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Russia fails to suppress Islamic insurgency

Russia's fundamental problems ― corruption, unemployment ― feed the dissatisfaction that motivates rebels.

Russia ingushetia commandoes 06 03 2011Enlarge
Russian Interior Ministry movable commandoes hold military exercises in the restive southern Russian region of Ingushetia on May 22, 2008. Ingushetia, which neighbors Chechnya, frequently sees clashes between Islamic insurgents and Russian security forces. (Kazbek Basayev/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's note: The killing of Osama bin Laden has changed everything. Or has it? In this ongoing series Al Qaeda: What's Next?, GlobalPost senior correspondents worldwide investigate the uncertain future of global terrorism and religious extremism – from Afghanistan to Egypt and Tunisia, India, China, Africa, Southeast Asia, the former Soviet republics and beyond.

MOSCOW, Russia ― Doku Umarov is the face of Russia’s terror threat.

Silent for months at a time, he appears, like clockwork, any time a major attack occurs on Russian territory. His 47-year-old face ― bearded, puffy, tired ― is motionless as he rambles through speeches claiming responsibility for one attack and promising many more.

But just how powerful is he?

The Islamic insurgencies wracking Russia’s southern flank are, arguably, the most complicated in the world. Nearly the whole of the Caucasus is enflamed in violence, with insurgencies raging in Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechnya. Groups in each region have their own local grievances and goals, as well as their own preferred tactics, but are tied together by a fundamentalist Islamist ideology whose overarching aim is the creation of an Islamic state free of Russian rule.

For that, analysts say, Umarov is their figurehead. As the self-proclaimed emir of the Caucasus Emirate, he’s been dubbed “Russia’s Osama bin Laden.” Last week, the United States put a $5 million bounty on his head, one year after adding the Caucasus Emirate to its terrorist-watch list.

The Russian government, so far incapable of suppressing the insurgencies, either through federal security tactics or via local leaders appointed by Moscow, has focused intense rhetorical attention on Umarov. He has (falsely) been reported killed several times, most recently in March following a strike on a rebel base in Ingushetia that killed 17 people.

Last week, out of the blue, Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the Federal Security Service, said the agency knew where Umarov was: “We know the whereabouts of Doku Umarov and are working on his detention.” He gave no further details.

Analysts warn that Russia’s disparate insurgencies, united under the Caucasus Emirate umbrella, are fed by bottom-up grievances ― the corruption and unemployment that afflict all of Russia are amplified in the Caucasus. The intense focus on Umarov may well be misguided in seeking to clamp down on the violence, they say, while Russia’s presentation of him as a local bin Laden will only further the brutal human rights abuses carried out under the guise that Russia is simply waging its own battle in the global “war on terror.”

“So they kill him and what will change?” asked Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center and leading expert on the Caucasus. Analysts have begun envisioning a future after Umarov, amid growing rumors that he is ill or was injured in the Ingushetia attack.

Part of the loyalty to Umarov, a leader who lacks the rhetorical and leadership skills of predecessors like Shamil Basayaev (killed by federal security forces in 2006), is the fact that he is the only remaining member of the “old guard,” said Simon Saradzhyan, a security expert at Harvard University.

Umarov fought in the two separatist wars that wracked Chechnya following the fall of the Soviet Union, outliving other commanders. That he is Chechen often leads outside observers to believe that the violence spreading through southern Russia is simply an outgrowth of the wars, but that is not exactly the case. The Chechen wars inspired other movements, but the idea of Chechen rebels fanning out across the region is mistaken ― the other movements grew organically, tied to the ideology of fundamentalist Islam.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the thuggish leader of Chechnya, has largely pacified the republic, though sappers continue to patrol its mountainous roads every day and Kadyrov regularly appears on local television leading operations against alleged rebels.