Christmas in Grozny

December 9, 2014
Press Building on fire in Grozny December 4, 2014. Photo by Reuters.

On December 4, hours before Putin was to give a defiant speech about Russia being surrounded by enemies and defeating any attempts to divide it, terrorists conducted an impeccably-timed and surprising attack in the manicured capital of the former war torn republic of Chechnya, Grozny. Despite claims from Ramzan Kadyrov—Chechnya’s social media obsessed overlord— that the militants came from neighboring republics, it seems that the 10 militants came from Shalazhi in the Urus Martan district south-west of the capital.  It was there they commandeered three taxis and set off for Grozny where they were surprised by a police patrol (preventing a far worse outcome in the process), eventually being cornered and killed.

See our coverage of the attack in Grozny here.

Yet, as the attack on Grozny was unfolding, carried along by scattered pictures and info gleamed from social media, analysis was already coming out about the insidious spread of ISIS to the North Caucasus and the return of an insurgency that failed to mount a spectacular attack on the Sochi Olympics. (Not to mention there is a very public feud between the Emir of the Caucasus Emirate and many of the fighters from the Caucasus proclaiming allegiance to ISIS rather than Al-Qaeda and Jabhat Al-Nusra). The reality is that the attack is merely yet another scene in the long running drama that is the insurgency in the north Caucasus.

It has been a rough couple of years for the Caucasus Emirate. Its founder Dokku Umarov was killed in late 2013, and its greatest opportunity to embarrass not only Putin but his boyars overseeing the republics, the Sochi Olympics, passed by without event. Since Umarov’s death, the leadership has been attempting to re-build and regain some of its lost legitimacy and control. In 2007, Umarov announced the creation of the Emirate, a pan-Caucasian insurgency group fighting to bring Islamic fundamentalism and governance to the Caucasus. Since then the insurgency has gradually been reduced to a loose coalition of disparate and atomized groups, operating relatively independently and motivated as much by opportunities for organized crime as any allegiance to Islamic fundamentalism. The central leadership of the Emirate spends most of its time on the run from security forces (including Kadyrov’s gunmen) and serves primarily as an ideological umbrella with varying levels of control and communication among the various groups.

The group has also suffered from splits and discontent in its ranks, as many of the Chechen commanders disagreed with the enlargement of the struggle from focusing on Chechen independence towards all the republics of the North Caucasus. This has led to tension among Chechen insurgent leaders and the central leadership of the emirate. The tension has seen the neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia become the focal points of the insurgency. However, the biggest factor limiting the Chechen insurgency’s importance and capabilities has the gradual elimination of some of the most influential commanders and the effectiveness of Kadyrov’s security forces.

The stagnating capabilities of the Chechen wing (jamaat), along with its morale and ideological importance, has led the new emir, Abu Muhammed (Ali-Askhab Kebekov), who for the first time since the beginning of the rebellion started in 1994 is a Dagestani, and the emir of the Chechen wing, Emir Khamzat (Aslan Batyukaev), to rebuild the Chechen front. Emir Hamzat is a veteran of the insurgency and commands the Emirate’s suicide bombers (Riyad-us Saliheen Brigade of Martyrs, although the new Emir has ordered to refrain from suicide bombings and targeting civilians). Khamzat also was able to gather all the leaders of the Chechen insurgency in July/August to publicly proclaim an oath of loyalty to the new emir, which is extremely dangerous and the first time in three years that such a feat was accomplished.

Understanding the state of the Caucasus Emirate we can then understand the attacks in Grozny not as some expansion of ISIS banner to the North Caucasus but a reminder of the Emirate’s capabilities and presence in the region. The insurgency in the North Caucasus is a homegrown revolt, while with ideological ties to global Jihadism and small numbers of Jihadi volunteers (although almost none since the Iraq war and Syria), it remains a distinct regional organization. As Emirate Scholar Jean-Francois Ratelle noted, “What drives ordinary people to join insurgency movements and to challenge the government is not the will to establish a Caliphate but the need to challenge a corrupted and ossified society.” Local conditions and tactics drive the insurgency as much as the desire to implement Sharia law.

It is easy in a world of instant communication and interconnection to think that every organization and terrorist group is connected in the same way that corporations have branch offices in distant locales. However, the reality is much more complicated. Ideas and public statements on YouTube are easily shared, but the ability to coordinate effectively while maintaining secrecy is of a different order — not to mention the issues of organizational hierarchy and internal power struggles facing the Emirate.

The Grozny attack was striking not only for its timing and the embarrassment of Ramzan Kadyrov, but on the brazenness of it. That the militants were able to penetrate Grozny, a heavily-policed and manicured show city built on the largesse of federal funding, show a tactical capability that recently had been lacking from the Emirate’s capabilities. And while it is easy to assume that the Grozny attack is the first shot in an upcoming campaign, it seems more likely that this was a carefully designed and timed attack that has spent much of the Emirate’s capabilities in Chechnya for the near future. The time, funding and manpower required to attempt an operation such as the one in Grozny, along with the backlash from a furious government (Kadyrov has threatened to hold the relatives of terrorists responsible for the actions of their sons), mean that in all likelihood the Emirate needs to re-arm and recover before the next attack of this scale.

As sensational as the Grozny attack was, it is just another episode in an insurgency that has cost the lives of tens of thousands of people and continues to simmer among the republics. Whether the Emirate can capitalize on Grozny remains to be seen, but most likely they are hiding for the coming response from Kadyrov and his henchmen.