Russian security forces killed Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani, the emir of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Caucasus Emirate, during a special operations raid in the Russian Republic of Dagestan today. Since taking command of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE) in 2014, Dagestani has supported al Qaeda and opposed the establishment of the rival Islamic State.
Dagestani was killed by Russian troops after he and other jihadists were surrounded in a home in the town of Buynaksk, according to VDagestan, the official media branch of Vilayat Dagestan, an ICE “province.” VDagestan’s Arabic Twitter feed posted a photograph of the slain emir. Later, the photograph and a report of his death was posted on VDagestan’s official Arabic website. According to the website, Shamil Bulakhani, a “brother” and the emir of Dagestan’s Ontsokol district was also killed.
A spokesman for Russia’s National Anti-terrorist Committee confirmed to TASS that “a number of leaders of an international terrorist organization” were trapped in a home in Buynaksk, and “two of them were neutralized” after a clash. The Russian media has not reported that Dagestani was killed.
Vilayat Dagestan’s announcement of Dagestani’s death should come as no surprise, as the group remained loyal to al Qaeda even after some senior leaders defected to the Islamic State. Vilayat Dagestan has been embroiled in a controversy since Rustam Asilderov, the group’s former emir, and other ICE members defected to the Islamic State in December 2014. Vilayat Dagestan’s propaganda arm remained loyal to al Qaeda while the defectors were denounced by Dagestani, who named Said Arakanskiy as the new leader for Dagestan. Arakanskiy also denounces the Islamic State. [See LWJ reports, Dagestani jihadist swears allegiance to Islamic State, invoking backlash, and New jihadist leader in Dagestan denounces Islamic State defectors.]
Dagestani’s death is a blow to ICE and al Qaeda. He was recognized by al Qaeda as being a loyal leader who has been trained in their version of sharia, or Islamic Law. Sharia scholars are important to al Qaeda as they provide religious justification for al Qaeda’s activities, operations, and alliances with other jihadist and Muslim groups. Two other senior al Qaeda sharia officials, Ibrahim al Rubaish and Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari, have been killed in a US drone strike in Yemen this year.
The Islamic Caucasus Emirate has not announced Dagestani’s successor, but a possible candidate is Muhammad Abu Usman, ICE’s chief sharia judge in Dagestan. Abu Usman is prominently featured on VDagestan’s website. In addition to serving as the top sharia official for Dagestan, he has also denounced Asilderov’s defection to the Islamic State, a clear indication he is loyal to al Qaeda.
Openly loyal to al Qaeda
Dagestani, whose real name is Aliaskhab Kebekov, assumed command of ICE after his predecessor, Doku Umarov, was killed by Russian forces in late 2013 or early 2014. Dagestani’s allegiance to al Qaeda became obvious after the rivalry between Ayman al Zawahiri’s organization and the Islamic State, ruled by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, flared up last year. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have sparred over control of the global jihad, and this has spilled over to the Caucasus region.
The US State Department listed Dagestani as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist just last month. In its designation, State said that Dagestani “issued a video statement proclaiming the Caucasus Emirate’s ‘structural subordination’ to al Qaeda and noted his group’s readiness to execute orders and instructions from al Qaeda’s leaders.” [See LWJ report, State Department adds Islamic Caucasus Emirate leader to terrorist list.]
In late June, Dagestani released a video in which he discussed the efficacy of suicide bombings and the necessity of avoiding civilian casualties. He referred to Ayman al Zawahiri as “our leader” in the video and noted that Zawahiri has “urged rebels to avoid places where civilians gather.”
The ICE emir was likely referencing the jihadist guidelines issued by al Qaeda under Zawahiri’s direction. Al Qaeda is attempting to limit the jihadists’ creation of civilian casualties in the Muslim majority world as it tries to build a broader base of popular support.
The State Department reports that in December 2014, Dagestani “praised the killing of 14 Chechen law enforcement officers by militants who claimed allegiance to him and the Caucasus Emirate.” That operation was consistent with Zawahiri’s guidelines, as the jihadists targeted security officers. But other attacks may violate the directive. In 2013, Foggy Bottom notes, “Caucasus regional police sources reported that Dagestani ordered the killing of Sheikh Said-Afandi Chirkeyskiy, a prominent moderate religious leader in the Republic of Dagestan, also in the North Caucasus region of Russia, who was ideologically opposed to the Caucasus Emirate.” It is unknown what ideological justifications Dagestani offered for the assassination, assuming that he ordered it.
Still, Dagestani did not hide his fealty to Zawahiri.
In September 2014, Dagestani released another video addressing Zawahiri and other leading jihadist ideologues as the “scholars of the ummah,” or international community of Muslims. All of the other scholars addressed by the ICE head in the video back al Qaeda in its rivalry with the Islamic State. The other scholars included: Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, Hani al Sibai, Tariq Abd al Halim, and Abu Qatada al Filistini, all of whom have criticized Baghdadi.
Dagestani referred to the “scholars” collectively as “our valued brothers, the loved ones, the delights of our eye.” It is likely that he addressed them in these glowing terms as a reply, of sorts, to the Islamic State and its supporters, who have been accused of slandering the veteran jihadist ideologues for not supporting the Islamic State.
“We rely on you in our jihad and follow you as our paragon,” Dagestani said, addressing the jihadist leaders. “Therefore, do not forget us in your provision of advice and guidance whenever this is feasible and possible for you.”
In late September and early October of last year, Dagestani played a leading role in promoting a jihadist truce initiative in Syria. He joined other al Qaeda ideologues in issuing “An Initiative and Call for a Ceasefire Between Factions in Syria.” The proposed truce aimed to take advantage of the America-led bombing campaign in Syria to promote a ceasefire between the Islamic State and its foes. The Islamic State did not formally agree to such a deal.
Al Qaeda rallies around Dagestani
Dagestani’s importance to al Qaeda became evident after the defection of Vilayat Dagestn’s emir in December 2014. Top sharia officials in al Qaeda rallied around Dagestani.
In January, sharia officials from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Al Nusrah Front, as well as other al Qaeda-linked jihadists, issued a joint statement denouncing the men who had broken their oaths of allegiance to Dagestani. The al Qaeda ideologues argued that the Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate” was illegitimate, because it lacked the proper theological credentials. The statement’s authors also endorsed Dagestani as head of ICE, writing that his appointment to that position was a “blessing.”
In early March, AQAP again came to Dagestani’s aid. The group released a video calling on Muslims to provide financial and other assistance to the Caucasus jihadists. The video featured a review of the history of jihad in the Caucasus, as well as footage of al Qaeda leaders.
One of the AQAP officials featured in the video is Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari, who was killed in a US drone strike in late January. Nadhari was also one of the signatories on the statement that denounced the ICE defectors and endorsed Dagestani as the group’s leader.
After Nadhari’s death was announced, both the Vilayat Dagestan and Ansar al Din, which is a coalition formed by the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, which is comprised primarily of fighters from the Caucasus, and other groups in Syria, issued eulogies honoring him.