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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dagestan: Political Islamism and radical groups as a threat to the region’s stability

Map of Dagestan
(Image: Google Maps)
Dagestan, currently one of the Russian federal objects in North Caucasus, is one of the most ethnically heterogeneous regions, where nearly 38 different ethnic-linguistic groups are presented. There is no majority nation or ethnicity in Dagestan, what makes its consolidation more complicated. Unlike some neighboring countries, such as Chechnya, Dagestan has no clear nationalistic idea due to the ethnic diversity and relatively low level of connection between various groups and low level of trust to local government, appointed by Russian officials and representing the interests of federal forces, rather than interests of local community.

Dagestan is also one of the most Islamic regions of Russian Federation, as nearly 93% of population are Sunni Muslims of the Shafii rites, which has been in place for centuries. On the Caspian side of the country the population is mostly Shia. It’s worth mentioning also a big significance of Sufi mysticism in Dagestan, as it plays an important role here, just like in the neighboring Chechnya. Sufism appeared here back in the 14th century and advocates for tolerance and coexistence and secular government.


Many experts and scientists studying the region and the issue of Islam and political Islamism in Dagestan state, that Islam was always a strong consolidating power here, as it was the only one factor of uniting people of this diverse region. Dr. Z.S.Arukhov, leading expert on Islam and Islamism in Dagestan, stated that Islam could be a stabilizing and rallying factor for the region, though it didn’t happen, as revival of Islam in Dagestan was connected to the radical teachings and fundamental Wahhabi doctrine, which spread in country late in 1990s.

Leading experts on Dagestan, including Dr. Robert Bruce Ware, Dr. Enver Kisriev, Dr. Werner J. Petzelt, Dr. Ute Roericht, Eldar M. Eldarov, Edward C. Holland and many others, stress about the importance of this transformation of Islamic revival in the region from the religion, able to stabilize the situation in the country and unite people, into the fundamental radical Wahhabi movement, caused spread of radical views and terrorist activities in the region and making Dagestan a scene of Islamist insurgency for many years.

Wahhabism ideology, appeared back in 18th century in Saudi Arabia, advocating for the “pure Islam” and refusing any later interpretations of Qur’an, arrived in Dagestan in 1990. Robert Bruce Ware and Enver Kisriev state, that Wahhabism and Islamist extremism were exported to Dagestan from Afghanistan late in 1980s. Another point of view indicates, that Wahhabism and Islamic fundamentalism came to Dagestan from Tajikistan in 1990, influenced by the Islamic Revival Party, formed in the times of “perestroika” in Tajikistan. Several Dagestani intellectuals and spiritual leaders were members of this party and brought this ideology to Dagestan.

Extremist Islamism and Wahhabism rapidly spread in the region, especially among the rural and young people from economically deprived and unstable regions. Economic devastation and degradation, social inequality, total corruption of local authorities, massive abuses of high officials and Russian backed government, affiliation of the local clergy with the corrupt authorities and, of course, influence of “global jihad” and Islamist movements from the Arab Gulf countries were among the key factors of spread of Wahhabism in the region. Fundamentalist teaching had clear ideology, giving people the chance to find “pure and true Islam” without clans, ethnicities, corruption and inequality, bringing together all the Muslims. In addition to that Wahhabis in Dagestan were advocating for creating an Islamic state, based on Sharia Law, and these ideas found support among young and poor people, especially from the mountainous and rural areas.

Talking about Dagestan as a volatile and extremely unstable region of Russian federation, it’s worth mentioning, that most of its Islamic and religious based tensions are actually based on the internal conflict between the traditional Sufi Islam and moderate Sunni Muslims, advocating for tolerance and secular state, and extremist and fundamental Wahhabism, aiming to create Islamic based state in North Caucasus.

However, despite the rapid spread of Wahhabism and radical Islamist views in Dagestan and activities of numerous radical groups, attraction to the fundamentalist Islam varies between different sectors of population, as the majority of population of Southern and mountainous areas of Dagestan, where most of the people are rural, poorer and less educated, is more inclined to Wahhabi views and teachings, while Northern Dagestani population, wealthier and more educated, is less inclined to these views. In addition to that Wahhabi movement is usually supported by youth, as elderly people are suspicious towards the new religious practices and teachings. According to the survey conducted by Enver Kisriev and Robert Bruce Ware in Dagestan, nearly ¾ of the country’s population doesn’t support radical Islamist movements.

Up to this day, Dagestan remains one of the most troubled Russia’s regions, with various underground Wahhabist and radical Islamist organizations and groups operating in the country. Some of them are relatively moderate; others are extremely radical and are affiliated with the terrorist activities in the region and in Russia as well.

Radicalization of Islamism in Dagestan has not only internal reasons, but is also connected to the events on the neighboring regions, such as Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and others. For example, Chechen founded Islamist International Brigade, which was very active during the Chechen wars and following period of insurgency, was also presented in Dagestan. Riyad Us-Saliheen Martyrs Brigade, formed during the Second Chechen War by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and Saudi born Ibn Al-Khattab, had close ties with Dagestani radical and terrorist cells, and many Dagestanis have also fought in the ranks of this group.

Dagestani Shari’ah Jamaat, Vilayat Jamaat, Islamic Jammat of Dagestan and Ingush Jamaat are among the biggest and most influential radical and terrorist groups operating in Dagestan and in the neighboring regions as well. All of these groups are united in the umbrella organizations Caucasian Front and Caucasus Emirate, headed currently by Dokku Umarov, Russian “terrorist number one”, who threatened Sochi Olympic Games. We could add to the list also newly formed Ansar Al-Sharia group, claimed responsibility for the recent Volgograd terrorist attacks.

Dagestani Shari’ah Jamaat, renamed later in Vilayat Jamat, is the biggest and the most prominent Islamist militant organization in Dagestan, and it remains associated with the separatist conflicts in Chechnya. Some of its members are based on the territory of Azerbaijan, where several bases of the group are located, while the main camps are in the forests and mountains of Dagestan. The group was established under the name “Jennet” (“Paradise”) by Emir Rasul (Rasul Makasharipov) in 1999, following the 2nd Chechen War. Its principle objectives were to eliminate senior officers of Dagestani and Russian security forces. In 2004, following the loss of several leaders, the group was reorganized and transformed into Dagestani Shari’ah Jamaat (“Dagestani Islamic Law Community”). The group has totally changed its structural principles and strategy; it became larger and more decentralized, operating actually as a network of numerous terrorist cells, consisting of 5-15 members. Shari’ah Jamaat cells are deployed within 4 sectors: Central Sector (Makhachkala), Mountainous Sector (Buinaksk), Northern Sector (Khasavyurt) and Sothern Sector (Derbent). Each group is responsible for specific territory and district and has connections with some local communities and their leaders, who recognize the group’s authority. The cells of Shari’ah Jamaat operate mostly independently and interact only if necessary in the execution of operations.

Dokku Umarov, proclaimed himself Emir of Caucasus Emirate, maintains contact with Shari’ah Jamaat leaders and can control appointments of its heads. The group has also close ties with Azerbaijan and has its cells there as well. Shari’ah Jamaat actively uses mass-media to claim credits and responsibility for the attacks and terrorist acts and to spread Wahhabi ideology.
Its main objectives are total exclusion of Russia from Dagestan and establishing an independent Islamic law based state. Among the tactics are kidnappings, assassinations, bombings, explosive devices etc., while the main targets are mostly high officials and opponents of Wahhabism.

After 2007 and murder of Shari’ah Jammat leader the group was re-structured and transformed again and was renamed into Vilayat Jammat. It was headed by Rappani Khalilov and Abdul Majid (Ilgas Malachiev), both of them appointed by Dokku Umarov. Vilayat Jammat took an oath no to target civilians in their attacks, but despite this many civilians have died along with security forces in the terrorist attacks carried out by the group. Vilayat Dagestan was responsible for the attacks in Makhachkala, 2010 Moscow metro bombings and many terrorist attacks in Dagestan. The main objective of the group, according to its statements, is building of the fair Islamic society.

Another radical Islamist group, operated in Dagestan, was Islamic Jamaat of Dagestan. Its aim was also creating an independent state based on Islamic Law, but this group was more radical and fundamentalist and it’s responsible for the violent clashes occurred between moderate Muslims and Wahhabis in several Dagestani regions. Islamic Jamaat of Dagestan controlled several fortified villages in the neighborhood of Buinaksk, where most of the residents supported radical Wahhabist ideology of the movement. Though the members of the group were considered being religious fanatics by local officials and moderate Sunni Muslims, what led to the armed conflicts and assaults and numerous casualties, and Russia had to deploy additional troops to control the region. After federal military attack in 1999 the group was destroyed and its members retreated from Jamaat, though the influence of Wahhabis remains strong in the region.

Thus, radical Islamist movements, mostly influenced by Wahhabist and Salafist teachings and ideology, have formed a network of terrorist cells and groups operating in the region and continuing to attract new members, mostly youth from the depressive regions. Radical Islamist propaganda has rested on the foundation of deep economic, social and political problems, corruption and massive abuses of officials in the regions, while Wahhabi ideology gave immediate answers on the actual questions and gave its supporters the chance to participate also in the “global jihad”.

Terrorism in Dagestan is more complicated, than in Chechnya, and has more serious ideological content, making it closer to the global jihad, while Chechen terrorist cells are mostly connected to the rebel and separatist groups fighting rather for independence of Chechnya from Russia, than for Islamic state. Experts stress, that Dagestani terrorist groups are closer to the “international standards” of terrorism, as unlike Chechens, Dagestani terrorism has its source and specific groups, immediately claiming responsibility for the attacks. The organizations also declared their goals clearly: creation of an independent stated of Dagestan, based on Sharia Law, and total liquidation of Russian military and political presence.


Radical Islamist movements and terrorist cells add fuel to the deep problems existing in Dagestan and could seriously threaten security and stability of the region and Russian policies and control if North Caucasus as well, as Dagestan, the most ethnically diverse region of Russian Federation, remains an extremely troubled area and a field of competition between Moscow hegemony and resurgent Islam.

Originally published in Islamist Gate.