The Caucasus Emirate, a global jihadist organization based in Russia’s Caucasus mountain region, functions much like similar groups across the world: it kills civilians and policemen; it attacks government centers, as it did during a recent assault on the Chechen Parliament in Grozny; and it issues frequent statements, often as videos posted to jihadi forums, to explain and spread its ideology. But the Caucasus Emirates’ recent statements, which are also a means of communication among disparate cells and fighters, appear to show a group increasingly consumed not by Chechen independence or by religious warfare, but by internal squabbles, power politics, and battles of succession. Beneath the posturing and rhetoric, the infighting has exposed and perhaps exacerbated an existential divide. Is the terrorist group, at its heart, a nationalist-Islamist organization focused on regional issues or a wing of the global jihadist movement led by al-Qaeda? It’s an abstract and difficult question that has at time troubled, and even fractured, similar groups across the Muslim world. The Caucasus Emirate’s ideological fissuring, though far from unprecedented, has played out in the near-total transparency of public statements and web forums, allowing us to reconstruct much of it blow-for-blow.
The Caucasus Emirate was first proclaimed in 2007 by Dokku Umarov, who calls himself the Emir. Umarov, who was president of the Chechen Republic of Ickheria in 2006 and 2007, established the Caucasus Emirates to bring the handful of disparate Islamic fronts operating across the Caucasus region together under one umbrella.
But Umarov’s leadership came into question this summer, launching a number of internal disputes that have still not been resolved. It began on July 24, when Umarov announced in a video that Aslambek Vadalov, the commander of the Eastern Front of the Armed Forces of the Caucasus Emirate, would succeed him immediately. Umarov said he strongly believed in the importance of clear lines of succession should he suddenly die. He urged his followers to pledge bay’at, a formal declaration of allegiance, to Vadalov and to follow his orders as new the Emir. This may appear to have been a forward-looking, even wise, decision on the surface, but Umarov’s call for bay’at may have been the moment that his pan-Caucasus Islamic alliance began to come undone.
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