It is not clear when he ‘went to the forest’ (joined the jihad), and his early years in the CE remain in the dark. But by at least early fall 2010 he was appointed the DV’s Shari’a court qadi. Within weeks or at most months he was promoted by Umarov to the position of the CE Shari’a court qadi, making him the top theological and ideological authority in the organization.
Sheikh Dagistani is likely to bring change to the CE if only in order to leave his mark on the organization. It is very possible he will push it even a more radical direction, given his deeper religious roots. Sheikh Dagestani’s rise also marks the culmination of the CE’s theo-ideological and strategic jihadization. As the CE’s qadi, Dagestani was the CE’s chief theologian and ideologist, charged with ensuring the compliance of Umarov’s and other amirs’ actions with the Koran and the Sunna. Therefore, he was at the forefront of strengthening Islamist knowledge among the CE mujahedin. In a hundred or more video lectures, ad-Dagestani exhibits superb knowledge of the Koran, the Sunna, and the Arabic language, unlike his predecessor. His video lectures are replete with Koranic citations delivered in Arabic with the appropriate musical-style recitation and elongated vowel inflection. His first statement after that announcing his succession of Umarov was delivered entirely in Arabic to the CE mujahedin fighting in Syria.
In July 2011 Sheikh Dagistani new amir publicly endorsed AQ’s and the global jihadi revolutionary movement’s goal of creating a global caliphate, noting: “We are doing everything possible to build the Caliphate and prepare the ground for this to the extent of our capabilities.” In his first theo-ideological lecture after becoming amir he said: “O Allah, punish the Jews, Americans, Russians, Iran and Bashar Assad, their followers and helpers from among the apostates and tyrants, and all the criminals.”
Thus, any shift in CE tactics, strategy and/or sub-goals under Dagistani’s leadership will not supplant the goals of building the global caliphate and its affiliate in the North Caucasus, the Caucasus Emirate. However, the more religiously-steeped Dagestani, who will surely seek to leave his mark not only on the CE but also on the global jihad, could turn to even greater reliance on suicide bombings, mass casualty attacks, and joint operations with foreign jihadi groups perhaps beyond Russia’s borders as ways of compensating for lost capacity and maintaining a higher profile given the drain of potency to Syria. He may also change strategy by trying to expand operations more aggressively into the predominantly ethnic Russian North Caucasus regions of Stavropol, Krasnodar, and Rostov and to Volga Tatar regions as an ethnic and cultural bridge to the Crimean Tatars.
Sheikh Dagistani faces several challenges: First is reinvigorating the CE’s non-Dagestan networks. They have been decimated by the exodus of fighters to Syria and their respective republic administrations’ different counter-terrorism approaches – Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s scorched earth brutality and Ingushetiya President Yunus bek Yevkurov’s surgical use of force, effective use of amnesties, and other outreach programs to both the jihadi and secular opposition elements. Umarov was the amir of the Chechen network as well as of the CE as a whole and had been close to the Ingush since the ChRI days. His absence complicates the survival of these networks, and Sheikh Dagestani will need to find effective, charismatic amirs to invigorate them.
A second is to maintain a balance of power among sometimes competing CE networks and ethnic groups. The DV’s operational dominance along with the ethnic Avar Dagestani’s assumption of the amir’s position could alienate other vilaiyats and associated ethnic groups, especially Chechnya’s Nokchicho Vilaiyat. The CE is becoming an almost entirely Dagestani operation. Dagestan includes tens of Muslim ethnic groups. However, except for Chechens, none of them exists in the republics upon which the CE’s other non-Dagestani networks are based. Dagistani would do well to appoint as his replacement as CE qadi a Chechen or a representative from one of the three other CE vilaiyats other than the DV and their ethnic groups. Another way to override ethnic-driven competition is to heighten the call and appeal of radical Salafism, which strictly subordinates ethnic identity to religious identity.
But most important is dealing with the emigration or ‘hijra’ of CE mujahedin and other NC militants to Syria and its debilitating effects on the CE. Since the emigration began in 2011, the number of insurgent and terrorist attacks in Russia (99 percent of them in the North Caucasus) has declined steadily. By my own estimate there were 583 in 2010, 546 in 2011, 465 in 2012, and 439 in 2013. According to IK-affiliated figures, in the second Arabic month of 2014, the decline in the number of attacks in Russia reached a nadir, declining to 10 from 31 during the same period in 2013. This and IK Umarov’s death late last year go a long way towards explaining the IK’s failure to attack the February-March Sochi Winter Olympic and Para-Olympic Games, despite its leaders’ many threats going back many years to do so. Because of the exodus of its mujahedin to Syria, I suspect that this year the CE will suffer its lowest annual tally of attacks since its inception in 2007.
Moreover, there is the danger of a disaster for the CE in Syria. In a major route of the jihadis by Syrian forces, the bulk of its fighters could be wiped, or CE mujahedin may be so discouraged by the divisions and bloodshed between jihadi groups that they abandon both their caliphate and emirate dreams.
However, the exodus of CE fighters and other North Caucasus Islamists to Syria presents potential opportunities and plusses for the CE, but Sheikh Dagistani will need to take advantage of them. The important leadership and combat role among the foreign mujahedin in Syria played by CE amirs and related groups – such Tarkhan Batirashvili, now military amir of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Jeish Muhajirin va-Ansar, Jund al-Sham, and the Caucasus Emirate in Sham – is leading to deeper CE and North Caucasian mujahedin involvement in the global jihad revolutionary movement and their dispatch to its various fronts. For example, Chechens fighting in Syria were reported to be among a flood of extremists, including also Egyptians, Tunisians, and Syrians, heading to the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon Lebanon and joining the Abdallah Azzam Brigades’ Ziad Jarrah Brigades and Lebanon’s Jund al-Sham in order to carry out attacks in Beirut, the Bekaa valley, and Tripoli.
The exodus to Syria raises a possibility of a more closely linked Eurasian network of jihadi organizations with a second pillar after the CE in the North Caucasus becoming Central Asia and its various jihadi groups. There are significant numbers of Central Asian mujahedin who have arrived in Syria from the homelands and from AfPak, where a series of Central Asian jihadi organizations – the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, Tajikistan’s ‘Jamaat Ansarullah’, and Kazakhstan’s ‘Jund al-Khalifat’ – are on their own hijra in AfPak. The CE and these groups already exchange personnel, including the travel of North Caucasians to these AQ-tied groups’ training camps in AfPak, as well as video propaganda messages for mutual support. More recently, a group calling itself the ‘Imarat Kavkaz in Khorosan’ and its amir Abdullah announced their presence somewhere in AfPak.
Dagistani also might revisit the CE’s efforts on the Azerbaijan front to its south. Azerbaijan is increasingly vulnerable to jihadi terrorist activity given its geographical proximity to Turkey, Syria and Iraq and its use as a travel route by militants traveling to and from the Syrian and North Caucasus/Russian jihadi fronts. The CE already attempted a major plot in Azerbaijan in 2012. Azerbaijan also has been plagued, if rarely, by jihadi terrorist attacks and CE incursions into its northern regions in the past.
The CE might also see a Russian state somewhat less capacious given the prospects of increasing Western sanctions and a deepening of the crisis in Ukraine. This would especially be the case should Russian find itself embroiled in a war with Ukraine and perhaps others or burdened with supporting the Russian resistance in an Ukrainian civil war.
This could be further compounded by the emergence of a Crimean Tatar movement in reststance to Russian rule in Crimea. Here, the fact that the naib to the amir Salahuddin of one of the four CE-affiliated groups fighting in Syria, the Caucasus Emirate in Sham (Syria), is apparently a Crimean Tatar with the jihadi nom de guerre Abdul Karim Krymskii, who could help the CE undertake efforts to begin jihadi operations in Crimea.
In sum, a new era of limited capacity at home and new opportunities abroad present the CE and Sheikh Dagistani with a suggested direction on how to proceed further. The dilemma lies in any turn deeper invlolvement of CE abroad risks further weakening the CE jihad at home. Regardless, new amir Sheikh Dagestani’s theo-ideological record suggests that his response to the challenges and opportunities presented to him will be no less radical than his predecessor’s were when Umarov abandoned the extremist Chechen separatists’ more nationalist project and founded the purely global jihadist-oriented CE. Either way, through influence or involvement in foreign operations the U.S. is likely to hear from the CE again just as it did one year ago in Boston.
 For both the Russian-language transcript and Arab-language video, see “Amir IK Ali Abu Mukhammad: Poslanie s sovetom mudzhakhidami Shama VIDEO,” Kavkaz tsentr, 20 March 2014, www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2014/03/20/103638.shtml. The Arab-language video is also at VDagestan.com, http://dagestan.com/obrashhenie-amira-ik-k-bratyam-v-sirii.djihad.
 “Stennogramma video: Kadii IK Abu Mukhammad – ‘Otvety na voprosy’ – 1 chast’,” Guraba.info, 8 July 2011, 00:18, http://guraba.info/2011-02-27-17-59-21/30-video/1117–i-q-q-1-.html and VDagestan.info, 8 July 2011, http://vdagestan.info/2011/07/08/%d0%ba%d0%b0%d0%b4%d0%b8%d0%b9-%d0%b8%d0%ba-%d0%b0%d0%b1%d1%83-%d0%bc%d1%83%d1%85i%d0%b0%d0%bc%d0%bc%d0%b0%d0%b4-%d0%be%d1%82%d0%b2%d0%b5%d1%82%d1%8b-%d0%bd%d0%b0-%d0%b2%d0%be%d0%bf%d1%80%d0%be/.
 “Amir IK Ali Abu Mukhammad: ‘Prichiny unizheniya etoi Ummy (VIDEO),” VDagestan.com, 22 March 2014, http://vdagestan.com/amir-imarata-kavkaz-ali-abu-muxammad-prichiny-unizheniya-etoj-ummy-video.djihad.
 Compare the CE’s own data for those Arabic calendar months in 2013 and 2014 in “IMARAT KAVKAZ. Svodka boevikh operatsii modzhakhedov za mesyats rabbi as-sanii 1434 goda po khidzhre (12 fevralya – 12 marta 2013 g.),” Umma News, 13 March 2013, http://ummanews.com/news/kavkaz/10099————1434—-12—12–2013-.html and “Svodka Dzhikhada za mesyats Rabi as-Sani 1435 g. kh. (02.02.2014 – 02.03.2014g.),” Kavkaz tsentr, 10 March 2013, http://www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2014/03/10/103490.shtml, respectively.
 Linda Lundquist, “Extremists, including Chechens, Egyptians, Tunisians, and Syrians, are reportedly flocking to the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp,” Long War Journal, 8 February 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/today-in/2014/02/security_forces_in_zahle_detai.php.
 “Obrashchenie Amira mudzhakhidov Imarata Kavkaz Abdullakha k mudzhakhidam Kavkaza i musul’manam Rossii,” Kavkaz tsentr, 20 March 2014, http://www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2014/03/20/103616.shtml.
 For details of the Azerbaijan plot, see Gordon M. Hahn, Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report (from here on cited as IIPER), Nos. 56 and 58, http://csis.org/files/publication/120507_Hahn_IIPER_56.pdf and http://csis.org/files/publication/120621_Hahn_IIPER_58.pdf.