The new Emir of the self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate (CE), located in Russia’s North Caucasus region, is making changes to the modus operandi of the organization. Ali Abu Muhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov) was originally appointed as qadi, or senior Islamic judge, in October 2010. After the death of Doku Umarov in September 2013, the group appointed Abu Muhammad as Emir in March 2014 (apparently, it had taken the group some time to confirm the death of Umarov). In recent media releases, Abu Muhammad has given notice of a number of new policies, and provided official comment on several pressing issues for the insurgency.
In one of his earlier releases, Abu Muhammad calls on fighters to engage in the conflict on a political, economic, and informational front – not just the military one. In relation to this, he admits that the insurgency cannot simply take every person who wants to join, especially those who are not physically fit. He has asked aspiring fighters not to attempt to make their way out into the mountains to try and find the insurgents, as employing anyone who wants to join in a military role often does not make good use of a person. Instead, aspiring insurgents should be used according to their own talents, allowing them to labour intelligently for the cause.
In other releases he argues against the use of suicide bombing operations. Interestingly, while he argues that such acts should be kept to a minimum (or not used at all), he acknowledges that certain targets would be hard to hit without such tactics. His argument however appears to rest on tactical, rather than ideological grounds. He does not claim that it is morally wrong to conduct these attacks, but rather that CE’s fighters should not be traded for the lives of Russian security personnel if there is a way to avoid it. His opposition to this tactic is particularly strong in regards to the use of female suicide bombers. He asks that women not be used, and exhorts women who find themselves surrounded by security forces to give themselves up. This is true especially of those with children, arguing that these children need to be brought up by proper Muslims (i.e. those who support CE), rather than the authorities. Similarly, he has urged male fighters to surrender in such circumstances as well.
Abu Muhammad has also spoken out against attacks on soft targets, namely civilians. In relation to this, CE’s leader has declared that the organization does not want to engage in conflict with Sufi Muslims in the North Caucasus, as they are not enemies. He has stated that he would only attack those people who supported the authorities against the insurgents. This moratorium on attacking civilian targets is not new however, as previous CE leader Doku Umarov had also suspended terror attacks against civilians in 2012. This original order was rescinded approximately one year later. Umarov’s suspension of civilians as a legitimate target, as ephemeral as it may have been, is perhaps indicative of Abu Muhammad’s influence on Umarov during his time spent as qadi. Many of the most spectacular (and infamous) attacks carried out by the insurgents were against civilian targets. For more than a decade, the insurgency had made a conscious effort to use fear as their weapon of choice against the civilian population, hoping the resulting pressure would force the Russian government to accede to their demands. Instead, it has only provoked a seemingly unending security response. Now that Abu Muhammad is in power, this may become a more permanent feature of the insurgency.
Finally, Abu Muhammad has also argued against fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq to take part in the conflict there. He has argued that even though Russian authorities do not allow them to practice their religion properly, there is no country in the world that has properly implemented Shari’ah law. Therefore, they should stay home and fight to implement it in the North Caucasus.
These positions are of strategic consequence. First and foremost, they indicate that CE is intent on becoming a more sophisticated organization. The emphasis on increasing the non-military capabilities of the group suggest a return to the days of the nationalist-led insurgency (i.e. the First Russo-Chechen War, circa the mid-1990s), in which political action and information operations played a much larger role, and contributed a great deal to the insurgent’s success at the time. Second, it suggests that CE may have entered a re-constitution phase. The channeling of aspiring insurgents into less visible roles, the admonition against suicide bombings, the exhortations to surrender if there is no way out, and the call for insurgents to remain in the North Caucasus: Abu Muhammad is not only trying to preserve current human capital, but to increase it over time. His stance on female suicide bombers is particularly revealing in this respect. Ideologically indoctrinated women can raise the next generation of fighters. Again, this is all seems less about ideological convictions and more about making intelligent decisions. Finally, Abu Muhammad’s decision not to specifically target civilians is an abrupt change from what has been a longstanding insurgent practice. In conjunction with the peace overtures to the Sufi majority, it appears CE’s leader is attempting to either bring the Sufis onside, or at least diminish their active support for government forces. If this is indeed the case, the insurgents have a significant task in front of them, as the Russians have been effective in creating a narrative in which the insurgents are un-Islamic outsiders and criminals.
One of the more interesting implications of this shift is the negative impact it could have on intra-insurgency relations with Chechen fighters if and when they return from the fighting in Syria and Iraq. For example, predominantly North Caucasian insurgent groups in Syria have been accused of using suicide tactics, and not just on Assad regime forces, but also on other Islamic rebel factions. Thus, they clearly endorse this tactic. Upon returning to an insurgency that is currently making little, if any progress in achieving its goals, returning fighters may simply defy CE’s Emir. The recent suicide bombing in Grozny, one that killed several Russian security personnel, indicates that there are perhaps already such cleavages within CE, though difficulties with communications between jamaats (fighting units) and upper level leadership may be to blame. Furthermore, Abu Muhammad’s stance on Sufism is in stark contrast to the strict ideological stance that many of the radicalized fighters have adopted in Syria and Iraq, where they have aligned themselves with groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra (an Al-Qaeda affiliate) and Islamic State. Groups such as these, especially Islamic State, have a much less benevolent attitude towards their fellow Muslims, especially if they are not of the variety that adheres to their own puritanical version of Islam.
It will be interesting to see how these pronouncements of Abu Muhammad will play out. His decisions indicate a more measured and sophisticated approach to the conflict, which has the potential to improve the fortunes of a stagnant insurgency. Yet, many of these decisions do not seem to have an ideological basis, but rather are the product of longer-term strategic thinking. If this is the case, herein lays a significant problem which he will somehow have to resolve: Returning fighters are likely to be much more ideologically guided, and differences of opinion on the tactical and strategic levels may create significant intra-insurgency cleavages. If these cleavages occur, the Russians are certain to take advantage.