The Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz) was the main insurgent group operating in the North Caucasus between 2007 and 2015. However, the deaths of key ideologues, intense pressure from the security services, and mass defections to the Islamic State (IS) resulted in the group’s decline. In this guide, Mark Youngman and Dr Cerwyn Moore explain the background and transformation of the Imarat Kavkaz.
In October 2007, Dokka Umarov abolished the old structures of the insurgency and proclaimed the creation of the Imarat Kavkaz (IK). According to Umarov, this new ‘emirate’ consisted of wilayah (provinces), the borders of which only roughly corresponded to those of the republics of the North Caucasus. The formation of the IK formalised the establishment of a loosely connected regional insurgency and led to an upsurge in violence between 2009 and 2013. Although led by a Chechen, younger leaders from different republics were also integrated into the IK’s hierarchy. Many of these leaders would shape local insurgent activity and inform the ideological position of the IK as it sought to mobilise support across the North Caucasus.
Russia: Enemy number One
Umarov’s statements in the first few years of the IK’s existence did little to change the insurgency’s priorities: Russia remained the main enemy, with the local pro-federal authorities a subsidiary target. While Umarov spoke of Muslim blood being spilt around the world and expressed support for jihad elsewhere, events outside Russia remained a distinctly tertiary concern. When war broke out between Russia and Georgia in 2008, senior IK ideologist Supyan Abdullayev condemned Russian ‘aggression’ and focused on a common cultural heritage rather than religious differences. Umarov, meanwhile, continued to express disappointment with, rather than hostility towards, the West. He explicitly linked his disillusionment with the Western reaction to the 9/11 attacks, and his negative view of the West did not translate into threats against it or IK operations aimed at Western targets.
From 2009 onwards, suicide attacks re-emerged as a method of attacking targets in Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. Although often causing significant damage, these attacks were relatively rudimentary, reflecting the inability of local jama’ats, or groups, to sustain major operations over long periods of time. Although the insurgency continued to mount attacks, these often relied on small clusters of loosely connected militants in Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Chechnya and Dagestan.
The 2010 metro bombings in Moscow indicated a willingness to launch deadly attacks against civilians, reflecting the priorities of a new generation of regional leaders who were loosely subordinated to Umarov. From late 2010, there was also a subtle shift in Umarov’s rhetoric, and he became increasingly concerned with international affairs.
The January 2011 suicide attack on Moscow’s Domodedovo airport – a target that can be considered simultaneously domestic and international – was followed by a statement from Umarov that detailed grievances about the situation facing Muslims around the world. These ideological shifts should be understood in the context of changes in the insurgency’s leadership. In particular, the deaths of key ideologues such as Anzor Astemirov (d.2010), Said Buryatskiy (d.2010) and Abdullayev (d.2011), as well as the capture of Emir Magas in 2010, resulted in both a decline in the IK’s activities – particularly in Ingushetia – and the dilution of its unique ideological identity.
Nevertheless, it remains important not to exaggerate the extent of the internationalisation of the IK under Umarov. When, in the aftermath of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, media reports linked the perpetrators to the North Caucasus, the IK’s Dagestani sector issued a statement insisting that the ‘Caucasus mujahideen are not fighting against the United States. We are at war with Russia.’ Even though the clear hierarchy of enemies that had previously existed became less distinct, the local and the global were never fully integrated. It was not so much that Umarov overturned the hierarchy as reduced the distance between its tiers. IK websites similarly focused on the domestic situation.
The Syrian conflict posed new challenges to the IK leadership and its ability to balance domestic and international agendas. The IK struggled to balance competing interests in its initial response, attempting to support those fighting in the country while simultaneously mitigating any negative impact on the North Caucasus insurgency itself. IK websites published numerous articles arguing that fighting in the North Caucasus was fard al-ayn – an individual religious obligation – for North Caucasians and it was impermissible for people to wage jihad elsewhere simply because it was easier to do so. The situation was further complicated by the failed efforts of former fighters to reenter the North Caucasus in the Lopota Gorge incident, the emergence of Russian-speaking foreign fighters in Syria, the death of Umarov and the security crackdown ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Defections to the Islamic State
IK leaders started defecting en masse to the Islamic State group (IS) in late 2014, and IS formalised its advance into the North Caucasus in July 2015, when its spokesman Muhammad al-Adnani publicly announced the establishment of an official branch, Islamic State Caucasus Wilayah (IS/CW). Rustam Asilderov, former head of the IK’s Dagestan province, was appointed head of this new province of the ‘caliphate’. The IS magazine Dabiq framed the decision of Caucasus militants to pledge allegiance as part of a larger ideological debate between different jihadi affiliates, and between a younger generation of fighters and leaders in the North Caucasus:
…the mujahidin of Qawqaz [the Caucasus]…when recently announced their bayah to Amir ul-Mu’minin: they were criticized by those Qawqaz blinded by their fear of losing leadership and power. These individuals preferred to remain upon division and disunity, rather than closing ranks and strengthening the Jama’ah [congregation] of the Muslims and their Imam…
IS/CW initially appeared to occupy a much stronger position than the IK, which had no prominent representation in Chechnya and Ingushetia, and faced competing parallel structures in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. The IK’s losses in Chechnya were particularly important, given that it broke its link to its historical core and jeopardised its access to funding from Chechen expatriate communities. The IK’s last recognised senior figure, Kabardino-Balkarian leader Zalim Shebzukhov, was killed in St Petersburg in August 2016. IS/CW, however, has suffered significant losses of its own, including the death of Asilderov in December 2016.
How Imarat Kavkaz adapted
The case of the IK is interesting for a number of reasons. It demonstrates how a decentralised clandestine movement has sought to adapt and evolve in response to both internal and external pressures. Umarov had little theological or religious training, and had to balance infighting and factionalism in the IK. The communication strategy adopted by Umarov – including the increasing focus on international issues – illustrates the ways in which leaders may respond to counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency measures.
Throughout his tenure, Umarov had to respond to the needs of a younger generation of local leaders and factions – including those who had replaced seasoned veterans who had been killed or captured in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. However, his communiques also had to resonate with different audiences in the region, in Russia, in various diaspora and Islamist communities, and further afield in the wider militant milieu.
Balancing these competing interests, however, became increasingly difficult given the events in Syria, and it is important to understand the different responses of North Caucasian actors in assessing the future direction of the local insurgency. Although there has been a long-term decline of violence in the region, there has been a proliferation of Russian-speaking factions in Syria and Iraq, many of which maintain links to and interest in the North Caucasus.
These groups, however, should not be viewed simply as an extension of domestic groups, just as local contexts should not be ignored in considering IS/CW as the Islamic State itself adapts to changing circumstances. Some North Caucasian jihadists in Syria have stayed independent from the main militant factions or maintained a distinct identity within large umbrella groups, and some jihadists in both the North Caucasus and Syria have strongly opposed IS. As such, they may, for want of an alternative, seek to resurrect the IK in some way or another – drawing on its legacy while trying to learn the lessons of its decline.
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 Cerwyn Moore and Paul Tumelty, ‘Assessing Unholy Alliances in Chechnya: From Communism and Nationalism to Islamism and Salaﬁsm’, Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, Vol.25, No.1 (2009): 88-89.
 ‘Zayavleniye v svyazi s sobitiyami v Bostone (SShA),’ accessed 21 April 2013, http://vdagestan.com/zayavlenie-v-svyazi-s-sobytiyami-v-bostone-ssha.djihad.
 ‘Wilayat Khurasan and the Bay’at from Qawqaz’, Dabiq, 33-37.