Sunday, August 15, 2010

Russia’s Retiring Jihadi

It’s a strange story that gets stranger. Two weeks ago, Russia’s most-wanted terrorist, Chechen warlord Doku Umarov announced via the Internet that he was retiring as the leader of the jihad in Russia’s southern Caucasus region, even going so far as to appoint a successor. Late last week Umarov seemed to have a change of heart and announced he was “unretiring” and would now continue in his role as the self-styled “Emir of the Caucasus Emirate.” Just to make things more bizarre, in his second tape Umarov claimed he was in “good health” after saying a week and a half earlier that he was stepping down because of poor health.

Umarov rose from low-level jihadi to become head the Chechen insurgency in 2006. He shifted the movement’s focus from a struggle for independence from Russian rule to participating in the al-Qaeda-inspired global jihad, with the goal of creating a pure fundamentalist Islamic state along Russia’s southern flank. He also claimed responsibility for the highest profile terrorist attacks in Russia in the past five years: the twin suicide bombings of the Moscow subway system in March that killed 39 and the bombing of the Nevsky Express – a luxury, high-speed train linking Moscow and St. Petersburg – in November 2009, which killed 26 (though there is some doubt over Umarov’s claim to this attack).

The Wall Street Journal though reports that Umarov’s retirement/unretirement could signal a divide growing within the Chechen rebel movement. While Umarov came to embrace the idea of global jihad (ironically when Umarov joined the Chechen rebels in the 90s he said he did not even know how to pray properly), others within the movement want to refocus their struggle back from trying to create a Caucasus Emirate and back towards the more modest goal of winning independence for Chechnya. The short-lived successor to Umarov’s role, a militant named Aslambek Vadalov, is believed to represent this more nationalistic wing of the rebel movement.

In recent years the Chechen rebels have been more active in the neighboring Russian republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia than they have in Chechnya itself; thanks in large part to the iron-fisted tactics of the current (and Moscow friendly) Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. In exchange for his loyalty, Moscow has give Kadyrov a generally freehand in running Chechnya. This has included Kadyrov operating his own militia that has been accused by human rights organizations, both inside and outside of Russia, of conducting kidnappings and assassinations of not only alleged militants, but of their families as well (along with anyone else Kadyrov feels is a threat to his rule).
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