Three Years After Nalchik, North Caucasus Resistance Remains Potent, Deadly Force
- October 12, 2008
By Liz Fuller
On October 13, 2005, some 150 to 200 highly motivated but poorly
trained and prepared young local Muslims launched multiple attacks on
police and security facilities in Nalchik, capital of the
Kabardino-Balkaria Republic. The raid, seven months after the death of
Chechen President and resistance commander Aslan Maskhadov, was not a
success. The attackers killed 35 police and security personnel and 14
civilians, but lost 92 of their own. Many of the survivors were
apprehended and are currently on trial.
Yet despite that setback, and the deaths the following year of two key
Chechen resistance figures, the Islamic resistance across the North
Caucasus is today stronger, more organized, more ideologically
cohesive, and more deadly than it was three years ago.
The Nalchik raid was not the first the resistance launched outside
In June 2004, a combined group of Chechen and Ingush fighters under
the overall command of veteran Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev
launched comparable, and far more successful, multiple attacks in
Ingushetia, killing at least 88 police and security personnel while
incurring minimal casualties.
But it was the Nalchik attack that served to underscore two key
developments: first, the extent to which the armed resistance against
Russian police and security forces had already spread from Chechnya to
other North Caucasus republics, primarily Ingushetia, Daghestan, and
Kabardino-Balkaria; and second, the degree to which Islam had
supplanted the Chechens' pro-independence aspirations as the
Those two trends have become even more pronounced over the past three
years. The nine territorially based "fronts" that then-Chechen
President and resistance commander Doku Umarov established in the late
summer of 2006 included Volga and Urals fronts. Earlier that year, a
hitherto unknown jamaat (unit of Muslim fighters) comprised primarily
of ethnic Nogais clashed with security forces in Stavropol Krai, and
an Ossetian jamaat warned of its intention to target "occupying
Russian forces" in North Ossetia.
The decimated Yarmuk jamaat in Kabardino-Balkaria retrenched following
the Nalchik debacle, and in late 2007 was subsumed into a larger
fighting unit that now operates both in Kabardino-Balkaria and
neighboring Karachayevo-Cherkessia. In Daghestan, where militant
attacks were for years concentrated in the north and central regions,
a jamaat emerged in early 2008 in the southern town of Derbent. One
fighter affiliated with the resistance in southern Daghestan, Ilgar
Mollachiyev, is reported to have crossed into neighboring Azerbaijan
with the imputed aim of extending resistance activities there.
As a result of that geographical expansion of military activities,
Chechens no longer constitute a majority among the resistance ranks.
And Russian has become the lingua franca in which the members of the
various jamaats communicate with Umarov and among themselves.
The official rationale and ideology of the resistance was redefined in
late 2007 when Umarov proclaimed an independent North Caucasus
emirate, or Islamic state, of which he designated himself ruler, and
vowed to expel the Russians from the region. That proclamation
effectively constituted the defeat and eclipse of those predominantly
Chechen moderate resistance figures, both in Chechnya and abroad, who
advocated an independent Chechen state. The amirs (commanders) of the
various fronts pledged loyalty to Umarov; several of them have also
authored manifestos, posted on the website kavkazcenter.com, on the
ideology of jihad.
Yet it remains debatable how many of the men who continue to join the
resistance ranks do so purely out of religious conviction. This may
hold true for law-abiding young Muslims in the Kabardino-Balkaria
Republic (KBR) and Daghestan who have for years been subjected to
persistent harassment and victimization by police. (In December 2007,
kavkazcenter.com quoted unnamed KBR officials as estimating the number
of young men who had joined the resistance over the past two years at
over 500. The population of the KBR is a little over 901,000.)
But other political and economic factors may also be in play across
the region, including the conscious rejection of a corrupt political
system and the lack of employment opportunities. In a prescient
analysis, presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry
Kozak warned then-Russian President Vladimir Putin in the early summer
of 2005 that high-level corruption, clan ties, cronyism, incompetence,
economic stagnation, unemployment, and poverty in the North Caucasus
could lead to a sharp rise in radicalism and extremism across the
entire North Caucasus and parts of Stavropol Krai.
Some of the young Ingush who participated in the June 2004 attacks
said at the time that they joined the resistance after their male
relatives disappeared without a trace after being arbitrarily detained
by local security services. In Chechnya, dozens if not hundreds of
men, and some women, still join the resistance forces every year.
Threats by Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov to hold responsible
the parents of young men who do so have failed to stem the outflow.
"The New York Times" reported on September 29 that the Chechen
authorities have launched savage reprisals, such as torching the homes
of fighters' families. The paper also quoted Grozny Mayor Muslim
Khuchiyev, a close associate of Kadyrov, as warning that the
authorities will not permit families to bury slain insurgents.
The abortive Nalchik attacks nonetheless marked a turning point in
terms of military strategy. Since then, the resistance has eschewed
spectacular large-scale operations in favor of a lower-level war of
attrition targeting primarily local police and security personnel, but
also increasingly local government officials and representatives of
the pro-establishment clergy.
There are several possible explanations for that decision. The first
is that the heavy casualties suffered by the Nalchik attackers, and
the large number (more than 100) of innocent civilians injured in the
crossfire highlighted the risks of launching such attacks by largely
untrained fighters in an urban environment.
The second is the generational change within the upper echelons of the
resistance command following the deaths of Maskhadov, in March 2005;
of his successor, Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev, in June 2006; and of
Basayev, in July 2006.
Attacks On A Grand Scale
Maskhadov had repeatedly impressed on his men the need to abide by the
Geneva Conventions and to avoid civilian casualties. Basayev was the
last senior field commander with tactical experience in planning and
implementing attacks on a grand scale. It was Basayev who masterminded
the Budyonnovsk hostage taking in June 1995; multiple attacks in June
2004 on police and security facilities across Ingushetia; and the
Beslan school hostage taking in September 2004. He also claimed
responsibility for the October 2002 hostage taking at a theater in
True, Umarov, now aged 44, who succeeded Sadullayev as Chechen
president and resistance commander in June 2006, is a veteran of the
1994-96 war, during which he fought under, and presumably learned much
from, Basayev. But the remaining commanders of the various fronts and
sectors are men in their 20s and early 30s. With the exception of the
Ingush Amir Magas (Akhmed Yevloyev), who took part together with
Basayev in the attacks in Ingushetia four years ago, their combat
experience is limited to small-scale ambushes and hit-and-run
operations. Only in Chechnya does the resistance still periodically
mobilize up to several hundred fighters to take on local armed units
loyal to Kadyrov.
Finally, the resistance has demonstrated it is capable of inflicting
comparable casualties at far less risk to its own men by
systematically targeting either police patrols or small groups of
police or Russian troops. The death toll among police, Russian
Interior Ministry forces and other security personnel in Ingushetia
since January this year has already exceeded 50.