March 29, 2011 | 2105 GMT
Reports surfaced March 29 that Chechen militant leader Doku Umarov was killed by Russian special operations forces in the republic of Ingushetia in the northern Caucasus. Whether or not Umarov was killed in this particular operation, the Russian strike had political elements and will not have significant impact on the northern Caucasus militant landscape.
Reports emerged March 29 that Chechen militant leader Doku Umarov was killed by Russian special operations forces in a strike targeting a militant training camp in the northern Caucasus republic of Ingushetia. There are many conflicting and unverified reports about whether Umarov actually was killed; his death has been falsely reported several times in recent years.
Regardless of whether Umarov was killed, this particular operation had an important political component for Russia. The strike’s overall strategic effect on the militant landscape in the northern Caucasus will be limited, however.
Russian air force units carried out the operation against the Caucasus Emirate (CE) militant group the night of March 28, using precision aerial strikes. Umarov was the self-proclaimed leader of the CE, which acts as a coalition of militant groups spanning several volatile northern Caucasus republics, and was one of Russia’s most-wanted militants dating back to the Chechen wars of the 1990s. He was reported to be among the 17 suspected militants killed in the attack. Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov said Russian Federal Security Service forces had intercepted the location for a meeting of several militant leaders, allegedly including Umarov, and ordered the strike to eliminate those leaders.
While details remain sketchy and solid answers might have to wait on the results of a forensic examination, there is a broader political goal to the operation taking place and being widely publicized. The strike occurred on the eve of the first anniversary of the Moscow Metro bombings, for which Umarov and the CE claimed responsibility. It is also perhaps no coincidence that on the same day as the strike, Umarov was officially charged with organizing the Domodedovo airport bombing in January, the latest major militant attack in Moscow, which left 30 dead and many more injured. It seems that the intelligence acquired, both to charge him and determine his location, was provided by the March 28 arrest of the Yandiev brothers in Ingushetia. One of the brothers was thought to have led the Domodedovo operation, and it seems took orders from Umarov. If reports on the operation are accurate, Russian intelligence demonstrated its capabilities by quickly acting on this information and finding Umarov and his associates.
It is important to note that this operation was carried out by Russian forces rather than by the Chechen Brigades, the security force controlled by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, which has recently expanded its security duties into Ingushetia. Russian forces still control the region as a whole, but STRATFOR sources in Moscow say there has been a struggle between the Kremlin and Kadyrov on how aggressively either security force should go after Umarov.
Despite statements by Kadyrov that Umarov’s death would have “exceptionally good consequences for our country,” Kadyrov does not want Umarov dead. Umarov has served as a scapegoat for Kadyrov on security issues and political instability within Chechnya. It is in Kadyrov’s interests to keep Umarov around to blame for militant attacks, even though Umarov’s leadership of the CE had seen recent setbacks and the militant organization has experienced severe fractures on regional and ethnic lines and limitations in its operational capacity. Umarov was not the key player in the overall militant landscape in the region, though he was effective in propaganda and in organizing simpler, soft-target attacks like Domodedovo. Thus, outside of Kadyrov’s political need for an excuse for instability in Chechnya, Umarov was not a serious force to be reckoned with.
The operation was a move by the Kremlin to show the broader Russian population, as opposed to just the local Chechen population, that the security situation in the northern Caucasus is under control. Between the Domodedovo attack, upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Kremlin needed a tangible success, and Umarov was the only militant in the Caucasus with a widely known name and reputation.
Now the issue will be what comes next in the northern Caucasus’ militant landscape. With Umarov either killed or sidelined, there are no longer widely recognizable militant names, and the militant groups are seriously fractured and reduced to the level of multiple competing gangs. The void left by Umarov could prompt other militants to step in and attempt attacks in order to try to make names for themselves outside the Caucasus. However, even if these are successful, it has become more difficult for anyone to gain a countrywide reputation like the militants of the past since the end of the Chechen wars. It is also unclear whether any would-be leader could unify a coordinated insurgency, since the groups in the Caucasus are competing with each other as much as they are fighting the Russians.