This image of Abu Usman, the new leader of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate, was posted on Vilayat Dagestan’s Twitter feed on July 1.
Russian forces killed Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani, the emir of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE), in April. In the weeks that followed, jihadists on social media spread rumors that a senior ICE sharia official known as Muhammad Abu Usman had been named as his successor. It does not appear, however, that ICE formally announced Abu Usman’s new role.
Then, on July 1, the official Twitter feed for Vilayat Dagestan, one of ICE’s so-called “provinces,” identified Abu Usman as ICE’s emir. The Twitter feed posted three images of the jihadist. One of the three (shown on the right) trumpeted the fact that the head of the Vilayat Dagestan, Said Arakanskiy, had sworn allegiance to Abu Usman.
The new messages were undoubtedly influenced by the Islamic State’s successful recruitment drive in the Caucasus region. Since late last year, a number of ICE defectors have pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s “caliphate.”
One of the most significant defections came in early December 2014 when Rustam Asilderov, the previous head of Vilayat Dagestan, announced his allegiance to Baghdadi. Asilderov released a video in which he claimed that a “majority” of the jihadists in Dagestan shared his desire to join the Islamic State and, therefore, his bayat (oath of allegiance) to Baghdadi was “on behalf of the mujahideen of the Dagestan province.”
Asilderov’s video drew a sharp backlash from Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani and Abu Usman, both of whom blasted his “treachery.” And Ali Abu Muhammad appointed Arakanskiy as Asilderov’s replacement. [See LWJ report, Dagestani jihadist swears allegiance to Islamic State, invoking backlash.]
But the defections kept coming.
During the first half of 2015, other ICE commanders and fighters joined the Islamic State as well. In mid-June, the Chechen ICE commander Aslan Byutukayev announced that he, too, had become one of Baghdadi’s men. Byutukayev, who is also known as Emir Khamzat, has a compiled a thick dossier of terrorist attacks. He is known as a specialist in directing suicide bombing operations.
On June 21, an audio message released online featured an unknown jihadist claiming to speak on behalf of all of his comrades in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia. The jihadist claimed that all of the fighters in these “provinces” were “united” in their decision to swear fealty to Baghdadi.
This led Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani to announce just two days later, on June 23, that the “caliphate” now has a new wilayat (or province) in the Caucasus.
Adnani said that Baghdadi had accepted the pledges of allegiance coming from the Caucasus and “has appointed the noble sheikh Abu Muhammad al Qadari as Wali [or governor] over” the region. Adnani called for all the mujahideen in the Caucasus “to join” Qadari’s “caravan and to hear and obey him in everything except sin.”
It appears that Qadari is Rustam Asilderov, the same ICE leader in Dagestan who defected last year. One of Asilderov’s known aliases is very similar to “Abu Muhammad al Qadari,” the same name used by Adnani.
This dynamic has set up a showdown in the Caucasus between ICE loyalists and the Islamic State’s growing “province.” It is not clear how many fighters are in each camp, but the Islamic State’s surge of support has clearly caused problems for al Qaeda, which has long backed ICE.
In January, sharia officials from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Al Nusrah Front (al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria), as well as other al Qaeda-linked jihadists, issued a joint statement denouncing the Caucasus jihadists who had defected to Baghdadi. 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 Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani as head of ICE, writing that his appointment to that position was a “blessing.”
In early March, AQAP again came to ICE’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 region, as well as footage of al Qaeda leaders.
In return, ICE has repeatedly demonstrated its allegiance to al Qaeda. Ali Abu Muhammad was an al Qaeda loyalist and openly praised Ayman al Zawahiri as his “leader.” Under Ali Abu Muhammad’s leadership, ICE regularly eulogized fallen al Qaeda bigwigs, including AQAP officials who openly supported ICE against its Islamic State rivals. For instance, Vilayat Dagestan, which is part of ICE, praised AQAP’s Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari after his death was confirmed earlier this year. (Al Qaeda’s branches also issued eulogies for Ali Abu Muhammad after Russian troops finally tracked him down in April.)
ICE has continued to demonstrate its loyalty to al Qaeda under Abu Usman’s leadership.
On June 16, Vilayat Dagesan’s Twitter feed posted a statement honoring Nasir al Wuhayshi, who served as AQAP’s emir and al Qaeda’s general manager until he was killed in a US drone strike. Vilayat Dagestan’s statement, which was endorsed by Abu Usman, can be seen on the right.
It remains to be seen how strong the ICE’s remaining cadre of fighters is. Abu Usman and Arakanskiy clearly have their work cut out for them, as their jihadist rivals have grown stronger over the past year. If the battlefields elsewhere are any indication, the Islamic State’s followers in the Caucasus will do what they can to undermine the ICE’s leadership even further.