Doku Umarov, Chechen rebel commander and self-proclaimed ‘Emir of the Caucasus Emirate’ has proven to be a disastrously poor leader for the remaining insurrection in Chechnya, but if he had one quality it appeared to be a talent for self-deception which allowed him not just to talk as a victor but seem to believe his own rhetoric, even as if slipped further from his grasp. That is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the news that he has stepped down in favour of Aslambek Vadalov, who on 24 July he had made his successor in case of his death.
Umarov’s career has hardly been glorious. While many of his predecessors, most notably Aslan Maskhadov (Chechen president 1997-2005), managed to combine the roles of field commander and politician, Umarov was clearly the former. His lack of political skills was at once a weakness and the reason for his rise, but also helps explain his failures in command.
He was born in 1964 to the Malkoy teip (clan). Trained as a construction engineer, he was working in Moscow but returned home when the first Chechen war erupted in 1994. By the end of the first war in 1996, he had been promoted to a senior command role and decorated.
With Maskhadov’s election to the presidency, Umarov was appointed chair of the Chechen Security Council, a role in which he was an invaluable bridge between factions. Valuable assets in this were his reputation as a tough field commander, not associated with any particular faction or appearing to harbour higher political ambitions. However, accounts also began to circulate about his involvement in kidnappings for both political and purely criminal reasons. In this, his name was associated with that of warlord Arbi Barayev, who also hailed from the Malkoy.
Barayev was stripped of his official rank in 1998 and branded a common criminal but while Umarov was spared such humiliation, he was dismissed from his Security Council role. Maskhadov appears to have regarded Umarov as an accomplice of Barayev’s but felt either that the evidence was insufficient or that he was worthy of another chance. In any case, the start of the second Chechen war in 1999 meant that no experienced field commander could be considered expendable.
During the war and the guerrilla campaign which followed the end of formal hostilities, Umarov proved an effective (if not outstanding) field commander. As he rose from commanding his own regiment to the whole ‘south-western front’, though, he also increasingly came under the sway of the jihadist wing of the rebels. He was associated with rebel warlord Shamil Basayev, with whom he mounted a cross-border terrorist raid into neighbouring Ingushetia in 2004, as well as Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev, who became rebel president in 2005 following Maskhadov’s death in a Russian missile attack.
Sadullayev was a preacher and a political power-broker rather than a warlord and saw in Umarov a useful complement. As a result, Sadullayev made him his vice-president and in effect senior military commander. When Sadullayev himself was killed by federal troops in June 2006, Umarov automatically ascended to the role of president of the Chechen Ichkerian Republic.
In his new role, Umarov made the customary vows to maintain the struggle for Chechen independence but also made clear his allegiance to the more extreme Islamist forces, appointing Basayev as his vice-president (although he was killed shortly thereafter and replaced by Supyan Abdullayev, another radical).
Whereas Sadullayev spoke much in general terms of the need for the peoples of the North Caucasus to find common ground against the Russians and their local regimes, though, Umarov sought to turn this into an actual alliance. In 2006, he was seriously wounded in a Russian attack and spent several months recuperating in Kabardino-Balkaria, where he also opened discussions with local jamaats, insurgent groups. Following a series of contacts with jamaats in Dagestan and Ingushetia, in October 2007 he proclaimed the establishment of a ‘Caucasus Emirate’ with himself as its first ‘Emir.’
This may sound like a familiar pattern of widening jihadist insurgency but it proved both empty bombast and a final split with the kind of secular Chechen nationalism for which Maskhadov stood. It did align Umarov more closely with global jihadist forces, but he was joining it just at a time when Al-Qaeda was in disarray and its ability to provide practical help was all but nil. For a number of rebel fighters, especially hard-bitten veterans of Maskhadov’s era, it was the final straw and led to defections as they either went home or even joined pro-Moscow President Kadyrov’s Kadyrovtsy security forces, bringing with them not just their experience but invaluable intelligence. It is noteworthy than the insurgency tradecraft of the remaining rebels has degraded since then.
Umarov was both trying to forestall an awareness that he was not winning or going to win in Chechnya by an act of grandiosity, as well as making a bid to widen the conflict and unite the numerous local jamaats engaging in a growing campaign of insurgency and terrorism across the North Caucasus. However, he proved strikingly unsuccessful in doing this. Insurgency is a growing force, especially in Dagestan and Ingushetia, but while Moslem it is not jihadist and it certainly shows little sign of even acknowledging Umarov, let along his claim to regional command.
Furthermore, he associated himself with a series of bloody terrorist attacks which managed to fail to shake Moscow’s resolve in the manner of the 1995 Budennovsk siege while losing the rebels any remaining international legitimacy.
According to a release on the rebel kakvazcentre website, “The Emir of the Caucasus Emirate Dokku Abu Usman [Doku Umarov] has officially announced his resignation from the post of Emir of the Caucasus Emirate for health reasons and appointed his successor, Emir Aslambek [Aslambek Vadalov] to this post”. Apparently Umarov’s view is that the “jihad should be led by younger and more energetic commanders” although he is not retiring and “he intends to continue to wage jihad and will do his utmost to help the new leadership.”
So who is Aslambek Vadalov? Not much is known about him,which is in itself indicative of the reduced nature of the Chechen rebel movement. His previous position was as the grandly-titled commander of the Eastern Front of the Armed Forces of the Caucasus Emirate, although in practice he was commanding a force of perhaps 30-50 militants along the Ingushetian border. A native of Ishkoi-Yurt village in Gudermes, he has been fighting in the rebel ranks since 1994 and apparently was one of the first to swear allegiance to Umarov in 2007. Perhaps most significant is his relationship with Ibn Khattab (Habib Abdul Rahman), the Saudi-born rebel commander who was Al Qaeda’s point man in Chechnya and did so much both to radicalise figures such as Shamil Basaev and divide the rebel movement.
There is nothing to suggest that he will be any more moderate that Umarov, any less supportive of terrorism. However, if he is a more effective politician and is able to build bridges with the other North Caucasus movements, that would be a worrying trend for the Russians. Any Chechen jihadist, especially one associated with Khattab (who is widely despised for his divisiveness, which many in the North Caucasus believe doomed the Chechen rebels), has a long way to go, though.
More than a policy shift, this is really a changing of the guard. Umarov made a point of citing his age as grounds for stepping down (he is 46, hardly geriatric, and the same age Maskhadov was when elected Chechen president – and two years younger that Maskhadov when he again became a rebel commander). Vadalov’s quick transition was anointed successor to replacement may provide a clue. Umarov was under pressure from other rebel commanders, dissatisfied with his leadership, many of whom were younger, and amongst whom Vadalov is apparently a respected name.
When he made Vadalov his naib, his deputy, he also appointed his deputy, Hussein Gakayev (‘Emir Mansur’) as wali (governor) of the so-called Nokhchicho Province of the Caucasus Emirate (in overall operational command of rebel operations in Chechnya). Umarov may have hoped that making one of their own his deputy and successor would have assuaged this disgruntled younger cohort, but instead itseems only to have given Vadalov, supported by Gakayev, the opportunity to push him out.
That said, the Chechen movement is a demoralised shadow of its old self, fighting a large, tough security force heavily made up of ex-rebels and driven by a jihadist ideology that has little credibility or appeal amongst ordinary Chechens, even those with no love for Kadyrov or the Russians. Vadalov has a long way to go if he hopes either to turn the tide or, to be honest, to stay out of the cross-hairs of the Kadyrovtsy and the Russian Spetsnaz special forces who are hunting the remaining rebel commanders.