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.
Next door, things are much more tenuous, particularly in Dagestan, where attacks against police and suicide bombings are regular occurrences, with rebel violence compounded by clan warfare and a high degree of criminality. In Ingushetia, rebels have focused their violence on officials, attempting even to kill the republic’s president, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, in a car bomb attack two years ago. Kabardino-Balkaria saw a brazen attack in February, when a group of masked gunmen shot dead three tourists from Moscow and a ski lift was blown up.
“After Umarov, someone young and energetic will lead,” said Malashenko, noting that disaffected youths, many having grown up with little but violence and war, have filled local leadership ranks. Saradzhyan agrees, but warned that “it will take the successor a while to accumulate as much prominence in the North Caucasus and abroad and that's important for raising funds and soliciting assistance.”
It is impossible to tally the rebels’ resources, either under Umarov’s control or at the local level. Al Qaeda, which sent emissaries and funds to the region during the Chechen wars, has largely withdrawn physical assistance, focusing on other theaters of operation like Afghanistan and Yemen. The number and kind of attacks overseen by Umarov ― including last year’s attack on the Moscow metro and January’s suicide bombing at Domodedovo airport ― pale in comparison to those carried out by Basayev, who oversaw the terrifying mass hostage-takings that plagued Russia at the turn of the century.
“The influence of foreign powers on the Caucasus is much less than before,” said Malashenko. “The movement is currently self-sufficient.”
Hahn compares Al Qaeda’s role in the Caucasus to that of the Bolshevik Party that came to power in Russia’s 1917 revolution. “Al Qaeda is at the vanguard, like the Soviet Union was at the vanguard of the worldwide socialist movement,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they micromanage, but they help with financing, recruiting and all these groups are sharing ideas.”
The ultimate goal, he said, is the creation of a global Islamic caliphate. “It’s all aspiration. I don’t think they are going to succeed, but they could do a lot of damage along the way.”
For now, Russia will likely keep the heat on Umarov in a bid to avoid major attacks on its heartland. Yet it continues to lack any feasible strategy to bring calm to the Caucasus republics themselves. Its latest plan, announced in March, one month after the attack in Kabardino-Balkaria, was to pour $15 billion into the region to turn it into a skier’s paradise.
But the violence in the region continues to spread, bleeding into southern regions such as Stavropol that are considered, largely because they are mainly inhabited by Christian Slavs, to be the Russian heartland. Many analysts expect the violence to soon reach the nearby city of Sochi, which is due to host the Olympics in 2014.
Malashenko blames the failure to control the Caucasus on Russia’s greater ills ― a level of corruption, stagnation and government disdain that has led to a wholly inefficient government.
“Show me one place where the government works? How is it fighting corruption? How is it even building roads? The Caucasus are a part of Russia," said Malashenko. "What we see in Russia, we see there too.”
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the date of the Sochi Olympics.