A Power Shift in the Caucasus Emirate: The Vilayat Dagestan Threat and Its Implications for the Sochi Olympics

01/24/2014 02:04 pm ET | Updated Mar 26, 2014

The Vilayat Dagestan, a Salafist insurgent group under the umbrella of the Caucasus Emirate, claimed responsibility for the most recent suicide attacks in Volgograd. At the same time, they openly threatened to target international athletes and tourists coming to Russia for the Sochi Olympics. If this most recent threat represents an increase in risk for potential terrorist attacks against the Sochi Olympics, it also corresponds to an important power and scale-shift inside the Caucasus Emirate.

The instability and insecurity in Dagestan has been growing for more than 15 years without any imminent solutions. Since the 1990s, Chechen militants have sought to spread insurgent violence throughout the North Caucasus in order to fight the Russian forces, focusing mostly on Dagestan and Ingushetia. The result of this strategy, coupled with the growing discontent of the North Caucasian population and the abuse committed by local police, have fostered the development of insurgent groups all over the region. In recent years (2008 onwards), the military capacity of the Dagestani insurgency has overpowered its Chechen counterpart. Despite the predominant role played by Dagestani insurgents, Chechen militants have remained in control of the rebellion. The most recent video released by the Vilayat Dagestan demonstrates that radical Islamists from Dagestan associated with the Caucasus Emirate might be preparing to replace the Chechen leadership of Doku Umarov.

Indeed, one would have expected Umarov, the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, to claim responsibility for the attacks and to reiterate his previous threats against the Sochi Olympics. Instead of this expected scenario, the Dagestan Vilayat released the video without any mention of the role played by Umarov and his inner circle. Contrarily to Umarov's video in July which threatened the Sochi Olympics with possible attacks in order to avenge the victims of the 19th century Caucasian wars, the Vilayat Dagestan promised to target the Olympics to avenge the blood-spilled from fellow Muslims around the world. A recent rumour launched by Ramzan Kadyrov and his pro-Russian administration reported Umarov's death, and that internal debates about his succession have ensued between insurgent leaders. One cannot assess the validity of these claims; however it becomes obvious that alive or not -- Umarov's influence has radically decreased in the recent months. We are probably witnessing a generational change and power-shift inside the insurgency.

At the ideological level, the North Caucasian rebels are about to finalize their shift from a more traditional Caucasian-oriented rhetoric to a Global-Salafi discourse associated with al Qaeda. This shift was initiated in 2007 by the creation of the Caucasus Emirate under the pressure of Salafists from Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, but was never really completed because of Umarov's reluctance to abandon Chechen independence to the greater objective of a Caucasian Emirate. Umarov was also known for his indecisiveness concerning civilian victimization (terroristic attacks), sectarian violence, and the development of Salafism in the region. His ideological positions have limited the development of tangible cooperative links between the Caucasus Emirate and al Qaeda related groups. This situation was exemplified by Umarov's ambiguous position about the Syrian civil war, and the relative absence of the Caucasus Emirate from al Qaeda propaganda speeches and videos.

With the control of insurgency potentially moving away from the older generation of Chechen nationalist fighters like Umarov, one might witness a growing collaboration between the Caucasus Emirate and the foreign jihadist networks; this can possibly be reinforced by the return of future veterans from the Syrian civil wars. This influx of potential combatants could finalize the ideological and strategic shift inside the Caucasus Emirate. The Sochi Olympics, and the world exposure it provides to the Caucasus Emirate, might be the event that triggers a reshuffling of the decisional power inside the insurgency.

What does the most recent video released by the Vilayat Dagestan mean for the security of the Olympic athletes? The growing importance of the organization inside the Caucasus Emirate decisional structure represents an increased risk for terrorist attacks against touristic sites and transportation networks inside Russia. Indeed, contrarily to Umarov's stance about Western citizens, Vilayat Dagestan made it clear that their struggle and violence would unleash against anyone perceived as an enemy of Islam and the global-Salafi jihad. If the risk for terrorist attacks against the Olympic venue and the neighboring regions of Sochi remain improbable, as the Russian security perimeter remains extremely hermetic, Western governments should advise all athletes to avoid any unnecessary traveling on Russian territory.