Aslan Mamedov was killed by security forces on Sunday May 20th in Dagestan, an Islamic majority Caucasian republic that belongs to the Russian Federation. He was the third most important leader of extreme Whahabi radical and separatist groups operating in this small region. Ten days earlier, in the course of another operation, jihadist inspirer Sheikh Muhammad Didoiski, whose inflamed speeches were constantly posted on websites managed by the insurgents, had also been killed.
On May 4th a suicide bomber using a car had blown himself up near a police road block in the suburbs of Dagestan’s capita, Makhachkala, killing at least twenty people and injuring thirty.
On March 23rd, Gitinomagomed Abdulgapurov, an official member of Shafii clergy, the religion practiced by most of the population, was killed in an attack. He was the Imam at the most important mosque in the city of Buinaksk and it is thought that he was killed by rebels. Abdulgapurov’s murder was not an isolate case and since December 2010, four members of the official clergy, supported by Moscow and anti-Wahabite, have been killed, among them also the deputy Mufti of Stavropol, Kurman Islailov, whose vehicle was blown up on February 13th.
This is just a small sample of recent news reported from the Republic of Dagestan, the most turbulent in the Russian Caucasian area. According to analysts the situation is even more unstable and violent than in Chechnya and Ingushetia. Clashes between security forces and rebels, political assassinations and terrorist attacks have become daily events.
How is it that matters have reached such a point? So as to understand the current situation in Dagestan one must take a step back in time. The radical Islamic movement is nothing new in Makhachkala, and was already present in the early Nineties when militant Wahabism began to spread, gaining followers and becoming more organised. It was then that Shariat Jamaat was formed, the armed group devoted to expanding the influence of radicalism, without however wanting secession from Moscow as a priority.
Wars in nearby Chechnya and frequent contacts with rebels in Grozny, facilitated by porous borders between the two republics, at the end of that decade resulted in the assertion of the pro-independence option. Simultaneously there was a rise in the numbers of supporters and militants and so the organisation raised the stakes in the challenge launched against the local authorities the Shafii clergy with the group’s foundation.
A few years later after a number of attacks and harsh Russian reprisals, the atmosphere now is terrifyingly difficult. Four years ago, the International Crisis Group, an important think tank headquartered in Brussels, described the situation using the concept of street warfare and earned that the Dagestan issue could spill over.
There has in fact recently been a constant and almost unstoppable escalation of Islamist violence. One reason is that Moscow’s transferral of economic and security resources to Chechnya has brought the situation in Grozny more under control, and the barycentre of guerrilla warfare in the Caucasus region, where the regions have joined forces under the aegis of a Caucasian Emirate, has now moved. This is an imaginary country that, in the name of a single Islamic nation ruled by Shari’a, embraces all the territories and republics in this corner of Russia, (Chechnya, Dagestan, Northern Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria).
The Shariat Jamaat, among the many armed groups, is perhaps the one best equipped in military terms and also enjoys the most social support. As on more than one occasion explained by the Eurasia Daily Monitor, a newspaper linked to the Jamestown Foundation and always extremely well-informed about this region, over the years consensus for the group has progressively spread. Poverty, the lack of prospects and the nepotistic and corrupt management of power by authorities loyal to Moscow, have resulted in more and more people supporting the claims made by the Shariat Jamaat and persuaded many young people, the most alienated, to join the organisation as fighters.
Moscow if now facing a very strong enemy and the Kremlin has taken action on two fronts. On one hand it has continued to wage war against the Dagestan rebels, increasing its military presence in the field (25,000 additional troops were recently deployed to Dagestan), organizing raids and anti-guerrilla operations, without paying excessive attention to targets as reported by human rights activists. On the other, Russia has strengthened local religious and administrative institutions, and made a few concessions to the people (Dagestan young men are exempt from compulsory military service), attempting to overturn the situation repeating in Makhachkala a “peace plan” previously used in Grozny.
The results are yet to be seen and if anything the situation is quickly deteriorating, to the extent that some analysts believe, as explained a few weeks ago by Giovanni Bensi, former editor of Radio Free Europe, a correspondent for Avvenire and the East Journal (www.eastjournal.net), a real war could break out. After Chechnya, Vladimir Putin, just recently re-elected President of the Russian Federation, risks facing a new Caucasian conflict.
Translated by Francesca Simmons