Caucasus Emirate Islamism Jihadism North Caucasus Putin Russia

Is Putin Winning His War Against the Caucasus Emirate or is ISIL?


by Gordon M. Hahn


In a recent Moscow Times article (Allison Quinn, “Experts Say Conflict in North Caucasus Waning – But Far From Over,” Moscow Times, 18 February 2015) the reader could be excused for concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin is winning his war against ‘terrorism’ (i.e., jihadism). It is suggested that the Caucasus Emirate (CE) mujahedin might be finished, and the only cause for this alleged result mentioned is the pre-Olympic Games crackdown. It may be true that the CE is finished, but if so it is not clear that it was Putin who defeated it.

It is true, as the article notes, that the number of jihadi attacks and resulting casualties declined precipitously in 2014 from 2013. Indeed, I noted at a hearing in the U.S. Congress last April hearing that 2014 would be the CE’s worst year in terms of inflicting casualties on the hated infidel and that the number of attacks and casualties inflicted might decline by more than 50 percent.[1]

The MT author consulted at least three experts for her article. One is an expert on Islam in Russia and Eurasia. A second is an expert of the North Caucasus and human rights. Neither is an expert on the CE per se. A third, Georgii Englehardt is an expert on the CE. Whether the article’s failure to pinpoint the real cause of the CE’s decline lies with the editors, the author or the comments given by the experts – all of whom I respect and two of which I know – is impossible to know.

The Real Cause of the CE’s ‘Decline’

As I noted in my congressional testimony, numerous articles and my recent book, The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond, the real reason for the CE’s apparent decline is the exodus of thousands of its fighters and potential recruits abroad, mostly to Syria and Iraq. This is reflected in the decline in the number of attacks carried out by CE mujahedin, noted in the MT article only in regards to 2014 compared with 2013. The decline coincided with the growth in the number of CE groups in Syria and Iraq. As noted in The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin, the decline began after 2010’s peak of 583 CE attacks but accelerated in 2012 and has continued ever since. According to my own count there were 546 CE attacks in 2011, but ‘only’ 465 in 2012 and 439 in 2013. My general estimate is that the number of attacks declined by more than 50 percent in 2014 compared with 2013. The downward trend and general correlation with the rise of jihadism in Syria and Iraq can be gleaned also from the fall in the number of suicide bombings in Russia since the CE’s founding in October 2007: 2 in 2008, 16 in 2009, 14 in 2010, 6 in 2011, 8 in both 2012 and 2013, and 1 in 2014.

The year 2012 is the same year that the then and now late CE amir, ‘Abu Usman’ Doku Umarov, dispatched several amirs and an official CE emissary to the Syrian mujahedin. Hundreds and by now several thousand CE mujahedin and other North Caucasus jihadists have followed them in the exodus.

The dispatched amirs first aligned themselves with Jabhat al-Nusra and Al-Qa`ida in Syria. In 2013, one of the amirs sent by Umarov, Umar al-Shishani (born Tarkhan Batirashvili), joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Levant) or ISIS/ISIL; he is now the amir of ISIL’s northern front. There is even a group in Syria that refers to itself as the ‘Caucasus Emirate in Shama (Levant)’ as well as other titles.

Although the number of CE mujahedin were small (perhaps less than 1,000 and 1,500 at most), there were thousands of potential fighters or recruits, whom the CE had not the means to train and equip, as CE amir Umarov acknowledged several times. Thus, the number of CE mujahedin making the jihadist emigration to Iraq, Syria and elsewhere easily exceeds the number of CE mujahedin itself. Moreover, many hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, have already been killed. Many North Caucasus Islamists and others from elsewhere in Russia who went abroad to fight were and are certainly inspired by the CE’s efforts, despite not being able to join because of its lack of resources. But they can be expected to join the CE or the new ISIL-loyal breakaway CE upon their return.

The Return

Batirashvili and other Russian, North Caucasus, and former CE amirs have pledged to bring their jihad back to Russia. However, in December CE amirs controlling as many as 80 percent of the CE fighters to ISIL defected to ISIL taking the loyalty oath to ISIL and its amir and self-declared ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This included the amir of the CE’s most powerful network, its Dagestan network or ‘Dagestan Vilaiyat’ (DV), and the amir of the one of the Chechnya network’s only two fronts. CE amir Ali Abu Muhammad al-Dagistani (born Aliaskhab Kebekov) and the DV’s shariah court qadi Abu Muhammad Usman al-Gimravii (born Magomed Suleimanov) have so far rejected ISIL in favor of Al Qa`ida in the AQ-ISIL dispute and have not joined ISIL. Only one network has reaffirmed its loyalty to CE amir Dagistani, and the fourth network has still not been heard from. Therefore the CE now has a competitor in its homeland: the Caucasus Emirate of the Islamic State (CEIS or CEISIL ).

This means that as mujahedin return from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and AfPak, they most likely will be joining up with CEIS. Thus, we can expect a competition between CE and CEIS that could lead to a rise in the number and brutality of attacks in the North Caucasus and Russia as the return of mujahedin continues.

Therefore, what we are seeing is not so much the CE’s decline, but rather its de-territorialization, globalization, and further evolution. Moreover, we are not witnessing the Putin’s victory over the CE but rather ISIL’s. In other words, the Islamic State, represented by the CEIS, has come to Russia.


[1] Dr. Gordon M. Hahn, Testimony Before the U.S. Congress Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence Hearing “Assessing Terrorism in the Caucasus and the Threat to the Homeland,” 3 April 2014, and and

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