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Russia's Most Wanted Terrorist Reported Killed

Obscured by Vladimir Putin’s announcement on Tuesday that Russia would absorb Crimea, another declaration took place in Russia; one that may have just as much significance for global security. On the same day, Russian Islamist websites declared the “martyrdom” of Doku Umarov, Russia’s most wanted man.

A Chechen terrorist, Umarov was responsible for some of Russia’s bloodiest attacks over the last decade. His résumé includes: the 2009 bombing of a Moscow-to-St. Petersburg train that killed 28 people; twin 2010 suicide bombings that killed 40 people on the Moscow subway; and the attack on Moscow’s largest airport in 2011 that killed 36 people.

Umarov’s role in the North Caucasus insurgency went back decades and followed a well-trodden path. According to sources, he joined Chechen separatists at the outset of the first Chechen war in 1994, aged 30. After the war ended, he became an official in Chechnya’s government, briefly heading its Security Council. Following the second Chechen war—a Russian victory that left a pro-Moscow government in Grozny—Umarov continued fighting in the “resistance” before going underground.

Umarov reemerged in 2007, this time waving the black flag of jihad and declaring himself the leader of a “Caucasus Emirate” intent on establishing an independent sharia-based state in the North Caucasus.

Now 43, he reorganized the insurgency away from a centralized movement and toward a network of terrorist cells. He recruited from outside the insurgency’s traditional communities, bringing in ethnic Russians and expanding its ideological reach. Domestically, he encouraged insurgents to take the war to “streets” in Russia’s main cities. Beyond Russia’s borders, he encouraged the Chechen diaspora to plan attacks in the West and join the “jihad” in Syria.

Russian authorities saw Umarov, like leaders of the North Caucasus insurgency before him, as their own Osama bin Laden. Unlike previous leaders, however, in Umarov’s case the tag had some validity. It was under him that the language and tactics used by the insurgency came to most closely resemble those of al-Qaeda, even if it remained unclear exactly how much control the latter had over him.

So, will Umarov’s death lead to respite for Russia? Unlikely. The last time the leader of the insurgency died—in 2005, when Shamil Basayev was killed (either accidently blowing himself up or being blown-up by Russian security services)—the movement underwent a leadership crisis and took years to recover. Unlike then, Umarov has been replaced immediately—by Ali Abu-Mukhammad of Chechnya’s neighboring republic, Dagestan. It is debatable whether the insurgency draws more support from religious fervor or charismatic leadership, but the lesson of Basayev’s death—that the torch of leadership must immediately be passed, lest the flame die out—has clearly been learned.

By appointing Abu-Mukhammad as emir, the Caucasus Emirate is sending a clear message; Umarov’s ideology lives on. Under Umarov, Dagestan replaced Chechnya as the center of regional terrorist activity. According to the Caucasian Knot website, 341 people were killed in Dagestan as a result of terrorist-related activity in 2013, compared with 39 people in Chechnya. Unlike their fellow insurgents in Chechnya who see the insurgency’s cause as regional, those in Dagestan tend to see their struggle as part of the global jihad. Nowhere is this more apparent right now than in Syria: since the crisis began, Dagestani militants have been flocking there in the hundreds.

Umarov recognized that the North Caucasus insurgency had to expand beyond its traditional borders if it were to avoid being crushed. For him, this meant expanding into southern Russia and the Middle East. For Abu-Mukhammad, it could be the West.

Andrew Foxall is the director of the Russia Studies Center at the Henry Jackson Society.

Photo credit: www.volganet.ru

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