Who is Aslambek Vadalov?

Following the surprise news of the resignation of Doku Umarov as ‘Emir of the Caucasus Emirate’ and commander of the Chechen rebel forces, attention has inevitably focused on his successor, Aslambek Vadalov, and the trajectory he followed to his new position.

Although it is generally accepted that he was born in the village of Ishkoy-Yurt, to the east of Chechnya’s eastern Gudermes region (which means he could conceivably have been part of the Benoi teip, or clan, from which hailed also the infamous Yamadayevs), it is not yet clear quite when. He may be in his early 40s but is more likely in his late 30s, suggesting he was born in the 1970s.

He seems to have spent his youth and adolescence in the region, but some reports suggest he studied for a short time in Moscow in the later 1980s, perhaps at a technical institute.

In 1994, with the outbreak of the first Chechen war, Vadalov joined the anti-Russian forces in the Gudermes region. He may have served in the unit of ‘Sheikh Fathi’, a Chechen who had lived in Jordan and who in many ways brought the notion of the ‘jamaat’, the community of interests outside traditional kin, village and clan connections, to Chechnya and to the war. Fathi, who had previously fought jihad in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, was in many ways the forerunner of the later generation of Al-Qaeda-inspired and -supported foreign commanders who played such a crucial role in splitting the rebel movement. If Vadalov did indeed have such a connection, this would indicate a very early exposure to a radical Islamic perspective of the war in Chechnya.

Vadalov took part in the capture of Gudermes in 1996, and with the peace negotiated by Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov and Russian vice president Alexander Lebed, Vadalov returned home to Ishkoy-Yurt.

At this stage he seemed to have neither a command role nor any particular personal affiliations with any commanders (Fathi died in 1997), and he played no role in the 1999 Dagestan incursion by Shamil Basayev and Khattab which dragged Russia and Chechnya back to war. However, as soon as the second Chechen War erupted, Vadalov returned to arms. Again, one can infer much from the fact that he joined the unit led by Saudi-born Ibn-Khattab (Samir Saleh Abdullah Al-Suwailem), the key Al-Qaeda-linked warlord in Chechnya and an increasingly bitter foe of his notional commander and fellow insurgent, Maskhadov. Vadalov served in the quixotic attempt to defend Argun and Gudermes, then his unit moved to the highlands of the Vedeno and Nozhay-Yurt-districts, from which they waged guerrilla warfare against the Russians.

In 2000, Vadalov returned to Ishkoy-Yurt for unknown reasons and joined a small local guerilla force. This unit operated both independently and in cooperation with other forces, including taking part in the 17 September 2001 attack on Gudermes. In the process, at a time when the rebels were taking serious losses, he distinguished himself as much for his survival as his skills, and in 2004 became Deputy Commander of the Gudermes Region of the Chechen Armed Forces under Amir Askhab, Khattab having been killed in 2002. The title belies the relatively small side of the forces under his command, but he nonetheless appears to have been able to mount some small but significant attacks against the security forces, especially around Ishkoy-Yurt.

In this, he was probably assisted by his family, which paid a terrible price. According to Tarkhan, an Ingush field commander of the Chechen forces (who endorsed his recent elevation), five of his brothers have disappeared, possibly seized by the Russians or their Chechen allies, a sixth was killed in battle and the family home has been destroyed. This may help explain (or reflect) Vadalov’s especially brutal treatment of pro-government Kadyrovets security forces, a favoured target of his raids. Reportedly, in one incident Vadalov and his men captured eight Kadyrovtsy and summarily executed them, for example.

Askhab was killed in early 2005 and Vadalov succeeded him as Commander of the Gudermes Region. It would be unfair to blame him for the steady erosion of rebel positions in the region, given that by this time the tide was well and truly against them. Nonetheless, it does appear that Vadalov, an able small-unit commander, floundered when put in command of larger forces which required a broader perspective. In some disarray, his forces largely retreated from Gudermes itself (and the subsequent rise of urban guerrilla units in the town appears to owe nothing to him) and sifted back to their havens in the woods of Vedeno and Nozhay-Yurt.

Nonetheless, as the rebel forces dwindled and bickered, especially after Maskhadov’s death in 2005, Vadalov had gained a reputation for both commitment to the cause and hard-fought guerrilla operations, and in 2006, Chechen rebel president Sadulayev gave him another of these grandiose titles: Deputy Commander of the Eastern Front. Formally, he was now responsible not only for Gudermes region, but also Kurchaloy, Nozhay-Yurt, Shali and Vedeno. Perhaps fortunately for everyone concerned, by this time the centralised command structure of the rebel movement, never strong, had broken down, and the combat units in these regions operated essentially autonomously.

Meanwhile, the attrition of rebel commanders, especially as the Russians and Kadyrovtsy adopted an ever-more-direct policy of decapitation, ensured Vadalov’s continued rise. The death in 2007 of his superior, Suleiman ‘Khairullah’ Ilmurzayev, saw him become the new Amir of the Eastern Front (reflecting the ‘jihadisation’ of the remaining rebel movement, traditional Islamic titles increasingly replaced military ones). Vadalov’s rhetoric also followed the Islamist trend, and by 2007 he spoke not of Chechen independence so much of a wider struggle against Russia and the non-Islamic world.

Vadalov had some success with hit-and-run raids which suited his natural tactical flair, and was also the beneficiary of the conflict which flared between Kadyrov and the Yamadayevs in Gudermes in 2008. A political struggle became a military one, and as former allies fought it out, Vadalov took the opportunity to continue his raids and ambushes. Through 2009 and into 2010, Vadalov and his men did the best they could be expected to do: they survived (in the main), although they probably lost as many to defection and desertion as to enemy action, and they launched sporadic attacks on the Russians and, above all, Kadyrovtsy.

In the process, Vadalov consolidated a reputation as a dedicated warrior within a movement increasingly lacking in seasoned commanders.

This helps explain why, in June 2010, Umarov unexpectedly made him first his deputy and chosen successor and then, four days later, his replacement. His previous deputy, Supyan Abdullayev, had just stepped down for reasons of ill health.

On the one hand, Umarov probably is, as he himself said, tired. However, senior rebel commanders Tarkhan Gaziyev and Abdullah Mukhannad also claimed he had health problems of his own. The choice of Vadalov could simply represent the handing of the baton to a new, younger and more vigorous generation. However, the sequence of events and manner of this rapid transformation to me still suggests something more. While many of the surviving rebels respected and even liked Umarov as a person, their tolerance for his lacklustre leadership appears to have been waning. A younger but also often non-Chechen leadership cadre seem to have wanted a new face and direction. It is interesting that two of the three the key figures who quickly endorsed Vadalov’s rise were not ethnic Chechens: Gaziyev (an Ingush) and Mukhannad (‘Abu Anas’, an Arab from the UAE). The third,  Khusein Gakayev, is close to Umarov, and may have been the key mediator who brokered a ‘retirement with honour’ deal which saw Umarov able to pick a successor who satisfied the younger-, middle-ranking and non-Chechen commanders but who also respected him and would be unlikely to turn on his predecessor. After all, Vadalov was one of the first field commanders to pledge allegiance to Umarov when he assumed command.

Gaziyev and Mukhannad praised Vadalov as “reliable” and “God-fearing.” It will take rather more than these attributes for him to reverse the terminal decline of the current rebel movement, as it degenerates into effective and dedicated but isolated terrorists. Likewise, although Umarov appealed to counterpart commanders in  Ingushetia (Amir Adam), Daghestan (Amir Seyfullakh Gubdensky) and Kabardino-Balkaria (Amir Kazbek) to support and follow Vadalov, there seems no prospect of a unified ‘Caucasus Emirate’ emerging, especially not given the jihadist complexion of the current Chechen movement.

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