In January this year Islamic jihadists launched a fresh offensive aimed at drawing Dagestan, a southern republic of Russia between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea, into the jihad (Islamic holy war) for the Caucasus. Unlike the militaristic Chechen jihadist incursion into Dagestan of August 1999, this recent offensive has been a guerrilla-style terror campaign.
According to a July 2005 report by the Russian Academy of Sciences, there were 70 Islamic terror attacks in Dagestan in the first six months of 2005, compared with 30 for all of 2004. The attacks, which are becoming more sophisticated and deadly, primarily target Russian soldiers and Dagestan's police and government officials.
Sources indicate that as many as 2,000 Islamic insurgents, many belonging to the Al Qaeda-linked Jamaat Sharia, are involved in the insurgency. Sergei Markov, a Kremlin adviser recently told the Christian Science Monitor, "Our forces have captured or killed citizens of 52 countries operating with the terrorists in the north Caucasus. The enemy brings an ideology of radical Islam that seeks political power through terrorist methods.
"'We are no longer talking about Chechen secessionists challenging Moscow,' says Mr. Markov. 'Now it's radical religious ideologues who aim to destroy the unbelievers and establish an Islamic caliphate.'" (Link 1)
Around 11 September, the Islamist "Kavkaz Centre" (Caucasus Centre) published on its website a press release from Jamaat Dagestan Sharia. (Link 2)
After a string of murders and assassinations, Jamaat Sharia has claimed "legitimate power" in Dagestan. In its press release, Jamaat Sharia protests that the "law of kafirs" has destroyed the "law of sharia" in Dagestan, enabling a kafir state to be built upon the blood of their ancestors. (kafir = infidel/unclean) Jamaat Sharia labels those who protect the "kafir state" as "kafir" and "gun meat", and commands that they "repent before Supreme and Almighty Allah, to leave your kafir and the dog service, and for the sake of own blessing to accept the Islam and to [come under the] protection of religion of Allah!!! All that who on amnesty has left the kafir and slavish work, has repented and has accepted the Islam, we promise after a victory and establishments of laws of Sharia to employ in Islamic Army. The victory is close!!! To Allah Akbar!!!"
However, along with this promise of amnesty for those who desert the "kafir" and turn to Islam (i.e. submit to Jamaat Sharia and its intolerant Wahhabi/orthodox creed) is the warning that the amnesty will expire at the end of September. This would be just in time for a jihadist Ramadan offensive.
Dagestan was annexed by Russia in 1813 and became an autonomous republic in 1920. Christianity was introduced by Armenians and Georgians in the 6th Century. One of Dagestan's most famous buildings, the Juma Mosque, is a converted 6th Century Christian basilica. Today around nine percent of the population is ethnic Russian, and around ten percent of the population is Christian. The main tension within Dagestan is not between Christians and Muslims (who are mostly traditional Sufi) but between the majority Muslims and the aggressive, pro-jihad, pro-sharia, Wahabbi minority.
Most of the Wahhabi jihadists in Dagestan draw their inspiration from the Afghan mujahideen who fought the Russians through the 1980s. Chechen leader Shamil Basaev and many others fighting the jihad for the Caucasus received their training in Afghanistan.
With around 34 ethnicities and 29 languages (mostly mutually unintelligible), Dagestan is the most diverse region in all of Russia. Dagestan is not an ethnic name but rather it simply means "land of mountains" in Turkish. Dagestan is nominally ruled by a State Council that includes representatives of the 14 main ethnicities. Unfortunately, since the break up of the Soviet Union the real power in Dagestan has been with the State Council Chairman, Magomedali Magomedov, a representative of the former Soviet Union, who is backed by Putin but not the people, and who symbolises extreme corruption.
If anything, the dissatisfaction Dagestanis have with the ruling powers can only be of benefit to the Wahhabi jihadists, as recruitment to Wahhabism and jihad is so much easier amongst disaffected Muslims in search of poverty relief and regime change.
JIHAD CAUCASUS - WHY DAGESTAN IS SO STRATEGICALLY IMPORTANT
This is not the first time in recent history that jihadists have attempted to capture Dagestan. In August 1999 jihadists from Chechnya staged an incursion into Dagestan and declared Dagestan to be an Islamic State. However, they were quickly repelled by Russian forces backed by local militias. This year's guerrilla terror has been quiet enough to slip under the radar, yet significant enough to do real damage, and horrific enough to instill terror.
There are two main reasons why Dagestan is important for the jihadis.
1) Dagestan is a land of mountains, and this makes it a perfect base for Islamic jihadis/guerrillas/terrorists, and a very difficult place for Russia's mechanised forces.
2) The second reason is historic, as Andrei Smirnov explains: "During the 19th century Caucasus war, Dagestan and Chechnya formed an almost united front against the invading Russian army. The residents of the territory now encompassing the two republics formed an Islamic state called 'Imamate,' which was able to confront Russia effectively for decades, until its leader, Imam Shamil, surrendered to Russian General Alexander Baryatinsky in 1859. Knowing this shared history quite well, the separatist leaders of Chechnya repeatedly tried to drag the people of Dagestan into their struggle for independence." (Link 3)
Smirnov continues, "Despite the failure of his 1999 venture and the redeployment of Russian troops to Chechnya in 2000, Shamil Basaev did not stop his attempts to move the war eastward, beyond the Chechen borders. Specifically, he initiated a very careful, and very slow process of preparing Dagestan for guerrilla warfare (grani.ru, July 23, 2004). The hundreds of militants from Dagestan who had joined Basaev's group in the mid-1990s made this process much easier to organize. A Dagestan field commander, Rabbani Khalilov, became the leader of the Dagestani mujahideen."
ISLAMIST CAUCASUS: LOCAL, REGIONAL AND GLOBAL THREAT
The jihad in the Caucasus is not only a severe threat to religious liberty, but it also threatens to turn the Caucasus into a terrorist haven. If jihadists can control the Caucasus mountains and Dagestan, then they can replace the mujahideen training camps of Afghanistan and threaten "moderate" and "secular" Muslim communities and Christian communities in the region and beyond. The Caucasus would become a major base for training and deploying jihadis, just as Afghanistan was under bin Laden and the Taliban through the 1990s.
Jamaat Sharia has given the people of Dagestan until the end of September to repent and submit. With eight months of terror that include a string of strategic murders and assassinations behind them, the threat declared, and Ramadan approaching, the January 2005 words of Andrei Smirnov reverberate louder than ever, "... Dagestan is now nearer detonation than ever before."
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