– Chechen Rebels are searching for relevancy
– Large-scale attacks on civilians damaged the movement
– Main leadership has been decimated
– Separatism and Islamic radicalization have confused the movement
A skirmish on March 19, 2008 in a village outside of Grozny between law enforcement and rebel fighters indicate that Chechen Rebels remain active in the region. Since 2006, the group has appeared to be in disarray, launching no major campaigns. Further, the security situation in war-torn Chechnya appears to have stabilized which lends credence to the belief that the Chechen Rebels are no longer a potent force (Previous Report). However, this does not mean that they are no longer a threat, and it is unlikely the group will just fade away in the immediate future.
Evolution of the Chechen Rebels
The Chechen Rebels are originally a movement of militia and rebel groups that arose in opposition to Russian government and military presence in Chechnya. The group remained the primary fighting and paramilitary force seeking independence for Chechnya and an end to Russian occupation during two major wars. The first Chechen War took place between 1994-1996, and followed by a brief period of autonomy, the second Chechen War started in 1999. The Russian government was heavily criticized for using heavy- handed tactics in Chechnya. This criticism helped gained sympathy for the Chechen Rebel movement. However, the movement began to change in scope and unity. A number of fighters from the first Chechen War sided with Moscow and turned on their former comrades in arms. In addition, the movement’s philosophy, tactics, and leadership also underwent a transformation. What began as a purely separatist movement, later became more radicalized and pan-Islamist in outlook. In addition to attacking law enforcement and Russian security forces in Chechnya, the movement expanded into the North Caucasus and Russia. Further, as the movement and tactics changed, civilians became increasing targeted for terrorist acts.
Leadership Decimation and the Search for Cohesion
Following a series of increasingly bold attacks against civilian targets orchestrated by Chechen Rebel commander Shamil Basayev (Previous Report) and culminating in the 2004 Beslan school siege , public opinion turned against the Chechen Rebel movement (Previous Report). The Russian government’s determination to thwart the movement greatly increased and the movement’s leadership was decimated.
In March 2005, Aslan Maskhadov, the former Chechen President and rebel leader was killed by Russian troops. His successor, Abdul Khalim, Sadulayev was shot and killed in June 2006. Shortly after, Shamil Basayev was killed in July of 2006. Doku Umarov (Previous Report) took over leadership of the movement in 2006, but under his tenure and in the last several years, the Chechen Rebels have seemed unable to mount any meaningful attacks against either civilian or government targets. Part of the reason is because they have deliberately avoided major civilian targets due to the public backlash from the Beslan seige.
The Chechen Rebel movement was never homogenous—different factions had competing loyalties to leaders as well as different ideas on tactics always existed. Therefore, a unified approach has continually been problematic. Initially, Doku Umarov pledged to attack collaborators and traitors (i.e. those who had taken a pro-Moscow stance like Ramzan Kadyrov and his supporters), and police and security forces in Chechnya. However, he refused to rule out conducting activities in the rest of the North Caucasus region. Later, Umarov pledged to increase attacks in Russia until the Chechen Rebels prevailed. His most provocative statement that has elicited both disagreement and concern from other separatist leaders is a statement to Radio Liberty made in 2007. In the statement he announced that the US, Israel and the United Kingdom or any other state that threatens Islam should become a valid target. However, the announcement caused internal dissent as fellow Chechen Rebels became nervous that this would detract away from the separatist ambitions of the movement, and further brand all Chechen Rebels as radicalized Islamists.
The Chechen Rebel movement is a movement searching for its own relevancy. It is also a movement that lacks cohesion. Despite claims by some Chechen human rights organizations that volunteers wishing to join the movement are increasing and that it is likely attacks will subsequently increase, it is difficult to believe that the Chechen Rebel movement remains attractive to the general public.
A potential spring 2007 offensive never came to pass. Attacks in the last two years, following the deaths of prominent leaders have been sporadic. More direct and small scale targeting as occurred in order to conserve resources. It is believed that the number of fighters remaining is less than one thousand. Many have given up and returned to civilian life or moved elsewhere as the population grew weary of the conflict. Doku Umarov’s own brother surrendered from the movement to gain amnesty. One of the reasons for violence increasing in neighboring republics of South Ossetia, Ingushetia and Dagestan is most likely due to the wandering aims of Chechen Rebels looking to expand their fight as the dream of Chechen independence seems to fade. Russian authorities believe that the concept of “war” in Chechnya is over and that the Presidential regime of Ramzan Kadyrov will maintain law and order, as well as remain loyal to Russian interests (Previous Report). The Chechen Rebels are not likely to disband in the immediate future and it is likely that certain cadres will never accept the status quo in Chechnya today. Should these cadres gain external support and resources, they could become a threat once again in the region, but most likely no closer to their original goal of Chechen independence.