On March 29, 2010, two female suicide assailants blew
themselves up at two separate locations along Moscow’s
underground network, killing at least 39 people. Two days
later, the leader of the rebel movement in the Northern
Caucasus, Doku Umarov, claimed responsibility for the
attacks. For those monitoring the political situation in the
Northern Caucasus, Umarov’s claim of responsibility came as
no surprise. Even so, few analysts have been able to shed
any meaningful light on Umarov’s core political beliefs.
This is not surprising considering that so much of Umarov’s
background remains shrouded in uncertainty. The following
paper represents a tentative attempt to sketch Umarov’s
private and political background, from his early adulthood
in the early 1980s up to his portentous proclamation of the
Caucasus Emirate in 2007.
Keywords: Umarov, criminality,
Russo-Chechen war, kidnapping, Caucasus Emirate
experiences and accusations of criminality
Emil Souleimanov, a Chechen political
scientist, perhaps put it best when he described Doku Umarov
as a man with a “rather unclear past”.
We know that he was born in the town of Kharsenoi in
Chechnya’s Shatoisky district in April 1964.
Practically nothing is known about Umarov’s childhood
experiences. By Umarov’s own account, his family were
members of Chechnya’s intelligentsia.
The first substantial information relating to his formative
experiences concerns his graduation from the construction
faculty of the Oil Institute in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital
city, where he reportedly secured a degree in engineering.
Assuming that Umarov was approximately twenty-one years of
age on graduating from the Oil Institute, this would suggest
that his studies were completed in either 1984 or 1985. This
was a difficult time for any young Chechen graduate to make
a gainful, honest living. Chechnya’s economy
became evermore dichotomised during the
Brezhnev era. The republic’s highly profitable oil industry,
centred on Grozny and its surrounds, was dominated by ethnic
Russians and the recruitment of Chechens and Ingush into
this sector was actively discouraged.
With job opportunities scarce in the republic’s most
lucrative economic sector, a majority of Chechens found
themselves confined to their overpopulated home villages.
The options facing this unwanted labour force were
threefold: seek low-wage employment in Chechnya’s
agricultural sector; emigrate to another part of the USSR in
search of seasonal, or permanent, work; or try to carve out
a niche in Chechnya’s shadow economy.
Not long after graduating, Umarov chose
to emigrate and fetched up in central Russia. It is not
certain whether the motivation behind this decision was
economic or something altogether more untoward. According to
certain sources, Umarov became involved in criminality
during the early nineteen-eighties. One account holds that
he was arrested in 1982 on charges of “hooliganism” and
sentenced to three years imprisonment.
A second account details how Umarov was charged and
convicted of “reckless homicide” in 1980, when he would have
been just sixteen.
While a third account claims that he was convicted of
“manslaughter” in 1981.
If we are to read anything into these accounts then Umarov
must have spent a considerable amount of time in prison
between the years 1980 and 1984 – in other words the
approximate period during which he is supposed to have
attended the Oil Institute in Grozny.
Regardless of whether he spent these
years in college or in prison, Umarov certainly left
Chechnya sometime in the mid-1980s. By the early 1990s he
had established himself as a businessman in Siberia, in the
city of Tyumen to be exact. Here, Umarov reportedly worked
as the commercial director of the so-called Tyumen-Agda F4
Umarov secured this job by virtue of certain family
connections. The managing director of the company was
another Chechen, one Musa Atayev, Umarov’s cousin.
Sources close to Russia’s security
establishment claim that Umarov’s time in Tyumen was cut
short by a violent episode he became embroiled in during the
summer of 1992.
Following an altercation with a group of local teenagers,
the exact details of which are unclear, Umarov and Atayev
gained forcible entry to a house in the Patrushayevo
district of Tyumen. The house belonged to a Mr. Alexander
Subotin, whose son was one of the youths who had somehow
aggravated the Chechen cousins. Umarov and Atayev conducted
themselves belligerently and demanded of Mr. Subotin that he
turn over his son immediately. When Subotin asked for an
explanation as to the two intruders’ interest in his son, he
was shot and left for dead (Subotin survived his wounds).
The Chechen duo then allegedly executed a second family
member, as well as a visitor to the household, before
helping themselves to some of the Subotins’ belongings and
making good their escape. By the time murder charges were
brought against them in July 1992,
Umarov and Atayev had returned to Chechnya, which by this
time had declared its independence from the Russian
Federation. Chechnya thus represented a safe haven for
fugitives from Russian justice such as Umarov and Atayev.
Naturally, a degree of circumspection is
required when dealing with source material furnished by
Russia’s military-security complex. It is possible that the
Subotin affair, as well as the other accusations that have
been made against Umarov, are parts of an “active measure”
by Russia’s Federal Security Service designed to discredit
him. However, even one of Umarov’s intimates, the Islamic
theologian Sheikh Said Buryatsky, has acknowledged that
Umarov was involved in racketeering during an earlier stage
of his life.
A celebrated Islamic scholar, Buryatsky
was inspired by Umarov’s establishment of the Caucasus
Emirate and travelled to the region in 2008 to take part in
Buryatsky became personally acquainted with several of the
Emirate’s leaders, including Umarov, and documented his
experiences on rebel websites such as Kavkazcenter.com and
Hunafa.com. In a series entitled “An inside view of Jihad”,
Buryatsky detailed the exploits of the Caucasus mujahedin in
their battles against pro-Russian forces.
Before his death at the hands of Russian
security forces in March 2010, Buryatsky stated forthrightly
that Umarov had been a racketeer in Moscow prior to the
outbreak of the first Russo-Chechen war in 1994. “That’s no
secret”, Buryatsky noted rather dismissively, as though this
were a matter of fact long in the public domain.
Buryatsky’s candid references to Umarov’s background would
seem to confirm suspicions that the latter was involved in
organised crime prior to his return to Chechnya, probably
sometime in mid-1992. “He, like everyone else, has made
mistakes, from which nobody is safe, but such is their
insignificance when compared to his positive qualities that
I ask Allah to forgive him,” wrote Burystsky.
Whether Burystsky is referring here to Umarov’s involvement
in racketeering, or something more sinister, such as the
Subotin affair, we cannot be certain. It is also possible,
though unlikely, that Buryatsky may be alluding to Umarov’s
involvement in the hostage-taking industry that flourished
in Chechnya during the inter-war years, 1997–1999. This
period in Umarov’s career will be covered in more detail
It is difficult to conceive of a reason
why Sheikh Buryatsky would misrepresent Umarov’s past life.
It should also be noted that nobody in the Emirate’s
leadership, least of all Umarov, has sought to refute
Buryatsky’s assertions. This, of itself, would seem to
confirm the veracity of Buryatsky’s reportage. Nor should it
necessarily surprise one that someone with Umarov’s social
profile might have participated in organised crime in the
early 1990s. The sociologist Georgi Derluguian has described
vividly the challenges facing young Chechen males such as
Umarov who emigrated to Russia in search of work during the
Some village lads […] proved ill
prepared for the university and flunked out. Or they could
not find the desired jobs because the construction industry
and agriculture, which were the traditional Chechen
occupations for previous generations, had grown highly
competitive with the mass influx of newly impoverished
migrant workers from republics such as the Ukraine and
Moldova. Instead of sinking into penury or returning home as
miserable failures, these Chechen youths found or fought
their way into the dangerous but fabulously lucrative and
romanticized arena of violent entrepreneurship. The
traditions of clan solidarity, Chechen masculinity, and
ritualized violence surely played a big role in enabling
them to do this, providing a ready set of skills that were
advantageous in the criminal underworld.
In these labour market conditions,
Umarov’s engineering degree would have counted for little.
Racketeering in Tyumen, and later in Moscow, may have seemed
the only option available to him. Possibly he could have
eschewed the criminal lifestyle and returned to Chechnya,
but the tradition of “Chechen masculinity”, referred to by
Derluguian above, would have militated against his choosing
such a course of action. As Emil Souleimanov explains:
Since the Chechens have almost never in their history
struggled with a priori fixed statutes, nor with class or
economy-based social hierarchies, a constant battle for
prestige and a higher position in the flexible social scale
has been underway within their society. At the same time,
the primary stimulator and indicator of the struggle for a
higher position in this informal social hierarchy has been
the community; that is, public opinion – how one is “viewed
in the eyes of the people”.
Had he returned to Chechnya penniless, having failed to
procure gainful employment in the Russian heartland, Umarov
would have been painfully self-conscious of his own status
as a “failure” in the eyes of many of his contemporaries.
Quite possibly, it was this consideration that led him to go
into business with Musa Atayev in Tyumen.
This fear of failure may also have
contributed to the career paths of other young Chechens
seeking to make a living in Russian cities during this
period. Shamil Basayev, later to be Umarov’s vice-president,
was resident in Moscow during the late-1980s and
Basayev had initially arrived in the Russian capital in
pursuit of a third-level education but
dabbling in the black market, trading in foreign computers.
Ruslan Gelayev, an important influence in the early portion
of Umarov’s political-military career (as will be explained
below), left Chechnya as an uneducated young man in the late
1970s before reportedly taking up residence in Omsk Oblast,
Siberia. Contemporaries remember Gelayev as an “odd-jobber”
who married a local Russian woman.
It has also been reported that Gelayev spent time in prison
during this part of his life.
The preponderance of young Chechens, as
well as migrants from other parts of the Caucasus, presented
a recruitment bonanza for Russia’s organised crime networks
during these years. Indeed, according to the late Paul
Klebnikov, an American journalist who specialised in
reporting on organised crime in Russia, criminals of Chechen
nationality were at the forefront of the racketeering
industry in Moscow from the late 1980s onwards.
Participation in the
First Russo-Chechen Conflict
While Umarov was to some extent a party
to this broad sociological trend, he was but a footnote in
the annals of Chechen organised crime during this period and
had seemingly yet to amass any great wealth by the time he
returned to his homeland. Buryatsky, who makes no direct
references to the Subotin affair, tells us how on returning
to Chechnya, Umarov went directly to his relative, Ruslan
Gelayev, an influential Chechen paramilitary leader. For
many years, certain in the knowledge that Umarov fought
under Gelayev’s command during the first Russo-Chechen war,
observers believed that Umarov was absorbed seamlessly into
Gelayev’s paramilitary structures shortly after his return
to Chechnya. Recent evidence suggests that this was not the
case. Again, it is Sheikh Said Buryatsky who casts fresh
light on the embryonic relationship between Gelayev and
Umarov. Buryatsky quotes directly from a conversation he had
with Umarov, wherein the latter related the following
sequence of events:
When war began I arrived in Chechnya
after heeding Dudayev’s call [Djokhar Dudayev, the first
president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria]. Khamzat
Gelayev was my distant relative and so I immediately went to
him. I arrived in a Mercedes, wearing shoes, with a
cigarette in my mouth and offered my assistance, to
participate in the Jihad with him. Gelayev looked at me and
asked did I perform namaz [ritual prayer]? I answered
that I did not, but that if I must do I would learn. He did
not immediately want to take me on himself and directed me
to another Emir. But he later made inquiries about me and
drafted me into his force.
Firstly, it should be pointed out that
Umarov did not return to Chechnya “when war began”. As we
have established, Umarov returned to his homeland in the
summer of 1992, almost two and a half years prior to the
commencement of military hostilities between Dudayev’s
regime in Chechnya and the Russian state. Regardless of the
correct chronology involved, it seems credible that Umarov
would have presented himself to Gelayev as described by
Buryatsky. This meeting may not have taken place until 1993,
however, at which time Gelayev had returned to Chechnya from
The two men were related and it would have made sense for
Umarov to waylay relatives in search of employment, just as
he had done with Musa Atayev in Tyumen.
By mid-1992, Ruslan Gelayev was allied
with Chechnya’s nationalist leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a
former General in the Soviet airforce. Following his
election as president, Dudayev proceeded to declare
Chechnya’s independence from the Russian Federation. This
decision ushered in a period of Cold War between Grozny and
Moscow which lasted until December 1994 when Russian tanks
finally moved into the rebellious republic as part of an
attempt to “restore constitutional order”.
Men like Gelayev, as well as the
aforementioned Shamil Basayev, functioned as the military
backbone of the Dudayev regime. Abetted by Russia’s military
and intelligence services, Gelayev and Basayev had fought
against Georgian nationalist forces in Abkhazia in 1992–93.
Basayev had come a long way from the aspiring student who
spent the latter half of the 1980s peddling foreign
computers and flirting with the world of organised crime. It
was in Abkhazia, that he discovered a talent for war-making,
as well as a certain flair for cruelty that would continue
to manifest itself throughout his long career. Gelayev also
found his niche in Abkhazia. In addition to honing his
military talents, some reports suggest that Gelayev’s
involvement in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict was notable for
the cruelty he showed towards captured Georgian soldiers.
Similar reports abound in relation to Basayev’s treatment of
Georgian prisoners of war.
Their exploits in Abkhazia bestowed a
certain prestige on these two men. On returning to Chechnya
they were feted as war heroes; Basayev’s “Abkhaz Battalion”,
in particular, caught the public’s imagination.
Both Basayev and Gelayev positioned themselves as supporters
of Dudayev and his nationalist agenda, although neither
seemed to feel any great personal enthusiasm for the
General. It was against this political backdrop that Doku
Umarov appeared on Gelayev’s doorstep seeking his relative’s
One can readily speculate as to why Gelayev might have
snubbed his plaintive kinsman so perfunctorily. For one
thing, Gelayev had just returned from a particularly
exacting, not to mention austere, period of existence on the
battlefields of Abkhazia and may have taken umbrage at
Umarov arriving at his home looking like a dilettante.
Gelayev was also (re)discovering his Islamic faith at this
stage of his life and would not have been impressed by
Umarov’s candid admission that he did not know how to
perform certain basic religious rites.
The poor first impression he made on
Gelayev was not to the detriment of Umarov’s career in the
long-term. The commander Umarov was directed to by Gelayev
was Daud Akhmadov, an important figure within President
Dudayev’s notoriously corrupt inner circle.
Akhmadov seems to have been the natural point of contact
between Dudayev and Gelayev for he had the distinction of
being on good terms with both men. This responsibility was
more challenging than it might have seemed at first glance,
for Gelayev and Dudayev were never on the greatest of terms.
Indeed, in March 1994, scarcely eight months before the
commencement of hostilities with Russia, Gelayev and Basayev
were allegedly contemplating a coup d’état to unseat
As a member of Akhmadov’s network
Umarov’s reputation began to flourish. By way of cementing
his relationship with his new patron, Umarov married
His career prospered under wartime conditions and at some
point during the hostilities he was drafted into Gelayev’s
paramilitary outfit. As a member of Gelayev’s “Borz”
battalion, Umarov would likely have participated in the
defence of Bamut, a village in south-western Chechnya. Bamut
became a symbol of resistance for the Chechen rebels and
Gelayev would later be decorated with the “Order of
Ichkeria” for his participation in these events.
Many of the villagers hailed from the same clan as Umarov,
and these bonds, as well as his membership of the Borz
battalion, mean that it is likely that he participated in
the defence of Bamut.
Umarov emerged from the war in a position
of some political influence, with a military rank of
as well as two prestigious commendations for bravery in
In August 1996, the so-called Khasavyurt accords were signed
between Russian and Chechen representatives giving Chechnya
the status of a de facto independent state.
In January 1997 presidential elections were held and Aslan
Maskhadov, a well-known wartime field-commander, was
returned as president, replacing Dudayev who had been killed
during the war.
Sources indicate that Umarov left
Gelayev’s unit sometime between September 1996 and January
1997. It is unclear whether this decision was prompted by a
falling out between the two men.
Regardless, Umarov sought out and received the patronage of
another paramilitary leader, Akhmed Zakayev.
It may well have been Zakayev who recommended Umarov to
Maskhadov as a candidate for the chairmanship of Chechnya’s
new Security Council. Maskhadov duly confirmed Umarov’s
growing political influence by appointing him to this post
in June 1997.
Perhaps the most serious challenge facing
Umarov in his new capacity as secretary of Chechnya’s
Security Council was the increased political and social
instability engendered by the increasingly widespread
practice of hostage-taking within the new state. In June
2008, Umarov explained the situation he found himself in as
[…] we know that after the first war
there was no unity among the Mujahideen like in the old
days, and [that] the Mujahideen were organizing into groups.
Since I had my group under my command, and since I had a
military training base, it was impossible to remain outside
politics back at that time, so even if you wanted to remain
outside politics, they wouldn't let you do that, and the
President of that time, Aslan Maskhadov, may Allah have
mercy on him, appointed me Secretary of Security.
Paramilitary groups independent of
government authority now emerged, as Umarov would later put
it, “like mushrooms after rain”.
In hindsight, the calculations behind Maskhadov’s
appointment are easy to discern: Umarov was known to be on
good terms with many of the major players in Chechnya’s
hostage-taking industry, among them Arbi Barayev, Balaudi
Tekilov and the Akhmadov brothers. Barayev, a
field-commander of some renown during the first
Russo-Chechen conflict, hailed from the same clan and
geographical location as Umarov.
It has since been claimed that Umarov used his new role as
secretary of the Security Council as cover for entering into
a freelance hostage-taking enterprise with Barayev, but this
speculation has never been confirmed.
Umarov was also on good terms with Baludi
Tekilov, an opportunistic former racketeer and pimp who
emerged as one of the main point-men in Chechnya’s
hostage-taking industry during the late 1990s.
Like Umarov, Tekilov returned to Chechnya in the early 1990s
as a fugitive from Russian justice; he too sought to advance
his political career through courtship, eventually marrying
the sister of Salman Raduyev, a famous Chechen
Raduyev’s resourceful new brother-in-law quickly caught his
eye and he soon appointed Tekilov as his chief-of-staff.
Tekilov used this influential position to carve out a niche
for himself in Chechnya’s thriving hostage-taking industry.
Under Chechnya’s post-war government, Tekilov was appointed
head of the so-called Commission for the Liberation of
Missing or Detained Persons.
Umarov has since claimed that it was his
necessary association with the likes of Barayev, Tekilov and
Akhmadov that led to him being accused of participation in
the hostage-taking trade. In an interview with Andrei
Babitsky in 2005, Umarov flatly denied any involvement in
Because of these contacts, I began
to be accused of this [hostage-taking]. But I always – when
these accusations reached this level, when Maskhadov said at
the Security Council that I had been accused – I said, "Here
is my statement, but a person's guilt can only be
established in court. If I am guilty, I will not lift a
finger to defend myself. Prove it and that's all. But what
people say – that is slander, and it isn't for me. Just give
me a fact. Without facts, a person can say, looking at a
horse, “there is a goat”.
Umarov is correct
in stating that there is no concrete evidence of his direct
involvement in the hostage-taking industry. However,
in 2007, Umarov did little to
enhance the case for his defence by posthumously honouring
Barayev, a well-known hostage-taker, promoting him to the
rank of “Brigadier-General”.
Indeed, this decision was especially strange given Barayev’s
known collaboration with Russia’s intelligence agencies.
Barayev had been stripped of this rank by President
Maskhadov in July 1998 following a violent altercation in
Gudermes, Chechnya’s second largest city.
It is difficult to
ascertain the extent to which Umarov was involved in
Chechnya’s inter-war hostage-taking business.
It can be said with certainty, however, that from the end of
the first war, Umarov was consorting openly with several
known participants in the hostage trade. Barayev, for
example, is described by Souleimanov as “the nation’s most
notorious ruffian and kidnapper”.
The Akhmadov brothers, meanwhile, were an influential
presence in the Urus-Martan District of Chechnya during the
and must have been known to Umarov.
association with such individuals does not, of course, prove
his direct involvement in the hostage-taking industry. It
should be noted, however, that one need not have personally
kicked down doors and hauled innocent people off into
captivity to have been an active participant in the hostage
trade. Referencing a conversation he had with Alexander
Mukomolov, a member of General Alexander Lebed’s
“peacemaking mission” to Chechnya, Valeri Tishkov, a leading
Russian ethnologist, has explained how kidnappings were
usually the work not of individuals but rather of loosely
formed groups of field-commanders who would haggle with one
another over their share of the ransom, sometimes even
trading hostages with one another.
As secretary of the Security Council, therefore, Umarov need
not have involved himself directly in the act of abducting
ordinary Chechens, ethnic Russians, foreigners, journalists
and other targets. Instead, he could have used this office
as a means of offering protection and legal validation to
associates who were involved precisely in these activities.
Incidentally, these were the very grounds on which Maskhadov
relieved Umarov of his official duties in mid-1998.
hostage-taking phenomenon represented the most immediate
challenge to Umarov in his capacity as Security Council
secretary, the refusal of so many field-commanders to
recognize Maskhadov’s lawful authority was another trend
that demanded his attention. Many of these dissidents were
war-heroes who had distinguished themselves during the
conflict with the Russians.
Most of them were receptive to the
ideology of radical Islam and took a dim view of President
Maskhadov’s policies, above all his efforts to establish a
normative relationship with Moscow.
field-commanders like Basayev, Raduyev and Barayev openly
presented themselves as paragons of Islamic virtue.
Barayev renamed his
paramilitary unit the “Special Purpose Islamic Brigade”.
Regarded throughout Chechnya as a “Wahhabi”, the colloquial
designation for a follower of radical Islam, Barayev was
collaborating closely with like-minded field-commanders such
as Abdul-Malik Mezhidov, head of the so-called Sharia Guard
He was also known to enjoy the patronage of Zelimkhan
Yandarbiyev, a leading figure among the radicals.
In July 1998, paramilitary forces belonging to Barayev and
Mezhidov clashed in Gudermes with forces loyal to the
Yamadayev family, the de facto custodians of the city. In
his capacity as Security Council Chairman, Umarov was
obliged to intercede in this conflict. Umarov would later
describe his role in these events as that of a “referee”,
explaining that he had felt little enthusiasm for his
official duties as Security Council chief.
After a two-day-long melee that claimed scores of lives,
Barayev and Mezhidov were forced to abandon their positions
in Gudermes. Maskhadov announced that both Barayev’s and
Mezhidov’s forces were to be disbanded and forbade members
of these bodies from bearing arms.
This was a
particularly difficult period for Maskhadov and his
supporters. The events in Gudermes represented merely the
latest in an increasingly long line of violent clashes
between Wahhabi forces and government militiamen. Against
this backdrop, and in the light of Umarov’s close
relationship with Barayev and other known Wahhabis,
Maskhadov might have deemed it politically prudent to
dismiss his Security Council secretary. Apart from his
compromising ties to Barayev, in any case Umarov had failed
to stabilise the security situation throughout Chechnya
during his tenure as Security Council chief. Therefore,
while we cannot satisfactorily answer the question of
whether Umarov abetted the worsening security situation by
partaking in Chechnya’s lucrative hostage-taking industry,
we can conclude that he failed to fulfil his official
mandate of providing a favourable security environment in
the new state.
Renewed Russo-Chechen Conflict
is available about Umarov’s activities between mid-1998 and
September 1999, when a fresh bout of military hostilities
broke out between the Russian state and the regime in
Grozny. This renewal of hostilities was precipitated by an
ill-advised military adventure undertaken by Maskhadov’s
opponents in the radical Islamic camp. In August 1999,
Shamil Basayev, in tandem with a well-known Arab Islamist,
Khattab, led a large party of guerrillas across Chechnya’s
eastern border, occupying several villages in neighbouring
This localised occupation of Dagestani territory was
received with hostility by many Dagestanis and militia
groups were hurriedly assembled to assist federal forces in
repelling the invaders from Chechnya.
Although Buryatsky has claimed that Umarov took part in
diversionary operations in Dagestan’s Novolaksk District to
cover Basayev’s eventual retreat from the occupied villages,
Umarov himself has made no mention of his participation in
these events, nor have any other independent commentators.
Russians were shaken by Basayev’s operation in western
Dagestan, they were outraged by a series of apartment house
bombings in Russian cities during September 1999, which
claimed the lives of over 200 people.
Russia’s security agencies were quick to uncover a “Chechen
trail” behind these attacks, with the country’s new Prime
Minister, Vladimir Putin, promising instant results against
A new war between the Russian state and Chechnya now seemed
inevitable. Maskhadov vainly attempted to establish a
dialogue with his counterparts in Moscow, but Basayev’s
adventurism in Dagestan had made him appear weak, a
president who was incapable of exercising control over those
nominally under his remit.
administration showed no interest in negotiating with
Maskhadov. With war now seemingly inevitable, the majority
of Chechnya’s disparate field-commanders resolved to put
their many differences to one side in order to participate
in counter-measures against the coming Russian invasion. In
preparing for the Russian attack, Umarov resumed his
collaboration with his kinsman, Ruslan Gelayev, aiding in
the preparation of siege defenses in and around Grozny.
Although they still showed a willingness to collaborate on
occasion, relations between Umarov and Gelayev were at best
equivocal and would remain so until the latter’s death in
Gelayev had prospered politically in the inter-war period,
receiving the posts of prime minister and later defense
minister in Maskhadov’s government. He also began to show a
keen interest in Islam, garnishing his credentials in this
field by performing the Hajj and by attending the World
Muslim Congress in Pakistan in early 1998.
defenders held their positions in Grozny until January 2000,
when they were finally forced to begin an evacuation of the
city. During their chaotic flight from Grozny that winter,
the rebels sustained heavy casualties. Basayev’s detachment
blundered into a minefield, with Basayev himself stepping on
a mine and losing a foot.
Gelayev withdrew amid controversial circumstances, with
Maskhadov angrily denouncing him for abandoning his
positions in Grozny without explicit orders.
Umarov retreated also, sustaining a serious head injury in
the process (a bullet wound to the jaw-bone).
It is unclear
whether or not Umarov was in the company of Gelayev during
this retreat but the subsequent fate of Gelayev’s outfit
would suggest that he was not. At the height of his
controversial departure from Grozny, Gelayev was reportedly
contacted by Barayev who promised him and his men safe
passage out of the conflict zone.
However, as Gelayev approached the meeting place he had
prearranged with Barayev, his party came under attack by
Russian forces. Gelayev repaired to Komsomolskoye, his
native village, where he and his men clashed with Russian
forces. This engagement resulted in the deaths of hundreds
of his fighters.
Although Gelayev managed to escape from this siege with his
life, he was reportedly outraged by Barayev’s conduct,
accusing him of treachery and reportedly declaring a
vendetta against him.
It is unlikely that Umarov would have used his offices to
posthumously honour Barayev (as he did in 2007) had he been
numbered personally among Gelayev’s beleaguered party in
It seems more
probable, indeed, that Umarov was already sequestered in a
safe house elsewhere in Chechnya by the time the operation
in Komsomolskoye was underway. The injury he incurred during
the flight from Grozny gave rise to one of the most
controversial episodes in Umarov’s career. One source claims
that the extent of this injury led Umarov to make contact
with Russia’s security services. Vyacheslav Izmailov has
claimed that in return for specialist treatment at a medical
facility in southern Russia, Umarov provided information
that led to the capture of Salautdin Temirbulatov, a
particularly savage field-commander with a penchant for
videotaping the executions of captured Russian soldiers.
Umarov is also said to have furnished information as to the
final resting place of Gennady Shpigun, a General in
Russia’s interior ministry abducted from Grozny airport in
willingness to surrender Temirbulatov to the Russians is one
of the first examples of his political ruthlessness, in
particular his readiness to break with former comrades in
the interests of political expediency. It is certain that
Temirbualtov and Umarov were known to one another for they
moved in the same circles, at least during the mid-nineties.
Like Umarov, Temirbulatov was a protégé of Daud Akhmadov.
He was also on terms with Gelayev
and is said to have commanded a group of up to 200 men based
In March 2000, approximately one month after Umarov
supposedly made contact with Russian security forces,
Temirbulatov was arrested by Russian security forces in the
village of Duba-Yurt.
Russian prosecutors, who had been investigating
Temirbulatov’s activities since 1996, quickly filed charges
of kidnapping and terrorism against him. It should be noted
that the remains of General Shpigun were also discovered
The chronological proximity between these two developments
and Umarov’s reported contact with Russian intelligence
agencies lends credence to Izmailov’s account.
that Umarov made contact with Russia’s security agencies
through “intermediaries”. If so, then Umarov would have had
a choice of human conduits through which to get a message
through to this quarter. Barayev, Tekilov and the Akhmadov
family all had well-documented links with Russia’s special
services. In May 2000, for example, an officer in Russia’s
military intelligence division (GRU) leaked information to a
journalist detailing Barayev’s relationship with Russia’s
domestic intelligence service (FSB).
Even after the renewed outbreak of hostilities between
Grozny and Moscow in 1999, Barayev continued to reside in
his home village, quite unmolested by Russian forces. If
Umarov had no pre-existing channels of communication with
Russia’s security agencies at this time, then he might
easily have used any of these parties as a go-between.
Izmailov, Russia’s special services were on the verge of
reneging on the agreement and arresting Umarov, when the
latter was somehow made aware of their intentions and fled
Umarov sought further medical treatment in Georgia and spent
a period of convalescence alongside another recuperating
Chechen partisan – Akhmed Zakayev.
Zakayev had also been injured during the rebels’ retreat
from Grozny. As mentioned previously, Umarov and Zakayev
were old acquaintances. Zakayev, too, had served under
Gelayev during the first war before branching out on his own
and establishing his own command.
Umarov reportedly joined Zakayev’s unit for a period after
parting ways with Gelayev in 1996.
The nature of the relationship that evolved between Umarov
and Zakayev was such that when Umarov renounced the goal of
an independent Chechnya in 2007, announcing the
establishment of a Caucasus Emirate in its stead, Zakayev at
first could not believe that his former friend and ally
might be responsible for such an act.
Soon after his
period of convalescence was completed, Umarov is believed to
have made his way to the Pankisi Gorge, a mountainous part
of eastern Georgia that borders Chechnya.
This region plays host to a sizable community of ethnic
Chechens, known as Kists, and was chosen by several Chechen
rebel leaders as an ideal location for recovery and
reorganisation following the devastating events of early
2000. Large numbers of refugees from Chechnya also began to
arrive in the region during this period. The infiltration of
Chechen paramilitary groups into Pankisi continued over a
period of eighteen months. Indeed, in May 2002 a minister in
Georgia’s government stated that there were 800 Chechen
paramilitaries active in Pankisi (along with 100 further
guerrillas “of Arab origin”).
Among the better-known personalities that sought refuge in
Pankisi during this period were the Akhmadov brothers,
and Doku Umarov. By 2002 Gelayev had established himself as
the local strongman in Pankisi, acquiring corrupt, albeit
well-placed, officials in Georgia’s interior ministry as
patrons, while using his paramilitary unit to intimidate
would-be rivals in the local trade in narcotics.
in such an enclosed geographical and social space for a
period of eighteen months, it is fair to assume that Umarov
and Gelayev, whatever their past differences, established
some kind of modus vivendi. The bulk of Gelayev’s
once impressive fighting force had been decimated by the
battle of Komsomolskoye and his subsequent retreat
southwards toward the Georgian border.
The scantiness of Gelayev’s paramilitary outfit was
especially marked by the time he reached Pankisi in
mid-2001. As a result, Gelayev would hardly have been in a
position to dismiss an overture from somebody of Umarov’s
military experience, whatever the nature of their previous
disagreement. Gelayev would remain bivouacked in Pankisi for
some considerable time more, launching guerrilla attacks in
southern Chechnya, Ingushetia, and even as far abroad as
Umarov, by contrast, endeavoured to return to Chechnya at
the earliest possible opportunity. In August 2002 he
returned to his homeland and was quickly appointed to a key
position as commander of the “South-Western front”.
political scene had undergone significant changes since
Umarov’s enforced departure in early 2000. The Kremlin had
installed Akhmed Kadyrov as its indigenous
political-military representative in Chechnya. Formerly
Chechnya’s chief mufti, Kadyrov had reportedly been an
active participant in the first separatist campaign and had
even invoked a holy war against the Russians.
Citing disillusionment at the growing influence of Islamic
radicals within Chechen society during the inter-war period,
Kadyrov reached an agreement with representatives of the
Kremlin in late 1999 as a fresh invasion became imminent.
Kadyrov employed a mixture of cajolement and coercion to
dissuade his countrymen from resisting Russian rule,
offering to amnesty leading rebels such as Gelayev, while
simultaneously deploying his own militia, headed by his son
Ramzan, to harass the families of suspected militants by
means of assault, abduction, torture and even murder.
details are available relating to Umarov’s activities from
mid-2002 to mid-2004. Perhaps his most noteworthy
achievement was simply staying alive. Gelayev was killed in
February 2004 while attempting to cross the border from
Dagestan into Georgia.
Umarov acted quickly, absorbing the rump of Gelayev’s
fighting force into his own command, thereby positioning
himself as Gelayev’s natural successor. Often described as a
“maverick”, Gelayev had always manifested a pronounced
independent streak. His curious decision to abandon his
assigned positions during the defense of Grozny, a decision
he neglected to coordinate with Maskhadov, is often cited as
an example of this independent mindset. Umarov’s
relationship with Maskhadov had apparently survived his
dismissal as Security Council chairman in 1998. As we have
seen, Maskhadov suspected Umarov of dabbling in the
hostage-taking trade during the inter-war years, but
Umarov’s activities were never deemed treasonous by
Maskhadov, merely inappropriate and unacceptable.
Maskhadov’s decision to promote Umarov in 2002 indicates
that he had no concerns regarding his fealty and courage,
concerns he evidently continued to harbour with respect to
death, Umarov was able to strengthen his position in
Chechnya’s south-western districts: Achkoi-Martanovsky
District, Shatoisky District, Itum-Kalinsky District and
Urus-Martanovsky District. As Umarov consolidated his
influence in these districts he began to forge a closer
relationship with another leading field commander, Shamil
Basayev. While Umarov and Basayev were known to one another
prior to 2004, they are not believed to have been on close
terms. The similarities between Umarov and Basayev have
already been alluded to: both hailed from distinguished
families and both had spent time in Russia during the
perestroika era where they flirted with organised crime.
Both men also enjoyed a somewhat equivocal relationship with
Russia’s security services. In 1995 Basayev stated
forthrightly that he had maintained contacts with
high-ranking Russian military officials during his time in
Umarov’s interaction with these agencies has been detailed
Yet the differences
between the two were equally as fascinating. Ideologically,
Umarov and Basayev, while certainly not at variance, were
definitely at different stages of development. In terms of
ideology, Umarov was very much a creation of the first
Russo-Chechen conflict. He returned to Chechnya in 1992
seeking patronage and protection, with no set ideological
outlook. Basayev, while in a sense also a product of the
first war, was already familiar with the guerrilla
lifestyle; he had seen war in person and was already
committed to the cause of an independent Chechnya. Unlike
Umarov, he had returned to Chechnya by choice, not because
he was sought after by Russian prosecutors. Regardless, in
2004 the two men embarked on a lasting collaboration when
Umarov helped Basayev to organise a raid on government
targets in Nazran, Ingushetia’s largest city. It was to
prove a hectic summer for Umarov: in August he was named
Maskhadov’s minister for state security (essentially a
shadow reincarnation of his former Security Council
portfolio) before later leading a large-scale rebel raid on
The precipitant for
the next stage in the advancement of Umarov’s political
career occurred in March 2005 when Russian Special Forces
assassinated Maskhadov in the village of Tolstoy-Yurt, in
The previous month, Maskhadov had announced a unilateral
ceasefire and called on the Russian authorities to enter
into peace talks with his government.
Maskhadov was replaced by his agreed successor, Abdul-Khalim
Sadulayev, an Islamic theologian from Argun, Chechnya. In
June, Sadulayev confirmed the appointment of Doku Umarov as
his vice-president, thereby thrusting the veteran
field-commander into the national and international
Umarov’s latest promotion was made public only days before
he conducted his first major interview with a non-Chechen
journalist, Andrei Babitsky of Radio Free Europe/Radio
Liberty. Babitsky’s interview with Umarov was the first
occasion that the new vice-president was subjected to real
journalistic scrutiny and he conducted himself adroitly.
In the light of Maskhadov’s death, Umarov told Babitsky that
he was sceptical about his movement’s chances of reaching a
political settlement with the Kremlin. He also criticized
the Beslan school siege of September 2004, when hundreds of
school children were taken hostage by guerrillas loyal to
Umarov’s remarks were widely interpreted as a negative
appraisal of the tactics employed by Basayev’s men at
Beslan: “If we were to use those methods, then I think not
one of us would be able to return as normal humans”. Umarov
also stated forthrightly that “in the eyes of the resistance
such operations have no legitimacy”. In hindsight, Umarov’s
objections to Basayev’s tactics at Beslan are remarkable
given his recent claim of responsibility for attacks
obviously intended to injure and kill civilians, such as the
suicide attacks on the Moscow metro in March 2010.
Another aspect of this interview that
would be scrutinized closely in the light of later
developments in Umarov’s political career was his analysis
of the phenomenon of radical Islam, or Salafism, within the
ranks of the rebel movement. Babitsky, for his part, stated
that Umarov was known throughout his homeland as a follower
of Sufi Islam who eschewed the radical Islamic agenda
championed by the foreign fighters and their indigenous
allies. While Umarov dismissed the notion that the rebel
movement had been completely infiltrated by “Wahhabis”, the
colloquial term used by Russian sources when referring to
Salafists, he did acknowledge a certain utility to the
Sharia (Islamic law), which constitutes the central tenet of
the Salafist agenda: “A
Muslim, any Muslim, any person must live according to some
law. And if a Muslim lives
according to Sharia, then Sharia forbids him from goofing
around or smoking or doing such things, then I consider that
good.” Umarov nevertheless described suggestions that he
personally was a Wahhabi as “laughable”.
Declaring the Caucasus
Umarov did not have to wait long for the
next opportunity for political advancement to arrive. In
June 2006 Sadulayev was killed in a battle with pro-Russian
Umarov automatically assumed Sadulayev’s duties, naming
Basayev as his new vice-president.
However, two weeks after his appointment to the
vice-presidency, Basayev himself lost his life in obscure
circumstances in Ingushetia.
Basayev had emerged as the rebels’ chief military strategist
and his loss was greatly felt. Umarov paid tribute to his
erstwhile collaborator, eulogizing him as “the motor of
At this point, there was a consensus
among observers that Umarov would continue to uphold the
broad political line established by his predecessors by
continuing to fight for an independent Chechnya.
Umarov’s 2005 interview with Babitsky had persuaded most
observers that the new president was essentially a Chechen
nationalist, who felt no great enthusiasm for radical Islam.
The fact that Umarov had publicly criticized the Beslan
school siege in this interview was noted appreciatively by
Umarov’s first public statement as president appeared to
confirm these widely held impressions:
I have never wanted this job, but I
must fulfill my duty, not my wishes. I have made my free
choice in 1994, when I decided it was my duty to join those
who raised, with weapons in their hands, to defend the
freedom and honour of our nation […]. My vision of finishing
the Russian-Chechen war is that Russia should leave us
alone, recognizing our legitimate right of
self-determination [sic] […]. I responsibly state that only
military and punitive objects will be targets of our strikes
[…] [The] Chechen Republic’s representatives must dispel the
Russian propagandas myth about [the] extremism of our
These consensual sentiments might have
been expressed by any of Umarov’s predecessors. Umarov
emphasized that the 1997 Khasavyurt Treaty should define
future relations between Moscow and Grozny. “According to
this treaty,” wrote Umarov, “Russia and the Chechen Republic
must base their relations on the commonly accepted
principals and provisions of international law.”
The only point of controversy in this inaugural statement
centred on Umarov’s stated intention to extend the rebels’
military activities beyond Chechnya into neighbouring
republics (Maskhadov had opposed this strategic departure).
Even so, this strategy was pioneered not by Umarov, but by
Sadulayev, who had established a region-wide “Caucasus
Front” in 2005.
Umarov also stated that his government would not actively
pursue peace talks with the Russians.
As yet, there was no mention of a “Caucasus Emirate”;
although Umarov did note that “national traitors” and “war
criminals from occupational troops” would be dealt with by
the Sharia Court of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI).
In less than eighteen months, however,
Umarov’s political outlook had undergone a radical change.
Before going any further, it would be prudent to quote, at
length, portions of the statement issued by Umarov in
October 2007, wherein he announced the creation of the
I am announcing to all Muslims that I
am at war against the infidels under the banner of Allah.
This means that I, Emir of the Caucasian Mujahideen, reject
all infidel laws that have been established in this world. I
reject all laws and systems that the infidels have
established on the land of the Caucasus. I reject and outlaw
all names that the infidels use to split the Muslims. I
outlaw all ethnic, territorial and colonial zones named
‘North-Caucasian republics’, etc. […]. Today our brothers
are fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Palestine
[…]. Those who attack Muslims are our common enemies; our
enemy is not only Russia, but also America, England, and
Israel – all those who conduct war against Islam and
It is no easy challenge to determine
exactly how Doku Umarov’s worldview was so drastically
altered between June 2006 and the autumn of 2007. By
proclaiming the Caucasus Emirate, Umarov effectively
abrogated the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, reducing
Chechnya’s status to that of a province, or Vilayat,
in the new Emirate. The pre-existing consensus that Umarov
was a Chechen nationalist and a practitioner of a brand of
Sufi Islam native to the North-East Caucasus was
automatically called into question. The proclamation also
challenged the concept of international law and was viewed
in some quarters as being tantamount to a declaration of war
on several Western countries.
For orthodox Chechen nationalists, who still cherished the
vision of an independent, democratic Chechnya, Umarov’s
announcement was, in the first instance, a betrayal. The
leading voice in the chorus of criticism that followed the
declaration of the Emirate belonged to Akhmed Zakayev, by
this time a senior minister in the ChRI government. For
Zakayev, a secular democrat, the declaration of the Caucasus
Emirate challenged the legitimacy of the Chechen Republic of
Ichkeria. Also, by making common cause with the Afghan
Taliban (who engage British forces on a near-daily basis in
Helmand Province, Afghanistan), Umarov greatly embarrassed
his colleague Zakayev, who had been living in the United
Kingdom under political asylum since 2003.
The nature of the prior association
between these two men made it difficult for Zakayev to
accept Umarov’s new ideological departure and at first he
declined to blame Umarov directly for the controversy,
preferring instead to point the finger at certain Islamic
ideologues who were advising him.
These persons, Zakayev claimed, were simply masquerading as
revolutionaries and were in fact agents of Russia’s Federal
Security Service, the FSB.
It would seem that Zakayev got wind of Umarov’s declaration
sometime in early October, shortly before its contents
became common knowledge beyond Chechnya and the Northern
Caucasus. Using his various media outlets, Zakayev suggested
that Umarov had been gulled by the FSB into proclaiming the
Emirate as part of a grand manoeuvre by the Kremlin to
connote the Chechen resistance with al Qaeda.
Zakayev rallied the ChRI parliament-in-exile, which issued a
statement criticising Umarov’s declaration as an attempt to
“convert our struggle for national liberation into the
category of so-called ‘international terrorism’ ”.
Yet there had been indications for some
time that Umarov’s political outlook was no longer entirely
in accordance with Zakayev’s. During an interview in April
2006, only months before he became president of the ChRI,
Umarov told a Chechen journalist of his ambition to create
“a free Muslim state”.
From the context, it is likely that Umarov was referring to
a free Islamic Chechnya, but we can extrapolate from these
remarks, as well as certain comments he made in his
interview with Babitsky, that Umarov regarded Islam –
specifically the Sharia – as a strong foundation for
independent statehood. Later that year, in September, Umarov
asserted publicly that policy decisions pertaining to the
strategic direction of the rebel movement would be subject
to the deliberations of the rebels’ majlisi al-shura,
a consultative body including representatives from every
rebel front in the Northern Caucasus.
This meant that as a decision-making forum, the government
of the ChRI had been effectively replaced by the majlisi
After nearly being captured in south-east
Chechnya by Russian security forces in November 2006, Umarov
decided to winter in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria.
Whilst in Kabardino-Balkaria, Umarov met with the leader of
the local insurgency, Anzor Astemirov.
Although he was a willing participant in the continuing war
against the Russians, Astemirov had concerns about the
political direction of the rebel movement. In particular, he
disagreed with the rebels’ avowed strategic goal of
establishing an independent, presidential republic in
Chechnya. Possessing a background in Islamic theology,
Astemirov believed that the establishment of a Sharia-based
Islamic state, be it in Chechnya or elsewhere in the
Northern Caucasus, should be the movement’s main strategic
In terms of his political ideology,
Astemirov had much in common with certain other ideologues
in the rebel community, in particular Movladi Udugov, editor
of the influential Kavkazcenter.com website, and his
half-brother, Isa Umarov. By one account, Isa Umarov was in
Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, around this time, where he made
direct contact with Astemirov.
Soon thereafter, he could be viewed on an internet clip
sitting alongside Doku Umarov in a camp somewhere in the
Zakayev has since claimed that it was Isa Umarov who
persuaded Umarov to announce the creation of the Caucasus
This assertion is contradicted by Astemirov, however, who
came close to claiming sole credit for the establishment of
the Emirate in an article published on Kavkazcenter.com in
In this lengthy piece, Astemirov explains
to his readership how he had long taken issue with the
pre-existing political veneer of the rebel movement.
In his view, concepts like republicanism, democracy and
universal suffrage are anathema, “disgraceful things”.
Astemirov tells how he had argued with Basayev about the
impropriety of these phenomena being included as part of the
rebels’ political platform on the grounds that they have no
basis in the Sharia. At Basayev’s urging, however, Astemirov
says that he temporarily set aside these grievances and
swore allegiance to Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, who at that time
was president of the ChRI.
When Sadulayev and Basayev were killed in
the summer of 2006, Astemirov decided to raise these
grievances once more, writing to Umarov directly. According
to Astemirov, Umarov responded sympathetically to his litany
[…] Amir Dokka wrote in response that
he understood all this, that he realized all this and he
himself wanted to renounce all this, he just needed to put
it into shape correctly from the Sharia point of view […],
and he said that he would issue a strong statement on this
topic, and that he did not recognize any law except the Law
of Allah, and that he did not seek anybody's pleasure except
the pleasure of Allah, so he said it was just a matter of
This initial correspondence between
Astemirov and Umarov seems to have taken place in the summer
of 2006, shortly after the latter’s accession to the
presidency. In this context, and given Astemirov’s claim
that Umarov was receptive to his agenda, Umarov’s decision
to spend that winter in Kabardino-Balkaria is of real
significance. Clearly, Astemirov’s correspondence had piqued
the new president’s interest. Umarov’s interest in
Astemirov’s political agenda was quickly noted by Movladi
Udugov and Isa Umarov. While Udugov continued to reside
abroad, his half-brother maintained a presence at Doku
Using their political influence and considerable media
savvy, these two individuals waged a propaganda campaign
throughout 2007, agitating for the establishment of the type
of Islamic state envisaged by Astemirov.
It has been established that indications
suggesting a favourable attitude on Doku Umarov’s part
toward the idea of a Sharia-based state were in evidence
from as early as 2005. After his communion with Astemirov,
however, Umarov considered more seriously the potential
utility of a Sharia as the bedrock of future statehood.
During an interview in March 2007, Umarov suggested that the
Sharia might serve as a useful foundation for a more
ambitious political project than an independent Chechnya:
I will remind you that the peoples of
North Caucasus have experience of joint statehood. During
the time of Sheikh Mansur, Imam Shamil and The Mountain
Republic, as well as the North Caucasian Emirate of Sheikh
Uzun-Hadji[…]. The basis of this association was always
Islam, and in the case of the Mountain republic – the idea
of all Caucasus unity and decolonization.
Later that March,
Umarov gave another indication of his newfound political
affinities by appointing Supyan Abdullayev as his
In terms of his ideological and political outlook,
Abdullayev was identical to Astemirov. It was also reported
that Abdullayev was on good terms with Udugov and Isa
and his appointment can be regarded as another sign of their
growing influence over the president. Umarov again visited
Kabardino-Balkaria that March as part of a tour of the
He is likely to have met with Astemirov once more sometime
during this visit.
In April, Umarov
provided further evidence of his growing faith in the
utility of Sharia law by establishing a “Sharia Guard” in
Chechnya. He appointed Abdul-Malik Mezhidov, a one-time ally
of Arbi Barayev and a well-known Wahhabi,
to head this new body.
In September, Umarov appointed Astemirov to the post of
Chairman of the Sharia Court of the ChRI. Probably sensing
that a seminal declaration from Umarov was close at hand,
Astemirov chose to ignore the disagreeable appellation of
the office in question and accepted the appointment. The
next month, an audio
cassette began circulating in Chechnya on which Doku Umarov
announced the establishment of a “Caucasus Emirate” that
would incorporate all the republics of the Northern
Caucasus. Umarov was to be the Emir of this new
institutional structure, thus completing his transition from
racketeer to Emir.
Unravelling Doku Umarov’s life and career is a serious
challenge due to the dearth of objective information at
hand. There are periods of his life, indeed, about which we
know practically nothing; his childhood, for example.
Seminal events in his life are invariably subject to
contradictory reports. However, with what little information
we possess about his background and his military-political
career, it is possible to make some general deductions about
Throughout his political career, and
before that even, Umarov has shown himself to be a skilled
courtier. Early on in his career, as he cultivated the likes
of Musa Atayev,
Ruslan Gelayev and Daud Akhmadov, Umarov used the bonds of
kinship, and even marriage, to advance his prospects. Later,
when his military prestige had grown, Umarov was able to use
his status as a paramilitary leader, as well as his
extensive political contacts, to commend himself to
Chechnya’s besieged inter-war leader, Aslan Maskhadov. At a
later stage, these attributes would also commend him to
Movladi Udugov, Isa Umarov and Anzor Astemirov. As we have
seen, at the same time that he was chairing Maskhadov’s
Security Council, Umarov managed to maintain strong working
relationships with some of the Maskhadov regime’s staunchest
critics. During the period 1997–1999, there were very few
Chechen politicians who could lay claim to being on fair
terms simultaneously with Maskhadov, Gelayev, Barayev and
Raduyev. This fact alone is proof of Umarov’s adeptness at
Apart from his rejection of Russian
suzerainty in Chechnya, it is difficult to ascribe a
specific political program to Umarov during the period,
1992–2007. It is possible that the image of Umarov as a
politically ambiguous individual was self-cultivated, so as
to enable him to make contacts more easily among Chechnya’s
competing factions. His perceived political neutrality was
definitely an advantage to him in dealing with the stand-off
in Gudermes in July 1998, for example.
Umarov’s career is also remarkable for
the political ruthlessness he has shown when the needs of
the moment have demanded it. His decision to proclaim the
Caucasus Emirate is perhaps the primary example of this
ruthlessness. Umarov’s political instinct has always driven
him to make alliances with people of influence. By
proclaiming the Emirate, Umarov sought to court favour with
the increasingly powerful non-Chechen elements of the
resistance, and possibly to invite additional funding from
Middle Eastern sources. The political influence once
exercised by Zakayev and his supporters had dwindled in the
years preceding the announcement of the Emirate. As a
result, severing his fellowship with Zakayev was an
acceptable price for Umarov to pay in order to gain the
support of more influential parties elsewhere in the rebel
For much of his political career Umarov
has been a conciliatory presence, careful to avoid making
enemies needlessly, always positioning himself to attract
support from influential people, whatever their political
background. Umarov’s talent for making political contacts,
allied with his political elusiveness, have served him well
so far in his career. When examining Umarov’s newfound
enthusiasm for the rule of Islamic law, one must be mindful
of these qualities, while also bearing in mind the growing
power of the non-Chechen elements of the resistance