Caucasus Emirate leader Aliaskhab Kebekov (aka Ali Abu Mukhammad) is gradually starting to exert his ideological influence over the movement and distinguish his leadership from that of his predecessor, the late Dokka Umarov (aka Abu Usman), whom he succeeded in March. Having earlier sided with Jabhat al-Nusrah and Ayman al-Zawahiri in their dispute with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Kebekov has now sought to impose clear limits on suicide bombings and the role of women in the insurgency.
During his latest lengthy video address, Kebekov argues against suicide attacks: “If it is possible to eliminate the infidels by another method, by another means, there is no need, brother, for us to sacrifice our lives.” He gives the example of a non-suicide attack on the military or police outside of the Caucasus, and asserts: “every mujahideen is valuable to us. We do not want to lose mujahideen.”
Kebekov is careful not to condemn suicide operations in general, arguing: “they are totally legitimate according to Islam” and “the highest level of faith.” In doing so, he has left himself plenty of room for manoeuvre: Should it be decided in the future that suicide attacks are expedient, or should a group within the Emirate launch an attack without first coordinating it with the central leadership, Kebekov can argue that this is in line with his stated position. He also avoids alienating those groups that either have previously or would like to carry out suicide attacks.
Kebekov is more categorical on the role of women, arguing that his caveats do not apply to them: “We categorically forbid women to carry out such operations.” He claims as a justification that no female suicide attacks have occurred in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, and Somalia. Further, he seeks to limit the role of women in the insurgency in general, arguing: “It is better for those sisters to look after their children and bring them up in the spirit of jihad.”
The decision to move away from suicide attacks — and suicide attacks by women — is not a surprising one: When Kebekov assumed the leadership, commentator Orkhan Dzhemal noted that “Kebekov is known as an opponent of the use of women as suicide bombers, and of suicide attacks in general.” It does, however, distinguish the Emirate under Kebekov from that of Umarov, since suicide attacks were employed on numerous occasions and — at least until last year’s Volgograd bombings — most of them were carried out by women. Although Umarov did at one point impose a temporary moratorium on attacks on civilians, it was portrayed as a tactical manoeuvre and a response to public protests against President Putin, rather than due to ideological or strategic considerations.
Kebekov is clearly more of an ideologist than Umarov ever was and — with a background in Islamic studies and having previously served as both Dagestani and CE Qadi — it is unsurprising that he should establish clearer ideological positions and use more theological justifications. Liz Fuller rightly draws attention to a statement made by Kebekov as CE Qadi, in which he “outlined a vision of jihad not as the low-level insurgency of the past 15 years, but as a clandestine ideological struggle within society as a whole.” That the address has recently been republished to several “official” CE websites indicates that the address still reflects Kebekov’s views.
Yet a key question for the future is whether a more ideological and less ambiguous Emirate will produce tensions within the movement. The Caucasus Emirate is not a hierarchical organization, and the individual vilayyats and their constituent groups enjoy considerable autonomy of operation. As Ratelle has noted: “As a result of its lack of a strong hierarchical structure, the CE also cannot impose a single ideological platform onto its local cells across the region.” However, the central leadership plays an important role in setting the general ideological orientation of the movement, and the statements and actions of subgroups must either take into consideration the central leadership’s orders or risk a public clash with it. Although one cannot at present talk of real divisions within the movement, they may become a real possibility if Kebekov seeks to assert ideological positions not enjoying unanimous support. That VDagestan.com, the “official” website of Vilayyat Dagestan, issued a statement expressing a willingness to support ISIL’s newly declared Islamic State if respected Islamic scholars endorsed it (a pretty big if, admittedly) after Kebekov sided with Jabhat al-Nusrah suggests that such divisions are at the very least a genuine possibility. Adherence to Kebekov’s latest statement may therefore be something of a litmus test for his authority.