Is Dokku Umarov, the fiery leader of the North Caucasus insurgency, trying to revitalise the movement by jumping on the global protest bandwagon? According to a statement published by jihadist media outlet Kavkaz Center, Umarov has ordered the militants “to avoid attacks on civilian targets due to a process of civil protest that began in Russia, and the fact that people no longer accept Putin's policy.”
The civil demonstrations, Umarov argues, means that Russians no longer support the government’s heavy-handed strategy in the North Caucasus, and are thus exempt from reprisals. With an eye to the presidential elections in March, however, he says that the Russian population has a choice, to either support the existing regime and its “policy of murder and terror”, or choose a new one which will take a different approach.
Attacks will still be conducted against military and law enforcement agencies, but Umarov has issued a formal and binding order for all rebel units, “including special-operation groups operating inside Russia” (such as the cell which attacked Domodedovo airport a year ago).
There are a few conclusions which can be drawn from this. Firstly, it seems like a pretty straightforward PR job by Umarov. After the airport attack, he promised a year of “blood and tears”: as RIA Novosti points out, this never materialised outside of the North Caucasus itself, probably due to tactical difficulties. So why not turn an empty threat into a sign of strength and solidarity with other anti-Putin forces (who have, incidentally, probably done more to rattle the system than years of terrorist atrocities)?
Secondly, this may be an attempt for Umarov to reassert his strategic control over the fractured rebel forces. Although the very public split in 2010 between Umarov and some of his field commanders was reconciled last summer in favour of Umarov, some analysts continue to see divisions within the movement.
In particular, the dominance of the Dagestan vilayat with regard to the number of attacks and suicide bombings carried out (61% of attacks between January and November 2011 occurred in Dagestan, according to Gordon M Hahn at CSIS) suggests that the insurgency there is in danger of eventually overshadowing Umarov and his Chechen powerbase.
To be clear, he still retains the fealty of the Dagestan vilayat and its leader, Ibragimkhalil Daudov – he appointed Daudov last May, and is still in charge of all major appointments across the Emirate. But occasional orders from on high are a useful way of exerting authority.
Given the fairly indiscriminate nature of the violence in Dagestan (as elsewhere), it is debatable whether Umarov’s moratorium on attacking civilians will hold. If not, expect a test case of how much control he really exerts over the network. Still, he has already said that if an attack is launched against civilians, “it will be regarded as a provocation from the agonizing KGB regime”, which is a convenient get-out clause.