Doku Umarov: Russia’s second-best friend in Chechnya?

One of the virtues about having old dogs is that you have slow, gentle walks with ample time to ruminate. While contemplating the entirely welcome news of the death by drone of Anwar al-Awlaki, I began wondering quite why Chechen ’emir’ Doku Umarov was still alive. Although he and his people have a goodly degree of wilderness smarts, I don’t get the sense that they are always that careful with communications intelligence (which after all did for his several-times-removed predecessor Dzhokar Dudaev) and there are enough fissures and rivalries amongst ‘Caucasus Emirate’ leaders that one might have expected some actionable leaks as to his plans or location (as may have happened to Shamil Basaev).

The truth is – as it usually is – almost certainly very simple, that so far he has been lucky. But nonetheless, I cannot help but wonder how far, were I a smart and Machiavellian strategist somewhere in the GRU’s Khodinka HQ, or the FSB’s Lubyanka Square offices (not the famous building, that drab grey one to the left of it, where the real operational centers are), I would be aiming to avoid killing him. Why?

Killing insurgent and terrorist leaders may seem like a great strategic goal, but can sometimes have dangerous unwanted consequences. Killing commander Mukhannad, for example, paved the way to a reconciliation between feuding Chechen rebel factions and the start of a new suicide bombing campaign. Likewise, the death of moderately-competent Muslim Ataev in 2005 led to the rise of the even more competent and charismatic Anzor Astemirov to lead the Kabardino-Balkarian Yarmuk Jamaat, organizer of the 2005 Nalchik city-wide assault and the formation of the ‘Caucasus Emirate.’

Umarov is, frankly, a pretty poor leader. He is devoted to his cause but limited and divisive, lacking the charisma, political savvy or military mind of such figures as Aslan Maskhadov, Anzor Astemirov, Said Abu Saad Buryatsky or Shamil Basaev. He often seems blinded by his own grandiloquent rhetoric and has presided over the decimation of the Chechen insurgency. Nor can he claim credit for the rise of the insurgencies elsewhere in the North Caucasus, which were largely the product of local political, religious and socio-economic forces, given an activating narrative by the Chechen rising and, in a few cases, wider jihadist ideologies. (I am not entirely convinced by the close linkages with al-Qaeda identified by Gordon Hahn in his recent report Getting the Caucasus Emirate Right, published by CSIS, but Hahn is a meticulous and detail-oriented Caucasus wonk and always worth listening to.) He also had no part in the successful strategy adopted by many of these separate jamaats, of targeting government and police assets and people.

Were Umarov to be killed, his successor would probably be a Dagestani (Dagestani terrorists have accounted for 60% of recent attacks) and lead to a further shift in the insurgent center of gravity out of Chechnya. Given that there have been coordination problems associated with the division between the Chechens and the other jamaats (the split in the Chechen movement actually saw a majority of Chechen field commanders opposed to Umarov, who instead drew the bulk of his support from Dagestani and other leaders), this might ease those problems. The rise of a new leader might also help reverse or at least slow the disillusion of Chechen rebels and encourage others; it could also be a fillip to efforts to raise funds within the Chechen diaspora.

If Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov is Russia’s best friend in Chechnya – do we all get the friends we deserve? – then one might, perhaps a little provocatively, see Umarov as their second best. Yes, he instigates suicide bombings that spread death and fear, but in many ways one should perhaps be surprised that the rebels in Chechnya (unlike elsewhere in the region) have not been rather more murderously successful. According to presidential envoy Khloponin, there are around 1,000 insurgents in the North Caucasus as a whole, and I think this is a credible figure, especially if it includes ‘part-time’ fighters who combine occasional acts of terrorism with ‘normal’ lives. Anything that brings any greater operational coherence and strategic unity to this collection of locally-based movements would be a very Bad Thing for Moscow, and if keeping Umarov alive helps prevent that, then this would seem to be a price well worth paying.

But as I say, this is probably over-thinking the situation, and Umarov has just probably been lucky. If so, at some point his luck will run out, and then we’ll see what happens to the ‘Caucasus Emirate.’

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