It seems that Doku Umarov, the leader of the North Caucasus rebel movement, isn’t content with fighting a David-and-Goliath struggle against Russia. He now has Turkey in his sights too.
In a video on North Caucasus jihadist clearing-house Kavkaz Center, Umarov warned PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gul that unless the assassination of Chechen exiles in Turkey ceased, the North Caucasus rebels would take “retaliatory action”.
The video is in response to a wave of executions carried out against Chechens living in Istanbul over the past few years, all linked to the political opposition or the jihadist movement. The most recent involved the death of Berg-Khadzh Musayev, a leading figure in Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate, and two of his boydguards on an Istanbul street in September.
Russian security services are widely suspected of being behind the attack. Documents, weapons and equipment found by Turkish police were linked to Alexander Zharkov, believed to be the coordinator of a group of Russian assassins which entered Turkey some weeks before the attack.
Umarov’s video struck a curious tone, much more nuanced that his usual denunciations of puppets and apostates. He tries using Islamic solidarity to persuade the Turkish government to protect Muslims on Turkish soil, reminding them that “we are members of one Ummah, that we are the brothers in faith and have always supported each other, because we all worship one God - Allah.”
Somewhat bizarrely, he also chastises them for relying on tourism and construction to support their economy – Turkey’s hunger for such companies apparently allowed the assassins to slip in disguised as tourists or construction workers. This uncharacteristic piece of advice puts Umarov, perhaps for the first time ever, on the same page as the IMF.
The jihadist leader also suggests that the Russians have already achieved their alleged goal of "capturing Istanbul", as the killers can act with such impunity, perhaps with the collusion of the Turkish security services. Although this is too far, it is true that Ankara rarely protests too loudly about the assassinations. It may be unwilling to round up jihadist groups living in Istanbul, fearing a backlash, but is prepared to tacitly accept Russia taking out some of the key facilitators.
Things may change if Umarov changes his tone from chiding Turkey to directly threatening it, or launching an attack. A North Caucasus terrorist strike in the heart of Istanbul would bring down a harsh response from the Turkish security services, saving Russia the trouble, so it is difficult to see what this would achieve. For now Umarov is probably hoping that his declaration of “love” for Turkey will be enough to stop the killings.