Commentary Magazine


Topic: Doku Umarov

Doku Umarov: Dead or Alive?

Major international events hosted by Putin’s Russia have generally been a time of heightened security as the Russian leadership’s drive for prestige has been matched by that of Caucasus-based domestic terrorists, eager to humiliate Putin and draw worldwide attention to their cause. That was the case when Russia hosted the 2006 meeting of the G-8 countries, and it appears to be true as well of the Sochi Olympics, due to begin next month.

A terrorist attack in Volgograd in December set off worries about security at the Olympics. As I wrote last week, Russia’s expulsion of American journalist David Satter might have been prompted by his warning that the Volgograd attack meant attendees in Sochi “are walking into what effectively is a war zone.” In taking credit for the Volgograd attack, Islamist militants added a message to the authorities: “If you hold the Olympics, you’ll get a present from us for all the Muslim blood that’s been spilled.” Even before the video was released, the New York Times reports, American officials went public with their security concerns:

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Major international events hosted by Putin’s Russia have generally been a time of heightened security as the Russian leadership’s drive for prestige has been matched by that of Caucasus-based domestic terrorists, eager to humiliate Putin and draw worldwide attention to their cause. That was the case when Russia hosted the 2006 meeting of the G-8 countries, and it appears to be true as well of the Sochi Olympics, due to begin next month.

A terrorist attack in Volgograd in December set off worries about security at the Olympics. As I wrote last week, Russia’s expulsion of American journalist David Satter might have been prompted by his warning that the Volgograd attack meant attendees in Sochi “are walking into what effectively is a war zone.” In taking credit for the Volgograd attack, Islamist militants added a message to the authorities: “If you hold the Olympics, you’ll get a present from us for all the Muslim blood that’s been spilled.” Even before the video was released, the New York Times reports, American officials went public with their security concerns:

Tensions rose Sunday over security preparations ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, as several congressional leaders expressed concern about Russia’s willingness to share information about terrorist threats, while President Vladimir V. Putin asserted that he would “do whatever it takes” to protect the thousands of visitors arriving soon for the Games. …

Extremists affiliated with Doku Umarov, a former Chechen nationalist leader who now heads a broad Muslim separatist movement and advocates global jihad, have also vowed to disrupt the Games.

Umarov’s name is of particular interest. Before the 2006 G-8 meeting, infamous Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev reportedly initiated plans for an attack. Those plans were disrupted and led to Basayev’s death, turning his hopes to humiliate Putin on the world stage into a public-relations coup for Putin. In its report on Basayev’s death, the Associated Press included a somber warning from journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed soon after:

“If you look at the situation in the North Caucasus, not just in Chechnya, the ranks of the rebel resistance are constantly being replenished,” she said.

Another rebel leader, Doku Umarov, pledged last month that rebels would step up their attacks against Russian forces.

Umarov’s stock continued to rise, declaring himself leader of the breakaway Islamist network the Caucasus Emirate. Yet now, in an eerie echo of 2006, Russian authorities say Umarov has been killed. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty assesses the evidence here. RFERL notes that one strike against the claim is that it would be—again, like in 2006—a major propaganda coup for the Russian authorities, who would presumably seek to play up the news and perhaps even offer proof.

Another strike against the claim is that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has made a habit of pronouncing Umarov dead. Nonetheless, there is evidence backing the claims of Umarov’s death.

Declaring Chechen terrorist leaders’ elimination is something of a national pastime for the Russian security services. They are not always being intentionally misleading, however. A case in point is the former terrorist Salman Raduyev. In its obituary for Raduyev, who died in a Russian prison camp in 2002, Reuters recalled:

Raduyev had survived several assassination attempts. He kept his face, scarred by the numerous attempts on his life, nearly covered by a beard and sunglasses.

Once, when he was widely believed to have been killed, he reappeared with his features so altered that reporters identified him only by his voice.

Raduyev was nicknamed “Titanic” after talk that his face had been reconstructed in a foreign hospital with titanium implants.

That Reuters obituary hints at another reason Putin might be desperate to tamp down talk of security in Sochi. It calls to mind a time when such stories were published in American newspapers—in this case the L.A. Times—and the exploits and fates of Chechen guerrillas were of wider interest than in recent years.

The Chechen “cause” has of course morphed over the years into an Islamist terror center on the ruins of what was a genuine nationalistic liberation/independence movement. Its integration into the global war on terror has sapped it of its mainstream media allure just when, paradoxically, its expanded role in a global movement made it more relevant to consumers of that media. It’s easy to understand, then, why Putin would trumpet the elimination of Umarov—and also why the lack of official fanfare surrounding the announcement has left it open to some skepticism.

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A Russia-Brotherhood Rapprochement?

The New York Times reported last week that Russia finally seemed to be ready to give up on Bashar al-Assad. Russia, the report noted, “was making contingency plans to evacuate its citizens from the country, the Kremlin’s last beachhead in the Middle East.” But in the world of aspiring great power politics, “last beachheads” usually become gateways to the next beachhead. In danger of losing its influence in the region, and aware that Mohamed Morsi’s Egypt isn’t especially picky about his allies, Russia is seeking closer ties with Egypt.

There’s a problem, however. “How come you are asking to have a strong relationship with us while you see [us] as a terrorist group?” Mahmoud Ghozlan recently asked Russia’s ambassador in Cairo. Ghozlan is a spokesman for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood–an organization outlawed as a terrorist group in Russia due to its history of aiding and egging on the Islamist rebels in the North Caucasus. In only the latest example of the Muslim Brotherhood’s newfound respectability on the world stage just by virtue of taking power in Egypt, Russia may let bygones be bygones:

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The New York Times reported last week that Russia finally seemed to be ready to give up on Bashar al-Assad. Russia, the report noted, “was making contingency plans to evacuate its citizens from the country, the Kremlin’s last beachhead in the Middle East.” But in the world of aspiring great power politics, “last beachheads” usually become gateways to the next beachhead. In danger of losing its influence in the region, and aware that Mohamed Morsi’s Egypt isn’t especially picky about his allies, Russia is seeking closer ties with Egypt.

There’s a problem, however. “How come you are asking to have a strong relationship with us while you see [us] as a terrorist group?” Mahmoud Ghozlan recently asked Russia’s ambassador in Cairo. Ghozlan is a spokesman for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood–an organization outlawed as a terrorist group in Russia due to its history of aiding and egging on the Islamist rebels in the North Caucasus. In only the latest example of the Muslim Brotherhood’s newfound respectability on the world stage just by virtue of taking power in Egypt, Russia may let bygones be bygones:

Russia may ease restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood soon to improve relations with Egypt and rebuild influence lost during the Arab Spring revolutions, diplomatic sources say.

The election of President Mohammed Mursi, propelled to power by the Islamist group, offers President Vladimir Putin a chance to improve relations with Cairo that were strained during the long rule of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011.

It’s easy to forget just how seriously Russia takes its ongoing conflict in the Caucasus–in part because Russian officials pretend there is no problem and in part because Western newspapers rarely mention the name of Doku Umarov, though he is a household name in the intelligence and counterterrorism communities. But every so often the world gets a reminder that Umarov’s boys mean business.

Russian officials tend to brush off the threat from the Caucasus Emirate in public in order to deprive the rebels of publicity, but they take the conflict personally. This is especially true of Vladimir Putin, since his prosecution of the Second Chechen War was his dramatic election-year introduction to the Russian people as he prepared to take over for the ailing Boris Yeltsin. Putin’s identity thus was crafted through his response to the Chechen threat.

Leaders in the Muslim world have been sensitive to this. As Ray Takeyh writes in Hidden Iran, the Islamic Republic’s leaders may have proclaimed their loyalty to the Islamic revolution and to oppressed Muslims everywhere, but Russia’s friendship was strategically important to them, and they watched what they said and did in that regard:

The full scope of Iran’s pragmatism became evident during the Chechnya conflict. At a time when the Russian soldiers were indiscriminately massacring Muslim rebels and aggressively suppressing an Islamic insurgency, Iran’s response was a mere statement declaring the issue to be an internal Russian affair. At times, when Russia’s behavior was particularly egregious, Iran’s statements would be harsher. However, Tehran never undertook practical measures such as dispatching aid to the rebels or organizing the Islamic bloc against Moscow’s policy. Given that Iran had calculated that its national interests lay in not excessively antagonizing the Russian Federation, it largely ignored the plight of the Chechens despite the Islamic appeal of their cause.

There is some evidence that Chechen Islamists joined the anti-Assad forces in Syria as well.

Morsi is reportedly expected to make a trip to Moscow next year. Putin’s Russia has not exactly been a constructive partner for the West in the current Mideast strife, nor is it likely to be any more helpful in Egypt. A developing Egypt-Hamas partnership with Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin should continue to disabuse the West of the notion that Morsi intends to be an improvement upon his predecessor, or that fading American influence is anything but a recipe to empower illiberal forces in its place.

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