Russian President Vladimir Putin lost control over the narrative in Sochi long before the athletes arrived. The Winter Olympics, originally intended to showcase Russia’s resurgence under Putin, have been derailed by controversy over newly passed laws against “homosexual propaganda,” endless debate about Edward Snowden, and, above all, growing fears over terrorism.
Explosions and smoke have obscured the gentle glow of the Olympic Flame. Suicide bombers hit Volgograd three times last year, once in October and twice in December. Volgograd is one of Russia’s major transportation hubs, and at four hundred miles north of Sochi, relatively close to the site of the Olympics. These factors probably made it an appealing alternative target to Sochi itself, which has been surrounded by heavily-fortified security perimeter that Putin has referred to as a “ring of steel.”
Who carried out these attacks, and why? The Volgograd bombers almost certainly belonged to a militant group from Dagestan, a rebellious province 350 miles to the east. Dagestan and its immediate neighbor, Chechnya, share a painful recent history. These Muslim majority regions attempted to separate from Russia in a series of brutal conflicts during the 1990’s. After losing to Russian forces on the battlefield in the early 1900’s, the remaining rebels took up a guerrilla struggle.
The influx of foreign jihadists into the conflict helped to radicalize these various independence movements. The potent mix of separatist and Islamist ideologies spawned a series of al-Qaeda-style networks throughout the northern Caucasus. With brutal tenacity, their members have targeted Russian civilians, public transportation, schools, and hospitals on a yearly basis.
Amidst this shadowy world of the North Caucasus jihad, one man stands above all others: Doku Umarov, self-proclaimed Emir of the Caucasus and known to the media as “Russia’s bin Laden.” He has taken for credit for such spectacular atrocities as the 2002 Moscow theater bombing, the 2004 Beslan school sieges, the 2009-2010 train bombings near Moscow, the 2011 bombing of a Moscow airport, and the 2013-2014 attacks on Volgograd’s buses and train stations. His lethal trademark: the renowned “black widow” suicide bombers—women who lost their jihadist husbands to the Russian security forces.
Like bin Laden, Umarov is both a tactical leader and a symbol. His brutal reputation has made him a legend among the Chechnya and Dagestan jihadist camps. His online videos, such as the July 2013 exhortation rallying the faithful to disrupt the Sochi Olympics, are reminiscent of bin Laden’s old internet epistles.
It is difficult to tell just how active Umarov has been in plotting against the Olympics. Although Umarov apparently directed earlier attacks, it is unclear to what extent he currently supervises new attacks. Experts believe that Umarov’s role has become increasingly symbolic, and that most tactical responsibilities are now left to lieutenants, associates, and allies. Indeed, Umarov might be unable to control a movement as loose-knit as the North Caucasus jihad. Therefore, one can interpret Umarov’s exhortation to attack the Olympic as a mission statement rather than a campaign order.
There is another reason to doubt Umarov’s role in directing attacks: he might be dead.
President Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya, Putin’s eccentric but iron-fisted client ruler, made a surprise announcement over Instagram last January, when he claimed that Russian security forces had killed Umarov in a recent operation. Umarov has not come forward to deny this claim. Yet the Russian security forces have remained silent over the issue, and no body has been presented. We should remember that Kadyrov and others have made similar claims before. Each time, they have allowed Umarov to ‘rise from the dead’, further enhancing his mystique.
That no one can confirm nor deny Kadyrov’s assertion only adds to this legend. Whether Umarov’s failure to emerge is a calculated bid for charisma or proof that he is finally gone, his figure will almost certainly l continue to inspire the movement he helped create.
In the short run, his apparent death has little impact. It came too late to prevent him from potentially hatching any new plans to sabotage the Olympics, since those attacks would already have been in the pipeline. Furthermore, his operational position can easily be replaced. Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov estimates that, although Russian security forces kill a top insurgent leader every eight months, these strikes do little damage to the movement’s structural integrity.
In the long run, it is difficult to estimate the tangible impact of Umarov’s possible death. It depends on whether Umarov has consolidated significant operational power within the loose-knit North Caucasus jihadist movement, as well as the structural resilience of his groups. One thing is certain: legendary reputations like his take time to build, and are difficult to replace.
Only time will tell if Umarov is really dead, and if so, what the repercussions will be. In the meantime, the wounds of the North Caucus continue to bleed. If Umarov has his way, so will Putin and his subjects.